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It’s All In Your Head: How to Achieve Mastery and Improve Performance

It's All In Your Head: How to Achieve Mastery and Improve Performance

My son starts kindergarten in a week and a half. It’s a big life change, not only for him but for the entire family. A symbolic coming of age and the beginning of the next stage of his growth and learning.

What have we been doing for the last week to help ensure he gets off on the right foot? Rehearsing. Every morning the alarm goes off and we rouse him from his slumber, just like a normal school day. We usher him through his new routine, going so far as walking him to the bus stop to wait for the pretend bus to arrive.

I remember growing up, my father would frequently remind me that “practice makes perfect.” In my later years, in the military, I learned the critical importance of rehearsals, and more importantly, making your rehearsals as close to the actual conditions you will face as possible. Practicing again and again, finding small aspects that could be improved the next time, and establishing a collective cadence that helped ensure success when the curtain went up.

You know you’re ready when the action seems effortless to a casual observer. You can see this preparation pay off for children who have mastered a musical instrument, or special operations forces working together to clear a building of threats. There’s beauty in watching a well-oiled machine perform with that level of mastery, especially knowing the upfront work that went into it.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized research suggesting that developing expertise requires approximate 10,000 hours of focused practice. But how does this actually happen? I wanted to find out.

It Starts With the Wiring of Our Brains

One of the methods we use in our work is pattern disruption. If an individual or team continually addresses a challenge in the same way, they will continue to get the same results. And oftentimes, these results are less than desirable. But by disrupting these patterns and understanding alternate ways to approach a problem, we can begin to uncover better methods and better results.

Once an undesirable pattern has been disrupted, we can begin to rewire our brains to follow new patterns to achieve our desired results.

Without getting too scientific about it, developing these new patterns means creating and strengthening neural pathways in relation to a set of coordinated activities. In other words, you’re training your brain to react in a certain way through specific, focused activities. The more you perform these activities, the more natural they feel, and if Mr. Gladwell’s theory is correct, you’re 10,000 hours away from mastery of that specific activity.

There is one big caveat here, however. Simply logging your 10,000 hours of work doesn’t guarantee success. As Robert Greene wrote in his book Mastery, “The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.” To truly make this work, you have to remain keenly aware of your opportunities for improvement after every practice session. Without intentionally improving each and every time, you may end up working tirelessly, only to refine a less than desirable set of patterns.

What Does this Mean for Business Leaders?

Learning to play that tricky lick on your electric guitar is great, but how does all of this apply in the workplace if you’re not Eric Clapton? Though the focus of your day-to-day work may not include the potential of life and death stakes, the benefits of focused practice and rehearsal shouldn’t be lost on you and your team.

For example, early in my career, I had the opportunity to work at jetBlue, the New York City-based airline known for “bringing humanity back to air travel.” In an operationally focused industry where any one of about a million variables can mean the difference between success and failure on a blue sky day, something like a snowstorm or other irregular operation can really test the mettle of any airline.

On February 14th, 2007, jetBlue tried to push departures in the face of an inbound winter storm, ultimately leaving planes stranded on the JFK runway for hours and delaying many passengers for days. After this dreaded “Valentine’s Day massacre”, the company took stock and organized an enormous effort to ensure that the members of the team were better able to respond to these events in the future. They began to develop and perfect a new way of working that drastically minimized the chaos that these events can have on air travel.

5 Tips for Improving Performance Through Practice and Rehearsal.

  1. Make it focused and intentional. Just going through the motions without intention and focus isn’t going to achieve the same results as deliberate, focused practice. You and your team should approach practice and rehearsal as an opportunity to improve.
  2. Make it as close to the actual activity and situation as possible. This may take a while to build up to but they call them dress rehearsals for a reason. You may see variations of this in your business already; pilot programs are a common way for organizations to rehearse in a controlled environment and mitigate the risk of failure.
  3. Make time for the team to learn from each event. Another thing the military does well is their collective commitment to engaging in a post event (training or live) debrief, called an after-action review (AAR) in the Army. During these AAR’s, all members of a unit can engage in open and honest dialogue to help identify what went well (and should be repeated and embedded into their process) and what the group may consider doing differently in order to shape their success the next time. Lessons learned are captured, organized and shared across organizations to enhance the performance of the collective.
  4. Find ways to introduce novelty into your rehearsals. Some new and interesting research on the brain suggests that novelty of experiences can also have a profound effect on our ability to learn. It seems that when completely novel information is encountered, certain areas of the brain are stimulated that may impact our motivation, learning, and memory. It seems intuitive that doing the exact same thing over and over may lead to boredom and disengagement with a task but introducing new variables and scenarios into that practice may serve to both keep in interesting and help people learn.
  5. Allow time for new learning to “sink in.” Harvard researcher Shelley H. Carson suggests that taking a break from intense focus can actually provide your brain time to disengage your fixation on ineffective solutions. This paradoxical idea may be why some people tend to have their moments of brilliance in unlikely locations like the shower. Giving you team time to step away may allow them time to process the information in a new way and come up with a solution that really moves you forward.

This idea isn’t new. In fact, the term kung fu has been used for centuries in Chinese culture to highlight the virtues of mastering one’s skills through dedicated and focused practice over time. So, whether you’re rehearsing the morning routine for kindergarten or you’re optimizing efficiencies in a production facility, the value of focused practice as an individual, or in groups, can be a true differentiator.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.