At precisely nine minutes past nine tomorrow morning Tiger Woods will be standing on the First Tee at St Andrews with playing partner Justin Rose in a bid to win the Open Golf championship. No doubt both of these golfers will have been up early, out on the practice range to get warmed up for their challenge. But new research on learning skills suggests that the player who does
We have all heard of the notion that “practice makes perfect” but this neurological study suggests this is not as true as it seems. Yes, we need to practice skills, but it’s how we do that practice that makes the difference. The brain research from the University of Southern California shows that if people constantly repeat the same action they are less able to repeat it accurately compared with people who practice the item whilst also practising other actions. In other words, if you repeatedly practice the same skill, you are less good at it than people who practice it, do something else, then something else and then go back to the original item they wanted to practice.
In the case of Tiger Woods it means if he wants to improve his tee shots he needs to practice them, go out and do some putting, try some chip shots and then go back to practising tee shots. This seems counter-intuitive but the neuroscientists have found out why this kind of practising is better than traditional “practice makes perfect”. The reason is that when you repeatedly practice an action, remembering what to do is actually straightforward. Hence your brain does not do any “deep processing”; it only makes you better at a superficial level. However, when you conduct “variable practice”, where you mix a range of actions together, each time you come back to the one you really want to practice your brain has to work harder to remember. This forces your brain to process the information at a deeper level, which makes it more memorable in the long term.
So, what implications does this have for your web business? It suggests, for instance, that if you take up something like Twitter and then spend hours and hours working out what to do with it, you might not succeed as well as someone who uses Twitter for a short while, goes off to LinkedIn, has a dabble with Facebook and then returns to Twitter. Concentrating on one web service and getting to know it well means you are less likely to process the information deeply. You can remember what to do with Twitter if you use it constantly for a while, but then returning to it the next day is a bit of a struggle. You are more likely to recall what to do if you spread your Twitter use, for instance, in bursts through the day, rather than in a concentrated effort.
Many people complain they find online web services difficult to use. Part of that is the overly technical language the companies use, but part it seems is the way we use them. People sign up for a service, spend a while on it and then come back to it in a day or two. They then have to re-learn what to do. This repetitive re-learning becomes troubling after a while and people soon give up using the program.
But, this new study suggests less intensive initial use of a web service could work out better. Instead of signing up to Twitter, say, and then spending an hour learning it, you’d be better off signing up, spending five minutes and then coming back to it an hour later having used other web services in the meantime. This would allow for deeper processing of the information, making it more likely that you retain the memory for how to use the service for a much longer time period.
The research also implies that having a repetitive daily routine means you are remembering what to do at only a superficial level. If you vary your routine you actually could be boosting your brain’s ability to remember what to do – and in so doing, make your performance at your daily tasks better.
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+