How to get better at anything

You probably have at least a skill or two that you would like to improve. What kind of exercises do you need to do to get better as fast as possible? There are people who seem to learn and progress much faster than others who have been at it for years. Why is that so?

K. Anders Ericsson has studied for many years how top performers in a variety of activities train and what he has found is this:

  • Experts spend a lot of time training.
  • How they train differs a lot from how others who don’t reach the same level of performance train.

In other words, if you want to improve at something you are going to need to spend time practicing and spend it intelligently.

He also found that inborn or genetic talent may have an impact but the difference between people deemed to have talent and no talent is minimal after they reach a certain level.

Deliberate practice is the name he dubbed to this intelligent and conscious way of training that separates the good from the best and that allows you to improve as fast as we know.

Principles of deliberate practice

It is an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help
Every person and every level of performance has different requirements. The same exercise may be effective for one person because of their physical attributes and not for another, and the same exercise may help a rookie chess player but may not help anymore a grandmaster. The more complex a skill is the more benefit from a good teacher or coach with wide experience.

This blog, however, is designed to help people who want to improve by themselves without access to a coach and as a poor substitute of a teacher. You will regularly find in this blog new exercises, principles related to high performance and knowledge acquisition and interviews with people who are experts of their fields to try to learn from them.

It can be repeated a lot
This is what differentiates deliberate practice from doing a task for real. In order for high repetition practice to be effective you need to make sure that you “choose a properly demanding activity in your learning zone” and that you practice a mindbogglingly number of times. In other words, you need to choose exercises that represent a challenge for you, and do them a lot. The less repeatable an exercise the harder it will be to improve from it.

Feedback on results is continuously available

“You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring. […] Getting feedback on most practice activities is easy. […] Difficulties arise when the results require interpretation. […] These are situations in which a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”

If you hit a golf ball and it goes awry it’s easy you see it immediately and you can correct course meaning that you will be able to improve faster. However if you are a doctor making a diagnosis it’s way harder for you to improve through normal contact with patients because the feedback you will get, if any, can take place weeks or months after you have made your prediction and correcting in that scene is much much harder.

It is highly demanding mentally

“Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in. Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities.
[…] The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.”

This means that you shouldn’t expect to be able to practice for eight hours a day, no matter how fast you would like to improve, we are not physically able to do it.

It isn’t much fun
“Instead of doing what we’re good at, we insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see—or get others to tell us—exactly what still isn’t right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we’ve just done. We continue that process until we’re mentally exhausted.”

You can think of it as forcing our bodies or minds to fail, take advantage of their antifragility, their ability to grow when pushed past their limits, and get prepared for doing it better the next time. As you can imagine this is painful at a physical and mental level

Takeaways
When you are designing your own deliberate practice exercises make sure they pass the following checklist to get the most results:

  • The exercise is targeting a specific performance area that I’m doing poorly.
  • I can repeat the exercise with very high frequency.
  • I can get feedback on how well I’m doing immediately.
  • It’s so exhausting I can’t do it for more than 90 minutes.
  • It’s not necessarily fun (optional).

More info
All the quotes from this article were extracted from the book “Talent is Overrated” by Geoffrey Colvin.

In the past few years several good books have been published on the topic of expert performance and deliberate practice. Here are some of the books that I have read and that I recommend:

If you want to learn more about antifragility:

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How to measure your progress

There are many exercises you can try to improve your performance but they are not all equally useful. Besides that exercises that were useful in the past may not be useful anymore after you reach a certain skill level. If you don’t measure your progress you are in the dark and you could be wasting precious practice time. And when you are by yourself measuring is the only objective coach you have to tell you this.

There are many exercises you can try to improve your performance but they are not all equally useful. Besides that exercises that were useful in the past may not be useful anymore after you reach a certain skill level. If you don’t measure your progress you are in the dark and you could be wasting precious practice time. And when you are by yourself measuring is the only objective coach you have to tell you this.


My main measurement tool.

Misunderstandings about measurements
A commonly held but wrong belief about measuring is that all measurements need to be very precise to be useful but that’s not the purpose of measuring. We measure in order to reduce uncertainty and, in particular in our case, uncertainty about how much we are improving. Anything that reduces uncertainty is useful regardless of how precise it is.

Another common misunderstanding is that there are many variables that can’t be measured like happiness or health. However that’s not true. If you care about improving for example your health, it’s because you can tell the difference between bad health and good health. And if you can tell the difference it’s because there are differences which means there is something you can measure.

