Practice Makes Perfect— Really! Getting over the Performance Plateau

how many practice hours are needed before reaching a level of expertise?

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

We all know that practice makes perfect, but don’t we eventually see diminishing returns? Yes, but according to Dr. Vishton, that’s not an excuse to stop.

Soccer player practicing
Highly skilled individuals feel they reach a performance plateau, but if they keep practicing, they will continue to improve. Photo by SeventyFour / Shutterstock

Keep on Practicing

The more you practice something, the better you get at it. That’s not big news. What is news is that no matter how much you have practiced, additional practice will always continue to produce more improvement, even after you’ve practiced for thousands of hours.

Internationally recognized human performance psychology expert Anders Ericsson and his research team have done some of the most detailed research on highly expert people. They’ve studied doctors, athletes, musicians, and chess players—experts from many different domains. 

Across all of these fields, a number of particular trends can be seen. First, the most rapid improvements you see come as you start to learn something new—that is, in your first 100 hours or so of practice. 

In your first 100 hours of practicing anything, you’ll improve by a certain amount, hopefully a lot. In the next 100 hours of practice, you’ll improve, but less so than you did during those first 100 hours. For every 100 hours of additional practice, you’ll improve less than you did for the previous 100 hours.

Reaching a Plateau

As this occurs, many people perceive a plateau. It can create a sense that you’re no longer improving as you continue to practice. However, it’s clear from dozens of studies that the upward progress toward better and better performance continues. 

The law of diminishing returns is at work here. The more you improve, the more energy you need to invest to improve further. The returns never diminish all the way to zero, though.

Perhaps the best evidence of needing to just push forward is when performers feel they’ve reached a plateau after reaching a maximum amount of time practicing and gaining increased skill. For many expert pianists, they experience a plateau when they make the decision to pursue performing on the piano as a career. When their practice time increases, however, their skill improvement becomes more rapid.

One of the standard measures that Ericsson and his colleagues have collected is cumulative hours of practice. You have someone track the amount of time that they spend practicing each day for a while, along with an assessment of how much they’ve typically practiced in the past. 

You then multiply the number of practice hours per week by the number of weeks that they’ve been pursuing this particular activity. This allows you to estimate, at least roughly, the total number of hours from their entire life that someone has performed some activity.

10,000-Hour Rule

In general, across a remarkably wide range of endeavors, expertise in some domain is achieved with 10,000 hours of practice. If someone has practiced something for 1,000 hours, they’re likely to be good, but they are not classified as an expert. 

Even if the person seemed especially good at the task the first time they tried it, about 10,000 hours will still be needed to get to that peak level. Something about that 10,000-hour number seems to represent a level of remarkable, expert achievement.

With piano players, there are many ways to assess performance. One method that Ericsson has used is to calculate how quickly different pianists can hit multiple notes on the keyboard. The interstroke interval is a measure, in seconds, between when one note is struck and the next begins.

Now, there’s no real artistry in hitting keys on a keyboard quickly. If anything were going to be a function of talent rather than practice, this might be it. Even with this relatively straightforward task, though, practice is a remarkably good predictor. 

If you calculate the log transform of the number of hours that each pianist has practiced, and similarly calculate the log transform of that minimal interstroke interval for those same pianists, a remarkably consistent relation emerges.

 As the old joke says: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Happiness and Performance

Therefore, Dr. Vishton suggests that no matter how masterful you’ve become at your craft, there’s always room for improvement. If you enjoy something and want to get better at it, keep practicing, and you will continue to improve.

This connects to another piece of advice: If you want to be happy, then you should find a job that you love doing. Even if you make a lot of money in some other profession, if you don’t like it, you may doom yourself to a life of stress and unhappiness. 

Ericsson’s data provides solid support for that advice. If you want to be good at something, you have to do it a lot. To get to 10,000 hours, if you do something for 40 hours a week, you need to keep going for about 250 weeks—five years—before you’ll achieve true expertise. That’s a lot of time to spend on anything that you don’t like doing.

“The advice I’ve been given is to find something you like to do, so you’ll be happy,” Dr. Vishton said. “I would say that you probably need to find something you like, even if you just want to be really good at doing it. If you find yourself competing with people who actually do like doing the thing you’re forcing yourself to do, you’ll likely find yourself losing a lot.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for 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.