Skill Building via Focused Practice, Time Management and Sleep
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
Another old adage is “practice makes perfect” yet a recent meta analysis of research indicates that time spent practicing may only account for improvement of 12% on average on any given task. Trying again and again may not be as helpful as we have been led to believe. As would be expected, practice makes more of an impact on tasks that have predictable and measurable outcomes, and is less meaningful when the task does not involve a predictable pattern or result.
Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference
Other factors that may account for success on a task or skill include innate talent, overall intelligence, working memory, personality style and persistence. Some of those are immutable and others can be changed with various amounts of effort. In order for persistence to be most beneficial we must also be optimally efficient. Research has found that we are most efficient when we focus in some very specific ways; in order to truly focus we should eliminate distraction and stop multi-tasking. Just as multi-tasking impairs focus, alternating your focus on different cognitive exercises maximizes learning.
Time is on my side, yes it is
Focus is also a matter of good time management. Before even beginning practice we can optimize our focus by making a task list, estimating the time needed for each task and self-monitoring through the use of a timer. (A timer is preferable to a clock because looking at a clock can be a distraction and can disrupt our focus.) Our optimal focus only lasts so long. Research has found that we can maintain our attention and focus for a maximum of 90-120 minutes. Some have suggested four cycles of 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break, but the research indicates that the more beneficial option is 90 minutes of focused work followed by a 15 minute break.
Good night and good luck
In addition to planned breaks, research supports the idea that quality practice is solidified by the break we take that occurs when we sleep. During deep sleep, the neurons used in the earlier practice of a task continue to fire, thereby reinforcing and solidifying whatever pattern was practiced during wakefulness. Using our “down” time wisely is just as important as engaging in focused practice.
And the rest is just luck!