This is an article about how to get good at things. You may even be able to use this article to get great at something. That’s up to you.
I tend to structure my life around what I term Mastery Pursuits. A mastery pursuit is any activity with a high skill ceiling. Golf, pottery, writing, the violin, gymnastics, bodybuilding, power lifting, cooking and carpentry are all mastery pursuits. Traveling the world, becoming a restaurant or movie buff or any other activity where progress is measured by consumption are not mastery pursuits.
Mastery Pursuits are about excellence. Getting insanely good at something and in the process finding a lot of fulfillment from the act. This article is about how to maximise your progress in that pursuit. You’ll like it if you want a collection of meta strategies to help you get good at something.
Why the distinction? Simple, a mastery pursuit is something which requires your personal dedicated effort in order to make progress. You may be able to spend money to improve the experience, but buying a $10,000 piece of equipment doesn’t really make much difference if you have no idea how to use it. Unlike buying a $10,000 travel experience where you’ll have a pretty good experience regardless.
I’m obsessed about getting better at things, I’ve invested a huge amount of thought and time into the meta element of this practice over the years. How to go from terrible to average to good to great. We’re often not taught about how to get better, how to learn as we grow up. If we’re lucky we may have a cursory goal setting class in high school. But that’s basically it. We’re adrift in a wide ocean with no land in sight.
The hardest bit is knowing how to start, the second hardest is knowing what to do when things go wrong. Some will stumble upon these concepts naturally. Some will have the benefits of great programs and great coaches growing up. Others will excel in one area but be a train wreck in others, they don’t know how to apply their skills from the first domain to the second domain. In other words, they’re what is termed a “natural”.
I’m okay at a lot of things, this gives me a bit of a leg up over someone who has no natural talent. I’m relatively athletic, particularly in strength domains. I’m pretty smart, I like to learn, I don’t seem to mind spending huge amounts of time grinding away at shit. These are all advantages to me. Things that help me get better.
This post is my collected learnings on the subject. I’m trying to distill what has worked across multiple domains to understand what the common threads are. In many cases it is simply hard work, grit, research and determination. But we can go deeper into this. I am also interested in the pathway to get there. There are many posts scattered throughout the internet which throw out somewhat meaningless feel good terms. They might have a brief list and summary of some meta strategies but they don’t really delve deeply into any of them, they’re just platitudes that have been tossed out. I hope this post will not be one like that.
This post is written both as a personal reference and as a how to guide for the reader. I see this as a process as opposed to a motivational guide. I am not interested in a “luck” based approach to becoming great. Nor am I interested in a “genetically talented” one. Instead, I am searching for the common threads that tie together people who manage to succeed in spite of their starting conditions. Luck and genetics both play a role. If you’re naturally gifted intellectually you’ll find some pursuits easier. Likewise if you’re naturally gifted physically the inverse may be true.
This is my longest post to date, coming in at 13,600 words and it’s a doozy. It is intended as the most comprehensive guide on the internet for how to get good at something. I will continue to edit and update it over time as I learn more.
This article is split across a number of sections as follows:
- Example primer
- The journey
- Designing a practice session
- Meta Skills
- Additional resources
These sections go from purely theoretical to small practical tips in a linear fashion. The concepts are designed to make you think about working effectively. Effective work is means that you’re doing the right thing. It’s not hard work, though hard work is important also. The journey takes you through the stages, it is designed to give you a reference point as to what it may look like on the way. Every persons journey is unique though and it will not 1:1 match up. Finally, in designing a practice session I pull the curtain down to a single block of time which you are dedicating towards improvement. You’ll often develop your own rituals, your own quirks here.
Part One: Example primer
To begin this admittedly very long article I want to go through an example before delving deep into the underlying concepts, the life cycle of your journey and finally into the nitty gritty of the practicalities of obtaining mastery. I am leading with an example as jumping directly into the concepts would most likely lose you as a reader
To me, the pursuit of mastery is both an aspirational goal as well as a practical one. It is a way of structuring your life around various activities in order to improve both yourself and your abilities. As humans we are most fascinated by others who reach the peak of their abilities, whether that be in business, sport, the creative arts or intellectual pursuits. Someone who is at the top of their field both inspires awe and jealousy. To these people we typically award greater benefits, remuneration, prestige and increased social standing, regardless of what that pursuit is. Mastery is something we admire, something that inspires a degree of jealousy and envy and something to aspire towards.
But what is never really covered is how a person got to the point where they began to achieve at a higher level. There is no general purpose how to guide out there that can help you to construct a pathway. This is where this document comes in. Throughout, I’ll assume that you’re a high level amateur. You’re not getting paid for your chosen endeavour, you have other constraints you must operate under and your time may be limited. But you’re still good at the activity and as such you want to be as effective as possible in your time and energy. The rest of this example will consider the case of an aspiring writer.
If you want to be a writer (relevant to this article as it is a piece of writing) then you’ll need to master some basic skills:
- Understanding how to structure an argument
- A solid grasp of the underlying subject matter
Without these basics your writing will probably suck. We all cringe whenever we read a piece of work that is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. Likewise, one which is too simplistically written is unlikely to hold our attention and a piece of writing without structure will leave us more confused than enlightened. Finally, a writer who dabbles in a field has an obligation to the reader to actually understand the subject matter, something which is sadly lacking in much of today’s writing, particularly in the journalistic and blogging spaces where posting velocity and virality are more important than post quality and accuracy.
For this budding writer they should understand that:
- To be a writer requires that they write, they need to dedicate practice time towards honing their craft. You cannot be a writer if you do not write. This is in bold because many people believe they don’t have to actually do something to get good at it.
- They need to have frequent review sessions to understand their progress, identify what is working and what is not. If possible, this should be done with a trusted expert.
- They need to operate on the edge of their abilities. Not comfortably within a “safe” zone. Churning out repetitive pieces of work will not help their skills improve.
- They need to expose themselves to new concepts and others who are better than them in their chosen activity. Without learning about what they could be doing they’ll fall victim to “big fish small pond” syndrome.
A protocol for this writer would be to first decide that they actually want to be a writer. This sounds simplistic. But most people who “fail” at something fail because they didn’t really want it in the first place. They don’t have any obsession, or drive. They weren’t willing to wake up early to get additional practice time in and thus they never really got better. Deciding that you actually want something in it’s entirety means that you’d be willing to do it even if you never get any financial rewards, any recognition, any increased social status from it. You’re willing to do it purely for its’ own sake and anything else that comes is just icing.
Once you’ve built this obsession a solid writing practice routine needs to be introduced. This can either be a daily or a cyclic routine. In a daily routine a continuous effort is made towards achieving the goal. More frequent, but often shorter, sessions are introduced. You’ll make small, daily, incremental steps. A cyclic routine on the other hand has peaks and troughs. On some days you’ll achieve a huge amount, equivalent to a week’s worth of daily sessions. On others. Nothing. You’ll be cycling your work flow here and which one works best for you will depend upon a combination of your personality and your schedule. If you work a standard office schedule I’d go towards a daily practice schedule. If you’re on shift work with longer hours but more time off then a cyclic schedule is likely to be more suitable.
This practice session will have a basic structure to it, a plan of sorts. Ideally, the writer should go into it knowing what they want to write about. If it’s an existing piece it may begin with reading over what has already been written and editing it lightly to get back into the required mindset. Once the writer has primed themselves to write through their warmup they can start to produce more work. Over time they’ll tire, so the writer has introduced scheduled structured breaks which are designed to keep their energy levels and motivation high. Every 30 minutes they take a 5 minute break. Finally, at the end of the session they conduct a brief review. What sections are weak and need further work. What is particularly good. They write this down in a journal and review it before the next practice session.
