man practicing violin in empty theaterWhen we suggest to our workshop participants that they should practice the skills we have honed, we often get skeptical stares. Body language scrunches up and shoulders turn away. Eye contact flickers down to devices.

But for those happy few who pay attention, benefits abound. If you engage in focused, deliberate practice, you improve. The evidence is everywhere—musicians, athletes, coders, scientists, public speakers, and lawyers. People in every discipline who practice get better. The evidence for the great performers—Serena Williams in tennis, Tom Brady in football, singers Lady GaGa and Beyoncé, concert pianist Yuja Wang or banjo magician Béla Fleck—is that they practice with even more focus and precision, and with greater concentration on solving specific problems. Great ensembles do the same thing, from the Beatles to the Philadelphia Orchestra to Roomful of Teeth.

When they practice, they solve specific problems. In post-match interviews, a great tennis player might say, “Well, this morning we worked on that right shoulder and how it was starting to drop too soon.” Or in rehearsal a great conductor will say to the orchestra, “At measure 64 the D# looks like an E-flat but we have those two notes in the violas and the trombones and it must be in tune. Now everybody else listen to the chord.” Small things make big results.

You should think the same way. Even if you don’t have time to practice as long as a tennis player who wins a major tournament, you can focus on just one thing to improve for each practice session. Set a goal, and don’t waver. Don’t let your mind wander off.

Brian Johnson tells a funny story about practicing the piano as a kid. His mom told him that if he practiced 30 minutes a day then he could go out and play. So he sat down at the family piano, started playing scales, and let his mind wander. At the end of 30 minutes, he went outside and played, where he really applied himself to the creative art of play! If only, he now laments, he had paid attention to playing the piano, he would be really good. How many of us have a similar story?

As we have been learning from an interesting book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, not all practice is equal. Purposeful practice is the key. Brian’s story is the most common illustration. His purpose in practicing was to put in his 30 minutes, not to memorize his performance of My Grandfather’s Clock, or get the fingering perfect for Bach’s Invention Number 1. Identifying goals for practice makes the time pleasurable. It makes it a game, and we humans love games.

I once watched actors rehearse the wonderful American play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder in a summer stock company. The director told them they were going to play a game that evening, and the goal was to get through act one perfectly, with no mistakes. If anybody flubbed a line, they had to go all the way back to the beginning of the act and start over. Everybody groaned! Of course, they hadn’t achieved anything like perfection up until that night during the rehearsal process, so the prospect seemed hopeless.

They began, and got a few pages into act one before an actor forgot a line. He felt awful, everybody grumbled, and the director made them go back and start over. This time they got a little farther, but it derailed again. And again. Then, everybody got in a groove. They calmed down and watched each other. Actors not on stage were going over their lines before their entrances so as not to be the ones to screw it up. As they got farther into the play, some magic began to happen. Characters emerged, lines took on new meaning, we spectators laughed at Wilder’s delicious jokes. And then—it was done! They did it. They reached their goal of speaking all the lines correctly.

You can select goals for practice, too. Choose one thing at a time. Don’t wander away from your goal. Here are some examples to get you started: