Warming Up for Deliberate Practice

I think often that people really appreciate the value of practice, however they find it really hard to actually do. I’m like that, I fully understand the merits of practice and the benefits it brings, but I absolutely hate to do it. I suspect there are a lot of people like that. In fact Anders Ericsson named the four essential qualities of practice and the final one on the list is:

“Practice isn’t much fun.”

No wonder people don’t like to practice! It’s a grind. It’s hard work. It puts you in a place where you fail. Why would anybody practice under those conditions?

While doing my research on practice I came across an interesting book on music practice called “The Art of Practice” When I cracked the cover I was quite surprised to discover that a good portion of the book was given over to the discussion of how to prepare for practice before the practicing even starts. That was a revelation to me. You mean there are ways we can prepare ourselves for practice?

That got me thinking about how I might prepare to practice things that are important to me. Take writing for example: sometimes I’m able to be very prolific, writing with relative ease. Other times it’s a relentless slog. What do I do to prepare myself to write? Short answer? Absolutely nothing! Does drinking count? Hey, either the magic is there or it isn’t, right?

Well what if I were to treat my writing more like practice and less like some fickle magical process that I have no control over? What would preparing for practice look like? Here are a few ideas I’m trying out now:

  1. Set the location. Rather than try to write while I’m sitting in front of the TV (a recipe for almost guaranteed failure) I’m only going to write in my office.
  2. Set the tone. I’m going to crank up iTunes whenever I write. I’ve discovered that I feel much more productive with certain kinds of music. It really helps. I don’t try and explain it, I just turn the dial to eleven and groove to my SuperTramp. According to my wife, SuperTramp doesn’t work for her. You’ve been warned. Learn from my example and buy some earbuds.
  3. Do warm ups. Your going to laugh, but I’ve started using a typing tutor. Here’s my theory: Writing means typing. typing requires some dexterity and that dexterity requires some warming up. If the fingers are ready, then the brain might just be too.
  4. Time box it. I will only commit to writing in short bursts. Right now I’m using pomodoro’s. If that doesn’t feel right, I might use (10+2)*5 instead. The idea is to lower the threshold of commitment for myself. I want to take what is often a too daunting task and turn it into something that is easily approachable and achievable.

That’s what I’ve done so far. Here are some additional items that I’m considering adding to my writing warmup repertoire as well (in those outlined above don’t do the trick):

  1. Going for a brisk walk before writing.
  2. Meditation
  3. Hand stretches – don’t want to aggravate the ol’ carpal tunnel now do we?
  4. Reading a short story or poem before starting to “prime the pump”

I’m sure this is well explored territory for writers. The idea is that using these strategies I can better prepare myself for the practice that I’m engaged in (in this case, writing). There are a lot of other practice areas that I bet you could apply warm up strategies to. Some examples:

  1. Coding
  2. Testing
  3. Facilitation
  4. Public speaking
  5. Conflict Management

I’m pretty sure this is just a tiny start. Pick anything that you can practice and I’m sure there is a set of warm up routines that you can use to help make the practice easier to engage in. In a very real sense, knowing that real deliberate practice is hard shouldn’t scare us away from it. We need to prepare ourselves for a good practice session so that we can succeed.

I’ll make one other observation on the results of incorporating this warm up into my writing practice: my writing exercise has become exhausting work. That’s another common attribute of deliberate practice – it’s exhausting. You can’t keep it up for long. I think the warmup helps me get myself into a fairly high state of performance before I begin the practice. I’m already going 100 miles an hour when I cross the starting line rather than 25. I start practicing closer to the peak of my strength, rather than still trying to warm up. Give me 20 or thirty minutes of non-stop hammering away at the keyboard and I’m starting to get tired. Really tired. After an hour I’m totally wasted. I don’t mind. I seem to be extremely productive this way, so I’ll take it. Give it a try. You might find it makes a big difference.

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