Once you’ve begun to practice consistently you need feedback. For the writer this is often about exposing your writing to others, to get their thoughts and their impressions upon it. You need to decide upon an audience, which will often be people just like yourself. If you’re a poet then getting feedback from scientific publications is silly. Understanding your audience is a critical element of being a writer. Coupled with this external feedback you should be personally reviewing how your writing is going. Reading through it, editing, identifying what works and what doesn’t. You’re the individual who is closest to the coal face, if you can be objective you also have the opportunity to give the most biting feedback.
Finally, you need to continuously push the boundaries of your abilities. To challenge and test yourself. To try different things out. If you write non-fiction this could be as simple as trying to write a piece of fiction. If you write fiction, try poetry, if you write poetry try long form. Having exposure and challenging yourself in different areas will help to synthesise all of the disparate parts into a more cohesive whole and help you develop skills. Placing constraints upon your writing, e.g. the famous Hemmingway challenge to tell a story in six words.
For Sale: baby shoes, never worn
These challenges will help you to consciously work within the constraints of your craft and lead you to the edges. It’s at the edges where growth occurs.
Part Two: Concepts
To me, understanding the concepts involved in obtaining mastery is the first step towards actually getting there. These are the universals that should apply across multiple domains. No matter what you’re attempting to master these can be utilised to accelerate your progress and to place you on the journey towards excellence.
The concepts are as follows:
- Identification, obsession and dedication
- Understanding the basic rules
- The cycle of progress
- Focus upon the right measurements
- Continuous struggle
- The role of teachers
- Experimentation and play
Identification, obsession and dedication
The first step on your goal towards a mastery pursuit is to identify what you want to do. This sounds simple. But it really isn’t. To truly become good at something you’ll need to spend many hours practicing, you’ll need to make sacrifices and you’ll need to invest your time, money and energy into it. There is no other way. You cannot half ass your way to something.
This means you need to find something you are obsessive about. It could be taking the perfect picture, getting the perfect body, hitting a major milestone or playing a song. Your obsession will be personal to you.
In the introduction to this post I mentioned that I was looking for elements where genetics and luck were irrelevant. This is the part where I add some caveats to that point. If you want to become great quickly then you need to specialise. Specialising in something that you’re naturally good at means that you’ll start at a higher level as well as learn faster. If this was a graph, you’d have both a higher y-intercept and a bigger slope. For myself, I’m naturally pretty strong but very inflexible. For me, it’s easier to become good at a strength sport than it is one where flexibility plays a role. Unfortunately, my dream of becoming a ballerina may be dead in the water before I get started.
Once you have found something you’re good at though you need to become a little bit obsessive about it. This obsession needs to be strong enough to get you through your first few setbacks. You need to have enough personal drive and desire underpinning your goal that the thought of succeeding can get you through the initial lows. The lows are guaranteed to happen and it is how you respond to them that governs your overall progress and eventual success.
The other element to this obsession is that you have to be prepared to get rid of things, to throw them out. You have limited resources. Time, energy, money, recovery, creativity. Spreading yourself too thin is a recipe for disaster. I have had success working across multiple (separate) domains. I tend to pick a physical, an intellectual and a creative outlet to focus on at any given time. But even this is hard and has definitely delayed my progress in some areas.
Obsession by itself is great, but obsession with dedication is even better. The dedication to put in the hours required to get better at something is not something that to be scoffed at. It is so fundamental to the result that it has become a trope. The athlete, businessman, academic or artist waking at 5am in the morning to crunch out more at their chosen field in peace and quiet, before the demands of the “regular people” begin to take over, they crave alone time where they can hone their craft.
Dedication is not necessarily discipline. It isn’t forcing yourself to sit down and crunch out hours and hours of work against every fiber in your body. It isn’t doing something you hate through pure willpower alone.
Dedication is the willingness to invest time into an activity to improve at it. It’s the willingness to have the self reflection necessary to make progress. To fight back from any setbacks you experience. It’s not about having a completely fixed and inflexible routine predicated off extreme discipline. Routines are useful, but only if they work for you.
Understanding the basic rules
No matter what domain you’ve chosen there are a set of rules. Basic fundamentals. In fashion you need to understand basics of fit and what colours are complementary. A musician needs to understand their instrument as well as musical theory. An artist or photographer needs to understand the relationship of light and an athlete needs to understand how the human body responds to training. Intellectual domains have rules too, conventions and truths which govern knowledge.
It goes without saying, but to become great at something you must have a solid grasp of the underlying rules which govern your field. These form the constraints you must work within, they are part of your tool belt.
The reason that each field has a set of fundamentals is because practitioners have converged over time on them. These form the basic tenets of the art. Hard won knowledge that encapsulates the wisdom of time. Why would you want to disregard such an easy to obtain resource?
Unfortunately, as humans we tend to think we’re all special, that we don’t need to understand the basics. That the rules do not apply to ourselves, that we can paint outside the lines and the final result will still be beautiful. We observe someone at the peak of their powers doing just this and think we can simply emulate without understanding what goes on underneath. We can’t. That person understands which of the rules can be broken, which cannot, how far and in which combination. You can only do this once you’ve mastered them. The paradox is that you’re only allowed to break the rules once you know them better than anyone else.
Thus, study your field. Read the textbooks, understate the basics before you try to jump to a higher level of understanding. Every nugget of fundamental knowledge you learn early will continue to pay dividends throughout your entire learning process.
The cycle of progress
Most people think that progress is linear. It isn’t. You don’t wake up each day a little better than the day before in a steady unbroken stream. There are setbacks. Days where everything completely falls apart and days where you seem to have a complete leap of inspiration that takes you to a higher plane. To me, this represents the cycle of progress.
The important element to remember is that this is cyclical. Good days will follow bad. Bad days will follow good. You won’t be incredible all the time. There is a degree of variance here. What’s important is the baseline trend and the average performance over a period of time. Let me explain.
When you begin an activity you’re uncontrolled, volatile, in mathematical terms you have a high variance in your output. A high variance means that early on in the journey they will have some exceptional days followed by some absolutely horrific ones. You have no consistency at all, even though your performance will remain constant when averaged across sessions. The variance will swing you around, it will fuck with your head. You may begin to beat yourself up on a horrible day because you’re comparing it against a good day. The reality is that nothing has changed. You’re just not good enough to be consistent yet.
I found this when I was beginning to learn hand balancing. There were some days where everything just seemed to flow nicely, progress was smooth, unhurried and assured. I could spend minutes just hanging out on my hands and things felt good. At the beginning, but less so now, I would also have sessions where everything just seems to go to absolute custard. My upper back would be tight and my alignment would be in the toilet. I couldn’t hand balance to save myself and my would harbour thoughts of giving it up entirely.
The best way to fight against the cyclic nature of this process is to zoom out. To create metrics and focus upon what you can control and to ignore what you can’t. I am learning the piano at the moment. For me, I don’t track how “beautiful” a piece sounds to my ear. I’m not very good so there is a high degree of variability in my playing. Instead what I’m tracking is my practice time and ensuring that I have a consistent program to keep working on the basic skills that I know will help me get better. Particularly in conjunction with a teacher to help me guide my practice. This leads into focusing upon the right measurements.
Focus upon the right measurements
The quickest way to mess yourself up on your journey is to focus upon the wrong measurements. In particular, by focusing, tracking and optimising for a second or third order effect. What does this mean?