One way of dealing with these important but hard to measure variables is to think of other variables that are correlated with the one you are interested in. For example, when I wanted to improve my health after an stressful period at work I measured the following yes/no variables on a daily basis:

  1. No stomach or intestine pain (that’s the part of my body that shows signs of stress first)
  2. Am I well-rested?
  3. Did I do at least 30 min of intense aerobic or anaerobic exercise?
  4. Did I do yoga and pranayama?
  5. Did I only do relaxing tasks after 8pm?
  6. Did I eat with moderation and felt slight hunger?
  7. Did I eat only healthy foods?
  8. Did I meditate?

In my particular case the more questions from that list that I can answer with “yes”, my health score, the healthier I feel. If, over time, my health score decreases I know that I need to take action. And this is more precise than the subjective feeling of how healthy I feel which can be affected by many factors other than my actual health.

Measurement principles
When measuring for performance keep in mind the following principles:

Any measurement that reduces your uncertainty is useful, it doesn’t need to be as precise as an atomic clock. As we discussed above, if a measurement leaves you in a more informed place than no measurement then you are moving forward.

Measurement instruments can be imprecise
You can determine how precise your measurement instrument is by taking multiple measurements in a row and observing how much the results vary. If they vary a lot you probably will want to take at least 2 or 3 measurements every time you use it and record the average score. An example of this could be scales. I have seen my digital scale vary up to 500 grams just by stepping down and back up onto the scale.

The variable you are measuring can fluctuate for reasons outside of performance changes
The physical world is messy. Even if you had the perfect measurement tool the fact that your weight is 72kg today and tomorrow 71kg doesn’t necessarily mean that your new diet is working. You may have lost that kilo because you went to the bathroom, you ate less or god knows what. A way of blinding yourself against spurious changes that only reflect random fluctuations is to take measurements across multiple days. Once you have your baseline you can start your new exercise or diet and get a more precise idea of whether it’s helping you improve or not.

Favor less precise and simpler over more precise but more complex
You are going to be measuring a lot. The less time you spend writing down numbers the more time you have to actually improve. Simpler tools or measurement procedures are less likely to fool you into thinking they are precise and will make you more likely to use them. For example, if you’re trying to get stronger arms you can think of two measurement methods:

  1. Measuring the size of your biceps in multiple places.
  2. Measuring the maximum weight you can lift with your arms.

If we ignore for a moment the fact that the second method is more correlated with strength than the first, with the first approach you may fool yourself into thinking that you have a more precise idea of how much you’re improving because you are recording more data but, as we have seen, every variable that we measure is going to fluctuate and the more variables you track the more spurious fluctuations you will observe.

Don’t reinvent the wheel
Look for existing measurement tools. They may not be exactly what you are looking for but, if they are close enough, using them saves you a lot of time and it removes a whole family of errors compared to doing it yourself. For example, Anki, a flash card program that helps you memorize anything, collects performance statistics about how well your memory is doing without you having to do anything.

If you run, bike or swim you should consider investing in any watch or device that allow you to export the data they collect to your computer to later graph it and do whatever you want with it.

For any time-based exercise a sports stopwatch works great.

Make sure that the variables you measure are correlated with your goal
For example, if you are trying to get ripped don’t measure the amount of weight you lift or even your absolute weight. A variable more correlated with being ripped is the body fat percentage. You could be increasing the amount of weight you lift by adding muscle mass and fat and get away from your goal of getting ripped. In every case try to think of variables that necessarily must change when you improve.

Track as few variables as possible
The Pareto Principle applies in deliberate practice and performance improvement, generally a few variables will tell you whether you are improving or not. Trying to add more variables is generally a sign that your exercises aren’t working and you are trying to “shoot the messenger”, your variable, by adding more that hopefully will tell you a nicer story.

When you reach a certain level the speed at which you improve decreases without you actually reaching a plateau. Given the norma fluctuation in variables that we have seen it may be useful in those cases to temporarily come up with secondary variables to more accurately see if a new exercise is working or if it’s not giving you anything anymore. For example, if you are trying to improve your reading speed you could measure number of pages read per 10min and complexity of the text as the primary variables. Once you read fast enough you may start or continue doing exercises like increasing the number of simultaneous lines read or eye fixations you could measure number of lines and number of surrounding words.

Monitor trends, not randomness
You measure in order to make decisions, to see progress and to spot plateaus. Collecting numbers and letting them rust has little value besides, possibly, motivating you to practice hard to make your numbers look good.

As we discussed above there is a lot of fluctuations in many of the variables that you will measure. For the same reason good investors don’t look at stock prices on a daily basis you don’t want to look at your measurements on a daily basis because there is too much noise and little signal. You should look at the trend over time.

