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Why Habits Are Insufficient To Gain Skill Mastery, and How To Supplement Them

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Whether you’re a newcomer to the domain of self-improvement or a longtime devotee of the practice, you may have heard about the power of habit formation. It’s been the subject of several studies and bestselling self-help books.

In theory, habit formation allows you to learn almost any skill. The internet can serve as a starting point for practicing the basics, with enthusiasts offering a plethora of guides and ‘how-to’ tutorials for free. After that, it’s just a matter of consistent practice similar to the kaizen principle.

But in practice, does it help you to achieve significant mastery? Can you really get 1% better, or even 0.01% better, each day and eventually add up all those hours to become an expert at something?

How habit formation really helps

The mechanism behind habit formation has been outlined by several authors, notably Charles Duhigg, author of the landmark book, The Power of Habit. Duhigg’s model states that we form habits as a response to a cue, which leads to a reward, which reinforces the response.

It seems simple enough. But what it really promises is the automation of thought processes.

People tend to avoid cognitive efforts because they are wired to limit their focus only to a few things that matter. Designers recognize this, and you’ll see it at work in good web design and other interfaces. They guide us to navigate pages easily and have a seamless experience.

Habits operate the same way. They guide you through your life with minimal effort. When was the last time you put much thought into whether you’d brush your teeth or dress for work? These behaviors are automatic, so your brain doesn’t waste energy processing decisions related to them.

The power of habit is at its best when you’re starting from scratch. It gets you into the groove of learning a skill and overcoming your natural tendency to resist doing something new.

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The missing ingredients

Self-help aficionados and newbies alike will probably be more familiar with another book touching on skill mastery: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In this book, the author discusses the now-famous ‘10,000-Hour Rule.’

The concept is simple and appealing. If you log enough practice hours, you can become world-class at any skill.

However, expert feedback is necessary at some point. If you were to try to master playing the violin, for example, you can’t rely solely on your ear to tell you if you’re playing a difficult piece correctly. Feedback from a more skilled instructor informs your deliberate practice.

What’s more, other skills may not be as self-contained as violin playing. There are domains where the application of a skill can’t be separated from the context, and the context itself is constantly changing. Such ‘wicked environments’ require a breadth of knowledge in addition to practice so that you can achieve skill transfer.

These are the missing ingredients in the quest for skill mastery. Without them, even if you practice every day, you’ll be capped at how far you go.

Habits as a platform

Habit formation is nevertheless a vital first step in any self-improvement effort. Anybody is prone to resist change, even if it’s for the better. We all prefer to stay in a comfort zone.

Discomfort without panic is a sign that you’re in the ‘stretch’ zone and primed for improvement. Making practice a habit is a way of keeping you in that zone long enough to acquire some foundations in a skill.

For casual purposes, that may be enough. But if you’re pursuing mastery, then habit formation must serve as a platform. Learn to practice like an expert, and you can take the next step in your development.

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