Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect, Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

You’ve probably heard the old expression, “Practice makes perfect.” The message is intended to convey that you won’t improve at something without practice. However, the reality is this – not any old practice will do. For example, who will ultimately perform better in each of the following scenarios?

  • The golfer who hits a large bucket of balls with a variety of clubs or the golfer who picks one or two clubs and works on a few specific things?
  • The basketball player who hurriedly tosses up 50 free throws at the end of practice or the player who takes his time during his 50 attempts because he tries to correct mistakes after missing free throws?
  • The businessperson who participates in training or the businessperson who repeatedly practices on their own certain skills learned in training?
  • In each case I’m guessing you’d agree the second person would be more successful in each of these scenarios.

In the golf example you’re game will improve much more if you work on a few specifics, master them, then move on to other areas of your game.

A basketball player who focuses on what went wrong and actively corrects the mistakes is less likely to repeat them at the free throw line.

The businessperson who takes time to practice certain skills learned at a workshop should improve upon those skills much more than the person who doesn’t do anything after the training.

What we’re talking about here is a concept known as “deep practice.” Simply practicing, repeating the same thing over and over, could actually hinder you if you happen to be doing something incorrectly. Practicing incorrectly can easily lead to ingraining bad habits!

If you want to improve at something you have to practice it correctly. In other words, perfect practice makes perfect.

According to Daniel Coy, author of The Talent Code and The Little Book of Talent, deep practice is hard and can be exhausting. But there’s good news – you can accomplish more with less when you practice deeply.

But don’t take that last statement to mean a little hard work is all it takes. People who master their chosen field usually put in more than 10,000 hours and their time practicing far exceeds the actual time in competition. For example, Jerry Rice is estimated to have practiced 20,000 hours (20 years x 50 week/year x 20 hours a week) and his playing time was about 150 hours (300 games x ½ [assuming the offense was in the field ½ the time]). Think about that for a moment; 20,000 hours of preparation for 150 hours of game time. That’s more than 133 hours of preparation for every hour of playing time.

After college I was a competitive bodybuilder for several years. I would routinely spend at least two hours a day in the gym every day. Conservatively I’d have 250 hours of gym time for 30 minutes of competition on stage. Would you be willing to devote 100, 200, or 500 hours of prep time to get ready for an event?

In business the model is flipped because we spend so much time at the office, in meetings, on sales calls, etc., that we can’t afford to spend as much time in preparation. That means we need to be as efficient as possible with our time. Here are some things you can do:

  • Assess what went well and what didn’t. After a big meeting or sales call assess what went well and what could be improved on.
  • Take time to practice what can be practiced and/or change what needs to be changed next time.
  • Use drive time to practice. A few weeks ago I had a three-hour drive from Indianapolis to Columbus and I used almost two hours of the drive to practice parts of an upcoming presentation. I practiced so much that people noticed my voice was hoarse when I got back to the office. It was much better use of my time than talk radio, music or daydreaming.
  • Focus on specifics. As you go into a meeting, sales call, or presentation focus on certain things you want to improve. Just one or two things are enough. Ask someone to keep an eye out for those things and get some feedback.
  • Be playful. Almost every interaction with someone is a chance to do playful practice, especially when there’s not a lot on the line. I do this quite often in an exaggerated way and people who know me know what I’m doing so we usually get a good laugh.

Let’s not fool ourselves; just because we do something over and over doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily get better at it. It’s very hard for someone to get good at golf when all they do is play. If the pros practice then we need to all the more. The same logic applies in business; just because we’ve done something for a long time doesn’t mean we’re good at it. So remember, perfect practice makes perfect.

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