Four Quick Cures for Poor Practice

The biggest enemy of talent isn’t genes, or opportunity, or luck. It’s poor practice. Because poor practice wastes time, creates bad habits, and, worst of all, gives us the deceptive feeling we’ve accomplished something when, in fact, we haven’t.

Trouble is, poor practice is tough to identify. Perhaps in the future, some genius will invent a Practice-o-Meter that flashes bright red lights and sounds a horn when it detects ineffective, time-wasting practice.  Until then, however, we have to make do with simpler methods.

So here, based on interviews with teachers/coaches and a sampling of scientific studies, are some warning signs that your practice is shallow — along with a few suggested cures.

  • 1) Symptom: Robotic sameness of performance. If you are doing the same thing over and over with no variation, you are not practicing deeply.
  • Cure: Make it tougher. Change one or more factors to stretch yourself. For example, if you’re shooting basketball free throws, try them from a variety of distances. If you’re doing algebra, set ever-shorter time limits. Constantly switch it up so that you’re always making and fixing mistakes.


  • 2) Symptom: The lack of “dammit” moments. Learning something new is like walking into a darkened room and figuring out where the furniture is located — when you make a mistake, you should feel it. Effective practice contains lots of “dammit” moments. Making mistakes should carry an emotional burn that helps you do better next time.
  • Cure: Keep score. Turn it into a game, so that each mistake carries a larger consequence.


  • 3) Symptom: Failing too much. The “sweet spot” of practice is when you make mistakes 20-40 percent of the time — not so seldom that you’re comfortable, not so often that you’re thrashing. Randomness does not make for good practice.
  • Cure: Make it easier. Eliminate some variables; simplify the task so that you are chunking one thing at a time, until you get back to the sweet spot.


  • 4) Symptom: Total boredom
  • Cure: Quit and do something else. Come back when you’re fresh.


Overall, aim for quality over quantity. It’s far better to achieve 10 minutes of deep practice — which is really tough to do — than practice shallowly for an hour.