Beyond the 10,000 Hour Rule: Practicing Deliberately Is Practicing Smarter

Make your hard work count, through the principles of deliberate practice

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.

You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule—acquiring expertise involves at least 10,000 hours of practice. However, it’s also about working smarter, not necessarily harder. Dr. Vishton explains.

Baseball player hitting balls in batting cage
No matter the sport or field of study, novices become experts as they follow the principles of deliberate practice to hone their skills. Photo by Flavio Beltran / Shutterstock

How Should You Practice?

Practice is an essential component to demonstrating expertise in a given field. There’s no apparent upper limit to the improvement you can achieve with enough practice—at least not until you get to 10,000 hours. In order to fully benefit from those hours, though, you should engage in deliberate practice.

According to Dr. Vishton, the difference between experts and novices is not talent, but how much practice they’ve completed. That is, there’s a quantitative, rather than a qualitative, difference between experts and novices. 

You may be wondering, though, how you should practice. It is not enough to simply spend 10,000 hours doing something; you need to make those hours count. 

Deliberate Practice Principles

A variety of researchers have studied how experts practiced in a broad spectrum of fields and worked to identify four principles that you should follow as you seek to become an expert. Florida State Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson coined the term deliberate practice to capture these principles.

First, when you engage in deliberate practice, you should focus your attention on the work, with the intention to improve. Second, your practice should be targeted to your current level of skill. A task should be difficult enough to be challenging, but not so difficult that it’s impossible to achieve regular success. 

With something like the piano, this is pretty intuitive. You want a piece that you can’t play easily the first time through, but that’s not so difficult that you’re stuck slogging through it for months without success.

The third and fourth components go hand in hand. Third, after you attempt something, you should have access to immediate, informative feedback on the results of your performance. 

If it’s piano, you can hear that feedback. In basketball, you can see if the ball went into the hoop or not. For something like accounting or industrial design, you’ll likely need to seek an existing expert to give you that feedback. 

Regardless, you need that feedback to improve. Your brain tries to succeed every time. Sometimes it hits; sometimes it misses. The only way you can know when you’ve happened onto a process that works is if you’re told which attempts were hits and which ones were misses.

The fourth part is to repeat step three multiple times per practice session. You should repeat the same task again and again until it’s clear that you’ve nailed down how to do it. Then try a similar task. Repeat that one until you have it right.

A-Rod and Deliberate Practice

“There’s a great story that Bobby Meacham, a coach for the New York Yankees, tells about seeing an 18-year-old Alex Rodriguez practice fielding,” Dr. Vishton said. “I’m not sure if anyone ever told him about deliberate practice, but he definitely did so a lot.” 

A-Rod would have his teammates hit ground balls to his left, field them, and throw them to first. He would repeat this several times and then move to ground balls to his right. He would systematically work through a range of situations that he might encounter in a game, attempting a play and then repeating it until it was right.

According to Dr. Vishton, this story conveys the aim of deliberate practice. Break your task discipline down into pieces, and then master those individual pieces. Next, practice putting the pieces together. Get feedback with every attempt, and repeat. 

When researchers like Ericsson have studied experts, they’ve repeatedly seen them engaging in deliberate practice. It’s fundamental to how we improve. 

Ultimately, the best predictor of success is not the sheer hours of practice, but the number of hours spent on deliberate practice. Just 10,000 of those, and you’ll be there.

Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.