Want That Promotion? Practice Your Job.

By Cal Newport

As the new year approaches – and with it the inevitable wave of self-improvement plans–we’ve identified 10 strategies for advancing your career in 2013. (Read them all here.)

From recovering from an office blunder to learning why it doesn’t pay to be Mr. (or Ms.) Nice Guy, this ten-point plan offers daily tips on what to do and how to do it.

Mike J. is a venture capitalist who works on Silicon Valley’s famed Sand Hill Road. He’s good at his job–rising from intern to principal in only two years. His secret? An Excel spreadsheet he uses to track how he spends every hour of his workday.

To understand the importance of this spreadsheet, you should first understand the difference between working hard and actually getting better at your job.

Most knowledge workers—a group that, I suspect, includes just about anybody reading these words—don’t differentiate among their activities; any time spent at the office counts as “work.” Mike, by contrast, embraces a conclusion that’s well supported in the field of performance psychology, the discipline that studies how people become great at what they do: Not all work is equal.

Simply put, there’s a difference between doing things you already know how to do and doing things that force you to stretch and improve your skills. Psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson, a leader in this field, explains that a person in a new job usually spends some time training or shadowing someone else to get up to speed, but after that, his or her abilities tend to plateau. Beyond this point, they don’t get much better at their job, though they grow more experienced.

To get better—and win the promotions and opportunities most of us dream about—we must set out to intentionally improve our performance. In studying why some people develop remarkable careers, this is a key unheralded distinction between the average knowledge worker and the stars at most companies: the former work hard while the latter systematically train hard skills. Ericsson called this type of structured activity deliberate practice, and in his decades of research on the topic he’s found it to be the key for expert performance in every field he has studied—from elite scientists to elite jugglers.

This brings us back to Mike. His spreadsheet tracking forces him to spend a certain number of hours each week not just working but instead deliberately improving his skills. In the spreadsheet he shared with me, he spent around 60% of his time pushing himself, performing difficult, and ultimately crucial training tasks such as calling potential investors or polishing due diligence reports.

Here’s how to integrate this strategy into your workday:

Deliberate practice requires clarity. Set a clear goal slightly beyond your current abilities, but not too far beyond, and list specific actions that advance you toward your goal. In Mike’s example, a specific goal might include increasing the rate at which potential investor calls prompt follow-up conversations. The specific actions might include making a certain number of these calls each week (regardless of whether he feels like it) and giving his full focus in each call toward deploying his best pitch.

Deliberate practice requires feedback. Assuming you don’t reach your goal on the first try, you need a source of objective feedback so that you can improve on your next iteration. Without frank, even harsh, feedback, your progress will likely stall. Returning to Mike’s example of investor calls, he could keep careful notes on what differentiated the successful and non-successful interactions, or he could ask a partner at the firm to listen in and then offer thoughts.

Deliberate practice is unpleasant. You have to stretch yourself beyond where you’re currently comfortable—not a pleasant feeling. Most knowledge workers inadvertently end up avoiding deliberate practice-style activities because they retreat to checking email the moment a task gets too difficult. To make deliberate practice work, you must not only tolerate unpleasantness (and stick with the task, regardless of your urge for relieving distraction), but learn to seek it, like a bodybuilder seeks muscle burn. Mike recognized that, if left unchecked, his instinct would be to reply to e-mails all day, so he used his time-tracking spreadsheet to force himself to engage in unpleasant, though ultimately rewarding work. If you don’t have a similar strategy in your schedule, it’s unlikely to happen.

Success in knowledge work requires more than simply showing up early, staying late, and responding quickly to every email. True standouts systematically develop rare and valuable skills. Building these skills requires practice, and it is not something that you gravitate toward naturally. Like Mike, you must take a rigorous approach to improve your workday.

Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Related: Allison Lichter has more details.

Published On The Wall Street Journal

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