Focusing on One Thing at a Time

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

I recently came across a thoughtful blog post by Scott Young (see it here). It’s worth clicking on the link and reading the whole post (it’s short), but here’s the Cliff Notes version: Young’s advice for anyone using deliberate practice to improve at a skill is to simplify the practice by working on one particular aspect of that skill at a time. He refers to this simplification with a somewhat technical term — “reducing the degrees of freedom” involved with the practice — but all he really means is that you should set up your practice so that you can focus your efforts on one thing at a time.

Here’s an example: Suppose you are trying to improve your guitar playing, specifically your strumming of chords. Even with something as seemingly simple as strumming chords, there are multiple things going on: your fingers have to form the chord correctly, they all have to be pressing down on the correct strings with enough force and without touching other strings, you have to hold your pick correctly, you have to move your arm and wrist in the proper way to strum the chords with the desired rhythm, and so on. When you’re a beginner, it can be overwhelming to try to get all of these things right all at the same time, so Young’s advice would be to modify the practice so that you can focus on just one piece. To focus on moving the pick across the strings with the right rhythm, for example, you could simply hold your left hand loosely on the strings of the guitar, muting them, and then strum the muted strings. In this way you avoid all of the worries about forming chords correctly and practice only the strumming.

In general, this is an excellent approach to deliberate practice.

In Peak, Anders and I gave a similar example when talking about how one might improve at tennis: There are so many aspects of tennis that it is impossible to practice with the intention simply of  “getting better.” You need a very specific goal. Our example was of a backhand return of a ball hit at you with a particular spin. You would improve at that particular skill by working with a coach who hit ball after ball to your backhand, with each ball having the sort of spin that was giving you trouble. By isolating that one skill and performing it over and over again, you can see what you’re doing wrong and come up with ways to get better.

In his blog, Young suggested getting practice by redoing one aspect of old work. This is a good approach for skills like writing, designing, and computer programming where there is a product that you can rework. In the case of writing, you could pull out old articles you’re written and redo such things as the introductory paragraph, the overall structure, the transitions, or the ending. By reworking the same aspect of a number of different articles, you should see some clear improvement in that facet of your writing.

Generally speaking, I think this is excellent advice, and, indeed, it is very similar to something that Anders and I said in Peak, when we pointed out that the best deliberate practice is very tightly focused on improving one thing at a time. It is very difficult to improve when you are trying to get better at several different things simultaneously.

Keep in mind, however, that skills don’t generally break down neatly into a collection of independent subskills. Instead, there is usually a lot of overlap and interaction between the different subskills. To use writing as an example again, I can’t think of the introductory paragraph independently of the overall structure of the piece because that first paragraph must be in line with and point toward the structure. Change the structure, and I’ll probably need a new introductory paragraph; change the first paragraph, and I may well need to rethink the structure, at least the first few paragraphs. Similarly, the transitions are intimately connected with the overall structure, as they serve as signposts to the reader of where he or she is in the overall flow of the piece.

So, yes, when you are practicing look for ways to zero in on one particular skill and try to improve it. Reduce your degrees of freedom, as Scott Young would say. But be aware that ultimately these various subskills are going to have to be integrated into one overarching skill, and look for ways to practice two or more subskills together when it is relevant.

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