Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

The Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

A Deliberate Morning

This morning I finished my notes for an upcoming lecture in my graduate-level theory of computation course.

There are two points I wanted to make about these notes…

  1. The process of creating them is very hard. On average, it takes me between 2.5 to 3 hours to prepare a lecture. This preparation requires that I work with absolutely zero distractions as the material is too difficult to be internalized if my attention is divided in any way. Furthermore, the work is not particularly pleasant. Learning things that are this hard does not put you in a flow state. It instead puts you in a state of strain, similar to what is experienced by a musician learning a new technique.
  2. I have gotten better at this process. The lecture I prepared today was the twenty-first such lecture I have prepared this semester. The earliest lectures were a struggle in the sense that my mind rebelled at the strain required and lobbied aggressively for  distraction. This morning, by contrast, I was able to slip into this hard work with little friction, tolerate the strain for three consecutive hours, then come out on the other side feeling a sense of satisfaction.

Recently, we have been discussing the deliberate practice hypothesis, which argues that knowledge workers can experience big jumps in value if they apply deliberate practice techniques to their work. My three-month experiment in timed, forced concentration provides a nice case study of this idea. I am now better at mastering hard concepts than I was before. The mental acuity developed from this practice translates over to the research side of my job, helping me more efficiently understand existing results and more deeply explore my own ideas.

To toss the ball back in your court, imagine what would happen if you replaced “graduate-level theory of computation” with a prohibitively complicated but exceptionally valuable topic in your own field, and then tackled it with the same persistence…


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

41 thoughts on “The Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study”

  1. Please interllink your articles. I am a new reader and to find what your deliberate testing hypothesis is exactly took me time, if you please interlink your articles, it would be nice to catch up with what your have written in the past. Not everyone follows from day 1. I hope you get my point !!

  2. Cal,
    I’m having trouble understanding how you deliberately practiced in this case. Could you elaborate on what you’ve been doing since that first set of lecture notes that has improved your performance? Did you work up to 3 hours of concentration from some smaller time block?

  3. I, too, want more info on how you managed to do this.

    For myself, focus and concentration is a huge issue that I need to improve on.

    Did your mind wander? Did it help if you enjoyed the material – did you stay more engaged? What if the material was not interesting, how then did you stay focused? Did you take breaks within a 3 hour work session? Did you plan your work session, say the day before plan the 3 hour slot with what you wanted to achieve during that time?

    I wonder for how many hours in a day you can focus like this.

    Thanks, Cal.

  4. Yes, goddamn yes! I’ve been taking off the first 5 hours of every morning (i have only 3 courses this semester) to learn how to gain insight in complicated concepts in my field. Suffice to say I have created pretty cool methods and tactics of learning, and have upgraded my ability from 2 hours to 5 hours of pretty intense focus

  5. Hey Cal this is great but I have a couple questions.

    When do you feel like you’re in a “flow” state? And do you think being in a “flow” state is bad? As in, meeting the challenge with the same skill level, isn’t that good for developing further motivation for the task?

    From my own experience I lead a group of students in chemistry in the Supplemental Instruction model of peer-learning (developed at UMKC) and I need to create handouts for the students. A lot of the time, when I’m making these handouts (similar to lessons), like you I get a lot of satisfaction when I spend 2-3 hours of creating the material, making sure I have alternative explanations for concepts, and that I can explain them well. This is not only hard, dare I say it “deliberate practice” of sort, but it is also satisfying at the end.

    But when I walk into the room where the students are waiting and work with them to answer and tease out the subtleties of chemistry concepts, it makes me feel like I’m in a flow state. I feel like I can help my students understand the material, and its still pretty challenging. Would this be considered wrong, according to the “deliberate practice hypothesis”? Should I not be enjoying the experience of teaching and leading?

    Thanks Cal, as always you have a killer insight

  6. “To toss the ball back in your court, imagine what would happen if you replaced “graduate-level theory of computation” with a prohibitively complicated but exceptionally valuable topic in your own field, and then tackled it with the same persistence…”

    There’s a meta-challenge in many fields, and that’s not knowing what sort of prohibitively difficult skill is valuable for the practice. That *itself* is a huge challenge in many fields.

