One thing that separates human beings from other creatures is that we constantly strive to do things better. We evaluate our performance on a host of issues, from how we performed at our 6th grade piano recital, to how well our new pumpkin pie recipe turned out, to how we did on that last big project at work.
Deep down, we’re all just a little competitive, though it shows up more in some people than others. I’ve even known people who were competitive about not being competitive (“I’m less competitive than her … trust me”).
Though getting better at anything is really a simple process, it may not be easy. Even though the basic principles for improving performance are the same, getting better at typing is quite different than getting better at ski-jumping, and getting better at living under a budget is quite different than getting better at riding a motorcycle.
1. Chase your passion. If you absolutely LOVE something, practice is a joy. Passion can be an incredible motivator. It boosts our focus, strengthens our resilience, and fuels our perseverance. Make sure you know what YOUR passion really is.
2. Do the most difficult work early. Our natural instinct is to gravitate toward pleasurable experiences rather than move toward unpleasant ones. Most high performers delay gratification, tackling the most difficult work or practice early in the day, sometimes even before they do anything else. Generally, that’s when we experience our highest energy level and the fewest distractions.
3. Practice with a purpose. Know why you’re practicing and what you hope to accomplish with your practice. Try to practice with no interruption for up to 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity, even if we love it. The evidence is also pretty strong that great performers practice a maximum or 4 to 5 hours per day.
4. Seek feedback, but only in small doses. The simpler and more precise your feedback, the better you’ll be able to make adjustments. But too much feedback, too continuously, and you may suffer from overload, increase your anxiety level, and interfere with learning.
5. Ritualize your practice. Will and discipline are hilariously overrated. As researchers have found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to make them into rituals — create specific, non-negotiable times to practice so that over time you do it without having to waste your energy thinking it.
Getting better at anything isn’t always easy, but the steps are relatively simple.