A first order effect is the response to something you do. You have direct control over the first order effects as they’re predominately a result of your own actions. If you decide to wake up at 7am, the first order effect is that you’re out of bed at 7am. Likewise, practicing for 30 minutes is a first order process. You are tracking something which is directly within your control and attempting to optimise for it.
Second and third order effects are derived from your initial actions. If you consume less calories than you burn then the second order effect is that you’ll loss weight. If you practice the piano consistently then the second order effect is that you’ll get better. A third order effect is something which follows on from the second order effect. To continue the piano example. As you get better you’re more likely to be offered gigs and thus get paid for your art. Practicing (first order) leads to getting better (second order) which can then lean to gigs (third order).
The problem that we face here is that we often don’t care about first order effects. First order effects are easy, they don’t seem that important to us. Not many of us get too much pleasure from mind numbingly going through the basics and learning scales. Instead, we want to be better pianists and to perform in front of huge audiences. Or we want to have the perfect body, when in reality we should be measuring our exercise output and practicing calorie control as our form of measurement. Seeking to improve one whilst keeping the other constant.
As we get further and further down the effect tree (it leads to infinity but the consequences become meaningless) we have less and less control over the final outcome. We can think of this as a gradient. At one end. Complete control, at the other, zero control.
We want to prioritise the first order effects that we have control over in our measurements and to track towards them. We’re making the implicit assumption here that success in one area will lead to success in other areas by understanding the relationship between the two. This may not always be the case. If you’ve reached a plateau then you’ll need to step back and evaluate what is and what isn’t working out for you at this stage.
I still think that it can be important to measure the higher order effects. After all, they’re one of the primary reasons why you’re putting in the time and the work. But you cannot dwell upon them. Trusting the process and that the results will come is more important
To become great at something you can never rest on your laurels. You can never say, this is good enough, you can never choose the easy route. It just doesn’t work that way. Humans are too adaptive as a species for that to be a successful approach unfortunately. This is an entire article about getting better at something and it can probably be distilled to you need to work hard.
The easiest way to think about our bodies and minds is that we are adaptation machines. We become efficient at what we’re trying to achieve, it quickly becomes easy. To counter this we must always be increasing the difficulty level, to push ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone, but not beyond.
In weight training this process is known as progressive overload. The act of building strength through continuously increasing the resistance that we face. But it works for pretty much everything. If you’re learning a musical instrument, you’ll go through progressively harder and harder pieces. If you’re learning to cook it may be more technically challenging recipes using unique ingredients.
The problem with continuous struggle is that you still need to make progress. If you set your objective too far beyond your current abilities then you’ll only become frustrated, irritated at your own lack of progress and spinning your wheels. You won’t have the tools and processes built up to tackle the task at hand.
The optimal zone to quickly progress is what some psychologists, most notably Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, call the Flow state. A flow state is one where you are completely immersed into a particular problem or task. It’s within your abilities but only just. Right on the edge of what is possible given your current abilities. These states, which Mihaly state to be the zone of optimal experience, should be leveraged wherever possible as they represent the greatest potential growth experience.
As the diagram below shows. Flow kicks in once you’ve reached a particular level in your abilities (to get beyond the apathy zone) and you’re facing a challenge which is within your grasp. If something is too challenging for your skills you’re liable to fail, worse, to become anxious about it. Likewise if something is too easy for your skill set you’ll be bored. You need the right mixture in order of skill level and challenge in order to reach Flow. Likewise, you need the right mixture to keep progressing.
Where Flow is particularly useful is that the model aligns fairly accurately with the learning process. If you were to sit in a classroom for 10 year olds and learn their math you’re likely to be quite bored. You’re skills are substantially above the challenge that you experience. Simply put, you’re not struggling, striving or growing much in that environment. On the other hand. If you go to a high level university math class you may be way out of your depth. The material is useless to you as the challenge is so far beyond your skill level. At that point you’re once again not struggling. You’re thrashing. Unable to keep up and becoming increasingly frustrated at your own lack of ability.
The trick is to minimise the amount of time you spend in both the boredom and the anxiety zones. You’ll need to be frustrated some times, otherwise you won’t know that there is a level at which you can reach too. But you don’t want to dwell there.
A great teacher accelerates a poor teacher brakes
The primary problems of self directed learning are the following:
- You don’t know what you don’t know
- You can easily get stuck on a problem and not know how to move past it
- You may not be aware you’re stuck on a problem
- It’s hard to create a learning pathway without experience
When we think about the first sections of this post. That of measuring the right things, understanding the cyclic nature of progress and remaining continuously in a flow state you begin to understand the difficulty of doing this by yourself. There is a chicken and egg problem here. To have enough experience to accurately assess your skill level, your current challenges and the best pathway forwards through them requires a degree of experience that you most likely do not have.
This is where the teacher comes in.
A teacher, or mentor, is able to show you the best pathway to get through the sticky situations, the common stumbling blocks that seem to hold everyone back as they’re attempting to progress. In the best case scenario this is an experienced coach. An old dude (or gal) who has seen it all before, who has taken people in your situation and gotten them through the brambles. You see this in sports teams where a player comes under the tutelage of an award winning coach and makes massive leaps in performance.
A teacher who loves their craft, who has built up a sea of experiences over time and knows how to communicate them effectively is worth their weight in gold. You’ll quickly see progress as they’re able to get you through the little stumbling blocks.
But, there are many different ways of getting expert help ranging from:
- Immersive experiences and workshops
- Regular coaching and teaching
- Group classes
- Online classes
All of these can have their place, but I firmly believe that it is a combination of the first two options which will give you the best bang for buck. To me a coach isn’t about the program, in fact, programs are nowhere near as important as people believe them to be once a baseline level of dedication and intensity has been reached.
Having a coach to regularly check in on problems, setbacks and challenges, say weekly or fortnightly, will give you the best bang for buck. A fully immersive experience (every session done with a coach) will be extremely expensive and won’t give you the time to train on your own, to build up your own processes and experiments that are critical for building good long term pathways. You’ll definitely progress but it will be on the coach’s terms, this can be ideal if you’re seeking to master a technically challenging domain first.
Finding a coach you like and setting up a regular schedule is one of the best things you can do.
Now, once you start progressing with a regular coach having an immersive experience, for example a week long workshop, can have a lot of value. These workshops are what I would consider peak experiences. They give you a taste as to what is possible and help to inspire you to get better. Remember, obsession is a prerequisite of getting good and it’s easier to be obsessed when you’re inspired by something.
In terms of group classes and online classes. Your mileage may vary. I’ve never found any great benefits from them beyond some loose programming. The primary benefit of a coach is in the individualised attention they can give to your particular problem. A group class, particularly one with different skill levels, will often be a frustrating experience. The teachers attention will be split, distracted by everything that is going on around them and they won’t be able to pick up on the nuanced challenges you’re currently going through.
On the other hand, group classes are great social experiences and you may get exposure to others who are also on the same pathway. This may still be a worthwhile use of your time. They can also be motivating on those days when you just want to roll over and quit. Social accountability is a real phenomenon.
How do you know if you’re getting better at something? Feedback. Asking someone or having someone who is better than you in a field review your work. To pick apart what you’re doing well and what you’re doing terribly. Competition is feedback. Assignments are feedback. Blog comments are feedback. Selling something is feedback. Having a close friend read over your writing is feedback. Sitting down with a piece of paper and with brutal honesty writing down what’s working and what isn’t is feedback.
Anything where you can get your mastery pursuit in front of someone and have them comment, compare and pick apart what you’re doing can be seen as a form of feedback. But different forms of feedback have different levels of worth.
