3 Ways to Start Deliberate Practice

Performance improves but then levels off, stranding us on the amateur plateau.  Performance plateaus because we become “good enough” at what we do to solve our immediate problem. For example, we learned a way to do an intake session or suggest sleep hygiene tips or assess suicide risk that seemed good enough to get the job done. Then these ways of doing things became increasingly automatic.  It’s easy and efficient to do an intake or respond to a clinical problem the way we always have.  When we reach automaticity of a skill, experience alone no longer improves performance.

To get off the amateur plateau and move toward true expertise requires a process called deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is when you choose to practice what you are not good at with “sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.” (Gawande, A. Personal Best. The New Yorker, 2011).  Like the way a musician might rehearse a difficult passage of music phrase by phrase or an athlete might drill to improve a small but key move.

Taking the expertise research literature seriously leads to a different approach to teaching and learning as therapists. This motivates our intent at PracticeGround to be shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues for the long haul, to work where things are hard, to build expertise that improves client outcomes.

Change is hard, for us as much as our clients. But change is easier when you take steps to smooth the path and structure the environment. The idea is to make a new behavior habitual, just part of your routine.

Here are 3 activities to get started with deliberate practice:

1: Listen to this great mini-talk on how to make change easier from Dan Heath, co-author of Switch (~17 min).  In Switch, Heath and Heath distill the research and give many examples of how to make change when change is hard.

2: Read or skim one of the following articles on deliberate practice.  

Ericcsson  a great summary article on deliberate practice.

Gawande on why even experts benefit from deliberate practice with feedback.

What one idea from either article can you apply yourself?  For example, how can you make your own learning path easier?  Maybe it’s putting a recurring appointment in your calendar now that saves the time you will devote each week to learning.

3: Try a deliberate practice exercise. Here’s one (modify to suit you).
The demands and pressures of a normal day often make us begin interactions hassled, off center, tight and task focused, or irritable. This week, practice beginning interactions from a centered, open, friendly stance.

1. Think for a moment: for you, what would an A+ look like (the stance you most hope for that is centered, open, friendly)?
2. Design your practice. Pick one person for one interaction or all week with everyone, that you will practice starting an interaction with your A+ version of centered, open, friendly stance.
3. Set a reminder (e.g., a note to yourself on your phone to help you remember to practice).
4. Then practice.
5. After each practice, give yourself a quick letter grade to mark how successful you were at starting the interaction from a centered, open, and friendly stance. (This can be just a mental note, “OK that was a C. To be an A next time, I would…”)

For example, I will practice with my 14 y.o. daughter. All weekend, each time I begin an interaction with her, I’m going to say her name (in my mind) while I smile and take a deep breath. That would be an ‘A’ for me. A C-, would be me saying a friendly ‘hey’ while I keep typing on my computer.  Got the idea?  Don’t fret about getting a perfect practice. Any step, however small, to play with this idea will be great.

If the idea of deliberate practice resonates with you, consider joining us! Check out the new PracticeGround Learning Community offerings beginning in March and the new on-demand courses now available.