Be Great at Any Task

Tony Schwartz’s blog post on Harvard Business Review, Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything, just appeared in my Google Reader. The post is based on the advice Tony extols in his new book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, and I feel that a lot of it is wise enough to pass on here:

In his work with executives at dozens of organizations, Tony has found that it’s possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we do a muscle: push past your comfort zone, and then rest.  Aristotle had it exactly right 2000 years ago when he said: “We are what we repeatedly do.”  By relying on highly specific practices, you can dramatically improve skills ranging from empathy, to focus, to creativity, to summoning positive emotions.

According to Tony, here are a few strategies for learning to excel at any task:

Do the hardest work first

We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That’s when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.

Practice intensely

Do so without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.

Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses

The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.

Ritualize practice

The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to build rituals — specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.

Thanks to Tony for providing some solid guidance that goes beyond the non-specific cliché “practice makes perfect!”

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  • Great information! Very helpful. Thank you!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Leslie and Surya: Glad you liked it!

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  • Great article. Both the points about getting out of the comfort zone as well as that we are what we do repeatedly are so true.

  • Suzanne Vadnais Monson

    I have had tremendous success with creating weekly rituals for getting the tough stuff done first. If I do them first thing in the morning the rest of my day keeps getting better! And over time, the tough jobs stop seeming so tough. They become manageable!