I just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. It was excellent. This passage really caught my attention:
In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question (on plateauing) by describing the three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the tasks and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stages seems to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at typing, we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the “OK plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re Ok with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.
But what if we are not OK with how good we are at something? What if we still want to improve? What if we still want to get better?
The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing - to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.
This is what experts do.
What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”
Overall, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a worthwhile read. In addition, another book on my list regarding this same topic is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. The bottom line is this: in order to learn on a expert level, we must literally think about how we think.