Are you wasting your practice time? Everyone knows practice is an important part of skill building, and Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the fact that we need at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery in any field, but there’s a catch, it has to be smart practice. Shooting hoops for thousands of hours won’t make you a pro basketball player. Since it’s hard to make time for practice, how can you be sure you’re using that precious time most effectively?

Smart practice requires you to pay attention. Mindless repetition doesn’t deliver results. In his wonderful book The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge asserts that paying close attention is essential to long-term change. Practicing with divided attention doesn’t lead to lasting change in your brain because it’s not just repetitions that generate improvement. Your ability to notice what’s happening while you’re performing the exercise enables you to recognize obstacles and reinforce gains. Stop daydreaming, get focused, and pay attention.

Smart practice invites you to be curious. It’s tempting to treat your practice like a vending machine. You do the exercise and you get a result, and it’s not uncommon to hear someone complain, “That exercise didn’t do much for me,” as though the vending machine took their money.  In reality, smart practice is more like an experiment. It’s a chance to observe and learn something, and there’s no way to predict that might be. Just be curious, give yourself permission to explore. The discoveries you make will open doors for real change.

Smart practice invites you to be patient with yourself. Focusing on getting it right is a distraction and a recipe for frustration. When your attention shifts from, “What am I observing?” to “Am I doing it right?” you are no longer learning, you’re performing. Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “You become discouraged with your practice when your practice has been idealistic.” Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.” Give yourself permission to fail because failure reveals what you need to learn. It’s a guide, not proof you can’t succeed, so be patient.

Smart practice requires you to focus. Trying to practice everything will prevent you from perfecting anything. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 1,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 1,000 times.” Focus on one thing at a time. Don’t worry about the other mistakes that may be happening. Smart practice requires that you allow one thing to fall apart while you focus on another. Trust the process. Know what specific skill you’re practicing. Give it your full attention. Spend time absorbing one thing and it will most likely be waiting for you when you revisit it.

Top performance doesn’t stem from innate talent or genetic advantages. It comes from diligent practice of clear, carefully defined skills. Making your practice hours count requires focus, patience, curiosity and attentiveness. The ability to practice effectively will have an impact on every aspect of your life personally and professionally. It will ultimately distinguish you from your peers and put you at the top of your game.

For more information about smart practice for speaking, click the link below and download the free report and video series The Sound of Success.

SMART PRACTICE: Strategies for Effective Practice

Smart practice is an essential element of skill building. Top performance doesn’t stem from sheer repetition but from the effective practice of clearly defined skills. This video suggests four strategies for smart practice.