One thing I’ve learned from studying cognition and learning is that what feels productive often slows us down. Cramming for a test feels like I’m learning a ton of information in a short period, but I’ll forget it all shortly after the exam. And juggling three tasks at once makes me feel extra efficient, but I’m actually just doing everything worse and slower than if I did them one at a time.
Thomas M. Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life, shares a similar message. In learning and improving at our work, we chase what feels like accomplishment, but we’ll make more progress by focusing on the learning process itself.
Sterner started studying music early in life, and as he grew up into a professional musician, piano technician, author, and entrepreneur, he noticed how his relationship with practice changed. Based on this experience and research into meditation, cognition, and performance, he’s written the book to “remind you that life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort to refine the motions, both physical and mental, that compose our days.”
You have to love practice.
He asserts that we really improve at a skill when we view practice as its own reward. He identifies all the ways that our society and culture keep us focused on the end-game and then provides strategies learning to love practice for itself.
Sterner observes that we’re taught to value the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow more than the hunt to find it. School teaches us to work for a grade. Sports teach us to focus on a win. Work is about checking off tasks or milestones. There’s always a goal post, and we’re not supposed to happy until we get there.
Just look at how much we love instant gratification. If only the destination matters, why not skip the journey whenever possible? But Sterner suggests that instant gratification leads to “’short-term satisfaction’ because anything we acquire in this way has no real, lasting value to us.”
So what can we do? Sterner advises taking a new perspective on learning by viewing the practice as the reward and the goal as a marker of direction – what we’re moving toward with our practice.
But practice is no fun, right? It’s work.
Well, according to Sterner, who’s done a lot of practicing in his life, if you can drop your impatience to reach the goal and the constant mental judgement that usually characterize a practice session, you can focus on just the activity itself. As a result, practice becomes relaxing, absorbing, and enjoyable.
And if you love practicing, you’ll do it more. So you’ll get better faster at whatever you want to learn. That kind of makes sense.
Sterner writes, “When we subtly shift toward both focusing on and finding joy in the process of achieving instead of having a goal, we have gained a new skill. And once mastered, it is magical and incredibly empowering.”
But there’s a catch. We’ve been focused on the end-goal, encouraging our impatience, and judging ourselves harshly for a lifetime. We’re not going to change overnight.
Use the “Four S’s” to make it fun.
So Sterner suggests a few strategies to help you make the adjustment. The book has plenty of good advice, but he wraps it up with the “Four S’s.”
- Simply your goals.
- Keep them Small.
- Work in Short intervals.
- Go Slow.
Basically, if you’re working on staying focused and present while you practice, you make it easier on yourself by following the Four S’s. Try to accomplish just one simple, small goal through your practice and work for just a few minutes.
It may also seem unusual that he advocates going slowly, especially when we spend so much time trying to get things done faster. But Sterner relates his experience of how he approached a very busy day as a piano technician. Although he had a seemingly impossible amount of work to complete against a deadline, he made himself proceed slowly and deliberately, paying attention to each step. He not only completed the work but also had enough time for a leisurely lunch break.
The “practicing mind” can help refocus learning at work.
Although the book doesn’t specifically focus on improving job skills, I think the concepts can help trainers and learners make more progress, both by focusing better on our daily tasks and by refocusing activities on the learning, not the achievement. If Sterner’s right, we can do better work and enjoy it more as a result.
Thanks to Thomas M. Sterner for an enjoyable read full of optimism for us reluctant practicers.
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