How to get better at almost anything

4 lessons from sport and music

This short 5 minute video helpfully illustrates what is needed to get better at practically any skill. While the focus is on physical activities such as playing an instrument or throwing a ball, the same principles are assumed to apply to any field of endeavour you might want to get better at.

In a fast changing and increasingly complex world the need to learn new skills and to be able to get better is vital if not essential. Hence practice becomes very important if we are going to improve in any skill and do that with speed and confidence.

To help us understand how our minds work, the speaker helpfully distinguishes between two kinds of brain tissue - the grey matter and white matter. It is the grey matter that does the 'work' in terms of processing information and directing signals and sensory stimuli to the other brain cells. Meanwhile the white matter is made up of mostly fatty tissue and nerve fibres. When we move our bodies then information needs to travel from our brain's grey matter down our spinal cord through a chain of nerve fibres called axons to our muscles.

So what happens to the inner workings of our brains when we practice a skill?....

The axons that exist in the brain's white matter are wrapped with a  fatty substance called myelin. It would appear that this myelin covering or sheath seems to change with practice. A helpful analogy is to think of myelin like the insulation on electrical cables. So the myelin prevents energy loss from electrical signals the brain uses and enables them to move more efficiently along neural pathways. Studies in mice suggest that when a physical activity is repeated this increases the layer of myelin sheath that insulates the axon. The more layers there are then then the greater the insulation around the axon chain so there is a faster channel for information to connect the brain to muscles. It is this increase in myelination that is thought to make all the difference in better physical performance due to faster and more efficient neural pathways.

It has been popular to talk about the 10,000 hours rule as the amount of practice needed to achieve mastery in a particular skill. However, just as important as the number of hours of practice is the quality and effectiveness of that practice. We have all had the experience of  doing something for a long time does not necessarily mean you will become good at it! It is the so called deliberate or effective practice that leads to the myelination of the appropriate neural pathways.

Effective practice is consistent intense focus on a skill while targeting content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of your current abilities. It is important to have a growth mindset as you approach the skill. With that in place the following 4 factors are also essential:

1. Focus on the task at hand. In other word minimise distractions. The ability to multi-task is actually a myth. When we think we are multi-tasking, we are actually doing other activities in parallel and shifting our attention between one and the other tasks. This dilutes our energy, focus and concentration.

2. Start slowly or in slow motion. This is because coordination is built with repetitions whether correct or in correct. By gradually increasing the speed of the quality repetitions you have a better chance of doing them correctly.

3. Practice frequently but do so with clear allotted times of rest . It is not unusual for elite athletes and performers to spend 50-60 hours a week on developing their skills. While doing that they need to build in periods of down time to let their other than conscious mind to reinforce what they are learning.

4. Mental visualisation to further enhance developing skills has been shown to be incredibly powerful. The study of 144 basketball players divided into two groups of physical practice and visualised practice is a fascinating example of how deeply the mind and body are connected. It is important to notice that the improvement in both groups by practically the same amount only applied to the intermediate and experienced players. In other words you need to have a certain threshold of ability to make progress in developing a skill with mental visualisation.

In many ways these 4 steps are quite obvious, but then common sense is often not common practice (pardon the pun!)

How do these steps apply in your own life?

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4 thoughts on “How to get better at almost anything

  1. I guess I have “given up” learning anything very new – I am assuming ability to learn new languages, instruments etc decreases with age!
    I do agree though that the “10,000 hours thing” is over-stated, as is the idea that it can be reduced to “insulation” – it doesn’t take any account of genes, aptitude, motivation etc. But the points about taking rest, not being distracted are great and often overlooked.

    • That is an interesting thought Chris! I wonder if the ability to learn rather than decreasing with age has more to do with other distractions and a perceived self-imposed limitation.

  2. On the theme of learning, I’m currently reading ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker who describes the vital role of sufficient quality sleep for learning of any facts or skills – fascinating material.