  7. Cal: what you fail to recognize is that you’re working in a field which is inherently interesting to you. (I didn’t say “easy” – I said interesting.) From reading your blog for two years, I can guess that if you were stuck, say, doing somatic therapy, or hospice care nursing, you wouldn’t be nearly as effective or dedicated.

    Many of us go through much of our lives without finding that one topic that “clicks” – which you conveniently stumbled upon in college – BUT you don’t recognize how lucky you are to have done so. In your case it’s even a field that pays well. But by failing to acknowledge your unusual luck, your “dedication” argument is a false extrapolation.

    (None of this questions your study -techniques-, which are terrific, and for which I thank you. It’s in the big picture that you miss the mark.)

  8. ^ You haven’t been closely following Study Hacks, have you? Cal absolutely demolishes the concept of an “inherent passion”.

  9. This is definitely a powerful principle that can be applied to anything requiring mental strain, be it pushing oneself through another set of hills (running), studying one of the many hopelessly convoluted human body systems and/or feedback loops, or even doing something as simple as reading the news.

    I’m currently successfully applying this principle of deliberate practice to piano, as you’ve discussed in past case studies. I have to read and internalize the 2nd movement of a sonata in about 3 days, and I’m already ahead on progress because I’ve made my practice more productive.

    Good stuff!

  10. I think what Vinay is saying Ashish is that Cal follows a more science supported view that says that inherent passion is something that grows with exposure & interest making it consequently not inherent at all.

    As for everyone above, I think the thing that you think he’s deliberately practicing is going through the motions of putting together his course materials each morning. He’s not necessarily learning anything that you would normally classify as learning, but getting better at working through putting together his course material faster & better. Although, better is a relative term in this case. It could be seen as a stretch and that what he’s calling deliberate practice is really just diligence. That’s what I think you guys are seeing.

    What I think he’s saying though is that he has to force himself to learn a subject material he doesn’t like per se so that he can give lectures on it. It’s here that he’s having to apply the lesson of deliberate practice. I could be wrong, but that’s what it seems like he’s talking about here.

  11. I think we need to rethink passion.

    I believe there are two types: one you always had and one you developed.

    The one you always had is like popping soda, it dies out. But Developing passion through deliberate practice ( which i understand to be as stretching you mind through intense focus and increased exposure ), You get exponential results.

    @Cal, I understand this post, but I’d like to see how you made connections in your lecture content. How do you come up with novel ideas? Probably ‘Form a interesting thesis’? I’m not sure if you’ve addressed this before but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  12. From a “mental” perspective, it is true that the deliberate practice strengthens your ability to focus and to attack difficult problems. More or less the equivalent of weight lifting for your brain.

    But I also have observed that this sort of routine also lowers emotional resistance to unpleasant tasks. Much like a little child who finally learns that his parents won’t budge when he throws a fit about eating vegetables and learns to swallow them quickly and move on to dessert, disciplining yourself to do something you don’t “feel” like doing leads to less emotional testing and questioning of whether you really need to do something uncomfortable now.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  13. To clarify what it is exactly that I think I am practicing, I would say it’s the ability to load up the elements of a difficult topic, then keep sustained attention on them long enough to understand how they fit together (e.g., this is my abstract description of how you learn a hard technical concept).

    In my experience, that ability to load multiple elements and then maintain sustained attention is the mental equivalent to, for example, gain comfort with the physical strain of Struggs-style banjo picking (an example given in honor of Earl’s recent passing). It’s something that is too hard to do at first. And the only way to get good at it is to keep pushing yourself past comfort, deliberately, building up capacity with each strain-inducing session.

  14. The one you always had is like popping soda, it dies out. But Developing passion through deliberate practice ( which i understand to be as stretching you mind through intense focus and increased exposure ), You get exponential results.

    This is a good summary. An added twist here is that passion comes from mastery, but also, crucially, from leveraging these skills as you build them. As you gain more value you need to take this value out of a spin, acquiring traits that you value. This autonomy, earned through skill, is a big part of what builds toward a sense of passion.

    Cal: what you fail to recognize is that you’re working in a field which is inherently interesting to you.

