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Blog Short #73: 5 Steps to Get Better at Anything

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

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So what’s the first thing you think of when you read that title?

Mine would be “practice.” If you want to get better at anything, you have to practice.

(If that wasn’t yours, shoot me an email and tell me what it was. I’m curious!)

Certainly, other things would help, but “practice” has to be a significant component. And not just any practice, but something called “deliberate practice.”

I’ll give you a quick overview of what that is, and then lay out the five steps to use it.

What exactly is “deliberate practice?”

If you do something over and over to get better at it, isn’t that deliberate practice?

Yes and no. Repetition is essential, but there’s more to it than that.

Deliberate practice requires three additional elements along with repetition.

  1. Conscious focus. You have to engage your mind in the process with intensive focus. For example, you can repeat an action mindlessly, like lifting weights while watching TV. But it’s better if you turn the TV off and focus diligently on the muscles you’re using, the effort you expend with each lift, and maintaining the correct form.
  2. Consistent attempts to improve. Along with focus, you must keep trying to get better with each repetition, tweaking your practice as you go.
  3. Evaluation and feedback to monitor your progress. You need to establish a system to evaluate and get feedback on your performance in order to see where and how you need to improve. This may include having a teacher, mentor, or coach who can assist you.

Now let’s apply this to a real skill and go through the steps.

5 Steps to Improving a Skill

Step #1: Choose the skill you want to improve.

Suppose you decide that you want to become a highly-skilled communicator. That’s your goal.

Your first step is to identify the skills you need to get there. Then you choose one and practice it until you’ve reached a high level of competence, after which you can tackle your next one. Your practice aims to build skills, not focus directly on the goal.

Sticking with our example, let’s go through all five steps.

The goal is to become a good communicator. The skill we’re going to focus on is “listening.”

I chose that one because it’s a single, concrete skill you can break down and measure in specific actions. You’ll see what I mean as we go through the steps.

Step #2: Do your research.

What exactly does good listening entail? What are the mechanics of it?

Be thorough in your research and get the best information you can from sources that are valid. Start with reading up on it or interviewing someone who has the skills and know-how you need. You could also ask people close to you what they look for when they want someone to listen to them, as well as ask yourself the same question.

Write all these requirements down with as much specificity as you can. Spell out the exact behaviors you want to get good at.

Examples might be:

  • Face the person, make eye contact, sit or stand in a relaxed manner, keep your facial expression open and receptive.
  • Allow enough personal space.
  • Put all digital devices away and silence them.
  • Invite the person to talk and remain quiet and attentive until they come to a break in the conversation or ask for feedback.
  • Ask questions to clarify, and repeat back what you hear to make sure you understand.
  • Empathize by verbalizing how you think the person is feeling.

Once you have everything written, you can use it as a checklist to monitor your progress.

Step #3: Set up a system of practice.

How will you go about practicing these behaviors to increase your skill with each one?

First, choose someone to practice with – maybe someone you’re close to, like a partner or friend. You might decide to practice with everyone, but to get feedback, start with someone you know well so they can help you evaluate your performance.

Secondly, set a schedule. It’s harder to be exact with a skill like listening, but you can set a goal to practice at least once or twice a day with a specific person. Make your practice plan as detailed as you can and either get it on a to-do list or on your calendar.

Step #4: Evaluate and track your progress.

The fourth step is to evaluate your progress and tweak your activity to make improvements.

Schedule your evaluation activities right in with your practice sessions. I would do this in two parts:

  1. Do a quick evaluation directly after each practice session.
  2. Do a weekly review that’s more thoughtful and thorough once a week.

Using our listening example, you could jot down notes right after a listening episode and do your more formalized review of all your notes once a week.

During your weekly review, measure your progress against that checklist you created and set up revised strategies to make improvements.

Step #5: Feedback and Accountability

A big part of the evaluation process is getting feedback. You could get direct feedback from the person or people you’ve practiced listening with and ask them specific questions related to all the behaviors listed on your checklist. For example:

  • Did my body language come across well?
  • What specifically did you like or not like?
  • Did you feel heard? What could I do to make you feel even more heard?
  • Did you think I understood your feelings? Did I empathize well enough?
  • Were you comfortable?
  • Did I give you time enough to say what you wanted to say?
  • What could I improve upon or change next time?

You could also consult someone who’s an expert in the area of communication such as a counselor or therapist, or you could continue using new communication strategies you’ve found in your research and try them out.

Whatever you choose, it’s good to set up accountability for yourself. You could either check in regularly with someone you’ve selected to help or, if you’re relatively self-disciplined, show up consistently with your weekly reviews and monitor your next steps toward your overall goal.

I do both. I conduct a weekly review with myself every Saturday morning for my writing, and I read my blog to my husband each week to get his feedback before making final edits. I’ve also promised publicly to publish a blog every week. All those things keep me accountable and focused on improving.

How You Can Learn More

Deliberate practice as a method for excelling at something came about in part from refuting Malcolm Gladwell’s popularized idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill and achieve a high level of excellence. (See Outliers.)

The originator of the deliberate practice concept, Anders Ericsson, agreed that repetition was necessary, but he added in those three modifiers – consistent focus, intensive systematic effort to improve, and qualified feedback.

If you’re interested in reading more about deliberate practice and how it works, here are several books I’d recommend:

Peak by Anders Ericsson
Deep Work by Cal Newport
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner

You might also like to hear Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of his ideas on this Youtube video.

That’s all for today. Until next Monday, have a great week!

All my best,


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