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The Art of Practice

“Everything in life worth achieving requires practice. In fact, life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort of refining our motions. When the proper mechanics of practice are understood, the task of learning something new becomes a stress-free experience of joy and calmness, a process which settles all areas in your life and promotes proper perspective on all of life’s difficulties.”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

Practicing is an essential element in achievement. Most people see practicing as work, as something to force ourselves to do, but with a slight change in perspective, practicing can be freeing. Practice can relieve us of stress and impatience, and even can be therapeutic.

In his fantastic book, The Practicing Mind, Thomas M. Sterner beautifully explains the mechanics and art of practice s0 we can all access the joy and calmness that practice provides.

I love talking about practice because a solid understanding of effective practice leads to a solid understanding of effective learning. Most of the ideas in this post are from Sterner’s book, but these are only the ideas I’ve found interesting (and relevant). I still highly recommend reading the book for yourself!

“Practice encompasses learning but not the other way around.”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

First and Foremost

Before I really dive into the mechanics of practice, I want to introduce a few ideas to help frame the mechanics in a better context.

In order to understand the mechanics of practice, we first have to understand self-control and awareness of self. Both self-control and awareness of self require heavy amounts of attention dedicated to our mental and emotional states. I talk a bit about the significance and power of attention in my post about The Osiris Myth.

Attention is the foundation for self-control and awareness of self, and both of those are foundations for practice.

Without these things, we’re riding a horse with no reins, we have no power or control. Our source of power must come from within and be expressed through self-control and awareness. We need to have an internal locus of control in order to practice.

The next idea I want to talk about is: works arise out of the practice. The things we build that can be later known as our “life’s work” springs from the countless hours of practice that we dedicate to the craft. When I started writing my first book, I felt impatient and I was pretty hard on myself about getting my work done faster. There was a significant problem with that — when I started writing the book I didn’t have the writing skills nor the knowledge to write the kind of book I intended to. I needed to develop the skill and knowledge along the way and that can only be cultivated through practice.

Even though I know this, I still have to fight the idea that “this book should have been done yesterday” quite often. Sterner references this specific struggle and explains that it’s just part of the process.

“At its inception, I would not have been able to write “this” version of The Practicing Mind even if someone had sat me down and said, “I will pay your bills and look after your family. You just write.” It took the writing process and observing myself going through my days to learn that.”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

This quote gave me permission to believe that it’s okay to learn along the way.

Now I’m convinced that it’s the only way to accomplish anything.

Dedicate to the craft, learn along the way, trust that we will learn everything we need. Sterner showed me that as long as I focus on the practice of writing, then I will eventually complete the book in it’s highest form.

The last idea that I want to mention is that life is one giant practice session. Everything we do is practice. From walking to tying our shoes, from adding 2+2 to integrating trigonometric functions, everything is practice.

Literally everything.

Those three ideas set the stage nicely for understanding the mechanics and art of practice. Internalizing these ideas will make practice seem a lot less daunting than it needs to be.

The first mechanic of practice I want to bring up is also probably the biggest idea in the book and carries substantial wisdom.

Focus on the process, not the product.

This is the key to making practice effective, consistent, and cathartical. Focusing on the process, not the product.

This is analogous advice to “Set up systems, not goals.”

I’ve always been results-oriented and obsessive with progress, but I’ve also always had problems with burn out and stress. I’ve noticed that switching my focus to the process has created higher productivity yields with less pressure.

I used to literally think that if I wanted to perform better, then I need to apply more pressure.

After all, diamonds are created from high amounts of pressure right?

Yes, but we’re human beings, not rocks, and we burn out after long periods of high pressure and stress. We will not become diamonds from adding more stress, we will eventually crumble. Now, this is not to say that we don’t need any stress at all. Some stress is actually necessary to function at our highest level. I talk a bit about that in my post How to Conquer Test and Performance Anxiety.

“When you focus on the process, the desired product takes care of itself with fluid ease. When you focus on the product, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration, and impatience with the process.”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

Well focusing on the process seems like a great idea, but how we do actually start doing that?