Be systematic
Always measure in the same conditions to reduce variability and measure only changes in your skill or target goal. For example if you are measuring your weight always go to the scale at the same time of the day, preferably in the morning after going to the toilet. If you are trying to improve your arithmetic skills don’t measure the time it takes you to do one different types of exercises.

Takeaways

  • If something matters then it can be measured.
  • Any measurement that reduces your uncertainty is useful.
  • Focus on the few key variables that account for growth.
  • Test both variables and measurement instruments to know their precision.

More info
The book How to Measure Anything treats some of these and other ideas in more detail.

If you are curious to see what variables people are taking into account you may want to look at the Quantified self movement.

If you want to plot your data you can go as low tech or as high tech as you want. I personally combine both approaches: I always carry a Moleskine notebook with me where I jot down measurements of various things during the day. At the end of the week I enter those values into various CSV files and plot them with a statistical program called R but something simpler like a Google Docs or Office spreadsheet would also get the job done.

How Experts Think

Kevin Ashton recently wrote on Medium about How Experts Think. The main idea is that experts think faster and more efficiently than non-experts because they have acquired great doses of selective attention through years of practice. However the article doesn’t mention the mental models that experts develop through those years of practice. Those mental models are what allow them to filter out irrelevant stimuli and bad options. And they are important for another reason: once you can identify those mental models it’s easier for you to transfer your expertise to other people and to evaluate and reason about expertise itself.

Learning new habits through spaced repetitions

Habits drive our behavior during most of our waking hours and they represent a big part of who we are. If you have bad habits that you want to get rid off or if you have new habits that you want to adopt the following method may be of help.

A well known way of integrating new habits into our lives is to do 30 day challenges: you decide what habit you want to acquire, for example running every day, and then you commit yourself to do it for 30 days. If at the end of that time running has become automatic you’re done and you can move on to the next habit. If by the end of the 30 days you are still in the sofa when you should be running you start again the challenge for another 30 days.

Some habits require a lot of willpower, like quitting smoking. For those you are better off focusing on one habit at a time because they are so ingrained that replacing them will drain most of your daily allocation of willpower. However if what you want is to make several smaller adjustments then one habit every 30 days is too limiting and will leave you with willpower at the end of the day. Besides that some people seem to embrace change more than others and are more likely to succeed when trying to change several habits at once.

Learning through spaced repetitions consists on reviewing material that you want to commit to long term memory right before you forget it and at increasing time intervals. For example, if you are learning Spanish and you are using flash cards to memorize vocabulary you might have foreign words as questions in your cards and translations as answers. What you do then is to revise those cards periodically. Cards that are easy to remember will be reviewed less often and cards that are more difficult will be reviewed more often. This method works really well because it mimics how the brain strengthens neural connections when transferring information from short term memory to long term memory.

Forgetting Curve

What I have been doing lately is create flash cards with habits I want to acquire and rely on spaced repetitions to make them permanent. I use Mnemosyne for this but any other program will work. All my habit cards go into a category called “Habits’ and each card is phrased as follows:

Question: “When this happens…”
Answer: “…I do this”.

When I review habit cards instead of marking them as remembered or forgotten when I can’t remember the answer, which rarely happens, I mark them as forgotten when I haven’t acquired the habit yet. For example, one of my cards is:

Q: “When choosing how much food I am going to eat..”
A: “..I stop for a second, I breathe, I determine how hungry I am, I remember that I want to live long and I pick as little food as I think is reasonable.”

Now when I see the question I first visualize myself acting like the answer describes. Then if I have been choosing food in a conscious way for the past several days I mark the card as “Remembered” but if I have been eating like it’s the end of the world I mark the card as “Forgotten” so that Menosyme will ask me about that habit tomorrow. I didn’t expect this to work but now when I’m going to the cafe at the office for food the picture I visualized automatically pops up. And the same thing happens with the other card habits.

Another issue I have with 30 day challenges is that the method is not sufficient to maintain existing habits. Good old habits might suddenly disappear because changes in my life have removed what triggers those good habits. With the spaced repetitions approach you are leaving all the bookkeeping to your flash card program which will make sure that old learned habits don’t suddenly disappear by asking you about them from time to time.

More habit card examples from my deck:

Q: “When the morning alarm rings..”
A: “..I turn it off, stretch and get out of bed feeling excited about the day.”

Q: “When my mind is starting to drift away at my desk..”
A: “..I get up, go refill my water bottle and do some exercise.”

Q: “Whenever I feel stressed or anxious..”
A: “..I slowly inhale as much air as I can by pushing my diafragm down and I slowly relax.”
A: “..I remind myself that I’m good enough and that people including myself will have to accept me for who I am.”

