In the spirit of growth and self-improvement, I recently attempted to apply Ericsson’s principles of deliberate practice to my own growth goal: speeding up my writing. If you're unfamiliar with the minutia of Ericsson's methods, don't worry, I was in the same boat — and hence my initial goal had substantial room for improvement. This is the story of how I used to deliberate practice principles to workshop my growth goal.

What exactly is deliberate practice?

Ericsson’s recipe for practice starts with what he calls “purposeful practice”:

  • Purposeful practice takes place outside of your comfort zone, pushing what you can already do. You should be trying new techniques, not just repeating what you’ve done before. Think “try differently”, not “try harder”!
  • Purposeful practice demands you actively think about what you’re doing -- you shouldn't be able to daydream about dinner while doing it!
  • Purposeful practice involves well-defined, specific goals broken down for step-by-step improvement (NOT vaguely “trying to improve”). You don't want to "practice the piano piece" you want to "practice the tricky section with the left hand until you can play it three times through at the correct speed without mistakes."
  • Purposeful practice involves quick feedback and changing what you’re doing in response. Ideally, immediate feedback so that you can improve your approach mid practice session.

Ericsson adds one more criteria to graduate from “purposeful practice” to “deliberate practice”: well-developed knowledge of what and how to practice. Deliberate practice is when you’re purposefully practicing optimized strategies for improving the skill. Ideally, you want a highly developed field where experts have identified the most effective techniques and the best training strategies to develop those skills, plus a teacher who can lead you through the process.

Lacking that, do your best to find proven techniques and hope for the best. I ask more experienced people how they developed their skills or what they recommend I practice, and use that as a starting point. (Tips for informational interviews to learn how more experienced people developed skills.)

My initial goal

My goal was to write faster. I didn’t have an instructor, but I did have a benchmark: several journalists and bloggers had shared that they could write a post each day. One blogger who I respect advised me to try publishing a post each day for a month. So I set the more modest goal of writing one post each day for a week.

My first…and second…and third attempts

Day 1: I began by enthusiastically plunking out a short post around a great career planning tip I’d recently learned. I got the full thing drafted, but it seemed a bit forlorn. Surely it would be better if I went back and wrote a longer post that also included the other career planning tips I found most useful?

Day 2: Sticking to my intention to draft a new post each day, I set aside my career tools idea. Instead, I started drafting what became my CBT post. I’d stitched together most of the main post by time evening rolled around, but I wanted to go through the resources I’d been compiling to make a nice resource list.

Day 3: I whipped together a little post on an intuition I had about AI. However, when I spoke with my partner in the evening (who works in the field), he agreed that a solid example would improve the post. It too went on the stack of posts awaiting revising.

Day 4: I tried putting together a short post on ADHD…and only got as far as an outline. The more I tried to nail down what I wanted to say, the more I realized there was to cover. In the end, I set it aside to await a round of interviews. (It eventually grew into nine thousand words across three posts.) 

Day 5: A migraine killed all attempts at writing.

Apart from the migraine, I ended the week feeling good. I hadn’t quite met my goal, but I had four exciting posts in the works. So I decided to repeat the challenge…right after I spent two months revising the posts I’d drafted the first time around.

My second attempt followed a similar path: I drafted a couple shorter posts, then got lost on the gargantuan mess of trying to untangle the science behind skill plateaus. Ditto my third attempt.

Applying deliberate practice

As a way to get myself diving into new posts, the week-long drafting challenges were great.

However, as a way to learn how to write a post in a day, they were terrible! I didn’t have the skill-building-blocks yet to be able to draft a good post each day. I should have been practicing smaller sub skills, like outlining posts or studying how to write narratives.

The deliberate practice principles would have served me better. I was pushing myself and diligently paying attention. However, “write a post each day” is too vague and high level; it lacks both specific steps to practice and quick feedback loops.

I also spent most of the time on writing posts (in the way I already knew how to do), rather than on a specific subskill that I needed to practice. So effectively I was only spending a tiny percentage of that time outside my comfort zone.

The fact that I set essentially the same goal three times should have clued me in that it wasn’t working. Nothing in my approach changed between attempts - I was attempting to “try harder” rather than “try differently”! A good deliberate practice goal should be composed of small enough incremental steps that I make visible progress each time or change something significant between attempts.

My revised plan

If I actually wanted to learn how to draft a post in a day, I needed a new approach. Specifically, I needed to:

1.      Break the bottleneck down into specific steps that practice important subskills.

2.      Plan a quick feedback loop so that I can adjust my plan in real time based on how it’s going.

Lacking a writing teacher, I used the previous challenges as data to identify bottlenecks that make my writing process slower. What had gone wrong before?

Well, the biggest problem was that my posts inevitably grew into behemoths as I added more and more information. I don’t expect myself to write six thousand words each day. So I needed a better way to plan short posts. 

Second, I often wanted to do more research, write examples illustrating the point, or workshop the post with other people. I could probably learn to write examples more quickly. Research is probably just slow – I should kick those posts until I have more time.

Third, editing my drafts usually takes me at least as long as the initial draft. Heck, completely restructuring the post is common. No way I’m going to be writing finished posts in a day until I change that.

I brainstormed a long list of steps that might help me improve on the above (see Appendix A for my scribblings).

Ultimately, I decided to practice outlining and planning posts before I drafted them. This seemed like a good exercise to help me write more clearly from the beginning (and hence needing less revising) and know in advance how long a post would be.

