Long ago, I was a struggling college baseball player. I had shown up to practice every day for two and a half years, but progress in my game was coming at a snail’s pace. My confidence, especially around hitting, was below zero, and every time I touched the field, I felt as though I didn’t belong.
Then, one day, I chanced upon a conversation with a former baseball player that changed my swing, but more importantly, it also changed my life. I asked him how he had done it. What did he do to get drafted by the Dodgers? How did he manage to start in front of MLB legend Joe Carter in college? His answer seemed too simple: he said he took 300 swings every day, no matter what.
I dug deeper, and he provided some valuable details. He took these 300 swings on a baseball tee, and 150 swings were on outside pitches—the hardest pitch to hit for most hitters. The following 100 swings were for balls that were right down the middle, and he set the last 50 swings for inside pitches. That was it. He went on to explain the magic behind his method of hitting. He focused 50% of his swings on the outside pitch because all other pitches become easier to hit when you learn to hit the outside pitch. [I could dive into the fundamentals of hitting to explain why hitting the outside pitch makes all other pitches easier to hit, but it would be a distraction from the broader purpose of this post. So you will have to take my word for it.]
I’ll be honest that I initially thought his daily routine of hitting off of a tee sounded mind-numbing, and I also knew it would be more challenging than it sounds. When thinking about his strategy, visions of children playing tee-ball may come into your head, but in reality, hitting a line drive off a tee is relatively tricky. But even with my apprehension, I decided to try it.
The first week was humbling. I often hit more of the tee than the ball, and I’d watch the ball dribble away from me. That familiar feeling of humiliation crept in, but no matter what, I kept swinging till I reached 300.
After about a week, I began to see a consistent change. More and more balls were coming off the tee as hard line drives. I also noticed that, just as the old player had said, the middle and inside pitches became easier to hit as I got better at hitting the outside pitch. It was happening. I was turning into a hitter. I felt like a different player, and I was hitting the ball with authority for the first time. In just one month, I had successfully overhauled my swing. I was on cloud nine.
Now, I wish this story ended like a Hollywood movie, where I went back to school as a transformed player and went on to play in the MLB, but that wasn’t my destiny. The truth is that one month after beginning my routine of 300 swings per day, I tore a tendon in my leg that required surgery. Unfortunately, that injury cascaded into many more injuries, and before I knew it, my baseball career was over. It was humbling and slightly troubling that I never got to show my teammates the progress I made, but what I gained was far more important than baseball.
I began to experiment with designing new strategies based on what I had learned from “300 swings per day” in different areas of my life. I changed how I studied in college, and immediately I began getting straight A’s for the first time since fifth grade. I designed a strategy to improve my math skills before taking the graduate school entrance exam (known as the GRE). I developed protocols to learn to ski, surf, and speak new languages. Each time I implemented the process, I refined it a bit and learned more about the individual ingredients in the recipe.
Progress Vs. Efficient Progress
Through all my experimentation, I learned that there is progress, and then there is efficient progress. We should accept progress in whatever form it comes, but we should choose the efficient path when possible. Why? Because efficiency means less energy used, fewer resources invested, and less time wasted.
In the diagram above, you see a looping solid red line that signifies progress, and you also see a straight, dotted yellow line that represents Efficient Progress. The solid red line and the dotted yellow line both start at the beginning and end at the goal. The lines share the same outcome, but the red line is roughly four times longer. That means that compared to the yellow line, the red line used four times as much energy, time and resources to get to the goal. Both are good, but we should strive to get as close to the dotted yellow line as possible.
So how can we tell the difference between progress and efficient progress? Well, progress can be had by any haphazard means of practice. For example, if you are looking to progress as a basketball player, just play pickup basketball games once or twice a week. With this method, you will see progress over time, but you will be taking the red, looping, long path to your goal.
If you want to make efficient progress, you might need to step back from playing pickup games for a little while. Instead, you would be better off scheduling a few days per week where you do focused drills around the micro-skills that make up the macro-skill of basketball: dribbling, shooting, defense, and other skills.
Let’s look at the essential ingredients to Efficient Progress:
Efficient Progress = Consistency + Humble Approach + Deliberate Practice
(EP = c + h + dp)
Let’s break it down a bit:
For any type of progress, this is the essential step. Even a terrible plan that’s executed consistently will show results, and even the best practice plan will lead to subpar results if you don’t show up damn near every day. So make a schedule for your practice and stick with it no matter what. If you want to improve quickly, I suggest setting aside at least 30 minutes per day, 3-6 times per week, for deliberate practice (more on this below).
The humble approach is all about staying in the beginner’s mindset and letting go of the worries of how others perceive you. We tend to avoid the things we need to work on most, especially when others might see us flailing in our attempts. Instead, embrace your current skill level and welcome a little healthy embarrassment. If you can’t keep a humble approach, you are likely to miss fundamental steps in whatever skill you hope to acquire, and in some cases, this could lead to severe consequences, such as injury.
I have personally struggled with this step a lot in my life. I tend to get overly embarrassed and try to progress past the beginning stages of any given skill too quickly. I find it helpful to remind myself that everyone was a beginner at one point, and anyone who judges you for being a beginner is forgetting their own path to skill acquisition. They once floundered just like you, but they aren’t self-aware enough to remember it.