Q: “Whenever I feel the urge to check my email..”
A: “..I imagine myself opening my inbox later and feeling in control and rewarded for my patience.”

If you want to learn more about habits I recommend reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

Have you tried this method? How is it working for you?

Four sentences emails

Why is it bad?

  • Opening my inbox and seeing all those email sitting there and looking at me is frustrating and makes me feel guilty.
  • It’s also time wasting because less than 1 out of every 20 emails I receive are so contrived or life changing that I need to read them multiple times.
  • A consequence of being a time wasting activity is that I lose time that I could spend in other activities that I enjoy more like continuing my Division by Zero webcomic.

Solution?

Use at most 4 sentences in all my emails, no exceptions no matter what topic or recipient. If I need to communicate more information I use a different medium like a Google Docs document or a blog post and I add a link to it in the email.

Benefits?

  • I spend less time in my inbox.
  • My recipient spends less time reading my emails and frees her to do more interesting things.
  • With 4 sentences I need to get to the point and I can’t conceal my “agenda”. That reduces one of the biggest problem with communication: misunderstandings.
  • It makes me think hard about what I say and the way I say it. I can’t spend the same effort with emails that are paragraphs or pages long.

Shortcomings?

  • Your emails will sound less personal than before because you send out less information.
  • If you use email to communicate with friends that you don’t communicate with through other medium you are not going to be able to keep them as informed about you as before.

Alternatives?

Spending the same or more time on email wasn’t an option so the only other options were:

  • Using less than 4 sentences: not feasible for me. I usually spend one full sentence saying “Bye” or “See you” and generally another sentence with “Hello,” or similar. In practice, I have about 2 or 3 sentences, instead of 4.
  • Stop responding to some emails. Gladly I’m far from receiving so many emails that I have to do something that harsh.

Things to keep in mind

After several weeks using this approach I found out the following:

  • I still feel like I sound personal which was one of my biggest concerns.
  • This works for any other messaging system like Facebook and LinkedIn.
  • I have to be careful not to start replacing periods with commas.
  • 4 sentences is the limit, not the goal. If you can use less sentences do it.

At the beginning I added http://four.sentenc.es/ to my email signature to let people know why my emails were now more succinct. If 4 sentences is not the right number for you there are 5, 3 and 2 sentences versions available.

Do you have email under control? Do you use any other technique?

How to study for an engineering major

Are you going to college and planning to become an engineer? After a few years there here are 5 tips that I’ve got from the trenches:

What
Be prepared to spend time understanding and think that you are stupid.

Why
I wasn’t born with an engineering mind. I still probably don’t have a full one but I am more engineer than before. And I’m probably not the only one. A big part of what you get from an engineering major is a mindset and that is not something that you achieve by studying the night before. The more time and focus you put in the more you get out of it. When I was studying it was typical to spend about 4h to 8h on a problem and still not get it and that’s frustrating. I am happy with what I have got from and I appreciate it but I swore many times when I still had looming exams and other deadlines what was I thinking when I decided to get into college.

 

What
Fully understand the concepts you see.

Why
Anything else is memorizing and you won’t be able to apply the concept or technique to unseen areas. Besides that it’s easier to lose data with a more limited field of application than a way of thinking which is more applicable to other areas. Also depending on your university and your major it won’t be possible to pass a course unless you really understand what’s there.

 

What
Plan your study time, do the 20% that results in the 80% and, for best results, get rest, exercise and fun.

Why
You won’t probably be able to fully understand everything in any case. Life is too short and spending 5 years delaying happiness is a bad precedent. Something that worked for me was to do timeboxing with my courses: allocate for example 1h to each course per day and once that hour is gone go to the next course. When you finish if you need to finish something from any of the courses do it now. Failing to plan in this case is definitely planning to fail, you will spend the whole afternoon on one course or problem, you will neglect the rest of the courses, do them harshly, deprive yourself of essential sleep and it will become a difficult habit to get rid of.

 

What
Once you understand concepts revise them periodically.

Why
Once you have mastered a concept it is a very valuable possession. If you input those concepts into a flash-card program like Mnemosyne it will take you maybe 15min a week to revise them and they will solidify in your memory. This is also a strategy that worked for me when trying to tackle difficult courses: memorize the definition of a concept even if you still don’t understand it and then later, with the definition in your mind your subconscious will work with it and many times I was able to understand something after having memorized it and let my subconscious work on it.

 

If you are interested about learning more about efficient and pleasurable college years I recommend you to take a look at Study Hacks from Cal Newport.