In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question by describing the stages that anions goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the “cognitive phase”, you’re intellectualizing the task and discovering strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage”, you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage”, when you figure that you’re gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, you lose conscious control hover what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thins to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage seems to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for your benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at something, we move it to the back of our minds’s filling cabinet and stop paying attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You call it the “OK plateau”, the pony at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.
What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice”. Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase”.
When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.
The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing – to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.
Instead of thinking of enhancing my memory as analogous to stretching my height or improving my vision or tweaking some other fundamental attribute of my body, Ericsson encouraged me to think of it more like improving a skill – more like learning to play an instrument.
We usually think about our memory as a single, monolithic thing. It’s not. Memory is more like a collection of independent modules and systems, each relying on its own networks of neurons. some people have good memories for numbers but are always forgetting words. some people remember names but not to-do lists. SF, Ericsson’s work-study undergraduate who expanded his digit span tenfold, had not increased some generalized memory capacity. Rather, he’d simply become an expert at digit memorization. When he tried to memorize lists of random consonantes, he could still only remember about seven of them.
Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.