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Can anyone become an expert in 10,000 hours?

Feb 05, 2021

It is claimed that practising a skill for 10,000 hours can make you an expert – but what do the studies say and what does it mean for organisations? Kevin Hannigan analyses the research. 

Much has been written in the last number of years of how 10,000 hours of practice can confer expertise. If this is true, then any of us should be able to become an expert at anything with enough practice. But is this really true? Is there a causal relationship between the figure of 10,000 hours of practice and expert performance?

How long does it take to form new habits?

Research by Phillippa Lally in the UK suggests that new behaviours can become automatic, on average, after practising them for 18 to 254 days. The research studied volunteers who chose to change eating, drinking or exercise behaviours and tracked them for success. 

Analysis of all these behaviours indicated that it took 66 days, on average, for this new behaviour to become habit. However, the mean number of days varied by the complexity of the habit, as follows:

  • Drinking: 59 days
  • Eating: 65 days
  • Exercise: 91 days

Although there are a lot of limitations in this study, it does suggest that it can take many repetitions for new behaviours to become a habit. Therefore, creating new habits requires tremendous self-control to be maintained for a significant period of time before they become more “automatic” and performed without any real self-control. For most people, it takes about three months of constant practice before a more complicated new behaviour gets set in our neural pathways as something we are comfortable with.

The nature of practice

If we accept that it can take three months of constant practice to set a new behaviour in our neural pathways, can the type of practice improve the performance of this behaviour?

In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, the authors conclude that great performance comes mostly from two things:

  • regularly obtaining concrete and constructive feedback; and
  • deliberately difficult practice.

On top of this, new research from a group of UCLA researchers, using brain imaging called functional MRI, discovered that connectivity of specific regions of the brain were strengthened using interleaved practise (varied and random) versus repetitive conditions. Interleaved practise enhances skill learning and the functional connectivity of frontoparietal networks.

These results strongly hint that if you want to develop better skills, memory and psychomotor performance, it is really better to spice up your deliberate practice with variety. Expect your practice sessions to be bad but, over time, your performance will significantly improve.

What does this mean for professionals?

First, developing complex new habits, physical or behavioural, takes an average of 60 to 90 days. Therefore, our focus cannot be solely on one training event for our teams to learn a new skill or behaviour in this changing work environment and, instead, management must focus on how new habits are supported and reinforced over a period of time.

Second, great performance is not just a function of the quality and frequency of practice but also the quality of the feedback. Constructive, supportive feedback will enhance performance over time.

Finally, the quality and difficulty of the practice impacts performance and skill retention positively. So, whether we are seeking to develop new skills to further the business, creating a more inclusive office culture or focusing on an employee’s individual performance, incorporating task difficulty and randomness into our development efforts will enhance performance.

10,000 hours of practice on its own will not develop expertise. If we are truly serious about transforming the way we work, we need to create the time to support new habits, provide constructive feedback, and ensure that the quality of practice is sufficiently diverse and challenging.

Kevin Hannigan is Head of Talent Consulting at HPC.