    I assume there are a huge number of different fields in which I could be feeling a similar sense of passion. There is nothing magical about computer science.

    that’s not knowing what sort of prohibitively difficult skill is valuable for the practice.

    I don’t think that finding this skill is as difficult as people tend to make it out to be. Here’s the formula that works for me: find people in your field who exemplify the career craftsman approach; learn about their path (what was important, what wasn’t, etc.) In here, you’ll almost always hone in a small number of things that tend to have the real value.

    I probably do this exercise once every couple of months (I constantly devour CVs, interviews, and prize citations from star computer science professors).

  15. Another slant may be that you are not just concentrating on understanding the concept, but also concentrating on how to lead others toward their understanding of it.

  16. One caveat is that in order to go through the grueling routine of learning a prohibitively difficult skill, one must have have a really good intrinsic motivation for it. And even though Cal says passion comes with mastery, it’s almost impossible to get to the level of mastery without inner desire propelling you forward. So it’s a catch 22.

  17. I love the approach and the direction of thought in these blogs. But, let me challenge this application. There is a tendency with all of us, including new assistant professors, to spend time on that which is urgent, rather than non-urgent matters that are important. Teaching is urgent. It has deadlines. It has an audience. It offers the potential satisfaction of a job well done. But, let me ask you, for a research professor at a research institution what are the rewards delivered for your time intensive mastery of this urgent skill? Answer- jack, nada, nothing. Teaching, in the context of making tenure, is binary. It is either “a problem” or “not a problem”. There are no rewards in the system for moving beyong “not a problem” in a research environment. You will feel good about it and get positive feedback, but it is fool’s gold. At tenure time no one cares, and frankly beyond tenure it becomes even less important as you are only as rewarded as your competing offers and these will not be teaching related. Follow the money. You are at an institution with excess student demand, so you bring in no more dollars by being a great teacher. You bring in more dollars by establishing yourself as a leader in a field that can potentially generate research funding. Just sayin’…

  18. I still love preparation of new material in my Lit courses: a new unit may take me 5-6 hours on a Sunday to research and outline a 42-minute period. Then the next weekend, I prepare the final unit and do the additional research to focus my approach. And every year, I tweak my work. I love getting lost in the material, and stop worrying about how much time I have spent… the best teachers are good learners too.

  19. Cal and other commenters,

    As Flow is the opiate of the mediocre, in order to live a remarkable life, is it a good idea to spend the first 3-4 hours of the morning (re: pre-dawn) on deliberate practice, then call it a day and conduct activities that may cause the “flow” state to occur? Wouldn’t that maintain both breaking through the OK Plateau every day while at the same time generating the intrinsic motivation and “feelings of awesome” that arise from flow?

    Looking forward to people’s thoughts.

  20. Cal,

    In reply to your comment above, how do you a) find, and more importantly, b) go about contacting and interviewing rock stars in your field?

    I am in the process of deciding on which grad school to attend in a field where I have very few existing connections, and none outside of universities, although I am more interested in private sector work. Do you already have a post or two about “finding” a mentor to help you dive deep into a given field? If not, might I suggest working on one?


  21. No doubt that deliberate practice in any field would tap into that creative area of the brain that would bring innovative ideas to your work! The thought of it is amazing.

    You could truly excel in your work, for which you would gain recognition, for which you would move up, for which you would earn more money, and the spiral up continues.

    I have also found at times, after having done deliberate practice, if I take a break (sometimes overnight), I am able to quickly realize the answers to the problems I was facing.

    I believe that this is due to my sub-conscious mind processing the work I had done in my sleep, thus allowing me to see new connections after taking the break from my work (and homework in school).

    Powerful stuff.

  22. EM EL

    I used to create little listening mp3s that I could load onto my iPod and then listen to while driving if there wasn’t some content out there that closely provided what I needed. Like I simply listened to the History of Rome podcast on my commute while taking Roman History class, but crafted formula mp3s for my math classes.

    Maybe give it a shot & see if it works for you as well.

  23. Hey Cal,

    For my AP World History Class( I’m in high school), I tried the question cluster method and it didn’t work for me. Is their any other method you would recommend for memorizing large amounts of any kind of information, bio, history, etc., efficiently?



Leave a Comment