Forget Flow - The Secret to Skill Lies in Discomfort

Updated: February 20, 2013

Gregory Ciotti

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This essay is by Gregory Ciotti.

We as a society have become increasingly obsessed with being "productive," and it's not hard to see why: who doesn't want to get more done each day?

The problem is that the content in this hotly discussed topic often revolves around apps and "workhacks." Downloading the latest productivity software isn't the way to go, you have to start with what makes your brain tick if you really hope to overcome the barriers that stop you from being productive.

When it comes to expanding our expertise, is flow really desirable, or is discomfort actually a welcome "burden" that serves as an essential ingredient in getting better?

The Skill of Chessmasters

In my previous post on practicing like an expert, I discussed a variety of studies on Chess that are applicable to gaining expertise.

In his research on expertise, Anders Ericsson often cites the study by Djakow, Petrowski & Rudnki (1927) where the lead researchers and their colleagues made some startling claims on the word-class skills of Chessmasters and the concept of "domain specific" expertise.

According to their findings, the superiority of Chessmasters' memory and their ability to choose brilliant moves was reliant on the pieces being in their "regular" positions, and didn't carry over to other sorts of application.

In further research, it was found that not even IQ was a reliable indicator of the best chess players. Thus, it appears that Chessmasters are simply masters of chess, and not experts at some underlying skill that makes them good at chess.

Research by Chase & Simon (1973) on Perception in chess would conclude that:

Experts with extended experience acquire a larger number of more complex patterns and use these new patterns to store knowledge about which actions should be taken in similar situations.
In a nutshell: Experts are made out of experience, and even experts in a game as complicated as chess gain their BIGGEST advantage simply by knowing the game far better than you do.

The Science of Expertise

The above is interesting excerpt of information, but what does it have to do with the acquisition of new skills?

The connection can be made when we take a look at how these experts come to know their trade better than the average person. What you may not know is that Chessmasters often engage in "chess problems" for practice, where they are required to figure out the correct move from a situation already set-up on the board.

The object is to find a way to either win or force a creative draw in a very difficult situation on the chess board, often taken from past championship games.

This style of practice has some very close similarities to the research on "deliberate practice", also conducted by Anders Ericsson and further popularized thanks to articles by Cal Newport.

One of Ericsson's most famous papers, The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, examines the role of deliberate practice and how it separates "elite" violinists from "great" violin players.

The study observed how violin students scheduled their daily practice sessions. The data showcased two distinct trends: those violinists who were simply "good" players tended to spread out their practice sessions throughout the day.

Conversely, the "elite" players had a tendency to:

...[consolidate] their work into two well-defined periods. When you plot the average time spent working versus the hours of the day for these players, there are two prominent peaks: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

In fact, the more elite the player, the more pronounced the peaks. For the best of the best, there was essentially no deviation from a rigid two-sessions a day schedule.

A Real World Metaphor

The above descriptions of the apparent benefits of blocks of intense practice crossover quite well into another realm: that of drilling.

In athletics, drills and practice sessions are universal across all sports and play a significant role in turning an enthusiast into an athlete. While no one would totally discount the importance of natural ability, even legendary sports figures like Jerry Rice attribute their superior performance to diligent practice regiments.

When looked at in this light, it would appear that world-class creatives and world-class athletes have something in common: they are better at pushing their own boundaries through deliberate practice.

This is how many seem to achieve the paradoxical effect of "accomplishing more" with less time: instead of embracing "flow", elite performers drill, spending plenty of time working on things that create discomfort (we'll use a blanket statement and call these "weaknesses") rather than spending too much time on what they already know.

A Video Guide on Application

Expertise (and especially creativity) are highly debated subjects, so I'd like to forewarn any of those quick to dismiss the individual studies above that implementation of their findings into your own life boils down to one thing: testing.

That being said, by examining the research above as is, we can point to 3 strategies that seem to be a recurring feature of deliberate practice and that are essential to eliminating the inherent dangers of "flow"...

1. Do what does not come easy: The key to deliberate practice is discomfort, and discomfort is generated by doing those tasks which are outside of your current abilities. In a description from an expert pianist, Cal Newport shares the views of a talented piano player, who states:

Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.
When engaging in deliberate practice, repeating tasks which are too familiar and too comfortable can lead to the flow, the "opiate of expertise", as it feels good to do things we are good at, but rarely helps us improve. Conversely, by avoiding flow and constantly approaching areas in our abilities where we have a known discomfort (the pianist above cites his weakness with "touch"), we can apply deliberate practice to actively improve with less time spent.

2. Manage energy to maintain productivity: Tony Schwartz (co-author of The Power of Full Engagement) often writes and speaks about energy management, but in this process he also tends to cite research on deliberate practice. For instance, Schwartz recommends intense sessions of 90 minutes followed by 15 minutes of rest, commonly citing the violinist study above (where the best students largely practiced for 90 minute sessions) and a Federal Aviation Administration study that demonstrated the negative impacts of fatigue on their cognitive ability and the importance of "scheduling" breaks in order to maintain intense alertness and effort.

According to Schwartz:

What they instinctively understood was the law of diminishing returns... There's plenty of evidence that increased rest and renewal serve performance.
Better energy management allows for sustain sessions of intense practice, whereas many of us are normally inclined to simply slog away throughout the day, spreading our energy far too thin.

3. Avoid reactive behavior, work with an ideal in mind

I loved this quote from a pianist on Study Hacks:

Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task.

In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.

In a sense, deliberate practice is hard not only in application but also for our ego. It hurts to fail, so we are often reactive in our efforts to simply "not mess up", rather than proactively pursuing an end goal with a relentless force.

It may sound cheesy to say, "Don't be afraid to fail," but from the way that the benefits of deliberate practice operate, failure is something that needs to become the norm rather than a thing to be avoided: we can't practice in areas of discomfort without messing up quite often.

Your Turn

I now turn this discussion over to you...

As I've mentioned, the research in the areas of expertise and creativity are still highly debated, but I think there is something to be said for the consistent appearance of "deliberate practice" (or whatever term you prefer) in the regiments of highly skilled individuals.

What are your thoughts on the matter?


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