6 Steps to Excellence

tennisI am a tennis player. Well, let me re-phrase: I own a racquet, attend drills and clinics, and play on an organized club team. While I do not aspire to a be a top level player, I do like to hold up my end of the bargain. Yesterday, I played a tennis match and it felt like I had never hit a ball before. Frustrating to say the least! Our coach is implementing a new agressive doubles strategy and while I know it will eventully work, I am not sure he is taking into account the fact that most of my team is comprised of recreation players with limited dedication and focus. In other words, we play tennis for fun. So my plan for the great shot is sound; it is the execution that often sends it into the net. The only way to build the consistency is to play more. To play more means I need more time. More time takes away from other areas of my life – a vicious circle.

There are many books written about high performance and achievement (you know the one about the magical 10,000 hours of committment to a skill to truly achieve accomplishment? See below for reading list.)  There is a tremendous amount of focus, time dedication, repetition and frustration that is necessary if you want to be exellent at something. The reward is that being really good at something you’ve earned through your own hard work can be immensely satisfying and gratifying and perhaps even profitable.

It is possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we build a muscle: push past your comfort zone then rest.  It is not innate talent which determines how good we become at something,  but rather how hard we are willing to work at something.

Here are six steps to help you improve your (insert your game/skill/work here):

  1. Persue your passion – Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.
  2. Do the hardest work first – Most great performers 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, focus,  and the fewest distractions.
  3. Practice intensely – Focus, without interruption, for 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. If you can’t dedicate this amount of time every day to the skill you are trying to master, make the time you can put forth really count. Focus and dedication will pay off.
  4. Seek expert advice and feedback, in intermittent dose – The  simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments.  Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create thought overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning. (I am hearing my tennis coach in my head right now!)
  5. Take regular renewal breaks – Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but it also assists in embedding learning.
  6. Ritualize practice –  Strong will and discipline are overrated – most of us don’t have exercise them very well (dessert anyone?)  The best way to insure you will take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them — build specific times at which you do them, so that over time you  do them without having to waste energy thinking about them. Whether eating the same healthy breakfast every morning or sitting down to write your blog post the same time everyday, the ritual practice can be put to use in most areas of our lives.

Obviously tennis is just a part-time, recreational area for me. I have other demanding areas of my life and have to prioritize where my time goes.  However, I do know that the same steps to improving my tennis game can improve the any areas in my life. Whether you are looking to master blogging, exercising, dieting, photography, guitar or running, these steps can help you achieve. Now back to the courts for me…

For your reading pleasure on skill excellence:

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  1. Becky on April 12, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    LOVED this blog and completely agree. Becoming excellent at what you do requires focus and consistency. I also loved Malcolm Gladwells other books but I haven’t read Outliers yet so thanks for that introduction, can’t wait to tell you about it!

  2. Ali on April 12, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    Great topic for discussion! Finding your passion is so important, but it’s amazing how difficult that can be. Marcus Buckingham has a great series of books about discovering your strengths and focusing on those strengths in the workplace. By finding a career track that capitalizes on your passion, you can be much more efficient and ultimately pave your way to excellence and mastery.

  3. natalie on April 14, 2013 at 10:08 am

    Great insights and additional book recommendations. Really appreciate the comments!

  4. mickmel on April 30, 2013 at 7:22 am

    Outliers was such a good book. I still reference the hockey example quite a bit when talking with folks.

    I think item #3 (and perhaps #6) could be replaced with “educate” for some things. I don’t so much “practice” web development as much as I educate myself — I follow hundreds of blogs, participate in local groups, attend seminars, follow leaders on Twitter/G+, etc.

    Like Ali said, finding a profession that matches your passion is huge; I don’t have to force myself to do those educational pieces because I simply enjoy doing it!

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