There is a multitude of things that tend to cloud our judgement of when we’ve mastered –actually mastered- something at a certain level of skill and are ready to progress to the next step. This difficulty of self-assessing our skills, sprinkled with the excitement of reaching that shiny end-goal -mastery- that we have in mind, makes for an almost irresistible temptation to take our practice to the next level – before we’re actually ready to do so.
Problem: We have cloudy judgement of our current level of skill and tend to be over-tempted and impatient to take things to the next level.
Catch: Practicing at a level too far above your current one isn’t efficient – by repeatedly making-, thereby in fact “learning,” mistakes it’s quite the opposite.
Solution: Be extremely aware of your current level using the 3-times-in-a-row principle. Be strict with yourself when assessing the level you currently have and deciding on the one you are going to practice at. Harness the power of slow and don’t go too fast, too soon.
Idea Inspired By/Related To/Stolen From: The Art of Learning
“Too much hurry will bury your goals. Too much haste will make you waste. Too quick race will cripple your pace. Be patient.” – Israelmore Ayivor
“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” – Wyatt Earp
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Elliot
Nugget 4 – Don’t go too fast, too soon (small incremental steps)
Learning and the forming of Habits
Learning something and forming a habit are so similar that I’m just going to flat out state they are in fact the same thing.
A habit is something you don’t really have to think about that much (or at all) to do. Basically, when you’re trying to learn something, that is what you’re striving for, right?
Or something that comes close.
So how does one form a habit and become a master?
Carve out your brain
This is obviously heavily simplified, as neuro-science is no joke, but -in a nutshell- performing anything really, comes down to just a whole bunch of neurons firing from point A, traveling to be received at point B.
Repeating a certain thing makes it steadily sink in to both your mental and physical being and skillset, by (quite literally) carving out and strengthening these neurological pathways inside your brain. Thereby, the repeated task becomes a habit – something that you have to think about less and less while executing it gradually better.
In practice, you’ll soon note that after a few rounds of repetition the thing already starts to sink in and executing the skill gradually becomes easier.
Think of it like a path formed by walking through high grass or an even more bewildered, forestal surrounding.
Take this exact same path the next day and the day after that and the grass will flatten while branches make way. The dirt and soil might even start to come to the surface after a while, making it look more and more like an actual path.
The more often you take this route -repeat it- the more “path-like” the route will become and the easier it will be to walk.
By repeating a certain task or skill, the “road” that neurons travel inside your brain isn’t merely being carved, but even -actually- getting “paved” by a substance that isolates the route increasingly with each and every repetition. This allows for lesser and lesser neurons and energy being lost along the way, in effect, making more neurons reach their goal with gradually more efficiency.
Mistakes Become Habits Too
An important thing to be take note of and remember when facing the temptation of going too fast, too soon is that anything you repeat behaves in this very same way.
In this sense, your brain doesn’t discriminate between a “right” or “wrong” execution. In other words, repeating an incorrect, bad, thing, will become a habit too. And a bad one at that.
Even the tiniest mistake – the non-form of perfect execution, doing something exactly as you’d planned at a certain level (tempo) – will take its place in the “carve” too, gets carried over to the next -harder- level (tempo) and will be even more difficult to (not) play and correct there.
When going too fast, we’re much more likely to make -thus learn– these mistakes.
Think of trying to sprint through the grass (or forest) blindfolded. Would you still carve out such a neat little path? Probably not. You’d flatten many unwanted blades outside of the shortest-route path from A to B.
And you’ll likely trip or bump into something.
This is so obvious that I almost feel stupid stating it. Yet, better safe than sorry.
Do not try to lift 300 pounds when you can only do 50. Do not train for hours if the only “situps” you’ve ever done were to off the couch. Do not try to run a marathon if you’ve previously only taken the dog for a walk.
Injuries occur when people stretch themselves too far outside of their current level. Injuries take time to recover from. Time in which you cannot train. Ergo: you’ll waist time that you could have used effectively to practice and improve. Don’t injure yourself.
Do NOT go too fast (far, heavy, often, much) too soon.
Of course you can run that marathon. Just remember to eat the elephant small manageable bite, by small manageable bite.
As I probably don’t have to tell you unlearning something is a tedious process. Ever tried to kick a bad habit? Yup.
