When you go about gaining a new skill, what does that process typically look like for you? Do you sit down in an afternoon and fine tune one thing to perfection right then and there, or do you try to juggle around a few different things at the same time? If you typically adhere to the former option, why not try interleaving your practice and see what happens? In an earlier blog post, we discussed deliberate practice and how to do it. Interleaving is a good technique to use in tandem with deliberate practice.
What even IS that?
Interleaved practice has a few names, actually. Mixed practice, varied practice, and random practice are also common things to call it. Interleaving practice is the action of learning a few different (yet similar) skills at the same time, shuffled together. For instance, what many of us are used to doing when working on a new skill is something called blocked practice, which is where we work on the same thing for an extended period until we feel comfortable with it and achieve a groove. Then, we move on to the next skill in line, and so on. Block practicing creates a more instant gratification in that moment because you feel, by the end of it, that you’ve worked for a long period of time and can see improvement at the end of that session. Interleaving is different in that it certainly doesn’t look as neat and tidy as block practicing. The cycling between several different yet complementary skills at once never really gives you the chance to feel comfortable with what you’re doing and zone out. Thus you struggle- which in this case, struggling is good, it means that you’re really engaged (and somewhat wrestling) with the acquisition of new skill. It’s that whole “staying on the edge of your abilities” thing that Daniel Coyle talks about in The Talent Code.
So, it’s hard. Ick. What’s the big deal about interleaving?
Well, we need to face facts here: you don’t learn much in your comfort zone. If you’re doing something repetitive to the point of zoning out, you can switch your brain off and engage in automatic movements, thinking about chores and bills and dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs) while you’re doing xyz task. It is good to be comfortable, and this zone can be useful, but when you’re trying to train new skills, it’s a good idea to be alert and conscious of what it is that you’re doing. With blocked practice, it’s easy to get into a groove from working on the same thing for a long time. By the end of things, though, you’re only sort of paying attention, you’ve found a flow, it’s suddenly a more passive engagement. Interleaving makes it a point to interrupt you as much as possible so you have no choice but to trip over yourself over and over again. It’s this constant state of being tested on things that generates long-term understanding and familiarity with a new concept or skill. It becomes a more solid part of you.
This is from a study involving subjects learning different mathematical concepts. Two methods of learning were used: Blocked and interleaved. At the beginning, it sure looks like the blocked practice is the best way to go. Give it time however, and the folks who used interleaving outperform the blockers by a landslide. Interleaving creates a stickiness to what you’re learning by cycling out of what you’re working on just as you’re about to get the concept. When you come back to it later on in the cycle of skills you’re training, you’re forced to try to recall what you did and start all over again, making mistakes again left and right. That sounds intimidating, but if you learn to love mistakes (it’s like rolling all the 1’s out of your dice. Nerds, you with me?) you’ll know that’s the feeling of progress. Making mistakes is how we learn after all, and interleaving provides you with ample opportunity for that very thing. Trying to remember freshly forgotten material just makes it that much stronger later on.
How do I do it?
There are a lot of ways this can shake out, but here’s a rough guide to how I do it:
- Write out your list of skills that you are working on. This needs to be pretty specific. It’s that whole deliberate practice thing we’ve mentioned before. Don’t put something on your list like “play the piece better” or “practice a scale”. What are you doing specifically to get better? What does that even mean? Where are your rough spots? What about your scale needs work? Are you trying to play it too fast? Do you always flub the middle? Where are the holes? Identify the little things that cause you issues and make a collection of them. This is your to-do list.
- Pick a specific amount of time. This amount of time will be different for everyone. It all depends on how long you can engage in quality concentration. The thing that’s going to help you here is doing things in short bursts, but doing it more than once a day. Maybe you can only concentrate for 10 minutes at a time. That’s great, a lot can happen in 10 minutes!
- Plan what you will do in this block of time. Pick a few things off your list to fit in this time box. Don’t pick too many or else you’ll get overwhelmed. Remember, you can do this more than once a day!
- Use a timer. This is for interrupting your flow and keeping you on task. You may glare at it if it makes you feel better. Once that timer beeps, though, stop what you’re doing and move on to the next task in line, until the timer beeps again, and so on. If you’re doing this in, say, a 10-minute time box, you might not want to cram more than two objectives in there at a time, subdividing that 10-minute box into 2-minute drill sessions. Alternately, you can choose 5 items from your to-do list, and do the whole cycle twice. Again, it all depends on how long you can concentrate.
If you want to think of it this way: Interleaving is like building muscles. If you forgo training other parts of your body and just work on your arms until they’re all beefy and cool, you’ll end up looking like Popeye (might as well get a tattoo and a pipe, am I right? Yeah!). This is block practicing. You work on one thing ’till you’ve got it, then move on. Eventually, you’ll get your whole body nice and beefy, but it will take a long time and you might lose mass elsewhere while you’re training the next muscle group. Interleaving is like doing a full body workout. It’s cross training. You’re tired as all get out by the end of things, but you’re guaranteed to not look like The Sailor Man, either.
Interleaving practice takes a lot of mental energy. If all you do when you pick up your instrument is this high focus, energy intensive practice, you’ll find yourself getting tired, and frustrated over time. This method is supposed to keep you on the edge of your abilities at all times, and that isn’t comfortable. Make sure you take some time to simply PLAY apart from practice! Things that are easy for you, or satisfying, something that brings you great joy! Don’t forget to enjoy the skills you’re building!
Remember, there is no ‘best’ way to practice, it’s all about what works best for you! What about you? What’s your practice style? Have you tried interleaving? We’d love to hear from you!