Upskill quickly: How deliberate practice can change your life

Modern career paths involve more unexpected twists and turns than they used to. The vast majority of employees change organizations and job titles during the course of their career.  College graduates from 2006 to 2010 could expect to average over 3 jobs in just their first five years of employment, a large increase from previous decades. Moreover “hybrid jobs”–which require a mix of technical and soft skills that aren’t necessarily taught in school–are growing in importance. In short, for the majority of people, a rewarding career will involve changing responsibilities and regularly upskiling.

So what’s the best way to master new skills? Of course, you’ll need to practice. But practice alone is not enough; bad practice can waste your time or, worse, solidify bad habits. So in this post we’ll discuss how to make your practice effective by ensuring it is deliberate. 

The term deliberate highlights the idea that the most effective kind of practice you can do is practice where you are actively engaged and focused on improving. When you are upskilling, in other words, you don’t want to just repeat a series of mindless exercises. You want to pay attention and incorporate feedback on what went well and what needs to change. 

Specifically, Deliberate Practice Theory provides a framework to quickly master new skills by:

  • Tailoring training to your individual needs
  • Actively engaging with the learning
  • Chipping Away

As always, our team of researchers has reviewed dozens of scientific studies from cognitive psychology, sports psychology, and related disciplines to provide you with practical, science-based tips on how to implement deliberate practice for upskilling.


Three Steps to Upskilling

You want to upskill. Maybe that means learning about project management, about coding, about managing business relationships, about sales. How do you begin?

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Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson–whose research inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book Blink and the 10,000 hours rule–has laid out three primary steps to effectively increase your skills with deliberative practice.


Step 1: Tailor training to your individual needs

The first step is to ensure your training exercises are tailored to your individual needs. 

Identify Problem Areas. What exactly do you need to improve? Are there technical skills to grow, bad habits to break, or techniques to master? If you’re a project manager who worries about micromanaging, you may need to find ways to work on being assertive in a way that isn’t overbearing. If you’re a sales person who freezes when asked about a certain product, you may need to spend more time learning the details–and particularly the selling points–of that specific product.

Get a Guru. When you are upskilling, you want to identify an expert or coach who can guide you on your journey. This person can be a mentor at your current company, a friend who has the professional skill you want to develop, or a coach you find by looking up top performers in the area. This guru should be someone who cares about you and your growth, because they will need to help assess your own skills and be willing to provide ongoing feedback on how to improve. Even in individualized tasks, like playing chess, coaching has been found to help performance.

Automated coaches and online programs are another option to guide you through upskilling. Just be sure they help assess your personal strengths and weaknesses, guide you through the process over time, and provide feedback. Of course, we recommend the PsychologyCompass automated coach. And you can also combine online and in-person coaching. 

Individualize your training plan. Working with your guru, create an upskilling plan. This plan should take into account your specific strengths and weaknesses, and include exercises tailored to you. To increase motivation and success over time, ensure your plan has SMART goals–that is, upskilling goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timed. 

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Step 2: Actively engage with the learning

This is where the deliberate part comes into play. 

Design Tasks for Active Response. When you are practicing, you need to have a task where you can be actively responding. That means your upskill practice needs to have a specific goal. You need to be able to tell if you’re succeeding in the moment. And you need to be able to do it over and over

Ideally, this is something you can do on your own, focusing on how you are doing (as opposed to trying to fit in with an overall team). For example, a review of deliberate practice in anesthesiologists found that training that involved simulated medical decision-making were better for improving skills than just receiving information in a presentation. Deliberate practice training for these doctors improved skills in several distinct areas, like crisis management, EEG interpretation, and intubation.

If you want to work on budgeting a project, you might try to build out budgets for projects over and over again. Importantly, you need to do this in a way that you can tell if you’re making mistakes–maybe by having a set of guidelines you refer back to and use to score yourself each time.

Do Focused, not Mindless, Practice. In modern business culture, people can emphasize how much time they spent working. You might hear others say “I work 60 hour weeks,” or “I worked 12 hours yesterday.” With upskilling, this is the exact wrong approach. 

To improve at something, you need to do it with a sharp, engaged mind. You shouldn’t be able to do it on autopilot, or as the 10th, 11th, and 12th hours of your workday. Studies of deliberate practice show that world class musicians, soccer players, and chess players for example, only do 4 hours of this kind of focused work per day. Doing more may actually increase the risk of burnout. When starting out, you might find that you need to build up to even that length of focused time. To upskill effectively, notice when your mind is getting tired and take a break. Going through the motions isn’t as useful as being rested to spend more focused time tomorrow.


Step 3: Chip away. 

Upskilling takes time. The “10,000 hour rule” (10,000 hours are needed to achieve expertise) is based on research by Ericsson and colleague A.C. Lehmann reviewing the amount of time it takes to acquire expert performance in a variety of areas, from chess to programming to juggling. If someone were doing four hours of deliberate practice every weekday, excluding two weeks for holidays, after 10 years that person would have amassed 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. However, in a 1993 paper, Ericsson found that it took “only” around 7,500 hours to become an expert violinist or pianist, and another paper found that expert soccer players were at about 4,500 hours and expert hockey players at 8,500 hours after 10 years. 

