How Do You Define “Practice?”

me, bmac and matheson - geeking out

A lot of people talk about the 10,000 hours theory now.

I first read about it in Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music, but I think the idea really reached the the mainstream with Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers (which I haven’t read yet).

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the gist of it:

To become a master or expert in anything, you need to rack up at least 10,000 hours of practice.

But doesn’t the quality of your practice matter?

Cal Newport of Study Hacks (one of my favourite blogs) wrote a great post about this 10,000 hours thing, and how it’s an insufficient theory.

“To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.”

Newport highlights the work of Anders Ericsson, who coined the term deliberate practice, and Geoff Colvin, who has expanded on Ericsson’s idea in his book Talent Is Overrated.

the 6 traits of deliberate practice

Newport summarizes and condenses Colvin’s eight original traits:

1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
2.    It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
3.    Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
4.    It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
5.    It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
6.    It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

During the first week of January, I set a bunch of goals for the year.  About 28 goals, actually.
Now that we’re into February, it’s a good time to check in and see if I’m on track.

I’ll share 3 of my 2010 goals with you:

1. 300 hours of practicing. Now, this one is broken down into smaller, more specific pieces.  I have projects to work on during what I call “practice” time, and I also include learning tunes for gigs as practice.

2. 300 hours of unnecessary creating. Todd Henry of Accidental Creative defines unnecessary creating as “creating anything that we aren’t required to create.” Why is that important?  I’m going to be talking about this more in the next few months on the blog.  In the meantime, read this.

3. Run an 8k. I’ve done a 5k.  Now it’s time for 8.

So how did I do in the first month of the new year?


21 hours of practice, only 3 hours of unnecessary creating, and only 3 hours at the gym.

I don’t want to make excuses…so I won’t.  Yes, January was insanely busy with deadlines and back to back gigs, but I still managed to watch a couple seasons of Battlestar Galactica!

It looks as though I’m on track with my practicing goal, but am I really?  It’s true that at this rate, I’d rack up 252 hours by the end of the year.  Close to 300.  But what about the quality of my practice?

It may seem weird to you that I would measure something like practicing in hours. Well,  numbers don’t lie.

If something is important to you, you make time for it, right?

The thing is, when I look back at the stuff I “practiced” over the past month, it doesn’t fit the description of deliberate practice.  In fact, my typical practice time only shares three out of those six traits listed above.

How do you define “practice?”

Do you consider the time you spend learning tunes for a gig or session to be practice time?

Are you focused on the process or the outcome?
(photo of me watching Brian MacMillan and Dave Matheson geek out, pre-gig at Hugh’s Room, by James Dean)

9 Responses to How Do You Define “Practice?”

  1. Matt Roberts says:

    This is a really interesting and inspiring post, thanks Christine!

    The only point I might disagree with is that practice should be “hard” in the sense of being unenjoyable. Lately I’ve been thinking about how when you really love something and get a lot of joy out of it, that is when your mind really fully turns on. I still think practicing should be “hard” in the sense of “challenging”, but I think it is important to enjoy that challenge.

    Anyway, food for thought. I should actually be practicing right now…

  2. @matt – I also tend to disagree with that one. There is an important difference between “hard” and “challenging.”

    Another point that isn’t addressed in these 6 traits is whether or not it’s better to focus on your strengths or weaknesses. I think that’s kind of related to the issue of hard vs. challenging.

    ok. now I’d better get to some practicing, too…

  3. James says:

    Really cool post, Christine. I think you’re absolutely right that practice has to be deliberate, or mindful, or whichever word best describes that optimal mix of intention, concentration and persistence. But all these big words do miss one important thing that I think Matt’s comment got at, which is that some portion of it should be just fun. I remember reading an article by Robert Fripp where he suggested that after doing all that deliberate stuff, one should always end the practice by throwing out judgement and having fun, and I agree. Perhaps this falls into the category of “unnecessary creating”?

  4. elena says:

    The link to Accidental Creative really piqued my interest… as a visual artist freshly out of school, I’m having a hard time keeping my creative momentum going, and my plan (which I have yet to put into action) has been to make “secret art,” the kind of thing I used to make during school and hide under my bed instead of hand in for an assignment.
    I’m finding it difficult, maybe because my “secret art” had to exist in tandem with the work I didn’t particularly want to make for class. Does unnecessary creating have to coexist with necessary or guilty creating, as a relief or counterpoint to it?

    Anyway, I’m really looking forward to reading your thoughts on unnecessary creating.

  5. @James – I agree. Where is the “fun” in the deliberate practice model? The first 3 or 4 years of playing guitar where all about fun, for me. I never thought that I was practicing at all. Just having fun.
    Then I grew up and began attaching more grown-up ideas to it…and suddenly “fun” is something that has to be consciously brought back in to the practice. It’s always fun to play/perform, but the idea gets planted somewhere along the line that practice shouldn’t be fun, it should be hard work.
    I wonder why fun is missing from that list. I’ll look into that book and find out…

    @elena -Your comment really made me think. I’ve got too much to say about it in this little comment box, so I think I’ll blog about it soon instead.

  6. Pingback: Where’s The Fun? | Christine Bougie

  7. good points! the fun factor is an interesting one…even what that in itself means can be cloudy. I think there are so many different types of experience that we can derive from music; playing, practicing, composing etc..I have been feeling lately that my perception of “fun” is evolving..I am more inclined to look for feelings of “satisfaction”, “challenge”, “expansion”, “understanding”…when these aspects come into play while i’m practicing, that has started to become the fun! I’m thinking lately that, like going to the gym or doing some kind of activity aimed at toning the body, it’s all about attitude and approach..when the things that used to be a drag or tedious to me about practicing and exercising can be somehow turned into the “fun” parts of it, I know i’m on the right track..thanks for the inspiration bouge, i’m going to go practice right now.

  8. Pingback: Christine Bougie on Cal Newport’s “Deliberate Practice” | Pursuit of Music

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