Some musings on deliberate practice

[Epistemic status: unverified postulates. Probably not the right ontology, or even first order factors.]

A few years ago, I taught myself to touch-type in Colemak mostly using the online software I came back to this recently, to see if I could increase my typing speed further. In particular, it seems like one of the main things slowing me down is punctuation, which I didn’t train at the time. So I’m focusing on that this week.

This seems to be going much better / faster than when I was originally learning to touch type, and it’s inspired me to write some notes about deliberate practice.


I used to practice Parkour with Duncan. He had a saying, about learning new parkour motions:

First do it right. Then do it smooth. Then do it quiet. Then do it fast.

Where, actually, by the time you’re doing it right smooth, and quiet, you’re automatically doing it at speed.

I think this generalizes. Or at least the “do it right, before you do it fast” part does. When you’re learning something you first and foremost want to focus on doing it right, no matter how slowly.

Practicing touch typing, at least when I’m starting out with some new keys, is extremely deliberate: I might pause for a half second before I hit each key, verifying that I am about the hit the right one.

I tend to speed up automatically as I start to get a handle on it, and have more of a sense of the rhythm. If I make more than a few (3?) errors, I go back and slow down.

Obviously, in some domains, its pretty hard to adjust the speed: juggling comes to mind. There’s probably something that can be done about that.

Note and counter-rehearse errors

Going slow also lets me pay attention to specific errors. The nature of the touch typing task also helps a lot: keystrokes are discrete, and I have clear feedback about if I hit the right key. (This is probably harder in other domains.)

But every time I make an error, I notice specifically what it was (“I hit the “y” key with my ring finger instead of the “semi colon”), and mentally pseudo rehearse the reflex that I want to execute instead (reaching up to hit “semi colon”).

I’ll typically go back to the beginning of the session and play it through again. Having just noted the error and the correction, I usually do it correctly on the second run-through.

Vary psychological sliders

In addition to speed, it feels like there are other high-level scaler variables that I can adjust up and down. I’m not sure that I’m naming these right, but some of them include

  • “intensity”
  • “commitment to accuracy”
  • “speed”
  • “sloppiness”
  • “calm” or “settledness”

This is something like the intention that I’m holding when I’m practicing. It seems like good deliberate practice is mostly a matter of identifying which slider(s) are relevant and holding those in the right place (which might be an extreme or a sweet spot in the middle of the scale, depending), while doing the activity.

Perception of Progress

If it feels unmotivating to sit down and do deliberate practice, that’s probably because you don’t viscerally perceive yourself to be making progress. Feeling yourself get better is almost always engaging (?).


The two-way connection between thought-content and physiological state

[epistemic status: argument, followed by hypothesizing.]

Exercise for state-shifting

Here’s a useful trick for those of you who don’t know of it yet: you can use very brief exercise to quickly shift your physical/mental/emotional state.

Suppose that you’re agitated or anxious or energized about something, but you don’t have time to engage with it at the moment. You’re about to go into an important meeting, and it be disruptive for you to be experiencing agitation about something unrelated.

One thing that you can do in this scenario is 90 seconds of cardio: do 60 pushups, or do jumping jacks, or sprint. At least in my experience, this disrupts the agitation (clearing my mental pallet, at it were), so that I can go in and put my full attention on the meeting.

I recently experienced this on a larger scale: after touching a very deep trigger / trauma for me, and having a more visceral reaction reaction than I’ve yet experienced. I was still very triggered about it and ruminating on it, an hour after the initial trigger-event.

The advisor I consulted told me to exhaust myself: to do squats to failure, or to do tabata sprints. Not having a squat rack available at the time, I went outside and did some (bad) 20 second sprints. I was much calmed by the time I finished.)


In my sleep post from last month, I ended by outlining a very simple model:

I’m awake because my body is physiologically aroused.

…Which is caused by attention being absorbed by something that’s in some way energizing or exciting.

…Which is probably because a goal directed process in me is trying to get something (by ruminating or planning or whatever).

Or, stated visually:

Physiological activation diagram 1

However, the fact that you can use exercise to shift your state suggests that this causal flow is not so simple.

Short, intense, physical exertion is sort of like manually resetting the physiological activation node, by “washing it out” with all the state characteristics implied by exercise (or something).

But the fact that this works, and (at least sometimes) you don’t immediately go back to ruminating, suggests that the causal connection between mental content and physiological activation can go both directions: your thoughts can change your level of arousal, and your level of arousal can change your thoughts. Which gives us a causal diagram more like this one:


Elaborating on that model

[Epistemic state: The following is a working hypothesis.]

My current working model has it that you have effectively two “immediate states” or working memories”: that of your system 2 (that’s the standard one), and that of your system 1 (the felt senses and bodily auroral).

Each one has a limited capacity. Just as you can’t keep track of more than a few ideas at a time, your body can only have one(?) overall physiological state. Otherwise 90 seconds of cardio would not “wipe the slate”.

Each of these “states” can influence the other: Your physiological state can influence your mental content (this happens deliberately when one does Focusing), and your mental content can influence your physiological activation (remembering a task I forgot can induce panic).

More thoughts

I frequently experience myself becoming more activated when I lie down to go to sleep. I hypothesize that when I let my mind wader as I’m falling asleep, I often hit upon either, a new exciting idea, or some area that I’m anxious or fearful about. This triggers an activation response, and then a positive feedback loop between the two states.

(Notably, distracting myself by, for instance, reading a comic book for a while, allows me to fall asleep. Eating something also helps, and sometimes masturbating. I speculate that distraction is intervening on the mental content, and eating is intervening on my physiological activation, because digestion activates PSNS. Masturbating might be both?)