Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Hidden Art of Practice

October 21st, 2009 · 13 comments

Note: I’m giving a talk at Dartmouth on Wednesday, October 28. If you’re a Dartmouth student and are interested in meeting me, send me an e-mail. I might arrange a slot in my schedule for a group of us to get together and talk shop.

E-mail Wizard Guitar Practice

I don’t waste much time with e-mail. I typically check my inboxes two, maybe three times a day, and always process them back to empty.

(An exception to this rule are the copious e-mails from blog readers, which are shunted to their own inbox and which I work on once a day, in a pre-scheduled 30 minute slot that keeps my fixed-schedule intact.)

It’s a well-oiled, efficient machine, that keeps me connected to the world but also maximizes the hours I can spend in a state of hard focus.

There are three important points about this system that I want to draw your attention toward:

  1. It’s simple to understand and provides obvious benefits.
  2. Many people would love to do something similar.
  3. Few of them actually do.

It’s the contradiction of point 3 that motivates today’s post…

The Hidden Art of Practice

If you know how to do something, it’s easy to do, and it would make your life better, why wouldn’t you? This paradox confronts me every day when reviewing reader e-mails: Students know that certain advice — be it following an autopilot schedule or stopping pseudowork — would improve their life, but they just can’t stick with it.

Why does this paradox exist?

When I told you above about my experience with e-mail, I left out an important piece of the story: it took years of practice to get to this efficient state.

Today, I’m good at ignoring my inbox in the same way that your roommate can play Tears in Heaven on his guitar. It’s not that we’re special — we simply practiced.

Unfortunately, this omission plagues this blog. In almost every piece of advice I’ve described, I’ve failed to tack on the crucial caveat that regardless of how simple my suggestion, it’s still going to take practice to make it a reliable part of your life.

I want you to keep this idea in mind when you grapple with the Study Hacks canon. Don’t decide to adopt a strategy. Instead, decide to practice adopting the strategy until it sticks.

I know this is less exciting than the idea that an afternoon in my archives can make tomorrow’s midterm a breeze. But I hope that in the long run, this mindset significantly improves your success.

(Photo by jonicdao)

13 thoughts on “The Hidden Art of Practice

  1. Eric says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what I’m inferring as the gist of your post: Try, try again. A student adopts a technique with great enthusiasm, loses his/her motivation, falls back to old ways, and then picks it up again some time later.

    How would one practice “sticking to it” if motivating oneself to do the “try again” part is incredibly difficult? I think determination is a major ingredient to continuing practice (trying again), but how does one build determination for successfully mastering these techniques?

  2. Benedikt says:

    @ Eric: I would think that you don’t need no practice the “sticking to it”, but the “doing it”. And I like Cal’s metaphora: You get the determination to keep your inbox empty like you get the determination to practice guitar – by imagining how nice it would be to master the skill.

    “Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life.” (F. M. Alexander, Notes of Instructions)

  3. Jack says:

    Not every method works the same way. What I understand from Cal’s post is that the person should put into practice what he/she knows.

    Sometimes, we know what we should do, how to make us better, but we eventually do not all that things.

    Practice is sometimes painful, but experience helps.

    Try and try again? Rather the person should figure out what is wrong with the approach, then the next time everything will be better.

    Jack (from Vietnam)

    P/S: Thanks, Cal. I always love your posts. I have not adopted all, but some are enough for me. Iam working well now:)

  4. Arte says:

    @Eric You must start slow, then it will stick. This advice is strait from zen habits but it is great and it works. If you start little by little making changed to your schedule or study technique. Say you will use X technique to study for 30 minutes today – quiz and recall for example. You can’t adopt a full system and revamp your life all at once that is a failure to begin with. Start slow and use that initial motivation to get yourself through the hard days – which always come. Do a 30 day trial, there are plenty of tricks out there.

    Solid advice Cal 🙂

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Try and try again? Rather the person should figure out what is wrong with the approach, then the next time everything will be better

    This is wise. As you note, it’s not so much blind repetition as it is trying, then when you fail, understanding why, tweaking the method, and trying again, until you stop failing.

  6. I’m with you on focusing on imagining how nice it would be to master the skill in order to motivate the practice… I’ve found that perspective is everything. I would love to break my habit of procrastination, but I always fall back into the pattern of short term perspective– it seems better to kill time bumming around on the computer rather than read that chapter in my textbook.

    This is where both Cal and Jack’s suggestions come into play for me. When I reflect on why I’m failing at time management, I realize it’s because I’ve lost my perspective on things. To fix it, I have to get in the goal-oriented mindset that Cal focuses on. I love the feeling of getting my work done and having time to do whatever I want without any guilt or nagging thoughts. So I’m going to try, and try again at improving my time management. 🙂

    Thanks guys!

  7. Cal, one thing you could do to help readers is to set expectations regarding how long they should work on using a piece of advice before they should expect to have consistent success with it.

    For example, a favorite blogger of mine, gave advice regarding rejection. As an example, he mentioned that the ratio of girls he approaches compared to the girls he ultimately goes on a date with is 25:1. Such a bar of expectation gives a guy who has read that blog post hope that he shouldn’t worry about getting “blown out,” per se, until he accumulates a streak of 26 or more rejections. While the number is somewhat arbitrary, it’s at least a data point upon which comparisons can be made.

  8. Alex Shalman says:

    Hey Cal, I have been getting a ton of students e-mailing me lately asking for advice on getting into professional schools. This started after I posted my story of Overcoming Obstacles and getting into dental school on the popular StudentDoctor.net. After I give them my talk about philosophy, I always suggest your site for practical study tips.

    This post is right on target with my own philosophy and just the observations I have made about my own life. In college I read many books on personal development, but I wasn’t transformed overnight. Much like your practice of proper e-mail habits and study techniques, it took me a couple of years of practicing to make the conscious choice of choosing a certain philosophy. I’m way different now, and I would say a much better person, then I was back in college 5 years ago (could have gone the other way, too!)

    P.S. I just discovered http://macfreedom.com/ last night. I’ll do a post about it in awhile, but thought I would give a heads up to you and your audience in case you want to blog about the topic of uninterrupted studying in todays distracting environment.

  9. Adam Gilbert says:

    As I tell my clients, when you know the ‘why’ the determination to make it happen comes a lot easier.

  10. Mers says:

    Very timely for me. Thanks! I’m just getting over a broken schedule due to illness followed by procrastination, and this advice gives me some food for thought on how to refine/improve it this time around.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    Cal, one thing you could do to help readers is to set expectations regarding how long they should work on using a piece of advice before they should expect to have consistent success with

    It differs depending on the advice. For me, as mentioned, successfully quarantining web surfing and e-mail took over a year of work. Most study habits, however, usually require around one half to one full semester to become second nature.

    I just discovered http://macfreedom.com/ last night. I’ll do a post about it in awhile, but thought I would give a heads up to you and your audience in case you want to blog about the topic of uninterrupted studying in todays distracting environment.

    There was an article about Freedom either in the Globe or the Times this weekend, I don’t remember which. I’m not sure how I feel about that program (for the unitiated, it turns off your Internet and requires a reboot to get it back on), I feel like if you’re reliant on that, then there are deeper issues to be fixed. But maybe a good short-term solution…

  12. Mary says:

    This post turned the lights on for me – I guess I’ve always assumed that only difficult things needed practice.

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