Your mother telling you that something “looks good hunny” isn’t exactly a good piece of feedback. It doesn’t identify what looks good. It doesn’t identify any areas where improvement could be made. On the other hand. A handbalancing coach telling you that your alignment is off and that you need to improve your shoulder opening is a good piece of feedback. They’ve identified something you’re bad at and have provided a specific piece of advice to help you improve it. Better yet, they may give you specific drills to work on to improve the problem area.
One of the purest pieces of feedback is actually sales. When you sell something, when someone is willing to pay money to consume what you’ve produced that is the purest piece of feedback imaginable. They paid money for this. Poor sales are thus indicative of a bad product. Viral level sales indicate that you’ve struck gold and produced something exceptional.
You need to be continuously searching for feedback from others. Getting people to look at what you’re producing and give you their opinion. You shouldn’t necessarily change everything because of their opinion. But you should incorporate it into your review and reflection sessions at the very least. It can help direct you.
It is essential to expose yourself to new ideas to avoid the “big fish small pond” phenomenon. Or, more colloquially the “high school hero” phenomenon. We all know someone who was great at high school, when they were amongst limited competition. They often had an inflated ego and consequentially and inflated sense of their own abilities. They were comparing themselves against a small talented pool which wasn’t representative of the entire population.
These people typically face a rude awakening when they head out into the world and quite rudely come into contact with others who are better than them. They get exposed to a wider world.
At this point they have two choices:
- Retreat back to safety – Remain a high school hero, these people often become real estate agents in a small town from previous experience.
- Use it as an opportunity to push themselves to new heights – These people go on to achieve great things.
At some point we’ll always get exposed to someone better than us. There will always someone better than you. You need to get over it. As the two choices above imply we can either become discouraged or inspired by this exposure.
When you are exposed to something great your reaction should be “I didn’t know this was possible, I can’t wait to try it or get to that level”. This exposure will push you to new heights as it will increase your obsession and your motivation to get better. Your reaction should most definitely not be “I’ll never get there, I might as well just give up now”. If that’s the case then I recommend completely removing yourself from all exposure. You need to sit in your cave and practice until you’re confidence in your own abilities has improved.
This is partly where the role of social media can be so damaging. The continuous exposure to other people’s life highlights, when compared to the current status of our own lives, will often lead to us becoming discouraged, not inspired. This is particularly the case when we’re at our most impressionable ages and in my view is partly to explain for the epidemic in mental health issues that seem to be exploding across the world.
Eventually you’ll get to the point where you say, “I can do that”. That feeling means that it’s all worth it. But don’t be trapped. Keep searching out others who are better than yourself or you’ll stop improving.
Experimentation and play is the heart of improvement
One thing that stands out when you observe masters at their craft is how much they seem to enjoy what they do and how often they do something which never really seems like serious practice. They fool around, they goof off, they try things. They play and they experiment. They break the rules, but only once they intimately understand them.
Learning and becoming good, whether that be at programming, music, art, mathematics, fitness or any other pursuit cannot be a grind all of the time. There is a time and a place for drills, repeatedly going through the same task over and over to improve fundamentals, but a practice regime which only incorporates drills will quickly flounder when trying to move on to higher level skills.
You need to play.
Playing gives you an unstructured environment to try out that cool thing you saw on YouTube, to figure out how two different skills can be used together to create something that is more than the sum of their parts. Playing is a mastery building activity once you reach a particular level. It forces you to understand the constraints you’re operating under, to understand what rules can be broken and which should be adhered to at all costs.
You see this in literature. Where the greatest and most interesting novels break traditions. They have sentences and structures which do not fit any classical mold of good writing. They can only have resulted from a master at their craft experimenting. Cormac McCarthy, Hemmingway, Hesse, Tolstoy, Umberto Eco, Murakami. They all have their own styles of writing and they all fall outside the boundaries of what would be considered classical Strunk and White good style.
But this does not mean that you should disregard formal learning at all. They are complementary. Consider a budding scientist, one who has not read any of the surrounding literature, one who has a poor grasp of technique and does not understand the role of statistical significance in science. This budding young man or woman can experiment and try new things to their hearts content. But it’s highly likely that not a lot will come out of it. They do not have the requisite knowledge of their subject matter to understand how to play effectively.
Effective play requires baseline mastery
Likewise a software programmer who doesn’t intimately know their tools will reinvent the wheel continuously, they’ll never invent anything elegant and beautiful because they don’t have a good grasp of the underlying concepts.
So how do we reconcile these requirements? We balance the two. We introduce a degree of structured play into our training sessions. We spend our time working basics, improving our fundamental knowledge of an area. But then we let our creative side out. We gives ourselves the freedom to experiment but then we throw it away. We remove all expectations around the final result and give ourselves the stereotypical blank canvas to work with.
Part Three: The journey
The concepts discussed above are your tools. The fundamentals which will help you on your pathway from being really shit at something to being average, to being good, to being great. They’ll help you on the Journey, but ultimately you still need to walk that pathway yourself. This section is intended as a generic how to guide. A reference manual that you can slot into your own learning pathway.
This is the easiest part of the whole process. You’re excited and motivated to get started. For me, this point is all about restraint however. In the words of Donald Rumsfield you’re in the world of “Unknown Unknown’s”. You simply don’t know enough about the area to know what you do know and what you don’t know. You may have read numerous blog articles. You may have spent hours and hours poring over youtube videos. But if you haven’t actually spent some time doing the activity you won’t know if you actually like it.
At this point you’re still in the Identification stage of the process. You need to find what you’re good at, what you want to do and what you like doing. These three elements are all critical. For example:
- I may see a video of something that looks awesome and decide I want to do it (Wanting to do it)
- I find a class or some way of trying it out and give it a go (Good at, like what it is)
I may be awesome at it, but absolutely hate the process. In which case you shelve it. You don’t want to spend days and days, hundreds if not thousands of hours dedicated towards something that you absolutely hate. It’s just not a good way to spend your time.
But what if you like it, you want to do it, but you’re just not very good at it. Simply put. Try a few more sessions out and ascertain your rate of improvement.
There is a quote that I like here from John Ousterhout, a professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.
A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept
Unpacking this. Yes, you’re starting location is important (this is what you’ll get from your first attempt) but the rate you improve is far more important. This is where the multiple sessions kick in. You need to spend some time on the activity to see if you’re actually improving. If you’re not then you could be in for a lot of pain.
Becoming great at something implies that you need a lot of slope to get to the final result. It doesn’t actually matter too much if you’re terrible at the beginning (except if your embarrassment makes you quit) if you make rapid progress.
I believe a good rule of thumb for something here is about 10 hours. Once you’ve spent ten hours on something then you’re free to decide if you like what you’re doing and it’s something you want to continue.
One thing you should absolutely do throughout this initial ten hours is speak to as many experts in the field as you can. As many people who have got to the point you want to get too.
What you’re looking for here is there journey. When you just speak to one person they will tell you about their personal journey. But depending upon where you came from this may not have a huge amount of relevance to your personal circumstances. Someone who grew up learning to be a gymnast and later pivoted to become a circus artist has less personal relevance to me than someone who found circus late and dedicated time towards it. If I only spoke to the first type of person I’d come away with a warped perception of what the activity actually entailed.
Now that you’ve spent some time on the activity it’s time to get committed. At this point, you’re free to start investing financial resources in the activity. The reason you wait until you’ve gone through the ten hours is so you’re not selling high end barely used gear on eBay in a years time. At the point when you’ve finally admitted that you don’t actually like doing the activity. I still recommend purchasing “low end” tools here. In general, your financial commitment to an activity should be a function of the amount of time you’ve previously invested, not the amount of time you plan to invest. So start with the second hand cheap camera if you’re into photography. Not the $10,000 one.
