Deliberate Practice, Habits and Rituals

A conversation with friends at dinner made me think about deliberate practice a little bit more tonight. I have been thinking about Habits and Rituals for quite some time. Countless articles and books dissect genius and find out that the success is basically nothing but an outcome of “deliberate practice”. It is said that if you practice anything deliberately for 10,000 hours you would be one of the very few masters of that thing on this planet. I believe it’s completely true. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this and everyday some blog post talks about this.

If we all knew that the secret of success is deliberate practice why aren’t we all super stars in our chosen field already? Because it’s far more harder to do that than to say it. I mean the practice may not be that hard at all, but the deliberate part of it is definitely hard. I have been reading Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement. It’s a very interesting idea of looking at our lives from the perspective of *energy*. There are many ways we can divide up our lives. We humans can’t take the whole day by it’s own – we have our own way of chunking and handling our days. Some people divide it by tasks. There is a whole plethora of books, techniques, like GTD,  about how to best manage tasks. Some people divide it by time – instead of taking up a task and doing it, they spend certain amount of time on the task at hand, once the time is up they relax take a break and may be decide to spend another chunk of time on it – Pomodoro technique is one of the many available ones.

But Tony Schwartz talks about dividing it up based on energy. He doesn’t completely define or care about how enthusiastic you are at any given time or whether it’s physical energy etc – but it’s more subtle than that. He talks about how we have certain energy (a mix of physical, mental and emotional) and we don’t have whole lot of it. So, his core idea is – to manage energy. How does he recommend it? Rituals.

Think about it, the most successful people around you definitely have some kind of ritual that makes them stand apart. The friends who are healthier than you are the ones who have a ritual of working out religiously. The people who are peaceful are the ones who attend meditation regularly. Similarly people who are good at doing what they do have some ritual which they follow – no matter what comes into their life.

So these rituals are very simple steps that these people follow to make them who they are. The cool thing about a ritual is – once you get a hang of it, once the body and mind gets used to it – its welcomed whole heartedly. And there are theories around that too (like 21 day rule, or 40 day rule etc). But rituals make or break a successful career, path etc.

Next comes habit – once you follow these rituals regularly and get over that hump of resistance – it’s all smooth sailing from there. It will become a habit. Habit is a mental shortcut. It’s what we do without thinking consciously. It’s the mind’s way to store up a whole lot of instructions in very few synapses. Habits can go both ways. Habits could be a mental short cut helping you or they could also be your blind spots. Habits that are resourceful are the ones that help us.

So what does it entail in the end? Why am I talking about this? I think the only way to make deliberate practice easy is to make a habit out of it. And the only way to create a successful habit is through a ritual. I think that pretty much is a sure path to success in whatever you are planning to do.

Being a programmer it’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the technology that flows by. I am like a kid in a toy store when it comes to all the technology around me (no not the gadgets part of it, but the problem solving part of it). But I can’t be successful in what I want to do if I don’t deliberately practice good problem solving in my career. To make my life easier, here are couple of rituals I have been following –

1. First 90 mins of my day are really important – when I wake up, my mind is fresh and anything I take up at that time just gets absorbed. So, for the first 90 minutes of my day I work on stuff that I love most – in this case – Cocoa programming.

2. Priority List – The night before I sleep I make a list of highest priority things for the next day. That way I can just get on the most important things immediately without wasting time.

3. Email and Chat – When I am focusing, I turn off my email and chat – that really helps.

4. While driving (alone) –  I take up a idea/concept I learned and try to explain it to the non-present 5 year old sitting next to me. Just try to break it down. (I know I know it’s kinda crazy, but it’s part of my ritual)

5. While idle – I try to chant and focus on my breath trying to stay in present.

There are couple of things I want to add to my ritual  like blogging – both personal and technical but I don’t want to overwhelm myself and lose it.

So there you go. The secret of any success is : Deiberate Practice <– Habits <– Rituals. Craft easy and simple rituals and pretty soon you will be successful at what you want to achieve.

Here are some of the books to explore if you want to learn more:

1. The Power of full Engagement

2. The now habit

3. War of Art (not the other Art of War)

Way to Mastery


1. Un-Conscious In-Competence: The Ignorance is bliss place. We are not aware of our incompetency.

2. Conscious In-Competence: The Insecurity land. We realize how unprepared we are and how ignorant we are. This is the place where all the newbies drop off or give up. This is the phase where life is showing you the mirror in your face.

3. Conscious Competence: The Knowledge is Power land. We are aware of our practice and goals.

4. Un-Conscious Competence: The Mastery land. The Genius level. Our skills become a habit. Woot Woot.

The Lure of Low Hanging Fruit

I have been experimenting in the past couple of weeks and also have been observing my day to day activities both at work and home. I realized that in default mode of life, I am always going for “Low hanging fruit” of either work or other day to day activities. I usually end up making a list of things to do on any given day and then try to knock them off from my list. As day passes, I try to clean up as many as I can. But behind all this, there was more to it. I watched to my horror how I would nicely avoid the most difficult and tough activities and finish up the easy tasks. This has bought some quite new insights into my psyche.

I used to think that it’s ok to clear off the small things first. That it is ok to get the low hanging fruit first. I thought that this would build in me enough confidence as I would go on with my bigger tasks of the day. I was a big fan of “baby steps”. What the hell was I thinking? So, basically what happened over a period of time (I am sure this has happened over quite a number of years) is that I got addicted to the act of clearing the low hanging fruit a lot. I was lured into taking up the job of perennial fruit picker! To my astonishment this is such an automatic action for me, I never stopped to think about it.

