Progressive Overload & Deliberate Practice

Sawing a dead tree for fire wood.

As of late, I have become a bit obsessed with Anders Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice (here is a one minute video explaining the concept). 

Deliberate practice, much like the name suggests, is approaching development in such a way that you are not just accumulating hours practicing a task – but rather identifying specific ways in which you can improve. 

Before I learned about deliberate practice, I knew of the concept – but from a different name: progressive overload. From my experience in strength and endurance training, progressive overload is the key to getting better. It means, on a consistent & progressive basis, slowly increasing the stress you put on your body in training – causing your body to adapt. This may mean increasing the weight you’re using, or increasing the reps / sets; anyone who has trained for a marathon is familiar with slowly increasing your miles leading up to race day. All forms of progressive overload, another way of deliberately practicing.

Anyway, since learning more about deliberate practice I have come to realize how this can be applied to almost any area of life. 

Here is an example from last weekend:

One of my hobbies I have taken up over the last 5 years has been camping. This started as one night backpacking trips and has expanded into multi-day marches, learning how to navigate terrain, find water, build a fire in wet conditions, and much more. Along the way I have been going with the same core group of people, and as we have progressed we have found new ways to challenge ourselves. 

Just last weekend when doing a 10 mile trail called Signal Knob Loop Trail in the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest, myself and my three companions were faced with a problem when we got to camp at the 8 mile mark: one of the guys left their tent in the car. That meant we had one 2-person tent for 4 large men. 

Around this same time last year I tried to camp without a tent, and was kept up all night by a field mouse – so I was not too happy about our predicament. One of my companions, Spencer, said, “Well, we’ve never built a shelter before.” With that, instead of making the 4 mile round trip back to the car, we resolved to build a shelter to protect ourselves from the elements (I’m not ashamed to admit I was one of the two in the tent). 

Although the practice wasn’t deliberate when we set out on the adventure, it became an opportunity for progressive overload – or deliberately practicing a new skill once we were in the situation. Now we are all able to construct a shelter out of wood, a tarp, and some rope. 

To apply deliberate practice in our own lives we don’t have to go very far. Simply identify an area you want to improve on, maybe in Jiu-Jitsu it is working on your guard passing – or in your knowledge worker job perfecting specific functions in excel, and find something online that can teach you what you want to practice. Once you’ve identified that area you can move from haphazardly collecting hours of task completion, to taking control of the wheel in order to deliberately and progressively get better. 

The shelter under construction.
Waking up.


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