Mindless Repetition and Deliberate Practice

While mindlessly practising something, I’m doing it again and again without proper concentration. It’s similar to being a factory worker who is carrying out the same action repeatedly and can do it blindfolded after some mindless sessions practice. This type of practice is seen in passive actions like tying shoelaces and folding clothes.

There’s a big problem with mindless repetition, it’s a waste of time and makes you dull. Thinking about the number of pages your read or the number of hours you spend on doing something makes you outcome-oriented. The short-term payoffs of careless repetition are far less valuable than those of doing it with full attention and mindfulness.

Here’s where deliberate practice kicks in. It’s the act of practising something repeatedly while being completely present in the situation. Sticking to something with engrossment is hard but that’s what makes it worth it.

Deliberate practice is often useful for people training in music. Musicians often find themselves practising the same chords again and again mindlessly and end up being frustrated when they can’t play them properly. Here’s an insightful extract from a research two professors, Andreas C. Lehmann and K. Anders Ericsson conducted to describe the implications of deliberate practice for music students:

“Deliberate practice in music typically refer to individuals’ solitary efforts to improve a particular aspect of their performance. However, the concept of deliberate practice includes any training activity for which goals have been defined and feedback is available. Each learning activity in turn promotes the acquisition of an associated skill; all these skills together lead to a structure which supports a particular performance.

To become creative improvisers, jazz musicians imitate models, listen to recordings, and try to understand the style of a given performer. Chess experts spend large amounts of time studying published chess games by masters, predicting the next move and then comparing their predicted move to what the master actually did. Discrepancies between a chosen chess move and the master’s move then are analyzed. Assuming that the master’s move was indeed the best choice, this activity combines goal setting and instant feedback.”

(Hat Tip to James Clear for sharing the theory)

Practice and Repetition

While listening to the podcast episode on the Tim Ferris Show with Seth Godin as the guest, I made a note of a small piece of practical writing advice Seth gives. He says,

“This is easy. Write poorly. Continue writing poorly. Write poorly until it’s not bad anymore and then you’ll have something you can use. People who have trouble coming up with good ideas, if they’re telling you the truth, will tell you they don’t have very many bad ideas. But people who have plenty of good ideas, if they’re telling you the truth, will say they have even more bad ideas. So the goal isn’t to get good ideas; the goal is to get bad ideas. Because once you get enough bad ideas, then some good ones have to show up.

This is the opposite as we’re taught “quality over quantity” but usually for any skill development, the mantra should be “quantity over quality”. The more you practice, the more you’ll be making mistakes, the more you’ll be learning from them and ultimately the more you’ll improve.

Waiting for the perfect time to do the perfect work is stupid and unrealistic as the perfect time doesn’t exist. Starting it and gradually making things better and better with each step seems like the practical way out.

To add, here’s a famous parable from the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland that gives a real-life example of this,

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

The lesson here is to never wait for the perfect timing. Just start it and figure out things as you go. Keep making clay pots until you’re satisfied, have some bad ones, make some mistakes and use them as your learning curves. The key is to never stop or get discouraged by your early attempts. This is how practice and repetition together help in skill development.

Why is Practice so Important?

3,605 sixth graders from 91 different elementary schools were told to read a short test. Then immediately, they had to take a test based on it.

Half of these students were given a practice test based on the same information for one to seven days. After the seventh day, all the students had to sit for a final test based on the same piece of information.

The final test performance for the experimental text was reported separately for the top and bottom thirds of performers on the baseline measure. Overall, taking the practice test had benefited both groups of students. The testing effect appeared to be somewhat larger for higher-ability readers than for lower-ability readers. With approximately 12% to 20%, improvements in accuracy. This separates the learners and memorizers.

The more you chew over the information, the more it gets embedded in your long-term memory. The students who practised more performed better than the ones who practised less or didn’t practice at all.

It takes efforts but eventually, the hard work pays off. The crammed facts might help you pass a test but at last, only the learners who practised it well will have it stored in their brains for years.

Understand → Learn → Practice