Deliberate practice in knowledge work

Lately, many of my millennial friends that are knowledge workers are finding challenges outside of work such as learning to play a musical instrument, training for a marathon and so on because they wanted to push beyond their existing capabilities. For some reason, they have already assumed that there’s no way they can find something challenging at the workplace and it had to be outside of work.

My theory for this relatively recent phenomenon is it’s difficult to define what deliberate practice is in knowledge work. Knowledge work by its very nature can never be challenging enough for long. There’s always a technology or tool in the making that is right around the corner, which is going to further reduce the human effort in performing a task. What is challenging at work today will no longer be a challenge six months later. No wonder, Millennials are frustrated. Every effort they put in is being replaced by a machine or a robot in no time, and the people feel useless. On the other hand, when it comes to playing a musical instrument or athletic training, you get a chance to stretch your human or manual skills to master techniques thereby maintaining a challenge at every level.

In short, knowledge work is one of those fields (others being freelance writing, entrepreneurship, or college) that does not have a tradition of performance-optimization

For instance, imagine you are working out in the gym. Once you can lift 20 lbs of weight, you can focus on lifting 30 pounds of weight next. What is happening here is once you reach a comfort level you know where exactly your next discomfort zone exists and can deliberately practice it. As a result, you will feel like you are improving and making progress and it gives you immense fulfillment as you develop your competence regarding muscle power. On the other hand, if you are a programmer or a coder, once you master a coding language you do not know where your next discomfort zone exists unless you notice where your fear lies. If you want to break the existing rules and try something new that could be a challenge. However, it’s hard to quantify your discomfort zone here. That is, you cannot go from typing ten lines of code/minute to typing 20 lines of code/minute as it is not a valuable skill and nobody is going to pay you more for improving competence at this level.

Therefore, it becomes necessary to articulate and lay down the definition of deliberate practice in knowledge work.

Deliberate practice (DP) in knowledge work is any particular exercise that’s designed to stretch your ability, a little bit beyond your current capability.

Knowledge workers are bad at working. Unlike every other skilled labor class in the history of skilled labor, we lack a culture of systematic improvement. If you’re a professional chess player, you’ll spend thousands of hours dissecting the games of better players. If you’re a promising young violin player, you’ll attend programs like Meadowmount’s brutal 7-week crash course, where you’ll learn how to wring every last drop of value from your practicing. If you’re a veteran knowledge worker, you’ll spend most of your day answering e-mail.

A lack of clarity of DP in knowledge work is one of the biggest reasons knowledge workers end up doing shallow work. However, this very lack of clarity is an amazing opportunity to excel and beat your competition. Here’s why.

The techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to “highly developed fields” such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation. The principles of deliberate practice do not work nearly as well for professions in which there is “little or no direct competition, such as gardening and other hobbies”, and “many of the jobs in today’s workplace– business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on.”

Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again. But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors. For most creative domains, the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and consistently replicable behaviors are in fact detrimental to success.

Artists are under constant pressure to surpass what they and others have done before, and it is precisely this pressure that drives them toward ever increasing originality. Artistic products can lose their “shock value” quickly.

If you’re in a field that has clear rules and objective measures of success — like playing chess, golf, or the violin — you can’t escape thousands of hours of DP if you want to be a star. But what if you’re in a field without these clear structures, such as knowledge work, writing, or growing a student club?

To become a grandmaster requires 5000 hours of DP. But to become a highly sought-after CRM database whiz, or to run a money-making blog, or to grow a campus organization into national recognition, would probably require much, much less.

Why? Because when it comes to DP in these latter field, your competition is sorely lacking.

Unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on DP. Instead, they’re putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion. Perhaps if they’re ambitious, they’ll try to come in earlier and leave later in a bid to outwork their peers.

But as with the intermediate-level chess players, this elbow-grease method can only get you so far.

Most active professionals will get better with experience until they reach an “acceptable level,” but beyond this point continued “experience in [their field] is a poor predictor of attained performance.”
If you integrate any amount of DP into your regular schedule, you’ll be able to punch through the acceptable-level plateau holding back your peers. And breaking through this plateau is exactly what is required to train an ability that’s both rare and valuable.

Here’s why deliberate practice is necessary for knowledge work.

The potential benefit of actually deliberately trying to stretch your skills can swap any natural abilities or differences when it comes to the type of work we see in knowledge work.

If you can adopt a culture of systematic improvement, similar to what’s common in other skilled fields, you can potentially accelerate your career far beyond your inbox-dwelling, discomfort-avoiding peers (and cultivate a passion for your livelihood in the process).

We must be careful in not falling into the trap of repetition of things we are already good at.

The key thing is doing what you already know repeatedly isn’t deliberate practice. This is a massive trap for knowledge work. After the initial stage of learning the skills for the first time, people do what they already know again and again. That doesn’t make you better. If you aren’t stretching, you are not getting any better. You need to feel that strain on a regular basis.

A reason Millennials are frustrated at their workplace is not that they are not making an ‘impact‘, it is because their work is shallow.

Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes us feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling about responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).

But this type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicable, nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.

One way we can resolve this problem is by signing up for more deep work challenges as suggested by Cal Newport.

We need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

Deep work, if made the centerpiece of your knowledge work schedule, creates three key benefits:

1. Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.
2. An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.
3. Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.
A working life dedicated to deep work, in other words, is a professional life well-lived.

Deep work requires a clear image of the outcome you’re seeking and a clear understanding of why it’s valuable. A hazy goal is not enough to sustain your concentration at the needed levels.

Be specific about what success will look like and why that success is important. Keep in mind that it can take a surprising amount of research to define a real goal, so give this step the attention it requires.

Finding chunks that need a stretch, but are not so hard that you get permanently blocked, is non-trivial, but is also something that will improve with practice. Keep in mind that most knowledge workers implicitly go out of their way to avoid a feeling of stretch at all costs (because it’s uncomfortable and much less fun than replying to some more e-mails) so by seeking it out, you’ve already put yourself on a much more ambitious trajectory.

Here are some examples of deep work.

1. Having a daily blog where you express your point of view on a particular topic. Not only does this stretch your communication skills but, it also improves the act of metacognition. Over time, you will create a body of work that you are proud of.

2. Identifying your fears and resistance and using them as a compass to stretch your abilities. You can overcome these irrational fears by signing up for challenges pro bono or voluntarily.

3. Signing up for a reading challenge where you read books from other disciplines and that are a level above your current knowledge. Try to comprehend the ideas, write them down, cross-pollinate and connect the ideas or teach them to a layperson in a simple language.

Cal Newport also, suggests what DP looks like for fields that do not have a tradition of performance-optimization such as freelance writing, entrepreneurship, college, or knowledge work. 

Let me use myself, in my role as a theoretical computer scientist, as an example.  There are certain mathematical techniques that are increasingly seen as useful for the types of proofs I typically work on. What if I put aside one hour a day to systematically stretch my ability with these techniques?

I might identify a series of relevant papers of increasing complexity, and try to replicate the steps of their key theorem proofs without reading them in advance. When stuck, I might peek ahead for just enough hints to keep making progress (e.g., reading an induction hypothesis, but not the details of their inductive step).

The DP research tells me that this approach would likely generate large gains in my expertise. After a year of such deliberate study, I might even evolve into one of the experts on the topic in my community — a position that could yield tremendous benefits.


By piecing together a systematic approach to building a DP strategy for unconventional fields, I hope to identify an efficient path to the type of excellence that can be cashed in for remarkable rewards.



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