Much has been written in the last number of years of how 10,000 hours of practice can confer expertise. If this is true, then any of us should be able to become an expert at anything with enough practice. But is this really true?


Is there a causal relationship between the figure of 10,000 hours of practice and expert performance? What are the implications for L&D practitioners?


Let’s look at the evidence.


How Long Does it Take for New Habits to Form?

Part I


How long does it take for our brain to show actual changes based on the practice of new behaviours?


We have some clues from a number of recently published studies on the practice of mindfulness meditation by Holzel and Tang.  It appears that practicing a new behaviour for between 4 to 8 weeks begins to affect physiological changes in our brain (“plasticity”), as seen in the following examples:


  1. Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program created significant changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress compared to a control group.
  2. Practicing mindfulness meditation for 4-weeks demonstrated significantly higher white matter neuroplasticity in short-term meditation.


However, whether we can translate these changes into enhanced performance and effectiveness was not possible to discern with these studies.


How Long Does it Take for New Habits to Form?

Part II


Research by Phillippa Lally in the UK suggest that new behaviours can become automatic, on average, between 18 to 254 days.  However this timing depends on the complexity of the new behaviour you are trying to put into place and your personality.


The research studied volunteers who chose to change an eating, drinking or exercise behaviour and tracked them for success.


Analysis of all of these behaviours indicated that it took 66 days, on average, for this new behaviour to become automatic and a new “habit” that seemed pretty natural. However, the mean number of days varied by the complexity of the habit, as follows:


Drinking / 59 days

Eating / 65 days

Exercise / 91 days


Although there are a lot of limitations in this study, it does suggest that it can take a large number of repetitions for new behaviours to become a habit. Therefore, creating new habits requires tremendous self-control to be maintained for a significant period of time before they become more “automatic” and performed without any real self-control. For most people, it takes about 3 months of constant practice before a more complicated new behaviour gets “set” in our neural pathways as something we are comfortable with and seemingly automatic.


The nature of practice

So if we accept that it takes 3 months of constant practice to set a new behaviour in our neural pathways, can the type of practice improve the performance of this behaviour?


In “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance“, co-edited by Anders Ericsson, the authors conclude that great performance comes mostly from two things:


  • Regularly obtaining concrete and constructive feedback
  • Deliberate difficult practice


Part of the research analysed diaries of 24 elite figure skaters to determine what might explain some of their performance success. They found that the best performing skaters spent 68% of their practice doing more challenging jumps and routines compared with those who were less successful, who spent only 48% of their time on the identical more challenging movements.


In April 2010, Dan McLaughlin, a 30-year old commercial photographer from Portland, Oregon quit his job with the ambition of becoming a professional golfer. Strangely, Dan had never completed 18 holes of golf prior to quitting his job.


In order to achieve his ambition, Dan is using the latest research on improving skill, motor performance and memory in how he practices. He uses a training approach called interleaving which is “mixing up” the things you do instead of deliberately doing the same thing over and over. Instead he mixes up his clubs, targets and difficulty of his challenges.


Interleaving causes performance in the short term to decrease but enhances overall success over time. Therefore, practicing tasks in an interleaved (random) order generally results in inferior practice performance but induces superior retention compared with practicing in a repetitive order.


New research from a group of UCLA researchers, using brain imaging called functional MRI discovered that connectivity of specific regions of the brain were strengthened using interleaved practice versus a repetitive conditions. Interleaved practice enhances skill learning and the functional connectivity of fronto-parietal networks.


These results strongly hint that if you want to develop better skills, memory and psychomotor performance it is really better to spice up your deliberate practice with variety. Expect your practice sessions to be bad but over time, your performance will actually significantly improve.


So what are the lessons for L&D professionals from this research?


Firstly, developing complex new habits, physical or behavioural, takes an average of 60 to 90 days. Therefore, our focus cannot be solely on a training event and must encompass all aspects of the learning transfer system and in particular how new habits are supported and reinforced over that period of time.


Secondly, great performance is not just a function of the quality and frequency of practice but also the quality of the feedback. Constructive, supportive feedback will enhance performance over time.


Finally, the quality and difficulty of the practice impacts performance and skill retention positively. So whether we are seeking to develop role plays for a training event, scenarios for a development centre or identify new assignments or projects for HiPo’s, incorporating task difficulty and randomness into our development efforts will enhance performance.


So 10,000 hours of practice on its own will not develop expertise. If we are truly serious about performance, we need to create the time to support new habits, ensure that constructive feedback is provided and ensure that the quality of practice is sufficiently diverse and challenging.


The challenge continues…..


Kevin Hannigan is Head of Talent Consulting at HPC and shares insights for this article with Dr. Ken Nowack, licensed psychologist and President, Co-Founder & Chief Research Officer of Envisia Learning. 

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