Enjoying what you do is the best indicator of success
In general. Enjoying what you do is the primary predictor of success and mastery that I’ve been able to find. If you enjoy the actual process and training then you’ll spend the time on it. For many activities it is simply the accumulation of time and training hours doing an activity that distinguishes someone great from someone bad. The high level amateurs amongst us that we all know, for example the crazy good squash playing old man, have put more time into the sport than the rank amateurs. Hence they’re better. It’s not rocket science. If anything, it’s simple accumulation. More time spent on an activity and the better you’ll be.
Once you’ve got some basic time and tools in the activity it’s time to plan.
You need a practice schedule.
This is completely non-negotiable. You cannot get great at something haphazardly. It just doesn’t work at all. If you’re an adult (which is whom this post is targeted towards) then you have a huge range of commitments upon your time. Your job, your friends, family, general household maintenance and commuting will all limit the time you can spend upon an activity.
As such, you need to create some clear practice goals for the amount of time you’re spending on something. At a bare minimum this should be at least one hour per day if you’re following a daily schedule. If you’re on a cyclic schedule then aim for 10 hours per week. What really drove this into my head was reading Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. Within the book King details his schedule. He begins writing early in the morning, around 6am and will only finish writing at 2pm. Eight hours of solid distraction free work honing his craft. He treats writing like his job, which it is.
You’re unlikely to be a professional at what you’re trying to accomplish. Which is good, if you were this post wouldn’t be good for you. But you do need to put the time in. One hour a day gets you up to 300+ hours per year. To me, a decently good level of mastery tends to set in at about 1000 hours dedicated towards something. That’s three years of work. If you’re able to get to 20 hours of work per week then you can likely crack the 1000 hour mark in a year. This is why it’s so hard to progress multiple skills independently of each other.
Assuming you have regular life commitments you may have anywhere from 10 to 40 hours free each week, depending upon your level of dedication. This equates to 500-2000 hours of time each week you can dedicate towards mastery. If you need at least 1000 hours to reach a baseline level then if you’re splitting your attention four ways it may take you up to 8 years to get them all to a decent level. As you are able to dedicate more time towards these pursuits then obviously the time to baseline mastery declines accordingly.
But, it does gets better. Practice time can be exponential in its rewards as the practice itself has non-linear benefits. For examples of how to structure your practice time see the section dedicated towards it. In general, a practice session has three to four components.
A warm up which gets you primed for the activity you want to progress at. A dedicated challenging session which is where you make your improvements. Finally a reflection component is added on to the end. In this component you’ll write down in your practice journal what worked well, what was hard, where you’ve made improvements from the last session or the week before and what you believe needs more practice.
There may be an optional fourth session here which is play. That is, you spend some time doing what first drew you to an activity. This is your time to experiment and just muck around. To have fun. It can’t all be hard work. Experimentation is an essential component of the learning process.
This is the first major milestone that you’ll reach and can be characterised by capability across a set of basic tasks and skills in an area that can be performed without supervision. If you’re surfing this would be standing up on a small wave for example. If you’re playing the piano it’s being able to read music and learn a basic song by yourself with minimal guidance. It may not be perfect, it may not be pretty but you’re able to get it done.
The milestone of basic competence means that you’re free to start exploring and pushing your own boundaries. You should still use a skilled coach or teacher here. Someone who can see realistic short term goals and give you immediate feedback on what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.
But you also have the ability to move beyond the teacher here. You should have enough skill to explore your chosen skill. To begin to experiment with what works for your personal style and what doesn’t.
A plateau typically occurs once you’ve reached the end of your beginner gains in a domain. Simply put. There are some skills that are easy to get, your body and mind can quickly learn them and adapt to their challenges. Progress will come quickly and smoothly.
But eventually these beginner gains will run out. You’ll plateau and each improvement becomes a grind rather than effortless. Milestones begin to become further and further apart.
This is your plateau, the moment you decide that you want to keep going or you want to stop. The enjoyment you get from the pursuit will lessen at this point. It’s natural. We tend to like things that we’re going at and there is nothing like a plateau, stalled progress, to make us feel bad about our abilities.
Getting through a plateau is an exercise in creative problem solving. You’ll need to carefully analyse why you’re not making progress. Is it a matter of technique? A matter of time invested? A matter of resources or equipment? Is it a matter of inspiration? Of not knowing what the next step is?
It could be anything in all honesty, each plateau will present itself in a different way. From experience a plateau typically occurs when your strength in one area is no longer sufficient to compensate for a weakness in another area. There becomes a limiting component that is stifling your progress and only by improving that component (or eliminating the bottleneck) will you be able to progress.
Journaling your practice sessions, comparisons with others and working with skilled masters is the best way to work through your plateaus. These can all help to shine a light on what you need to do.
The final comment I want to make on Plateaus is that they can be caused by burnout. In this case, the best thing to do is nothing. To remove yourself from the activity entirely and give yourself a chance to rest and relax. This is typical in pursuits where you’ve been dedicating a huge number of hours to polish the craft, you become mentally and physically worn down.
I find two to four weeks is sufficient to rekindle the fire and the enjoyment for the activity again. The rest period will often give you a chance to approach an activity from a different angle, “Ah ha” moments frequently come when resting after a long period of sustained effort, your brain finally has the chance to synthesize the connections that enable the breakthrough.
This stage is characterised by a high level of technical skill in a particular area. You shouldn’t be limited by any lack of ability at this point, your skills should be at a level where you can technically complete most tasks, even if you’re not creatively innovating outside the status quo. At this point, you’ll find the most benefit through a two pronged approach. The goal here is to find your style.
- Focusing upon your strengths and using that to experiment
- Building up weaknesses when they become limiting
No-one ever became a master by intentionally limiting themselves. It simply doesn’t work that way. If you look at top level professionals they all have “their own game”, they have their own style. Kobe doesn’t play the same way as Le Bron. Mozart is different to Chopin. Andy Warhol is different to Michelangelo.
Masters are masters due to their strengths in individual disciplines. They’re still able to perform at a high level across the wider discipline as a whole but they also have a specialty. Something they’re known for.
To begin this process you need to continuously experiment and attempt to innovate within the confines of your mastery pursuit. There may be areas where you’re lacking, don’t be afraid to ignore these further if another area shows greater promise. But, continuously experiment until you’ve found something that works for you.
Mastery has been reached once you’ve built up both your technical skills and your personal style. One alone is insufficient to characterise yourself as a master. A technically brilliant artist may just be a forger. An innovative visionary that cannot execute is just a wannabe down at the local bar who brags about their abilities.
Once you’ve become a master you’re more fully in the maintenance mode of your abilities. At this point, go whatever way you want. It’s your choice to take your skills whatever way you see best.
Everyone’s pathway to this point will be slightly different. There really is no one size fits all model that you can pattern your life after. Experiment, enjoy the journey. Good luck.
Part Four: Practice session design
The practice session is the basic building block on your journey towards mastery. It’s the smallest unit that really matters and thus it’s important to spend some time thinking about it in order to make it as effective as possible. I will cover a “basic” practice session layout which should be adapted to your specific skill and then delve into three basic templates for physical, intellectual and creative skills. These templates illustrate the different requirements between the pursuits and the different physiological drivers that go into each. For example, the way to learn a cognitively demanding skill is different from the method of mastering a physically demanding one.
