So you’ve set your goals, but how do you get there? Easy: practice.
We’ve all been told the lie “Practice makes perfect” at some point in our lives.
A lie! You gasp.
Yes, Dear Reader - a lie. Practice is not a magical route to perfection; bad practice leads to bad habits.
Practice makes permanent.
When we set goals, often they are very achievement based. You are currently Here and you want to be There; your goal is to get There and when you arrive, you’ve achieved your goal. Other times, the goal you set is a little more murky. It’s more about a general lifestyle change or creating new habits like “I want to eat healthier” or “I want to floss every night.” An important distinction between these two examples is that flossing every night is measurable - go through the S.M.A.R.T. exercise we talked about to ensure that whatever goal you set, even lifestyle changes, have a measurable component.
Regardless of whether you have set an intention to form a new habit or chase an achievement, the road to fulfilling your dreams is paved with practice. You want to be an artist? You’re going to be learning a lot and practicing a lot. You want to eat healthier? The only way to foster that habit is to practice restraint in tempering your sugary urges. You want to be a professional eSport athlete? Guuuuuurl, get ready to P R A C T I C E.
But what does it really mean to Practice?
We’ve all heart about “muscle memory” and - if you’re anything like me - immediately thought, “Wait wtf, there’s a brain in my arm? Am I part octopus?” and were both relieved and a little bummed that, no, you aren’t part octopus, just a person. Muscle memory is, in fact, just the result of practice. Shocker, I know.
Okay, so. Your brain has two types of neural tissue: white matter and gray matter. Gray matter lets your brain talk to your brain and stuff. White matter is mostly fatty tissue and nerve fiber. When you practice effectively (I’m talking consistent, mindful, pushing your limits), you trigger what’s referred to as myelination - the building up of an insulation around your nerve fibers called the myelin sheath. These nerve fibers are called axons, think of them like a sort of information highway: when you practice, you undergo repetition, and that repetition builds up your myelin sheath around these axons, like a construction team might pave or refurbish a road. When the sheath is thick enough (the road upgraded, construction done), information travels more efficiently, and you perform whatever information you’ve carried easier, more confidently - better.
Here’s some fun reading if you’re interested in learning about a study investigating myelin and white matter’s involvement in cognitive function and learning and stuff. It’s neat.
There’s no magic number of hours that you can practice and at the end of cheer, “I’ve done it! I’ve mastered X!” People say 10,000 or whatever, but that’s bogus. It isn’t about the quantity of hours, it’s about the quality. That’s why I keep saying effective practice, and efficient. The important part of practice, and why it’s different than “just doing” or “forming habits” is that you are consciously setting aside time to improve.
Okay, so you get it - practice, practice, practice, my brain gets better, okay sure. I’m ready, you sigh. No! I haven’t even told you how to practice!
POP QUIZ: The alarm you set OH so responsibly goes off, reminding you it’s time to - yes! Practice! What do you do? Focus on what you’re comfortable with and know you’re good at to stroke your ego a little? Or focus on the bits that you are bad at to push yourself to the margins of your comfort zone over and over until your comfort zone grows and what was once untenably stressful is second nature?
Nice, good job. Yes, you focus on the bits that you’re bad at. It’s super easy to rest on your laurels and stagnate, which is why it’s important that whatever goal you’re practicing for is clearly defined and measurable. Struggling is not an option to grow - it’s a requirement.
You don’t need anyone else to understand your struggle. Your practice can be messy - in fact, it ought to be. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t nearly at the cusp of your comfort and ability. Miss the target. But shoot for it. If you’re missing by a wide margin, bring it in until you are just barely missing it every once and awhile. Go from there. Make room for the little learnings.
Hammer it over and over until you’re no longer missing. Then step back and make it more difficult, or set a timer and try and go quicker. This is the neural myelination of dedicated practice. “Don’t focus on what you’re good at” isn’t permission to feel you’ve “learned” something and can now move on and forget about it. Go back and review it. Overlearn. When you think you’ve mastered something, push until you’ve surpassed the point of mastery.
When you surpass mastery, you make room for more. Alaa Ahmed, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, refers to our “sensorimotor map” as the mechanism by which our brain and body calculate the force of our motions and the resistance that we will encounter. When you overlearn, you engage in a process of refinery that allows you do execute the same motions with less energy.
Take a musician, or a professional athlete. They’ve rehearsed and trained and practiced for countless hours. Whether it’s a piece or a specific move, they’ve drilled it and drilled it and when they start to resemble a robot they drill it some more. They start overlearning. Surpassing mastery. It is in that stage that the musician begins to illustrate the piece with emotion and flair. It is then that the athlete can execute while still paying attention to the other players or the dynamics of the environment.
Overlearning is what separates the good from the great and what will, depending on the loftiness of your goals, determine your achievement. That’s enough preaching, I think. If you’re serious about your goal, be intentional about your practice and taking the right steps to achieve it. Tune in tomorrow for a snack sized guide on the perfect way to set yourself up for successful practice!