First, we need to be able to temporarily give up our attachment to our goal. If we are too attached, then we won’t be able to be present and our minds will fill with impatience — which will block us from deliberate and intentional practice.

We have to be able to get to a place where we’d be completely fine if we didn’t get our goal. I recommend reading some stoic philosophy if this seems impossible. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca is a fantastic place to start, it’s also on my Must-Read Book List. We are capable of letting go of any attachments we develop, nothing is too substantial that it ought to take us from the present moment.

Once we have created a healthy detachment, we divert our attention to only what we are doing right now in the present. As long as we can keep this up, we are accomplishing our goal in each and every moment. I find mindfulness meditation is fantastic for practicing this type of process.

If we’re focused on the process, we win every moment. If we focus on the product, we win only once the product is finished.

Which would you rather have?

Winning every second or winning one time in the end?

We can get more work done with one of those choices. Winning every second doesn’t only feel better, but we will also build a “success spiral” and forward motion which increases our likely hood of executing more forward motion in the future. Winning creates more winning.

Another benefit is that the pressure melts away when we’re focused on the process. I try to use this to my advantage when I’m working with my students. If they’re having trouble with complex multistep problems, then I just ask them what the next step is rather than having them solve the entire thing. Focusing on just putting one foot in front of the next can get the job done accurately and fairly quickly.

The last thing I want to mention about focusing on the process is that it is crucial to know that there are no mistakes and no judgment when we are truly focused on the process. We are simply executing actions, observing the results, and making adjustments accordingly. There is no bad or wrong when we are focused on the process.

Judgment is the death of intentional and deliberate practice.

While it can be difficult to let go of our attachments, it’s critical to maintain a connection to what we are aiming at. We can use our final goal as a way to course-correct and steer our practice in a constructive, intentional, and deliberate manner. Our end goal tells us what our next steps are, not necessarily how we are doing.

When we focus on the process the progress comes naturally. Focusing on the progress just burns us out. Progress is a natural by-product of the process, so as long as we keep the system going we will accomplish what we need to.

Foreign Concepts

Of course, paying attention to the process and not the product is a completely foreign thought to most people, especially in the West.

The western education system reinforces focusing on the product at a very early age. Usually, our experiences as young children, even if they cannot be remembered, play a huge part in the development of our personalities.

When it comes to school and education, we tend to use grades to define what kind of person someone is. Grades do not inherently determine what kind of person someone is, but that transformation occurs in our language. I frequently hear people say “My child is an A-student or my child is a D-student” as if their existence can only produce those kinds of results. Additionally, grades often heavily influence our life trajectory. They can determine which schools we may or may not get into and what kinds of jobs we can get in the future.

Honestly, in a situation like this, it only makes sense to focus on the grades.

We even have a colloquial language associated with each grade. A typically means excellent. B is good. C is average. D is below average. F is of course failure. We hear these so much, it would be pretty tough for a student to not identify with the phrases associated with their grades. In my experience, students will latch on to these identities and hold on to them for dear life, even if it’s detrimental to their self-image.

During the school years, grades define who students are and what they are worth. And just in case students aren’t results-oriented enough, we also have “Standardized Test” which “level the playing field.”

This is not to say that standardized tests don’t have their place, they are useful. They’re necessary for comparing the competence of students from different schools since an A from an English class can require higher performance than an A from another. After all, we need a way of separating the high achievers from the brown nosers. However, just like the grades, these scores heavily influence our life trajectory so it’s no surprise that students would only care about the results.

Rather than use high scores on standardized tests and high grades as goals, we can focus on the actual knowledge. If we focused on gaining knowledge (the process), then higher grades will follow (the product). We can use the grades and tests to steer us in a positive direction, instead of using them as an indicator of our self-worth of identity.

From a young age, and consistently throughout our lives, we are given reason after reason to believe that only results matter regardless of how we get there.

Why else would people cheat on exams?

