Ten Precepts of Perfect Practice

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You have probably heard “practice makes perfect.” You may even have heard coach Vince Lombardi retort “Practices does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.” But what makes practice perfect, and how can you perfect you practice?

Perfecting Your Practice

1. Where am I Going?
Many components of perfect practice seem obvious when stated out loud, yet they’re often ignored. The purpose of practice is improvement in some particular domain. If we miss this point, we end up “going to the library” or “going to the gym” without a clear outline of our mission objectives. Goals of all kinds benefit from being S.M.A.R.T goals: goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bounded. By stopping to create goals and testing them against the five S.M.A.R.T. criteria, your practice begins on the right foot.
2. How am I Doing?
Goals are necessary for perfect practice, but far from sufficient. Even the best goals are useless if they drop out of mind before the first practice session begins. Like a growing child marks his height on a door frame, goals are yardsticks you measure yourself against over and over to know you’re still on track to your ultimate aims. If posting your goals on your bathroom mirror or locker door helps, by all means take advantage of those repeated reminders. Measuring progress can be tricky. Sometimes it pays to have a coach or teacher to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.
3. Imagine then Measure
Visualizing success is a great way to start off any practice session. Review your goals and pick out one thing you’d like to achieve or improve this very session, then as vividly as you can, imagine yourself doing it better than ever before. This sets the tone for the session. As you conclude, review what actually happened and record your progress towards your goals to keep yourself motivated and recognize the fruits of perfect practice.
4. Oops, I Did it Again
Perfect practice is not flawless practice. The purpose of practice is to notice your mistakes, pick them apart, and find ways to stop making the same mistakes. If your practice is perfect, you should be able to say “today I learned more about how I mess up and how to fix it” at the end of every practice.
5. Your Attention, Please
Because goal-setting, visualizing, monitoring, and feedback are all attention-hungry tasks, perfect practice demands intense concentration. But our always-on, always-connected digital culture is threatening our focus continually if we don’t learn to turn it off and lock it out. For the duration of perfect practice, anything that’s not being practice needs to be put out of sight and out of mind. Smartphones, MP3 players, IM conversations, Facebook and Twitter are all mutually exclusive with perfect practice.
6. Rest as the Prelude to Perfect Practice
Many virtuoso musicians report they cannot practice for more than three hours every day. The problem isn’t physical exhaustion, but a loss of focus. The truly determined performers use naps to refill their mental reserves and build in multiple practice sessions each day. Perfect practice can quickly turn into futile, mindless plodding if you’re not rested enough to summon the energy to perform the essential perfect practice tasks of self-monitoring and attending to goals. Rest need not be equated with sloth if it sharpens your edge so you can once again achieve perfect practice.
7. Again, From the Top
Perfect practice take many repetitions, which is not at all the same thing as devoting a lot of time to practice. Ideal practice involves stuffing as many repetitions into a unit of time as possible. Knowing there is a limited amount of time available for deep concentration, the practice ritual needs to be streamlined to allow for the maximum number of performances that can be performed, monitored, evaluated, and revised. Standing in line during an athletic drill, resting one’s head on the textbook, or repeating the same task again and again without insight are all common ways we fall off the perfect practice bandwagon. Of course, once a practice session is optimized, doing more of those optimized sessions increases the total number of repetitions and accelerates the climb to mastery.
8. Are You For-Real?
Earlier I mentioned that the “R” in S.M.A.R.T. goals stands for “relevant,” which I would also extend to mean “realistic.” As much as possible, try to make practice look like the “real” performance situation you’re likely to encounter. Good students know to search for back tests to get a better read on the types of questions they’ll face in an exam. For the competitive student, few things are as frustrating as studying hard for one kind of test and being confronted with a completely different kind of evaluation. Distance runners think hard about the type of course they’ll be running, whether it’s hilly or flat, and how hot the weather will be, long before they get to the starting line.
9. Worst-Case Scenario
If practicing under realistic conditions is good, practicing under the most challenging conditions is even better. Airline pilots practice multiple-engine failure emergencies on a regular basis even though these events are exceedingly rare. I once heard a pilot remark that, when he did lose one of his two engines, he was unafraid and actually eager to step through the procedures he had practiced for years. Practicing for situations far harder than expected can give anyone a needed boost of confidence even when the stakes are high.
10. Bit by Bit
Most skills can be broken down into smaller parts. Music can be divided into verses, phrases, measures, and even individual notes. Because perfect practice involves maximizing repetitions, monitoring performance, and moving towards goals, one good strategy is to decompose the skill being practiced into its “micro-skills” and practice them in isolation. Once all the micro-skills are mastered, they can be reassembled into the final sequence and then the entire sequence can be perfected.

Your Turn

What are you practicing? And how have you turned ordinary practice into more-perfect practice? Please feel free to share your practice stories with other readers in the comments below.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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