The most fundamental element of your journey is the individual practice session. This section will break down what I look for in each of my practice sessions. At it’s heart a practice session consists of four general activities:
- Priming (Warm Up)
- Mastery Building
- Play and Experimentation
Each of these activities is absolutely essential to a good training session and skipping any of the parts will hinder your process. It is often tempting, and this is something that I struggle with myself, to go through all of the critical parts here. You may be tempted in particular to skip the Priming and Reflection components of the practice session. This is a mistake. They’re actually the most important.
Priming is an activity that gets you ready for the main event. This has both a physical and a mental component. You need to be in the right mindset after all. At the end of the priming part of your practice session you should be feeling ready to advance and to work on advanced skills.
In physical activities this will consist of a general warm up to get blood flow moving followed by some general purpose mobility and strength exercises. For example, you wouldn’t try to squat your 1 rep max cold. Instead, you’d warm up thoroughly beforehand. Likewise if you’re playing the violin you don’t just jump into the hardest possible song you know. You start with a couple easy songs and maybe some scales first.
A priming session is unsuccessful if you come out of it feeling unprepared for the main event (Mastery Building). You may be distracted, your mind on other things, or you may not be physically or intellectually ready to perform at a high level. If you don’t feel ready yet then you should extend the priming session.
A good priming session typically takes between 10 and 30 minutes to complete depending upon your level and the skill your pursuing in question. Throughout this time you should be self assessing your ability to perform at the next level and changing the practice session accordingly. In some sessions I’ve mentally adjusted to the session just being the priming and reflection sessions with no time spent on mastery building or experimentation. This typically occurs when I’m absolutely wrecked physically and mentally. I simply don’t have the willpower to push through and build mastery. So I focus upon maintaining the baseline level.
If you’re struggling here then walk away. Rest up. If you’re continuously struggling here then there may be deeper issues, things you need to deal with before you can get back on the pathway. Nobody ever said it was going to be a straight line.
Over time, what was once your mastery building activities will eventually become your warm up. This means you are now able to confidently rock a cross fit shirt with “your workout is my warm up” on it un-ironically. Or, you can be happy you’re making progress and adjust your sessions accordingly.
This is the meat and vege of the practice session. The quality of the mastery building session will dictate how quickly you will progress and to what level you’ll eventually get to. A high quality mastery session will challenge you and advance your skills at the same time. The net result of such a session is that you should come out better than you were before. Whereas play and experimentation, priming or reflection help to maintain and reinforce what you already know. Mastery Building is about pushing the boundaries.
Your typical mastery building session will vary in length. This should be high intensity and high focus work. You don’t want to be half assing this bit. Oscillating between Facebook or Instagram on your phone and what you’re intending to accomplish. If anything, this time should be spent in pure dedicated focus. Removed from distractions and concentrating solely upon your art. If you find yourself continuously distracted then change your environment until you’re able to find one that works for you.
How much time you’re able to spend is thus dictated by your personality, your personal time constraints and your immersion in the task. I aim to start with 25 minutes as an initial mastery building session. This equates to one Pomodoro, a popular time management technique which I’ll detail below. Following this session I’ll take a short break and then evaluate. What kind of mood am I in is the principle question. If everything is starting to flow nicely and work well together then I might do another one, re-evaluating again at the end of it. If it’s sort of going to shit then I may move straight to reflection or even back to priming. If I’m enjoying it but not in the mood for high intensity challenges then I’ll shift to Play and Experimentation.
When you’re working in the Mastery Building range you’ll want to have set goals you want to accomplish for the session. If you’re writing this may be to produce 3-4 solid pages of final output. Or to finish off a major section. If it’s a creative pursuit it may be making headway on a “serious” piece (i.e. not something that can be mastered in a few minutes). If it’s a physical skill then this may be a highly challenging one.
Play and Experimentation
Play and Experimentation is the best way of getting better. Period.
When you play and experiment you reinforce the skills you know as well as identifying new ways to use them in different processes. A great approach to follow here is asking yourself the question, “I wonder what will happen if I take X from Y and try it out in Z”. Some times this will be an absolute and complete failure. Perfect! You’ve identified new information through a negative result in this circumstance. If it works, then you’ve found a new combination of skills that you can use to hopefully break new ground in your personal learning plateau.
This is also ignoring the primary benefit. Play is fun, something which we often forget about when we get deeply involved in pursuing mastery. When we attempt to “be the best” we try to force ourselves into being machines. We ruthlessly stamp out all semblance of fun as it’s not “serious” training. I know that I am certainly guilty of this and it’s something I actively try to work on.
The reality is, the reason you wanted to do something in the first place is because it looked awesome, or it was fun, or it was an aspirational goal of some kind that you wanted to achieve. Play and experimentation is the time we spend realising these ideals. Realising that it doesn’t all have to be technically precise, but boring, work. Sometimes it’s just jamming and doing something silly. Some times it’s attempting something new you saw in a video that doesn’t fit neatly into your “routine”. Either way. Introduce Play. You’ll reap massive rewards and you’ll also experience the mental benefits as well.
Where I think professionals and amateurs are distinct from one another is in the reflection stage. The internal gaze that we direct upon our own pursuits and the questions we ask of ourselves.
Reflection should be held at regular intervals and at different time resolutions. A good practice is to do the following:
- Brief reflections on how each individual training session worked. What worked well. What didn’t.
- Weekly, reflect upon the progress that has been made across the training sessions so far. Identify a new goal for the next week and write down any achievements
- Monthly, ascertain if you’re on track or whether you have plateaued on your quest
- Quarterly, redirect your efforts, completely change track if there has been no improvement quarter to quarter
- Annually, read through all of your goals and mastery pursuits. Introduce new ones if the current crop aren’t inspiring you. Feel free to “move on” if nothing is working for you.
Conceptually, Reflection falls under the concepts of Measuring the right thing and The Cycle of Progress. It’s the piece that ties everything together and helps you to place everything in context. If you’re goal is to master strength training then after each workout you might record your sets, reps and weights as well as any qualitative measures. Week by week you may look at a baseline number, for example, total volume. Monthly and Quarterly you may check how your one rep max is doing so that you’ve got a good comparison number to work with whilst Annually you may look at new strength goals you want to achieve.
On the other hand, if you’re a writer then your practice session reflection may just be a word count coupled with some brief notes on what you accomplished, what subjects seemed to flow and what were hard to write. Here, wordplay that you find interesting could be noted down for use in other work. Each week you might zoom out a little bit and look at your progress in terms of a major project and check you’re still making progress towards it.
Reflection isn’t just about recording a word count or writing down your strength numbers however. It should also encompass your qualitative state for each activity. If you’re feeling continuously run down over a couple weeks then this should show up in your reflections. Dedicating time once per week to review everything is essential. You’ll need to
Let’s take a basic piano training example as the way to look at this:
- First 5-10 minutes spent warming up hands and fingers playing Hanon exercises
- Next 5-10 minutes spent practicing 1-2 scales playing two octaves each time
- 5-10 minutes on known songs polishing them with the aid of a metronome
Now that’s 30 minutes spent on the “warm up” alone. In this case the known warm up songs is one that I’ve already mastered and is at a level at which I can play smoothly with minimal stoppages. It should still be somewhat challenging, you don’t want to go to a level significantly below your abilities. From our Flow diagram that would be descending into the boredom territory. Likewise you don’t want to be practicing something that pushes you into the anxiety territory at this point.
Once you’ve moved beyond this it’s time to try and increase the difficulty. You want to spend the next 30+ minutes working on challenging skills trying to push yourself along. This shouldn’t be so difficult that you enter into the anxiety territory. If it is then you’re working on something which is beyond your skill level. There is a time and a place for this, but you cannot let yourself become discouraged during this process.
