5 minute read

Chess at StarbucksAt this time of year, you hear a lot about New Year's resolutions.

This year, I was happy to see a lot of people saying "New Year's resolutions don't work." We all know that's true from personal experience, but these folks were referencing a growing understanding about how learning and skill-building take place. Most of what we now know about how the nervous system works flies in the face of changing through the strength of your willpower alone.

I urge you to leave that mindset behind in 2012.

Instead, you should think about any changes, anything you want to learn, as slowing building a skill, with small steps you can practice, building like a snowball, until you're doing great new things without trying.

Here's how that works.

Deliberate Practice

You often hear people say, "practice makes perfect", but the reality is a little more complicated. One retort is "practice makes permanent", which speaks to the way that your nervous system ingrains what you do over and over so that it becomes close to automatic.

If you actually want to learn something new this year, you need get smart about how you build your new skills. The model that captures this the clearest is the deliberate practice model.

Deliberate practice has four components:

  • You need a framework for understanding what to practice -- this is where seeking out guidance from someone who has mastered that skill or taught others to do so is critical.
  • You have to practice a very specific skill because you need a high degree of focus -- trying to juggle two or three new things at a time won't work.
  • You need immediate feedback on your practice.
  • You need to practice over and over and over again, a lot.

The irony for most of us is that we want to get better at something, so we just go out and do it. It's like trying to drive somewhere new without a map. You'll base your decisions, turn-by-turn, on old information about places you've been before, which may work pretty well, but clearly won't get you there with the same directness as having a roadmap to guide you.

So, step one of any new deliberate practice endeavor that you seek out is to find the right map. Get good guidance, regular feedback, and keep practicing, biting off a little at a time.

The only other thing you need to worry about, once you have the deliberate practice cycle down, is staying in a healthy "learning zone" as you take on new skills.

Recognizing Fight-or-Flight

A natural part of trying to master any new skill is working beyond your current capacity. The problem is that pushing yourself too far into new territory will be counter-productive. When you exceed your limites, your body initiates the fight-or-flight response and you will no longer engage in productive learning.

One of the core Z Health training principles is learning to identify the onset of the stress response in any activity. When you recognize the signs of fight-or-flight, you learn to dial back your training.

For example, you may find:

  • Your heart rate speeds up.
  • Your breathing gets heavy.
  • Your face becomes flushed or pale or alternates between them.
  • Your mouth dries up.
  • You move toward the fetal position in subtle ways -- your shoulders hike up, your facial muscles contract, you draw your arms in to protect your body.
  • You stop hearing what's going on around you.
  • You get "tunnel vision" and lose your peripheral field.

When you experience these things, or more likely, when someone points out to you that they are happening or you realize it in hindsight, you know you've exceeded your capacity to integrate new information in that moment.

You can see the poise and relaxation that comes through smart, modulated training in this boxing clip. Obviously, boxing can be a brutal sport, but watch the way that this training is structured, to stretch him in different ways, testing his visual skills, playing with his threat level and capacity to integrated movement information.

You know that the training is done correctly because of how graceful and relaxed he is able to be under this kind of pressure:

As you work through this process, probably without an army of coaches, camera crews, and fans, you'll have to look back on the experience and break down how things came together and what you could do to decrease the threat level next time.

Another one of my favorite examples of this is a college football coach who plays crowd noise over the loudspeaker during practice sessions. He wants his players to simulate game conditions as much as possible.

Imagine the gradual increase in game-like threat levels as they learn new skills.

Maybe the coach introduces a new play in the locker room. He maps it out for the players and they get the idea. Next, they head to the field without pads on and with no defense trying to stop them. Little by little, the coach can introduce new elements that demand concentration, and most importantly from our point of view, integration of new information.

If you can control a situation so that you can selectively increase the amount of information -- visual, auditory, spatial, or physical -- that you need to integrate to master a skill, then you will be able to learn anything in a smooth, steady manner.

So, what's it going to be in 2012?