Smart Practice: how to Better Practice Building SKILLs (part 2 of 4)

You can practice wrong. To shorten the time needed and the amount of practice required by keeping in mind two core elements of skillful practice: feedback and motivation. 

By Murray Johannsen.  Comments? Feel free to connect with the author via this website, Linkedin profile,  or by email.  

“If you don’t practice, you can fall, but you surely can’t ski.” — Murray Johannsen

Take First Step to Skill MasteryUnderstand the Theory of How to Build Skills

Sound theory is the foundation of achieving mastery

You don’t know what you don’t now.” — Socrates

Do you want to master a new skill? If so, you need to understand the theory of learning underlying skill building. At Legacee, we offer two online classes that will teach you what you need to know.

In our first class, we will teach you how to find good theory and how to evaluate its quality. In our second class, we will teach you the theory of effective practice.

Finally, we’ll show you how to apply theory to your own learning and how to use it to improve your skills.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” — Mark Twain

Jump Right In: Learn How to Learn From Experience

Do you want to learn from experience? And learn better from practice when skill building?

If so, you need to learn how to reflect. Reflection is the process of thinking about your experiences and learning from them. It is the key to personal growth and development.

Sometimes It Takes a Traumatic Event to Wake You Up

Here is a story of what happens when you think you know; but you don’t know that you don’t know.

Gladwell (2008) in his book Outliers repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to success a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

Certainly, if you want to be a chess master or winning an Olympic medal in ice skating, that is reasonable (Donahue, 2008). But if you want to sew clothes, clearly it won’t take that long. 

Guidelines to Smart Practice

This is a story of what happens when you think you know but you really don’t know. And one thing I did not know was how to practice a new skill. But his can be learned.

Ignorance Prevents Progress

When it comes to growing skills, it is just expected that we know how to do so. But the reality is, few individuals have discovered how to perfect new skills.

This video contains the foundation principles one must understand to put theory into practice and turn knowledge into skills.

Practice Requires Motivation

Skater: Ekaterina Gordeeva, Picture by: Erin Nikitchyuk

“Skill is nil without will.” — Judah ibn Tibbon, c. 1120-c.1190 Spanish physician and translator, A Father’s Admonition to His Son

One famous writer of human history who saw the same tendency was Aesop. And this is one meaning of his parable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.”The Hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. “I have never yet been beaten,” said he, “when I put forth my full speed. I challenge any one here to race with me.” The Tortoise said quietly, “I accept your challenge.” “That is a good joke,” said the Hare; “I could dance round you all the way.” “Keep your boasting till you’ve beaten,” answered the Tortoise. “Shall we race?” So a course was fixed and a start was made. The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and, to show his contempt for the Tortoise, lay down to have a nap. The Tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the Hare awoke from his nap, he saw the Tortoise just near the winning-post and could not run up in time to save the race. Then said the Tortoise: “Plodding wins the race.”

You might say, “How does that apply to me? Well, most people act like the Hare, they race to build knowledge and skills up to the point of graduation . . . .and then they stop. The same rule about always building skills applies to your personal life and your business life.

It is unrealistic to expect any teacher or coach to motivate you if you are apathetic or just plain lazy. The primary motivation for skill mastery has to come from the inside. Still, smart individuals define positive and negative consequences for behaviors that hinder or accelerate leadership development.

It is unrealistic to expect any teacher or coach to motivate the apathetic or the lazy. Still, smart individuals are wise to have defined consequences for desired and undesired behaviors.

For example, you can tie a reward of some part of a complex skill. If it was not learned, you take away a reward or deny yourself a reward. It is hard to do this in the real world, especially denying yourself a reward. Typically, we reward our nonperformance.

Will power is another key component to the motivational puzzle. Some have an extreme amount of it. Others don’t. Finally, great athletes talk about “psyching themselves up” by using self-talk and guided imagery to attain peak performance. All of these are important, but motivation is worthless without feedback.