It’s simply to get the grade! It’s because the grade is all that matters. I’d be lying if I said I never cheated on an exam, I used to be the king at it to be completely honest. I fell right into these thought habits too. I’ve seen students pull off incredibly elaborate schemes when I studied chemical engineering at CSULB.

You’d be surprised how far people are willing to go in order to get the grade. Or maybe you wouldn’t.

What would someone be willing to do to secure their future?

Our current grading system incentivizes people to prioritize results, not knowledge.

Western education constantly hits us with the idea that “results are everything” and since this starts early, it can almost seem built right into reality itself. Focusing on the process and not the product is completely foreign to Western thought, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start.

Here another example of how focusing on the product is a Western ideal:

Sterner brings up a story about a Japanese man who makes plates all day. The man is never worried about how many plates he has to make, he just tries to make each plate as perfect as possible. When Thomas asks him if he has a supervisor, the man replies —

“What is a supervisor?”

Thomas was taken back by the response and tells him that a supervisor is a person who makes sure that you do your job correctly. The Japanese man replies

“Why would I need someone to make sure I do my job correctly? That is my job.”

We need more of this attitude in the West for sure. The man is focused on doing his job well, not his output. In the West, we are so focused on results that we have to hire people just to make sure that people don’t screw up the process.

If we can make this foreign idea at home in the West, we’ll all have happier, healthier, and more productive lives.

Simple Rules for Creating A Practicing Mind

  • Remain process-oriented
  • Stay in the present
  • Make the process the goal and use the overall goal as a rudder to steer your efforts
  • Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and remain aware of that intention

Perspective

“As we attempt to understand ourselves and our struggles with life’s endeavors, we may find peace in the observation of a flower. Ask yourself: At what point in a flower’s life, from seed to full bloom, does it reach perfection?”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

Perspective is powerful when it comes to developing a practicing mind and the images we focus on have a massive impact on our perspective.

We lose peace of mind when we adopt images of perfection. Sometimes even the images we look to for inspiration can turn into harsh judges if we aren’t careful. Always looking to see how we are doing compared to our ideals can be detrimental to practicing effectively.

Images of ideals are just images. They are not alive like we are. The images of perfection are dead, unchanging. We, on the other hand, are flawed but alive, always in the state of becoming. We are always changing, like a flower when it blooms.

At what point is the flower perfect?

This is one of the most powerful questions I got from reading this book. Knowing that every state of my journey will not match some static image of perfection, because I am alive. Living things go through different experiences, that is a crucial part in living.

When is the flower perfect? Is it at the seed? Or when it sprouts? Or when it blooms?

The flower isn’t impatient. The flower doesn’t think “this is taking forever” or “Once I bloom, then I can be happy.”

The flower just grows every day.

It’s always perfect.

Every stage is perfect.

What the flower is doing exactly what it needs to be doing in each moment.

We are the same way. As long as we focus on the process, growing every day, then we are always perfect. I find thinking this way takes a lot of the pressure off of trying to make something perfect the first time.

We need to work like nature, without ego.

Whenever I get caught up in thinking that my results aren’t where they “should” be, I try to ask myself:

“At what point is the flower perfect?”

Another fantastic way of shifting perspective is to channel the “beginner mind.” When we first do something, our mind uses all of its cognitive load to process this new activity because it’s never done it before! It has to build all the new neural connections while interpreting a new situation. Our brains need to dedicate as many resources as possible to operating in unknown territory. Due to the high use of resources dedicated to figuring out this new activity, we lose a lot of the egoic chatter which usually tries to destroy us. Channeling this “beginner mind” can keep us in the present and focused on what we’re currently doing.

I find this to be true in most things I do. I distinctly remember driving for the first time. In the beginning, it was so tough to process everything that was going on — I would have to keep both hands on the wheel with the radio off and now I got the radio up, windows down, and my mind drifts off to the weirdest places. Now driving takes so little brainpower, it’s become one of my favorite ways to trigger diffuse thinking.