Finally, once you’ve finished your session you’ll need to spend a bit of time on experimentation. Creative skills require you to understand when and where the rules can be broken. That is there is both a technical component and an artistic component to them.
There are many methods out there, for example the Suzuki method, which emphasise that the learning process should not just be about technical ability, that learning should also encompass the individuals character. Likewise, there are other methods which will focus purely upon technical ability, the product being an individual who has exquisite technical mastery but little artistic ability.
Building the artistic skills is just as important in this process.
Physical skill learning is a slightly different kettle of fish to mastering Creative or Intellectual skills. This is because you need to balance fatigue, stress and compensation cycles when you’re planning your training. As an example, trying to hit your one rep max Squat every single day will often leave you burnt out with a shot CNS. Your body doesn’t have the capability to hit such maximal effort movements day in and day out. It will work for a time but an injury or some degree of burn out will set in. You need to understand how your body responds to stress.
Generally speaking, to progress your body in a pursuit requires stressing it in some way, temporarily degrading your performance. Your body responds to this stress by overcompensating, leading to a state of heightened performance. Over time, if no further stress is placed upon the body it will eventually begin to regress to the mean and you will lose any gains. On the other hand, if you stress the body again before it has recovered then you’ll go down a negative pathway and end up worse off than when you started. This process is known as Supercompensation theory.
As you can see, if you train too soon following a session then your body has not adequately recovered. You begin to accumulate fatigue and your overall level of performance suffers. Performed optimally you will see an upward sloping trend. Performed neutrally you remain where you are. This is the main reason why most strength training coaches recommend 48-72 hours in between each training session. Or, a 3x week schedule. It turns out that 48-72 hours is typically what is needed in order to recover sufficiently to a state at which additional training stimulus will be beneficial. Before this window you’ll likely just end up accumulating fatigue.
Unfortunately, for many of us we typically remain in the neutral to negative phase as we either leave it not long enough or too long between training. Alternatively, we do not introduce enough of a training stimulus to induce any compensation. We slack off, get lazy, take an easy session here and there.
In terms of a physical skill practice session itself I break them into the following parts, inspired by the work of Steven Low in Overcoming Gravity. A great reference manual that you would do well to pick up.
- Blood flow, mobility and isometric work (Priming)
- Skill and Primary strength work (Mastery Building)
- Experimentation (Play)
- Conditioning, Core and Flexibility Work (Priming)
- Logging and Journaling (Reflecting)
Intellectual skills are those which require a high level of cognitive thinking. Writing, programming, logic puzzles, mathematics, chess, debate, languages, science and studying are all examples of intellectual skills.
The approach to learning these skills is essentially equivalent to having good study skills and can be sorted into the following groups:
- Exposure to new concepts
- Synthesis and Repetition
- Creative use
In this case, the goal is to maximise the intellectual toolkit you have available. A programmer who needs to continuously look up syntax is not an effective one, they’re essentially limited by a poor understanding of their tools. Likewise, a mathematician who cannot do solid calculus and integrals will often struggle.
Unfortunately, we often need to repeat information that we want to obtain as unless we’re exposed to it again frequently we tend to forget as humans.
The reason many of us fail when it comes to learning intellectual skills is that we don’t build up a base, nor do we continuously reinforce concepts into our mind. For example, a practice regime for improving in these domains might entail the following:
- Review of previous days work (Priming)
- Spaced repetition of concepts previously learned (Priming)
- Dedicated “focus time” to work on new skills or a piece of work seeking to use the previously identified concepts (Mastery Building)
- Experimentation with any new concepts you’ve learned recently to determine their usefulness (Play and Experimentation)
- Reflection on any new skills learned, updating spaced repetition dictionaries as necessary.
In a professional setting, I’ve found it to be hugely advantageous to have a good grasp of the “playing field”, those pieces of information that are simply factual statements (for example basic statistics about your industry) that you’re able to recall when needed. By intuitively understanding these minutiae I have found that I can “free up” my brain when I’m thinking about more complex tasks as I can substitute in this information quickly without having to break my “flow” state. Not having to pause to look up a piece of information is a huge advantage that you should not take for granted. It will allow you to more quickly complete everything you seek to accomplish and thus shift you to a higher level of competency.
For example, having a solid grasp of a standard library when programming often saves a huge amount of time googling. There are often some basic functions that you can learn that generally apply everywhere. Not having to pause to use these is a huge advantage.
Part Five: Meta skills – Things that improve everything else
A Meta skill is, as the title says, something that improves everything else. Another way to look at this is that these are the little “life hacks” which I’ve found to have payoff across a wide range of activities. There is nothing which is absolutely earth shattering in this realm. But mastery of these skills will typically have a huge payoff on the actual skill itself.
The following list are what I call “all else being equal” skills. That is, all else being equal, the individual who is better at these skills will typically have better overall performance. They’re skills that act as multipliers, making you better than you already are. But they’re not replacement skills.
You still need to put in the time to master whatever you’re trying to do. These skills make it easy to fall into the practice of productivity porn. They give the impression of achievement and improvement without actually achieving anything or making any improvements in a particular area. You can be a zen, healthy, fit individual who journals every waking moment and is in tune with his mind and body. But this won’t help you reach mastery.
As such, caveat emptor, use these but be aware of there limitations. I will include a basic implementation schedule at the end.
It is no surprise that Meditation is the internet’s current “productivity hack” of choice. It’s virtues have been extolled by individuals as diverse as Tim Ferris, Dalai Lama and Kobe Bryant. The peaceful mastery of self along with it’s associated emotional control that it gives has been portrayed as a kind of superpower.
It’s for this reason that I’ve included it at the top of this list. Introducing a daily practice into my own life has improved my concentration and focus throughout all areas. It’s made me calmer, less anxious, less stressed. Meditating eases my mind. It’s not wasted time, although it may feel that way when you’re sitting for twenty to thirty minutes on a cushion trying to control your breathing.
Diet, Sleep and Hydration
These should be a no brainer. You cannot abuse your body and mind through poor treatment and expect it to perform at an optimal level. There’s no free lunch.
I don’t really want to delve too much into specifics here. Your diet will depend upon your specific athletic and physical needs. A 180cm tall man who is into body building will have different dietary requirements to a 150cm woman who doesn’t exercise. Be smart here and do some research.
Sleep is also the most important thing you can do for your body. It’s where you recover, where you get better and where your brain will form new pathways to reinforce the skills you’ve been practicing. Sleep is an absolutely critical part of the learning process and if you’re not getting enough of it your performance will suffer.
Finally, hydrating yourself and no alcohol, soft drinks and mainlining coffee directly into your system doesn’t count as hydration. Drink more water. You’ll feel better.
This falls under the same moniker as diet, sleep and hydration. Taking care of your body will enable you to perform better in other areas of your life. The fitter you are the better your stamina, the better your ability to concentrate and the better your ability to complete strenuous tasks. It is also fantastic stress relief.
You don’t need to be a gym bunny or an exercise fiend to get benefits here, indeed, the marginal benefits will taper off as you invest more time into getting fit but if you are out of shape then some dedicated time may be in order.
Try out interval training or bodyweight strength training for something different. If you like yoga or powerlifting then go for those. Some like the discipline of bodybuilding. Others like the camaraderie of team sports. It doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as you’re doing something.
From personal experience. I’ve found the most benefit from interval training. Particularly hill sprints. Your mileage may vary however.
It’s highly likely that you’re a visual person. Most of us are. We’re addicted to pretty photos of things and we typically don’t work well with large lists of items, large blocks of text or tables of data. A picture tells a thousand words after all.
