Study Hacks Blog

The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow

April 9th, 2012 · 67 comments

Feeling Low on Flow

In a trio of recent articles, I emphasized that flow is dangerous (see here and here and here). It feels good, so we’re tempted to seek it out, but it doesn’t actually help us get better: the key process in creating a remarkable life.

Most of you liked this concept, while a few of you thought I had missed the boat. Here’s an example of the latter sentiment:

I disagree with [your] point. Flow is the experience of being lost in one’s effort. That can easily happen when one is highly challenged and enjoying the intense effort.

There was also quite a bit of discussion on what, exactly, “flow” means, with enough different points of view presented that I soon felt that the whole issue was becoming muddied and difficult to wade through.

Then someone sent me an article penned by Anders Ericsson — the psychologist who innovated the study of how we get better by introducing the idea of deliberate practice. In this article, which was published in 2007 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Ericsson addresses the difference between flow and deliberate practice:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In other words, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better. There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement. (This is not the say, however, that you should not seek flow in addition to deliberate practice as a strategy to recharge, or experience it as unavoidable when you put your deliberately honed skills to use.)

Ericsson concludes by echoing a warning familiar to Study Hacks readers:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

He said it. Not me.


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by Kofoed)

The Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

March 28th, 2012 · 40 comments

A Deliberate Morning

This morning I finished my notes for an upcoming lecture in my graduate-level theory of computation course.

There are two points I wanted to make about these notes…

  1. The process of creating them is very hard. On average, it takes me between 2.5 to 3 hours to prepare a lecture. This preparation requires that I work with absolutely zero distractions as the material is too difficult to be internalized if my attention is divided in any way. Furthermore, the work is not particularly pleasant. Learning things that are this hard does not put you in a flow state. It instead puts you in a state of strain, similar to what is experienced by a musician learning a new technique.
  2. I have gotten better at this process. The lecture I prepared today was the twenty-first such lecture I have prepared this semester. The earliest lectures were a struggle in the sense that my mind rebelled at the strain required and lobbied aggressively for  distraction. This morning, by contrast, I was able to slip into this hard work with little friction, tolerate the strain for three consecutive hours, then come out on the other side feeling a sense of satisfaction.

Recently, we have been discussing the deliberate practice hypothesis, which argues that knowledge workers can experience big jumps in value if they apply deliberate practice techniques to their work. My three-month experiment in timed, forced concentration provides a nice case study of this idea. I am now better at mastering hard concepts than I was before. The mental acuity developed from this practice translates over to the research side of my job, helping me more efficiently understand existing results and more deeply explore my own ideas.

To toss the ball back in your court, imagine what would happen if you replaced “graduate-level theory of computation” with a prohibitively complicated but exceptionally valuable topic in your own field, and then tackled it with the same persistence…


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

How I Used Deliberate Practice to Destroy my Computer Science Final

December 28th, 2011 · 17 comments

The Deliberate Student

I just received the e-mail reproduced below from a computer science major who successfully applied the deliberate practice hypothesis to his academic work.

This is good food for thought for students home for Christmas break. As you think about your fall and make plans for your spring, remind yourself of the following essential truth:

When it comes to studying, there’s a huge difference between doing work and doing useful work. If you’re not putting a lot of thought into navigating this distinction, you’re probably mired in the former.

On to the e-mail…

  • “I’m a computer science major with little background in programming. I took a data structures course this semester, and scored below average on my midterm.”
  • “I actually studied pretty hard for that exam, but obviously failed to make the distinction between ‘hard work’ and ‘hard to do work’.”
  • “Last week, I decided to use deliberate practice to weed out my weak points by going over the more difficult problem sets in extreme detail. I ended up breaking the curve for the final.”[Cal: see here and here and here for more on applying deliberate practice to master technical topics.]
  • “I think the reason I failed to fully reap the benefits of deliberate practice on my midterm was that I avoided it (subconsciously), because it was mentally taxing. But that’s one of the reasons why it works.”


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by JSmith Photo)

Complicate the Formula: John McPhee’s Deliberate Practice Strategy

November 16th, 2011 · 42 comments

The Mathematical Logic of John McPhee

In the nineteen-sixties, a young John McPhee had made a name at The New Yorker as a profile man. As McPhee explained in a recent essay, writing a profile is an exercise in the peripheral. You interview everyone who can “shed light on the life and career of [your subject]” until “you meet yourself coming the other way.” Then you’re ready to write.

McPhee was really good at this process.

He was also really quite bored.

“I was a little desperate to escalate,” he recalls.

In search of escalation, McPhee complicated the formula. If the standard profile focuses on one subject, why not, he thought, try to profile two subjects who shared some peripheral connections? That is, go from A to  A + B.

This challenge lead to “Levels of the Game,” a dual profile, published in The New Yorker, of two American tennis stars who met in the semifinals of the first US Open.

“The double profile worked out,” McPhee recalls, “and my aspirations went into vaulting mode.”

So he complicated things again, pinning onto the bulletin board above his desk a card with a new, more daring formula: ABC/D.

His idea was to profile four people. The first three, A, B, and C, would all be connected through the fourth, D.

For his D, McPhee choose famed environemntalist David Bower, and then went searching for enemies of the environment to fill the roles of A, B, and C.

These efforts led to Encounters with the Archdruid, which was promptly nominated for a National Book Award.

The Deliberate Practice Hypothesis

I’m telling this story because it provides a sample answer to a question many of you have asked.