We can channel the “beginner mind” through deliberate practice – specifically practicing the things that need improvement. By focusing on things we aren’t proficient in, we force ourselves into the present.

Deliberate practice is pretty different from the kind of practice that people typically do. Research has shown that when people learn a skill or activity, they reach a plateau and stop improving once they reach a certain level of competence. This can also be known as our comfort zone. Part of deliberate practice is operating at the edge of our comfort zone, or zone of proximal development (ZPD). We push our limits and capabilities to higher levels when we engage in deliberate practice. We can isolate and improve each weakness through repetition, increasing standards, and continuous feedback. When we’re doing this, we have no choice but to channel the “beginner mind.”

Habits

What we practice becomes our habits, and our habits shape our lives. I’ve written a few posts on habits. Everything I would want to include in this section is also in these posts –including how to build and break habits, how habits work, the significance of habits, and ways to build your dream life through habit formation.

Understanding how habits form and developing an awareness for which habits we are creating gives us access to creating the habits we actually want for ourselves, which ultimately constructs our lives.

Some sports psychologists say that repeating a motion sixty times a day over 21 days will form a new habit ingrained in the mind. The sixty reps don’t have to be done all at once either. They can be broken up into sets.

New habits are always awkward at first, but over time they will feel more comfortable if we just stick with it.

Remember — we are the ones who decide our habits, no one else.

Patience

“The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.”

Thomas M. Sterner (The Practicing Mind)

Practice without patience is fruitless.

The only way we can see the results of our practice is through patience. We can see this most obviously in the context of health and exercise. When we workout, we don’t see obvious results the next day, or even the day after that. It usually takes a few months before people starting noticing small changes, but those few months are filled with constant deliberate practice. Without patience, we would just work out one time and let our disappointment take us out.

So that leaves us with the question:

How can we cultivate patience?

Sterner suggests that we can develop patience by changing our perspective. Sterner likes to think of patience more as quiet perseverance. By changing the vocabulary, we change our perspective of ourselves. Rather than seeing ourselves as someone waiting patiently for things to finally work out, we can become someone who is quietly overcoming all the obstacles thrown in front of them time and time again. This may seem like a small change, but humans are creatures of conversation and our worlds are created by our speech. I talk more about the power of speech in this post.

Impatience usually comes from trying to live in the future and being unsatisfied with the present.

Sitting in traffic is a great way to trigger this feeling. Since I live in California, I find myself in traffic pretty often. Lately, I’ve been trying to use traffic as an opportunity to practice quiet perseverance. It kind of goes like this:

I hit traffic. I feel impatient. I notice I’m feeling impatient. I realize that I’m trying to live in the future and I’m not satisfied with the present. I try to find a way to be satisfied with sitting in traffic.

It’s all about being present and focusing on what I can actually do at that moment. This is actually how I researched, organized, and developed a lot of the ideas for my book! I would be listening to podcasts, YouTube videos, and audiobooks are related to education and personal development and take notes on all the things I found interest. This made the time fly by. Traffic isn’t a big deal when you’re working on something important to you.

Impatience is a great indicator that we’re being product-focused and trying to live in the future. Another indicator is when our internal chatter starts going haywire. We have to be able to recognize when our thoughts are going off on a tangent and return ourselves back to the present. Controlling our minds like this is challenging at first, but as I mentioned earlier, mindfulness meditation is excellent for cultivating this skill — noticing when the mind runs wild and pulling it back in. Like a wild horse, it’s going to fight us but if we can tire it out then it’ll stop running away.

Patience naturally comes with a change in perspective, just trying to “be more patient” is a fool’s errand and is incredibly expensive from a cognitive load perspective. If we correctly change our perspective, we can feel the impatience vanish.

Tips to Stay Present

When we develop a practicing mind, Sterner recommends using the 4 S Words to keep our minds in the process.

Simple

Keeping things simple reduces friction and is a great way of developing a success spiral. Creating a forward movement helps tremendously.

