When you were a kid, it was easy to figure out how to get better at playing the piano or doing multiplication tables (let alone getting to Carnegie Hall): practice, practice, practice. When it comes to our jobs, however, most of us don’t think that way. After all, we know how to work, and we spend 40 hours or more a week doing it. Wrong, says one psychology professor. The key to snagging a promotion is not just working hard, but practicing.
Malcolm Gladwell made the concept of practice cool a few years ago when he made the “10,000-hour rule” famous: It takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, he wrote, to completely master a skill. But practice isn’t just for musicians or obsessive computer geeks. As the Wall Street Journal sums it up, “there’s a difference between doing things you already know how to do and doing things that force you to stretch and improve your skills.” Though most of us tend to think of all the time we spend at the office as “work,” some work stretches us and improves our skills, while other tasks are just running in place.
Psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson argues that after an initial training period in which they’re acquiring new skills, most people don’t actually get much better at their jobs, even though they’re technically becoming more “experienced.” In order to improve and be promoted, therefore, it’s smart to be intentional about improving our performance. The WSJ talks to one quickly promoted venture capitalist who uses an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of every hour of his workday. This pushes him to spend a set number of hours on work that specifically improves his skills or gets him ahead of the competition. That’s the grownup version of doing math worksheets at the kitchen table.
The WSJ offers several tips for incorporating the practice principle into your work day. The toughest to swallow: Practice is unpleasant, because it involves stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone. Then again, most worthwhile things do.