The Importance of Timing

Learning by massed practice is very inefficient. By this, I mean practicing for a long-time instead of more numerous shorter practices. For example, Bray (1948) studied individuals in the military who were learning Morse code. He found that individuals with 7 hours of practice learned it equally well as those with 4 hours of practice. In other words, people were putting in three extra hours a day of useless practice. Gay (1973) reported similar effects for cognitive skills such as learning the rules of the algebra. 

Practicing one hour every day over eight days will produce a higher level of skill than eight hours of practice in a single day. This means that skill-building sessions to improve a certain skill would best be taught in short bursts over weeks rather than as two-day intensives.

This requires a different process from that used in corporate training or university classes. Essentially, one must learn practical theory that one then applies in the real world. It’s this combination of skill development through practice and feedback that allows one to achieve mastery.

But you must practice accurately or you see few gains for the effort. One must not only practice physically but mentally to get the most from your effort. This is what athletes know that the rest of us never figured out.

The Need For Repetition

Let’s make an assumption. The first time you do anything new, you won’t be very good at it. This is about a baby walking. No baby took the first step without falling. It’s only when you practice it many, many times that you might master a new skill.

Practice is often slow and frustrating. Why? Well, because you don’t get better or you keep making mistakes (like in typing). Partly, this is due to how you practice. For you can practice mindlessly or mindfully. In one case, there is very little improvement despite years of practice. In the other case, setting an intention and then practice with focused attention can lead to fewer and fewer mistakes.

Feedback Is Necessary

Feedback is the true breakfast of champions.” — Unknown

Skill_ Practice_The_Fair_Toxophilites_William_Powell_Frith_RAMM

Perfect practice rarely is. The first one needs self-monitoring in real-time. Secondly, it doesn’t hurt to make a video or audio recordings to analyze what can be done better. – continually looking for new ways to improve.


Self-monitoring has some real advantages since it allows one to adjust behavior almost in real-time. However, few know how to make these types of adjustments.

Getting feedback from others can work. However, there are two major problems with this type of feedback. The first is that people self-censorundefinedthey often don’t say anything if we do something wrong. Even if someone says something, individual Ego defense mechanisms often activate when experiencing negative feedback and that feedback is ignored or distorted.

Unfortunately, feedback is commonly not done in most skill development programs. In our programs, we typically provide skilled coaches who can provide positive and negative feedback.

Shaping (sometimes called scaffulding)

This involves repeating a small part of the skill over and over until you get it. Down. Learning to multiple depends on first getting adding down. repetition of small and very specific sections of a skill instead of just playing through. 


If the above story perplexes you, it means that you still do not have a good feel for proper feedback. In fact, one might be engaging in mindless practice and so not show any type of improvement. (Kageyama, N.D.)

On Site Resources


Anderson, J. R. (1985). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications. New York: Freeman, page 240-241.

Bray, C. W. (1948). Psychology and Military Proficiency. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Ericsson, K. A., Nandagopal, K., & Roring, R. W. (2009). Toward a science of exceptional achievement: Attaining superior performance through deliberate practice. Annals of New York Academy of Science, 1172, 199-217

Gladwell, Malcolm (2018). Outliers. Little, Brown and Company.

Kageyama, Dr. Noa (N.D.). How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice? Bullet Proof 

Donahue, Deirdre (2008). “Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Success’ defines ‘outlier’ achievement“. USA Today. Nov. 18.

Gay, I. R. (1973). Temporal Position of Reviews and its Effect on the Retention of Mathematical Rules. Journal of Educational Psychology, 64:171-182.

Johannsen, Murray (2014).  Operant Conditioning — A Practical Overview, Legacee.

McClelland, David (N.D.) Achievement Motivation. Accel. 

ThinkFun: The Importance of Hands-On Learning.  As Aristotle once wrote, “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Practice needs to be hands-on.

Williams, A. M., & Ericsson, K. A. (2008). How do experts learn? Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 30, 1-11.

Wikipedia, Sloth, N.D. 

First published May 10, 2016. Last update August 5, 2023.

Work Skills For the 21st Century