Deliberate practice breaks down a macro-skill (i.e., basketball) into micro-skills (e.g., dribbling, free throw shooting, defense) and designs drills to improve at these specific micro-skills. So, first, you need to break the skill down into micro-skills. It might be helpful to research or ask a coach/expert what the most pertinent micro-skills in your macro-skill are. For example, there are five types of hits in tennis: forehand, backhand, volley, smash and serve. There are also five “tools” in baseball: hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding, and throwing. In surfing, there are numerous skills that a beginner needs to learn: paddling, balancing on the board, body position, wave selection, catching a wave, popping up, and riding a wave.
Once you’ve broken your macro-skill down into micro-skills, you can design drills to work on each one. For example, you might create exercises that focus on practicing guitar scales. Or you could use flashcard software (I recommend Anki) to study the 500 most commonly used words in the language you are learning. Or maybe you could hit 50 backhands swings in a row in tennis. If paired with consistency and a humble approach, deliberate practice leads to mastery of any given skill.
Some Examples Of Using The Equation for Efficient Progress In Real Life
Here are a few examples of how I’ve utilized this in my current life/recent past to design drills and programs to acquire new skills:
- Consistency: I practice for 30 minutes every day in addition to regular interactions around Istanbul (where I currently live), where I am forced to stretch my language skills.
- Humble Approach: this one is easy. I currently live in Turkey, and it is impossible not to be humble when you have the vocabulary of a two-year-old in a foreign country.
- Deliberate Practice: I use two software programs to learn grammar and vocabulary. First, I do fifteen minutes of Duolingo Plus on the computer (not the phone) to learn basic grammar and some vocab. Duolingo is a much more powerful learning tool on the computer since you can turn off the word bank on the desktop version, which forces you to recall and type the words with no prompts (there are no word banks to rely on in real-world interactions). Then, for the next fifteen minutes, I use Anki (a powerful and free flashcard software that uses algorithms to decide what words you need to review) to learn vocabulary. I am currently focusing on a flashcard deck of the 500 most commonly used words in the Turkish language (hat tip to Tim Ferriss). Why try to learn the whole dictionary instead of focusing on the most frequently used words in written and spoken language?
Learning to ski:
- Consistency: unless you live on the mountain, you can’t go skiing every day. But I went as much as possible. In my first two years of skiing, I went nearly 20 times (this was my go-to activity during two COVID-19 winters).
- Humble approach: No matter how many times people told me I could go faster or go down a more difficult slope, I didn’t listen. My goal was to keep my knees intact and not severely injure myself while still having a good time. I stayed on the bunny slopes with the toddlers for my first few days on the mountain, and I never touched an intermediate hill until I had spent five full days on my skis. When I first went on an intermediate slope, I did my research and found the easiest “blue” hill on the mountain, which began to build my confidence.
- Deliberate Practice: I didn’t try to carve or do anything fancy when learning to ski. I focused on going down the mountain as slowly as I could. I exaggerated every turn and practiced a mini-hockey stop on each turn down the hill until I had confidence that I could always stop if I needed to. Remember, going fast is easy when you have gravity on your side; going slow is what is hard when going down a mountain.
Learning to surf:
- Consistency: Whenever I am near the ocean, I plan to surf every single day, no matter what. Since I can’t control the size of the waves or the conditions, I make significant adjustments to my deliberate practice routine depending on the conditions (more on this below).
- Humble approach: My first foray into surfing was admittedly not humble, and I paid the price. As a beginner, I went into the water when the waves were far too big for me, and I got a very nasty concussion. After that experience, I didn’t surf for years and had to overcome some mental trauma when I reentered the water. I restarted at square one as a humble newbie, and I doubled down on embracing my beginner status.
- Deliberate Practice: I always have something to work on when I go in the water. When the conditions are good for me (clean small/medium-sized waves), I focus on wave selection, turning on the wave and riding them for as long as possible. Some days the waves are too big for me, so I stay in the shallows, practicing my turtle rolls, paddling, and popups while being battered by the white water. I’m sure I look crazy to people on the shore when I do this, but I am gaining confidence, skills and strength that I can use when the conditions are better.
I hope these examples are helpful for you as you begin to implement the equation for efficient progress in your life. If you combine consistency, a humble approach, and deliberate practice, you will certainly see improvement in just about any area of your life. So pick the thing you want to work on, design a practice schedule, decide what staying humble means to you, and work out a plan for deliberate practice. Remember, you can constantly adjust all of the variables as you learn more about the skill you are trying to acquire.
Good luck, and feel free to reach out to me if I can help you as you roll out the equation for deliberate practice in your life.
P.S. — I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am for every person who reads this. I would really love to hear if this triggered any thoughts for you, whether good or bad. Did I swing and miss on this post? Let me know. Did this post make you think about some aspect of life differently? I’d love to hear it. I am on a journey of self-improvement, so your feedback is priceless. Also, if you know anyone who may enjoy this, please feel free to send it along to them. Lastly, you can subscribe to get notified whenever I publish something new by clicking here. Many thanks for your time and attention, and best wishes on your life’s journey.