I planned to outline a post each day and then try drafting it according to the outline. Because I’m creating the outline and then immediately drafting it, I could get feedback about whether the outline was working that day, then update my approach the next day if needed.  

How did it go?

Day 1: I outlined a post on a new concept, but felt really tired when trying to draft it. So I had ChatGPT produce a crude draft that I could revise later. Like 25% successful, but the concept was too vague in my mind. There was too much heavy lifting clarifying something new for this to be a good short post. I should look for topics that feel easy and I can envision the whole outline easily.

Day 2: I whipped out the Tattoos post -- short, contained, I just followed the outline without going down the potential rabbit holes of discussing “noticing confusion” or going really deep into the science. Success!

Day 3: I drafted the first version of this deliberate practice post. I rewrote the deliberate practice principles section to be more concise, but mostly ended the day with a post matching my outline (including the unfinished “How did it go?” section awaiting the rest of the data). 75% successful. 

Day 4: I knocked out a draft of a deliberate practice-tangential post, but wasn’t totally satisfied with the structure. I think I got the main points in the outline, but the structure and examples could be clearer. I should workshop the examples in my outlines more. Still managed to keep it short!

Day 5: Migraine, again. Ugh. I guess things came full circle…

Betrayals of my addled brain aside, this was a great success. While I didn’t cut down on editing (all three other than the Tattoo post required revision), I did make progress on keeping my drafts short. None grew into a behemoth, and it only took two weeks to revise them (instead of two months). I think I’ll be better equipped to plan what size of post I’m tackling going forward.

More importantly, the deliberate practice principles feel like an easy framework to apply to future growth goals. Breaking down my bottlenecks to a tiny goal to practice for a short period, and then moving on to the next one, feels way more promising than repeatedly slamming myself against the whole problem. As Ericsson would say, "Try differently, not harder!"

 

Appendix A

  • Drafting shorter posts – takes me about 4 hours to write a short post, which requires that I’ve narrowed down a small idea I can cover in <3 pages including examples, and that I already know mostly what I’m going to say. If I need to do research, that takes longer (though is sometimes more valuable). Kelsey’s posts are mostly short.
    • Predict how long a post will be before I draft it.
    • Create an outline with the main points I want to hit, try to actually draft that (my posts usually end up wandering away from my outlines). 
  • Whittling down my ideas and discarding large chunks that can’t fit within a post.
    • Anything that feels like a separate thread, put in an optional section to be picked up later. (haha)
  • Revise quickly
    • When I realize that I’ve lots the thread in a post, I’ll start rewriting a paragraph and go from there (taken from Duncan)
    • Revision pyramid – big content/structural changes, then flow of ideas and paragraphs covering the right things, then copy editing pass (Newport)
  • Writing more clearly from the start – I less certain about which steps would fix this 
    • Summarizing a passage you admire and then reproducing it as closely as possible to the original, observing the differences you make after you are done. (Taken from Ben Franklin’s autobiography.)
    • Duncan recommended practicing expressing an idea in one sentence, one paragraph, and one page/blog post – to clarify the idea in your head and practice expressing it with different levels of details. 
    • Review my copy editor’s comments for common errors I make that need to be corrected later.
    • Record myself writing and review the footage for clues.
  • Get better at writing examples quickly
    • Practice/study elements of story telling
    • Write some fiction
    • Summarize and replicate other people’s examples that I thought were well done, so that I deeply understand how they did them.
    • Have a database of examples to pull from – in obsidian.
  • Hiring a copy editor
  • Use ChatGPT more

This post is crossposted from my blog. If you liked this post, subscribe to Lynette's blog to read more -- I only crosspost about half my content to other platforms.

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:45 PM

My interpretation of your situation was ‘become comfortable submitting things you’re not fully happy with’ was one of the most important things to work on.

What do you think about the goal of ‘write a shortform/Facebook post and publish it’ each day, rather than a top level post? Once that’s happening reliably you could then work on better examples, and you could later rework things into top level posts.

Yeah, I get these impression as well. One perspective that might help is "thinking in public".

Ie. when you write some sort of shortform content (blog post, LW shortform, social media, whatever), it's not a finished product. It's just you working through things, and making that process visible to others. Maybe they'll find it useful. Or inspiring. Or informative. Maybe they'll have good feedback. Maybe it'll lead to interesting conversations. Or collaborations.

Another perspective is, consider sitting at a coffee shop with a friend and telling them about something you've been thinking about recently. If such thoughts are good enough to tell a friend, I think they're also good enough to post on the internet.

Then again, this is based on the premise that the goal is "publish something every day". I don't think I understand why that is the goal in the first place, so maybe my proposal isn't actually a good way to hit at the supergoal.

Hmm, it would probably work well to write a longer daily FB post, like if I set a goal to publish at least 500 words each day. 

Part of the goal is ‘become comfortable submitting things I'm not fully happy with’ and part is 'actually produce words faster'. The second part feels like it needs the length requirement. I've done daily short FB posts before and found it useful, but I noticed that I tended to write mostly short posts that didn't require me to hammer out words. 

However, as a way to learn how to write a post in a day, they were terrible! I didn’t have the skill-building-blocks yet to be able to draft a good post each day. I should have been practicing smaller sub skills, like outlining posts or studying how to write narratives.

The deliberate practice principles would have served me better. I was pushing myself and diligently paying attention. However, “write a post each day” is too vague and high level; it lacks both specific steps to practice and quick feedback loops.

Huh. It just occurred to me that this is basically goal factoring.

Also, I appreciate how this post is really grinding against reality, as opposed to being very theoretical and "up in the clouds".