Recently, I’ve been exploring what we can call the deliberate practice hypothesis. This hypothesis says if you apply deliberate practice (a technique well known to athletes, musicians, and chess players) to the world of knowledge work, you will experience a significant jump in ability.

The natural follow-up question, of course, is how does one apply deliberate practice if you work at a desk?

McPhee’s strategy provides one possible answer out of uncountably many. He reduced his work to a formula so he could then purposefully complicate it. This approach stretched his abilities more — I assume — than if he had simply set out with a goal of “writing better.”

More generally speaking, my guess is that once you start looking closer at the lives of true craftsmen, these types of deliberate strategies will be common.

Perhaps its time to start looking…

(Photo by tnarik)


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:


On Great Teachers and the Remarkable Life: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

February 8th, 2010 · 38 comments


Predicting Greatness

The impact of teachers is profound. If you rank the world’s countries by their students’ academic performance, the US is somewhere in the middle. In a 2009 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell notes that replacing “the bottom six percent to ten percent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality” could be enough to close the gap between our current position and the top ranked countries.

“[Y]our child is actually better off in a ‘bad’ school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher,” Gladwell concludes.

But there’s a problem: “No one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.”

Or at least, according to Gladwell.

Teach for America, a non-profit that recruits outstanding college graduates to teach in low-income school districts, disagrees. This organization is fanatical about data.  For the past 20 years, they’ve gathered massive amounts of statistics on their teachers in an attempt to figure out why some succeed in the classroom and some fail. They then work backwards from these results to identify what traits best predict a potential recruit’s success.

As Amanda Ripley reports in a comprehensive look inside the Teach For America process, published in the Atlantic Monthly, the results of this outcome-based approach to hiring are “humbling.”

“I came into this with a bunch of theories,” the former head of admissions at Teach for America told Ripley. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”

When Teach for America first started 20 years ago, applicants were subjectively scored by interviewers on 12 general traits, like “communication” ability. (A sample interview question: “What is wind?”)  By contrast, if you were one of the 35,000 students who applied in 2009 (a pool that included 11% of Ivy League seniors), 30 data points, gathered from a combination of questionnaires, demonstrations, and interviews were fed into a detailed quantitative model that returned a hiring recommendation.

This data-driven approach seems to work.  As Ripley reports, in 2007, 24% of Teach for America teachers advanced their students at least one and a half grade levels or more. Two years later, as the organization’s models continued to evolve, this number has almost doubled to 44%.

I’m fascinated by Teach For America for a simple reason: the traits they discovered at the core of great teaching are unmistakably a variant of deliberate practice — not the pure, coach-driven practice of professional athletes and chess grandmasters, but a hearty, adaptable strain that’s applicable to almost any field.

Put another way, these outstanding teachers may have unwittingly cracked the code for generating a remarkable life

Read more »

Quick Hits: Deliberate Practice for Writers, Entrepreneurs, and Hollywood Superstars

January 30th, 2010 · 66 comments

Quick hits is an occasional feature where I take a breather between my epic big idea posts to share ideas, ask questions, and in general provide a catch-all place for me to catch up with you. 

Deliberate Practice in Unconventional PlacesThinking Man

I’m not the only one with deliberate practice on my mind. A variety of bloggers have been exploring this powerful idea…

Do You Love What You Do? If So, I Want to Talk with You.

You may have noticed by now my infatuation with the science of career satisfaction. I want to temper all this fancy lab learning with some good ‘ole fashioned on the ground reporting.

With this in mind, if you’re someone who loves what you do — the type of person people point to and say “that’s what I want my life to be like” — please consider sending me an e-mail at author [at]

I want to hear your story.

Use the Comment Thread of this Post to Ask Me Anything!

Speaking of e-mail, if you have a question, comment, or devastating insult to hurl my direction, and you don’t want to wait the 1 – 2 weeks it can sometimes take me to get through my blog e-mails, leave it as a comment on this post. For the next few days I’ll check and respond to these comments regularly.

(Photo by envios)

Another Tale of Finding Depth in a Locked Down Life

May 7th, 2020 · 28 comments

In my last post, I profiled a novelist who took advantage of the lockdown to slow down; giving herself more than enough time and space to inhabit her manuscript revisions. This shift allowed her to tap a “mysterious” source of creativity and finish her work ahead of schedule.

In response, a reader sent me some notes on how he had similarly leveraged the disruption induced by the lockdown to experiment with a deeper, more deliberate lifestyle, despite the fact that he has a typical email-bound knowledge work job and two young kids at home.

Here’s his schedule:

Read more »

More on Cultivating a Deep Life: Mindset

April 20th, 2020 · 51 comments

In yesterday’s post, I discussed an approach for systematically increasing the depth in your life. It involved creating a monthly plan that identifies specific behaviors designed to amplify things that matter and reduce the things that distract you from these values.

Today, I want to add a caveat. In my many years experimenting (often publicly) with the elements of the deep life, I’ve come to accept that the right mindset is just as important as the right plan.

You can have a well-designed checklist of meaningful activities you’re trying to integrate into your routine, but if your background hum of activity is still oscillating wildly between frenetic stress and numbing distraction, your life is anything but deep. You need instead to see your entire day differently.

This mindset is well-summarized by the advice I’ve been giving off and on since the early days of this blog:

  • Do less.
  • Do better.
  • Know why.

Let’s elaborate the elements of this self-improvement catechism one by one:

Read more »