It’s because of this “carving and paving way” of the brain, that it is pretty (I mean very) hard to unlearn or change a bad habit – as you might be well aware of – since it actually requires to break out of that neatly isolated pathway and send the neurons in another direction. You can imagine it’s not easy for them to take a completely new route, right through the dense forest, when there is such a nicely paved road right there to take as well.
This is also the reason addictions are so hard to kick. They’re basically like “super-habits,” with strongly carved, paved, underground-tunnel-highways in your brain. Unfortunately, they lead straight to an unwanted destiny.
Since unlearning bad habits of any kind is hard, in practicing, it’s wise to always be very aware and strict about executing the right thing – and not to repeat the wrong thing. At least not too often.
The power of going slow
There is a story about martial artist that perfect a skill by jumping in and out of a shallow hole in the sand. Each day, they dig the hole just a tiny bit deeper, but only so much that they actually don’t really notice the change over the previous day.
These almost unnoticeable-, and therefore easy-to-manage increments obviously build up over time, while in the process -since it’s almost exactly the same as the previous level- virtually no mistakes are made.
Do not underestimate the power of going slow.
You might feel that when you want to become super quick, for instance in playing some impressively fast, musical lick on your instrument, you should get it up to speed asap and practice it fast too, right? Well, yes and no. But more so, no.
Imagine for a moment walking over that path again. How do you think, would it impact the path when you’re walking very slowly, each time putting your foot exactly there where there’s still a few blades of grass standing? You’d be able to securely, neatly flatten the path. When running? Not so much.
This works in practice too. Going slow actually makes sure you are repeating the correct thing, steadily, mindfully, aware (both are qualities that add a great deal to the skill sinking in even better), not making any mistakes, gradually making you master the performance.
So can you never go fast then? Yes obviously you can. Just like the martial artists that make the hole gradually deeper, you can go gradually faster, heavier, or whatever is relevant to your practice.
The key is just to be absolutely aware of your current level, finding its limit and only go onestep above that. Not two.
Exercise / Getting Practical
Finding your pinnacle
In practice, you want to be looking for your capability-limits, to keep the learning effectiveness at its highest.
However, you do not want to cross that threshold into the territory where you constantly make mistakes and “step outside of the path” as this will have an adverse effect.
To find this limit, set the tempo really low, then go up step by step.
Executing something at an insanely low tempo may seem basic. Trivial even. However, as mentioned above, don’t under-estimate the power of executing something perfectly at a basic, low tempo. If you’re finding this hard, consider Tai Chi. No, not think about it. Actually look for a class and join it.
Is there a melody, lick, pattern, chord progression (or any other type of skill) that you’ve either just learned, are still earning, like to learn or feel could use some improvement?
Set the tempo ridiculously low and make sure you can execute it perfectly. This means making it come out in the exact way you envision it, including expression, feel, technique, dynamics etc. Immerse yourself in the execution.
Easy? Great! Crank the tempo up a notch, but only a small notch. And try again.
Go up gradually until you hit the tempo where you start making mistakes. Then go back one step.
The 3-times-in-a-row principle
Determining your exact level of skill can be hard. When have you mastered something? Played it correctly yesterday, now it doesn’t seem to work anymore?
Many factors play a role in this. Focus, awareness, motivation, emotional state, fatigue, stress, fitness, energy levels etc.
It doesn’t really matter all that much how good you “normally” or “previously” were able to perform, it’s about your current level in your current state.
To find that limit of capability, I like to apply the “3 times in a row” principle. It eliminates the chance for “lucky shots” and tests whether you are capable of keeping focus and awareness.
Can you do something flawless three times in a row? You can proceed.
The larger-scale takeaway | Summary
To train most effectively, look for a pace or level of resistance that is at the very limits of your capability, which you are able to manage only with full focus, attention and effort. This will amplify the above effects, carving and paving faster and harder, due to greater force put on the path.
Similar – Further Reading About This:
The Art of Learning
- Sign up for a free trial to listen to its “Blinks” (Summary) on Blinkist (what’s Blinkist?)
- Get the original on Amazon (UK):
More recommended books about learning:
- The Four Hour Chef – Tim Ferriss
- Mastery – Robert Greene
- Peak – Anders Ericsson
All are available to listen to on Blinkist (what’s Blinkist?)