Tony Schwartz’s blog post on Harvard Business Review, Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything, just appeared in my Google Reader. The post is based on the advice Tony extols in his new book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, and I feel that a lot of it is wise enough to pass on here:
In his work with executives at dozens of organizations, Tony has found that it’s possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we do a muscle: push past your comfort zone, and then rest. Aristotle had it exactly right 2000 years ago when he said: “We are what we repeatedly do.” By relying on highly specific practices, you can dramatically improve skills ranging from empathy, to focus, to creativity, to summoning positive emotions.
According to Tony, here are a few strategies for learning to excel at any task:
Do the hardest work first
We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That’s when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.
Do so without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.
Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses
The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.
The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to build rituals — specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.
Thanks to Tony for providing some solid guidance that goes beyond the non-specific cliché “practice makes perfect!”