How to practice effectively for just about anything

Mastering any physical skill takes practice. Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement, and it helps us perform with more ease, speed, and confidence. But what does practice actually do to make us better at things?


Annie Bosler and Don Greene explain how practice affects the inner workings of our brains. A general overall view of practice with basic information but good reminders and some case studies. Practice “mastery isn’t simply about the number of hours of practice, it’s also the quality and effectiveness of that practice. Effective practice is consistent, intensely focused, and targets content or weaknesses that lay at the edge of one’s current abilities.”

Additional resources to explore

Scientists have been researching the principals of mastering a skill for years. Although myelin was discovered in 1854 by scientist Rudolf Virchow, the scientific examination of the myelination process within a live human brain, rather than cadavers and animals, has only become possible in the 21st century.

One of the first professionals to scientifically study habit formation was the world-renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz who wrote Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960. Maltz discovered that it takes a minimum of 21 days to form new habit patterns. He said, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

How long does it take to become an expert? “Simon and Chase’s (1973) ’10-year rule’ is supported by data from a wide range of domains: music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running.” (From “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance“).

In 1981 Carnegie Mellon Professor John Hayes “calculated an average of about 20 years from the time individuals started to study music until they first composed an outstanding piece of music. According to Hayes, this long preparation period is necessary because “the composer must know the timbres of the various instruments and the sound, look, and feel of chords and key structures.” (Hayes’ Cognitive Processes in Creativity, 1990). Because musicians start very early, insufficient development may restrict their ability to compose before attaining adulthood. Those who started at ages younger than 6 years did not write their first eminent composition until 16.5 years later; those who started between ages 6 and 9 and older than 10 years of age required 22 and 21.5 years respectively to compose their first distinguished work.

In 1993 Anders Ericsson, a professor at the University of Colorado, wrote a paper entitled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance“, which introduced the concept of 10,000-hours. The paper highlighted the work of a group of German psychologists who monitored the practice routines of violin students who were on a path for potential stardom as international soloists. The students were all from a music academy in Berlin and had each started playing at the age of five. At the start of the study, the practice habits of the violinists were nearly the same, by age eight the students were practicing different lengths, and by age 20 the elite violinists had logged more than 10,000 hours of practice each.

The elite violinists rated “practice alone” as the top musical activity related to their improvement. The researchers stated, “We view elite performance as the product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice. The commitment to deliberate practice distinguishes the expert performer from the vast majority of children and adults who seem to have remarkable difficulty meeting the much lower demands on practice in schools.”

In the book Outliers published in 2008, author Malcolm Gladwell explored the concept that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Hip-hop artist Macklemore’s song 10,000 Hours also embraces this idea with lyrics “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint. The greats were great cause they paint a lot.”

In The Talent Code (2009), Daniel Coyle visited hotbeds of talent around the world and interviewed master teachers to find out what it takes to be truly exceptional at something. He discovered fundamental methods through which the brain acquires movement patterns and improves complex skills and recognized how critical myelination was in the development of superior talent.


Visit or for more tips on how to practice effectively and for a list of references used by the educators for this video.

This comes via the TED-Ed Youtube channel. Lesson by Annie Bosler and Don Greene, animation by Martina Meštrović.

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