You can use this to your advantage, having strong visual cues that place you into the “zone” and inspire you is a wonderful method of getting yourself ready. Visualising our successes, what we’re going to be doing at each moment is an excellent form of practice. Spending time understanding what you’ll do in each situation helps you execute when the moment comes. Many top athletes utilise this strategy, visualising how the entire race will go from the moment the horn sounds to the moment it finishes. When the race actually occurs it’s just a matter of following the same mental pathways that have been preparing for the moment.
Time management (the Pomodoro technique)
The Pomodoro technique is a method of improving sustained performance. It is a method to produce enough space and headroom to maximise your output over a longer period of time by taking consistent breaks. Many of us have fractured working ethos, we do a few minutes then we check an email. A couple more minutes and then we’re distracted by a conversation with a co-worker. We may get up and grab some food.
The Pomodoro technique on the other hand schedules breaks into the working time and attempts to separate your working time into two components:
- Pure focus time where you spend all of your effort and concentration on work
- Scheduled short and long breaks where you handle all of the other areas.
A standard Pomodoro Cycle consists of four individuals pomodoros in the following order:
- 25 minutes of focused work
- 5 minutes of break
- 25 minutes of focused work
- 5 minutes of break
- 25 minutes of focused work
- 5 minutes of break
- 25 minutes of focused work
- 20 minutes of break
This cycle has four working periods over the block and lasts approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes in total. You don’t need to follow this exactly and you can mix it up however you want from as few as 1 pomodoro to 8 pomodoros. Don’t neglect the value of the longer breaks however as they’re a key element maintaining output over time. You can repeat this cycle continuously, it’s designed so that you can repeat them indefinitely. The larger breaks are opportunities to get food and reset. The smaller breaks let you handle basic communication with others along with dealing with the other requirements of life (bathroom).
The technique looks deceptively easy. Once you start you’ll realise that the 25 minutes of actually concentrating on the task at hand is something that you’re very unused too. Stick at it and you’ll see some great results. Personally, I’ve found the technique to work well with skills ranging from programming, to languages, to musical instruments, to writing. I haven’t found it to work well when exercising however. I’ve also found it to be flexible enough as the smallest block is 25 minutes of pure concentration. This makes it great to throw one in when you’ve got some spare time.
One of the biggest drawbacks that I’ve experienced and that I’ve observed in others is poor chunking of tasks into small units of time and effort that we can knock back. We get lost in the macro. Overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of some of the things we’re trying to accomplish.
We need a good micro strategy to get through this. We need to be able to take something big and then break it down into a small repeatable activity that we can use to get better. Being able to plan out our workloads will help avoid that feeling of being overwhelmed.
If you’re a writer this is where having a good outline pays dividend. It helps to avoid the “blank piece of paper” syndrome. If you’ve got an outline laid out then you’ve always got a place to jump back into and something to work on.
No man is an island, or so the saying goes. You can’t let your life be consumed to the exclusion of all other areas. Spending time with friends, family and loved ones will enable you to get out of your own head. To reset so to speak.
Being all consumed in your journey is not a bad thing. Obsession is the first thing you need if you want mastery. But single minded obsession over a long period of time can be completely destructive. Build a social life as you go, recognise that you’re in it for the long haul and that a night with friends will not set you back too much.
On the other hand, it’s easy to overdo this as well. Socialising does not mean heading out and getting absolutely obliterated every weekend with your friends. Spending all of your time and money on booze will delay anything else you’re trying to do.
Spaced repetition is a learning concept which is particularly good for improving memory in factual based situations, as such it is particularly valuable for intellectual pursuits. If you’ve ever gone through the experience of learning something, being excited about how you’re going to integrate it into your life and then promptly forgetting it then spaced repetition may be able to help.
The concept is simple, your brain needs to be continuously exposed to the same information in order to have a better chance of remembering it. Something you do every day will typically stick around a lot longer than something you only do once every two years. The repetition helps to strengthen the neural pathways which should improve your ability to retain the information.
The downside though is that you need to invest the time in both a) creating the information you want to remember in a form suitable for spaced repetition and b) actually utilising the tool itself. You can find software to help with this, for example Anki is a popular piece of software though you can find others.
It’s not a silver bullet but it can be excellent for pursuing skills with a high “fact” based component.
This is something that was driven in to me once I started shift work. You can’t be “on” all the time. You can’t be operating at your peak performance every single moment of the day or every single day of the year. There are natural cycles that your body will tend to go through as you go about your life.
On some days you’ll feel awesome, on others completely awful. We all get sick. We all don’t get enough sleep sometimes and you know, sometimes we drink too much.
You can take advantage of this by introducing the concepts of cycles into your life. For example, if I’m training a physical skill I have different workout levels depending upon how my body and mind are feeling. If I’m distracted and tight then I’ll lessen my work on hand balancing and highly technical work and instead focus upon basic strength and conditioning patterns like squats and kettlebell swings. I align my workload with my physical condition.
On the other hand, if I’m feeling awesome in a particular area then I’ll heavily push that avenue and try to maximise my progress there. On average this will smooth out to a more reasonable level but any given day will seem to diverge far from the average.
Implementation into your life
As you’ve been reading these sections you’ve probably been thinking, who the hell has time for all of this crap? How do you slot it in between all of your other obligations.
The simple truth is, you don’t. You can’t just fit something in where it’s convenient to you, you have to make a conscious choice to prioritise them instead. This could be not heading out to after work drinks so that you can have more practice time. It may be dedicating time each weekend using a cyclic approach, acknowledging that you don’t have the time during the week days. It could be planning out small chunks of work you can slot in when you have spare time.
There are many different ways you can do this. I personally undertake a cyclic approach rather than a daily approach towards these activities. What this means is that I recognise that my schedule has periods of intensity and periods of relaxation. It doesn’t make sense for me to attempt to get 1 hours of work in on something every day. Instead, three hours on one day and zero on another is probably a more reasonable approach to follow in my personal circumstances.
I prioritise meditation, sleep, exercise and healthy eating above all others throughout the day. These activities are what I’ve found have given me the ability to keep making progress. Being well rested, alert and happy makes life a lot simpler to manage as you’re not fighting your own brain. I also recognise when it’s time to take a break. When my body and mind are feeling particularly broken I scale back my efforts and focus on doing things that I enjoy.
Linked to this. You need to learn what you can and cannot eliminate. Simplicity is a beautiful concept and paring back your commitments and your obligations can help to free you up as well. Do you really need to be out helping your neighbour on a winter’s morning? Probably not. Do you really need to take on that extra project at work because you couldn’t say no? Probably not. Eliminating the distractions instantly gives you additional time.
Most importantly though, I strive not to lose perspective, not to lose the raison d’être for pursuing mastery in the first place.
Appendix: Resources for your journey
In general I try to recommend books where possible. I find them to be more timeless. Links break on the internet. Things fall apart and what was there one day will not necessarily be there the next. This is the webs greatest strength as well as one of its major weaknesses. I like to read a lot and there are too many books that have influenced my learning over the years. This is an incomplete bibliography of books you may find useful.
The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance – Joshua Waitzkin
Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
How to Fail at Almost Everything – Scott Adams
Thinking in Systems – Donella Meadows
Letters from a Stoic – Seneca
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Walden – Henry David Thoreau
Hackers and Painters – Paul Graham
Antifragile – Nicholas Nassem Taleb
Overcoming Gravity II – Steven Low
The Sports Gene –David Epstein
Becoming a Supple Leopard – Kelly Starret
On Writing – Stephen King
Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking – David Bayles and Ted Orland
The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
Masters of Doom – David Kushner