When dealing with huge projects, or anything fairly complex, break it down into its component sections. I try to make sure each component is something that seems super easy. Like I said earlier, it’s all about developing a forward motion — get the wins everywhere you can.

Atul Gawande, the author of The Checklist Manifesto, also suggests keeping things simple if we want to remain effective. Simple checklists make all the difference, but once we add complexity they can actually make things worse.

Keeping things simple is key to keeping things effective.

Small

Similar to keeping things simple, we want our focuses to be small.

The smaller the better.

For example, when I was writing this blog post I felt overwhelmed because I knew that there were a bunch of ideas that I wanted to go over. But I just kept my focus on writing the paragraph that I’m working on to the best of my ability and eventually the entire post will be finished. It’s taken longer than I like, but that’s just my mind trying to focus on the product.

Focusing on small sections is much easier than focusing on the entire task. Also when we have many small victories, we get the winning streak on our side. If you haven’t noticed, winning streaks are everything.

Short

Keeping things short will make anything seem bearable. Tim Ferriss also suggests keeping things short when creating new habits. Again, a classic example of getting the wins wherever you can.

It’s much easier to say I’m going to sit down and write for 40 minutes a day rather than I’m going to sit down and write for 4 and a half hours per week. If I knew I had to sit down for 4 and a half hours, I would do everything I can do avoid that. Honestly, even 40 minutes is pushing it on some days.

Keeping things short keeps procrastination at bay.

Slow

Taking things slow might seem like a bad idea, especially if you’re like me and love getting as much done as possible. But slowness allows us to actually pay attention to what we are doing. When we take things slow, we see every little moment of what goes into the process. We make fewer mistakes when we take it slow and tasks sure seem a lot less daunting.

I try to do at least 1 thing per day slowly, to practice being present and paying attention to how I actually do that task. Some days it will be dishes, other days it will be brushing my teeth, or changing my clothes. I practice with little things so I can perform well on the big things.

D.O.C.

Stands for Do, Observe, Correct. This technique can be used on any activity to engage the practicing mind. It’s designed to snap us out of frustration and shifts our perspective to an Observer.

D.O.C. can also be thought of as the practice cycle. When we are practicing, we are only doing one of those three actions – doing, observing, or correcting. Any energy spent on frustration, anger, insecurity, judgment, or otherwise is a waste and isn’t part of proper practice.

When we are practicing, if we sense feelings of anger or frustration then we know that we aren’t staying in the cycle. Simply do the action, observe how we are doing, and correct course.

Let me give an example to illustrate this point. Whenever I’m writing I tend to get judgemental and insecure, to the point where I won’t release a piece of work or I’ll just destroy it outright. This is the death of practice. I’m wasting my energy, not creating anything, and I’m not getting better at writing.

If I can notice I’m feeling judgemental or insecure, then I can recognize that I’m off the D.O.C. cycle and all I have to do is get back on.

That’s a big if though. All of this only works if I can recognize the emotional states within myself – this is why I recommend mindfulness meditation. It trains us in this very skill.

Just write. No judgment. No thinking, just doing.

Observe the words on the page. Is the message that I’m trying to convey clear? Is this what I am trying to say?

If it isn’t, then I need to correct it.

Repeat as many times as necesary.

If it is, then I’m a winner.

This technique is fantastic for silencing the internal chatter and taking control of our minds. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do and requires practice. haha. But it gets easier with higher skill in mindfulness.

Last Thoughts

“Buying the car is much less satisfying than working for it.”

Thomas M. Sterner’s Dad

These were some of the ideas I found most interesting from The Practicing Mind, but I still highly recommend that everyone read it for themselves. There is a ton of information in that book and this post is just the stuff I found useful or related to what I usually talk about.

I’m hoping that these ideas and techniques can help you in finding the therapeutic advantage to practice and keep you on the path to mastery.

We are always perfect, but we are always practicing.

We are always growing.

The question is, in which direction?

By Chris

During the day, I’m a tutor and EMT.
In the evenings, I like to blog and produce music.