An over-reliance on simply logging hours spent towards study can harm study habits. We explore why focusing on deliberate practice instead is the proper path towards mastery.

10,000 hours. That’s all it takes to become an expert, they say.

‘They’ is actually Malcom Gladwell, author of the 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. It’s where the idea of the ‘10,000 hours rule’ originated. Gladwell explained that if someone spent 20 hours per week for 10 years studying and practicing a particular skill, they would have enough experience and understanding on the subject to be considered a world-class expert.

While simple and effective on the surface, this popular notion fails to explain just what exactly those 10,000 hours should be filled with. Take for instance learning how to play the guitar. Most novices will begin by learning how to read music, applying specific notes and chords to the instrument, and then play those notes and chords repeatedly across various songs. According to Gladwell’s opinion, as long as you’ve logged approximately 10,000 hours, you should be an expert. Right?

Why over relying on time doesn’t work.

In reality, hours alone do not directly equate with positive results. In the quest for 10,000 hours, momentum can often be overtaken by stagnant repetition and meaningful progress languishes, all the while discouraging advanced learning and retention. Instead of advancing to learning rhythm and tune, or the proper use of gear and tone, the guitar player gets stuck playing familiar and fun songs over and over again, in turn diminishing the ability to progress effectively.

The same concept applies to studying. We tend to cater to our own preferences and insecurities, whether subconsciously or consciously, and engage in repetitive examination instead of challenging ourselves in areas where we’re less comfortable. We over rely on our strengths while dismissing our weaknesses, in turn generating less than meaningful study. One way to counteract this challenge is through the implementation of deliberate practice.

Instead of hours logged, focus on deliberate practice.

While anyone can read a textbook or novel and recall certain elements, deliberate practice encourages readers to establish specific goals, dive deeper into the material, and in turn recall more precise details. Deliberate practice is a purposeful and systematic method of practice or study versus a laissez faire approach with less structure. It focuses on a disciplined and methodical approach to retain new information, and it’s especially powerful for students in preparing for testing or exams.

There are many tactics that can be implemented by deliberate practice, and strategies can vary wildly depending on the mastery type. What is constant is a dedication towards incremental improvement and being comfortable with reassessment.

Here are a handful of specific tactics that define deliberate practice:

  • Stop avoiding your weaknesses and get out of your comfort zone. We all wish we could go to the gym more and read all the books on our bookshelf, but the reality is we find ourselves getting into a natural groove, even if it’s not the best for us. We find comfort in the familiar and easily attainable. The same can be said for studying. We hone in on areas we’re more familiar with, or we find more enjoyable, and we put off new things that are overwhelming. Leaning into the unknown and the discomfort is the first step in mastery. Lean into yes.
  • Map out your destination and the stops you must make to get there. Just like getting from Point A to Point B in a car can require fuel stops, stopping at traffic lights, or re-routing based on traffic, your journey to mastery will require mapping out a general plan of how you’re going to get there. Write out a realistic plan with sequential steps in how you’re going to approach learning a new area of study. The guitar player cannot start at playing a full song; they must break down the song into each of its parts and master them one at a time.
  • Add rest stops and new destinations to your map as you progress. No matter how much we plan, things are always going to change along the way, and that’s okay while studying! If you’ve found a new area of study that you didn’t include before, add it in. If you realized a certain stop wasn’t necessary, readjust. The best way to approach a journey is to be open to change along the way.
  • Avoid mindless repetition. Simply skimming or re-reading the same material over and over again does not encourage retainment. One way to ensure you have understood and retained the information you’ve read is to quiz yourself at the end of each page read. What were the key components you just read? Once you’ve successfully understood a concept, move on to the next one. Upon understanding the next concepts, go back and quiz yourself to ensure you’ve retained all the information.
  • Remove distractions and become fully absorbed. Place your phone out of reach, find a good music playlist, or a nice quiet room, and get to work. Give studying 100% of your attention. Set strict parameters for when you’re studying and when you’re not. If you don’t, quick distractions can easily turn into prolonged break times, or turn into a loss of motivation altogether. There’s a time for study, and there’s a time for a break. Make sure you are giving 100% of yourself to each activity.
  • Once you believe you understand a concept, explain it back to yourself, or to a friend. A true sign of mastery in a subject is being able to explain it to someone who has no understanding or knowledge on the topic. Especially for complex concepts, being able to take a step back and explain how it works, or its purpose, will help you wrap your head around the entirety of the concept. If you trip up on any parts, go back and refresh yourself on those topics.

One way Pocket Prep integrates deliberate study into our testing preparation is through the ‘Subject Insights’ feature. This feature allows users to understand areas where they are doing well, and areas where there could be an improvement. By highlighting distinct strengths and weaknesses, ‘Subject Insights’ can help studiers redirect their focus and energy to the most beneficial areas.

Choosing to enact deliberate study is what separates the experts from the average. Research has continually shown that the quality of time spent mastering a subject is far more important than the total hours logged. Mastery is a process. It takes time, attention and dedication. As the old saying goes, the greatest things in life take time and patience.