in Becoming an Expert

The Focused Sprint Approach: Rapid Skill Acquisition for Breaking Through Plateaus

No journey towards acquiring significant new skills is a straight line. We all zig-zag our way towards knowledge and expertise. Frequently our progress plateaus or stalls for months or even years at a time.

Gaining new skills is ultimately an exercise in motivation. In order to practice with intention for long enough to become an expert or gain useful skills, you have to find the motivation to make the investment.

It’s all about deliberate practice.

But the motivation required to deliberately practice waxes and wanes.

At first you might be gung ho. Then you lose interest. Then your skills plateau.

Or, your skills plateau and then you lose interest. Plateaus and motivation are a chicken-and-egg proposition.

Do plateaus come as a result of reduced motivation, or does reduced motivation cause plateaus to occur?

In either case, when your target skills don’t increase in any appreciable way for a significant period of time, you run the risk of never reaching your desired level of expertise. Or worse, you might give up altogether.

When you find yourself in such a stagnant phase, you have to jump-start your growth again and create a new breakthrough.

That’s what the focused sprint approach is all about.

Introducing the Focused Sprint Approach

By forcing yourself to focus for a limited duration on rapidly improving your skills, you can bust through your current standstill.

Here’s how it works.

First, you have to admit that whatever you’re currently doing isn’t working. Your practice methods are tired, your motivation is weak, and your progress has been anemic. It’s time for a change.

Next, you need shake up your learning methods. If you’ve been using the same practice routine over and over again, change it up. If you’ve only been doing self-study, it’s time to hire a coach. If you’ve been operating in your comfort zone, it’s time to get uncomfortable. Whatever you do, DON’T stick to the same old routine.

Now, here’s where the sprint part comes in. Commit to putting in at least 2x to 3x the effort you’ve been putting in for a focused period of time. Also commit to working to improve your skills daily if you haven’t been already.

How long you choose to focus depends on your current skill level and what it might take to make a breakthrough. If you’re a beginner, a week or two of focused sprinting might do the trick. If you’re intermediate or advanced and you’ve been stuck for a while, you might aim for a few weeks or more.

You probably know instinctively how long it will take you to make a breakthrough. The point of the focused sprint approach is that you commit to daily extended effort for a pre-defined number of days. If you don’t break through your plateau on this push, wait a while to recuperate and then sprint again with different parameters.

Let’s put this into a concrete example.

Let’s say you’ve been snowboarding for four seasons now. You started out with a few lessons and then learned on your own.

At first you had ideas about becoming really great. You gained skills pretty rapidly and almost got past the beginner level to a more intermediate level by the end of your first season.

But then you settled into a pattern of unchallenging and uncommitted practice.

You got comfortable and lost some of the motivation to become really good. Each season since the first, you’ve struggled to gain any real skills and you’re stuck at the beginner/intermediate level still.

Some days you have setbacks and lose all your confidence. It seems like you’ll never improve much beyond where you are today.

The focused sprint approach is what you need to make a breakthrough.

In this case, you could take a two-week snowboarding trip where you practice once or twice a day. You might also take a couple of pro lessons while you’re on the trip.

By the end of the two weeks you will have busted through your plateau and rekindled your love of the sport. Your motivation will be much higher, which will help you continue to practice deliberately for some time to come.

Putting This Approach to Work for You

Think about something you’ve been working towards but have stalled out on.

Maybe it’s learning a language, rock climbing, blogging or something else.

Follow the three-step process above to create your own focused sprint:

  1. Admit that what you’re doing isn’t working.
  2. Shake up your learning methods.
  3. Commit to practicing daily and increasing your effort for a focused period of one to four weeks, depending on your current skill level.

Rinse and repeat whenever you’re in need of new motivation or a breakthrough.

Have you tried the focused sprint approach before?

How did it work for you? Please share your tips in the comments below.

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