How To Get Better — At Anything

Posted: July 20, 2013

The Friendly City Files

You’re good ... but you wish you were better. (Join the club.)

Think about a skill you’ve developed: business, sports, personal — anything. At first, you were terrible. Terrible is a great place to start because improving on terrible is easy. With a little practice, you turned terrible into mediocre. And you had fun; improving is always fun.

Then, with a lot more practice — practice that started to be a little less fun — you got even better. Now, you’re good. Maybe you’re even really good.

But you’re not great. And somewhere along the way, you stopped improving, stopped having fun and started to think you weren’t capable of being great.

Why did you stop improving and stop having fun? Hitting the performance wall wasn’t due to a lack of effort, or willpower, or even talent. You stopped improving because of the way you applied your effort and willpower.

Say you’ve developed reasonable proficiency at a physical skill. Take golf: At first, every swing of the club felt awkward, but you gradually found a groove. You started to think less. You quit thinking about your hips. You quit thinking about the height of your backswing. You quit thinking about what your wrists do in your  follow-through.

You started thinking less because your skills became more automatic. In some ways, that’s a great sign: Automatic means you internalized a skill.

But automatic is also a bad sign. Anything you do automatically is really hard to adjust. To get better, you must find ways to force yourself to adapt and modify what you already do well.

To force yourself to adapt — and in the process, rediscover the joy of improving — try these:

1. Go fast. Force yourself to perform a task more quickly. You’ll make mistakes; probably lots of them. Don’t get frustrated. The more mistakes you make the better, because the best way to learn is from making mistakes.

If a product demo usually takes 10 minutes, fly through it in five. (As a practice run, of course.) You’ll break free from some old habits, adapt to the faster speed and find ways to make a good presentation even better.

2. Go slow. Take your time. Take too much time.

Swinging a golf club in slow motion allows you to feel muscles working that you normally don’t notice. Taking more time to run through your sales pitch will uncover opportunities to highlight additional customer benefits.

Going more slowly is a great way to notice habits that have become automatic — and to examine each one of them critically.

3. Go piece by piece. Every complex task is made up of a series of steps. Pick a step and focus solely on that step.

Break a sales call into component pieces; first, focus on perfecting your opening. No customer is the same, so develop modifications you can instantly apply to different scenarios.

Deconstruct each step, master that step and move on to the next one. When you put all the pieces back together, your skills will be markedly improved.

4. March to a different drum. We all settle on ways to measure our performance; typically, we choose a method that lets us feel good about ourselves.

So, pick a different measurement.

If you normally measure accuracy, measure speed instead. If you normally measure repetitions, measure volume instead.

Pick a different way to measure yourself, and then improve on that kind of performance.

When you try to do your best every time, every mistake you make is obvious, even if only to you. Learn from every mistake. Adapt and modify your techniques so you constantly improve.

Because when you keep improving, you keep having fun — and all the focused effort you put in will once again feel worth it.

Jeff Haden lives in Harrisonburg and is a bestselling ghostwriter and Inc. Magazine columnist. He can be reached at

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