Now once I realized this, I started to prioritize stuff. But my mind is such a slave of my senses that everything I come across looks high priority to me. I made a huge list of priorities. Then I decided that I would go and make categories out of it. I realized that those categories can also have context and devices attached to it. Oh my my. Did you see what I have started again? I have become the fruit picker again – only this time it’s all about bettering the priority system I was trying to create.

Then I took my clue bat and whacked myself. I realized that this has been solved long time back by a great logician called “Occam”. His principle which is very famously called “Occam’s Razor” states:

All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the bestOccam’s Razor

So, now I sat down with my pen and paper, made a list of all the priority things I want to complete and cut it off after 3. Yes after 3. I made a promise to myself that if I can finish the top 3 priority things on my list then I am happy for the day. You won’t believe me that this did not go well me my old fruit picking self. After a lot of practice and self control I am working on only top 3 things at work and top 3 things at home. You would think that this has filled up my day with a lot of time. Wrong. I actually have a lot of difficulty in finishing all the top 3 important things in a day decently.

You see all these top 3 things have quite a high bar to cross. These are, sometimes, the toughest choices I have to make in a day or toughest meetings I have to do or mind wrenching work, inconvenient truths about me. I have come across couple of observations about these though.

  1. We are often encouraged in the name of “Efficiency” to adopt a life style of “fruit picker”. Followed over a period of time we turn into a professional low hanging fruit picker where we are continuously self gratifying by doing the things that matter a little to us. To over come this we have to look at “Effectiveness” instead of Efficiency. This focus would be very hard to do as it has become our habit to empathise with the mediocre me.
  2. The low hanging fruit habit develops because we lower our gratification level and there by also lower the achievement level. So, as we continue to do this, our view of ourselves and the world also goes down. We stop to have stellar thoughts. Creative ideas would be once a year thing.
  3. This creates the stupid competition of all the fruit pickers. There are a lot of low hanging fruit pickers around you. So what do you expect? There is a tremendous competition to get all the low valued tasks. And believe me that we usually get lost in this race and forget ourselves. That’s why the saying, “Theres’ always more room at the top“(sic) makes sense.
  4. This is employed very cleverly by modern technology. I have been working in Web technologies from past 9 years. Believe me when I say, we actually use the term “the customer is dumb, he doesn’t know anything” in our meetings and use it as a ruse to dumb down the application. We bring the bar so low that it’s easier for people to become addicted to low priority activities. Want proof?
    1. Facebook
    2. Twitter (this one actually has the fruit lying on the floor)
    3. Boo yah.
  5. I also believe that our thinking of prioritizing and then saving the important and hard items to the end comes from our thinking which is heavily influenced by Hollywood. We save the best for the end. We wait for the climax and the anti-climax. We coin terms like “good ending“, “Save the best for the last“. We have custom grown a whole culture based up on thinking where the best thing in the dinner is a dessert!
  6. We should also remember that we cannot apply this top 3 priority methodology to everything else we do. This works very well in a high performance work job. This would work well in a well organized event. This may not work very well in some very important things of your life. Try doing the top 3 things in the beginning next time you have sex.
  7. Now that I think of it, I am pretty sure that the Forbidden Fruit was a low hanging one. Adam started it all!

So, from what I learned in these past couple of weeks – all I could say is, if you are stuck with information overload and are confused about GTD, prioritizing and “remember the milk”. Just close your eyes, trust yourself more than anything or anyone else and then get the top 3 important things from your point of view done. See how by the end of day your courage level kicks up. You might actually start to enjoy it.

State of Mind

I am a learner. A constant learner. I read like 3 books at a time. Most of them I never finish, but I gather enough to enrich my mind. I am also someone who grapples with day to day activities. I have about 3 active projects going on and 5 in the ideas form. I have a task list which never ends. I am mostly thankful for having so much stuff. But being a sensitive person I am, I also tend to fall into guilt trap when I don’t live up to my expectations. I have a lot of stuff to do and my mind cannot relax – constantly reminding me how much I should be doing.

Recently while I was reading a book called “Reawakening the Spirit at Work” by Jack Hawley – I came across something very powerful. He says, if we strip off our tools, techniques etc and go ahead with the task at hand. The very primary and first tool/talent/thing we need is “State of Mind”. In other words – Our state of mind is our first tool at anytime. This is such a powerful thing. I also happen to learn from Wayne Dyer’s books that – “Change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. Combined these 2 – I can say, we have the capacity to change the state of mind. And this has very positive effect on how I deal with things.

All I need to do is to be conscious of it. I need to be aware that my state of mind is my ultimate tool and before I use any other tool out there – I should change the state of my mind to something higher than the task at hand. This gives me a total new power and a new way to look at tasks at hand. This is also similar to what Steven Covey says about “Beginning with the end in mind”[sic]. When I think of bringing my state of mind to higher levels all I think is that I am constantly feeling how I would feel if I finish that task. This is such an empowering feeling that it changes the way I handle things or tasks.

So remember next time you have unlimited things on your list. It’s not just GTD you need – but you need a positive change in state of mind.

The Producer’s talk

In his great book called – The Now Habit – Niel Fiore describes how producers differ from procrastinators. Here are 5 common sentences that needs to be replaced in procrastinator’s language.

  1. I have to ==> replace with ==> I choose to
  2. I must finish ==> replace with ==> When can I start?
  3. This is so big ==> replace with ==> I can take one small step.
  4. I must be perfect ==> replace with ==> I can be human
  5. I don’t have time to play ==> replace with ==> I must take time to play

This book has such a unique take on procrastination. Everything he talks about how and why people procrastinate – I can relate to. I have a plan setup for the next one week. I will be following the techniques taught in this book and see how I fare.