So 10,000 hours should be considered a “rule of thumb” for becoming a world-class expert. Depending on what skill you are learning–say mastering new software or building your public speaking confidence–you may find 1000 or 100 hours is enough.

Use ongoing assessment. When you are upskilling, you’ll want to monitor your progress. Regularly solicit feedback from your expert teacher or coach on your progress and how to update your training plan. Your mentor should be able to tell you when you have or haven’t mastered one part of a skill. This expert guide can then tell you when to move on to a more complex task, or when you need to focus on a different aspect of the skill you’re building.

Space your practice over time. You won’t be able to do a week or month-long bootcamp and immediately perform at expert levels. The science of learning shows that spaced repetition of material–that is, coming back to the same information with breaks in between–leads to deeper learning. Recent work shows how this can help English speakers learn Japanese. You aren’t a student cramming for a test. You’re an adult building the career and future you want. Albert Einstein said about himself: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

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Upskilling your life

So far we’ve been talking about using deliberate practice as a way to become an expert at job-related skills. But the upskilling framework can be applied to nearly any area of life–from emotional awareness to fashion to your golf swing. In fact, improving your skills in these areas–and in turn improving your overall life satisfaction and well-being–often translates to providing you the resources and well-being that help you excel in your career.

So take a moment to think about three areas where you can apply the deliberate practice framework to upskill your life more broadly: passion projects, close relationships, and community building.

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Find a Passion Project. You might want to try to improve at a hobby that brings you joy. That might mean learning pottery, cooking more, or taking up a new sport. These hobbies can be fun to improve at, even if–and maybe because–you don’t rely on them to keep your job. 

Luckily, hobbies like this are precisely the kind of thing that deliberate practice has been shown to improve. To use Ericsson’s method to upskill as a potter, chef, or racquetball player, you need to start by getting a guru. This might mean a local coach or teacher who can perform an assessment of your skills. There are often exercises in these types of hobbies that are well-suited to the active response style of practice. For example, you might need to practice throwing certain types of pots. By putting in regular, spaced practice, you can eventually build up that skill. Then you can talk to your guru about what to work on next.

Strengthen Your Relationships. Building strong relationships takes work. Partnerships can be difficult at points of stress, or when dealing with specific issues. Couples counseling and other psychological interventions aim at improving relationships by working on the specific skills needed to have a successful relationship. For example, one study on a workshop preparing students for success in relationships saw increases in perspective taking, empathy, coping skills, and decision making in the relationship. These are the kinds of basic skills that lead to better relationships over time. 

We can use deliberate practice to improve relationships by improving these specific relationship success skills. In this context, getting a guru would typically mean finding a couples counselor or coach who can help you identify what needs work in your relationship. Once you’ve identified areas of weakness, you can create exercises to strengthen those areas. For example, if your weakness is having empathy, you can create tasks–like trying to identify someone’s emotional state, or writing out how a situation might make your partner feel–that improve that skill. You need to make sure that these tasks are ones that can give you immediate feedback. So if it’s talking about how a situation might make your partner feel, you might need to have your partner there, listening, and telling you when you’re on the right track–or when you’re missing the mark. Over time, doing these kinds of exercises repeatedly can build up specific skills.

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Engage Your Community. Being part of a community of people who know and care about each other is a rewarding part of life. However, finding and connecting with communities like this is difficult in modern life in many countries. Joining and building communities, however, is based on performing specific actions. These actions–like reaching out to new people, keeping in touch with existing contacts, and organizing regular events where people can meet up–are skills that you can develop.

Finding a guru for community building might be more difficult than just identifying a senior member of your organization or finding a local couples counselor. It might mean reaching out to local community organizers, like people who run a local Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, a local Meetup group, or even a local Improv Comedy School. Upskilling will also require creating exercises you can do regularly, and which provide feedback. It may be that these are exercises you do “in public,” such as planning events and seeing whether people show up. Once you start trying, you can find places where you can get your direct, immediate feedback–perhaps by having a friend tell you whether your different pitches for events sound appealing or not, as you craft them. Over time, you will be able to build the skills needed to sustain a broader community.


Recap of Upskill Quickly: How Deliberate Practice Can Change Your Life

It is common for modern careers to involve changes in jobs and responsibilities. That often requires upskilling, to meet the demands of the new position. Upskilling can also apply to your life more widely, for example to improve skills related to your hobbies, relationships, and community. Deliberate practice is a framework for building expertise that you can use to upskill.

Deliberate practice involves a specific type focused practice that has three major elements:

  1. Tailoring your training to address individual needs
  2. Actively engaging with the learning
  3. Chipping away at the problem over time

The practice tasks you do should also have three key elements:

  1. They have a specific goal.
  2. They involve immediate feedback.
  3. They can be repeated until you improve.

To apply the deliberate practice framework to your own upskilling, you will identify problem areas, design active response tasks, avoid mindless practice, and chip away at deficits over time. We encourage you to consider applying this framework not just to upskilling professional skills for work, but to upskilling various aspects of your life more broadly.