Up Your Spiritual Game With Deliberate Practice

While reading one of the many self-improvement books I frequently indulge in, I came across, once again, the mention of deliberate practice. Since it’s introduction by psychologist and professor Anders Ericsson in 1996, it’s cropped up in numerous books (like Grit)  and articles (see here) ever since.

So, not a new concept for me, but this time, a light bulb went off in my head. What is something I’m always struggling to improve at? My prayer life. Could the tenets of deliberate practice help me to become an “expert” in prayer? Becoming a world-class pray-er could vastly improve my eternal outlook.

For the benefit of all my non self-help book reading readers and my own nerdy pleasure, I thought I would outline the basics of deliberate practice, and how by following these steps we can improve our spiritual life. (And you thought you were stopping by for a light-hearted round-up of weekly happenings!) All quotes are from Anders Ericsson.


Deliberate practice is often mentioned in the same breath as the 10,000 hours theory; that is, it takes 10,000 hours for someone to become an expert at something. Erickson is quick to clarify that it is the quality of the practice that determines how good that 10,000 hours actually makes someone. To become one of the best violin players, chess competitors or dancers, you need to engage in deliberate practice, not 10,000 of whatever kind of practice you feel like. Deliberate practice can be described as such:

1. Unpleasant – Deliberate practice should make you uncomfortable physically and mentally. You shouldn’t enjoy deliberate practice. Now this may seem contrary to growing in spirituality, however I often think that the times I need to pray the most are the times I feel like doing it the least. Prayer needs to happen when the laundry is in piles, the kids are screaming and you’re angry as hell. It’s easy to pray and meditate in quiet Adoration chapels, but it is in learning to pray when the circumstances are anything but pleasant that we are actually practicing for when we need to rely on faith in God the most.

This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve. –source

2. Another way to make prayer unpleasant is to make sacrifices to do more of it. Like when we commit to saying a rosary every morning and we stick to that even when it means missing out on a hot cup of coffee, or an extra 15 minutes in bed. Sign up for Adoration at 2 a.m. or force yourself to sit and read a spiritual classic rather that watch a favorite TV show.  When you’re ready to stop, or take a break, resolve to push yourself for just five, or ten more minutes.

3. Challenging – Engaging in deliberate practice means working outside your comfort zone. You don’t keep practicing the same skills you already know, instead you focus on the tough skills outside your expertise. Have you been reciting the same prayers by heart for years? Work on memorizing a new prayer, or memorizing an old favorite in Latin (it is still the official language of the Church after all.) Pick up an old spiritual classic with challenging 16th century language. Flip to the footnotes, take your time and jot down your thoughts as you go. Sit and meditate on the Mass readings, and related scripture,  rather than just listening to them in Mass. Pick up the Catechism or an Encyclical, and delve deeper into the teachings of the Church. Some of the smartest men and women of all time have written on matters of faith; don’t assume their words are outside your comprehension.

Excellence demands effort and planned deliberate practice of increasing difficulty. –source

4. Another challenging aspect to prayer can be learning to just listen. So often we want to ask, understand and reason with God without giving Him the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. Or we try to sit quietly in chapel. but instead our mind races from subject to subject and before we know it, an hour has passed and the only question we have the answer to is what errands we need to run on the way home. Challenge yourself to be quiet. To push aside distractions as soon as they arise and to spend silent time in prayer. Start small; 15 minutes, and build from there.

5. Anders stresses that there are plenty of activities and exercises that are ineffective and won’t lead to improvement. So 10,000 hours of half-hearted attempts, or repeating the same few familiar moves won’t make you any more of an expert than the next guy. Only deliberate practice has shown results. So examine your prayer life: how quickly are you racing through that Chaplet of Divine Mercy? We can’t expect to deepen our spiritual life with only superficial efforts. And for those of us with children, we can’t hope our kids will remain faithful when our example is “meh” at best. Be deliberate in your prayers as a family as well.

Even the well-known fact that more “talented” children improve faster in the beginning of their music development appears to be in large part due to the fact that they spend more time in deliberate practice each week. –source

6. What all this research also hopes to debunk is the idea that genius is established by genetics, and not hard work. Many studies show that it is the students, athletes, and entrepreneurs that work hardest that achieve greatness, not those with a Mensa membership. Likewise, who will become a saint is not established at baptism. Thankfully, because of the sacrament of Confession we can keep working at our faith no matter our past failures.

The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance. –source

7. Lastly, Anderson found that working with a coach or teacher was key to helping musicians, athletes or whomever achieve deliberate practice. These mentors knew when and where to push their students to keep them in that uncomfortable zone and out of an unproductive rut. As Catholics our prayer coach can be our parish priest, a consecrated religious, or a dedicated spiritual director. These people are trained to see when we are growing lax in our practices and can prod our prayer life in the direction it needs to go.

Just working harder or working more does not seem to be associated with high levels of performance. Rather, if you’re working with a teacher or a mentor who has attained this high level of performance, that individual can help you now design the kind of training activities that they may have engaged in order to reach that higher level of performance.-source

I like how the concepts of deliberate practice can be used to help me improve physically, mentally and even spiritually. But maybe that’s just the self-improvement geek inside me. So what struck your fancy this week? Write it down then  link it up below. Don’t forget to include a link back to this post so your readers can find the rest of the Quick Takes. I look forward to reading your posts!

Seven Quick Takes


  1. This is a fantastic, worthy post. Thank you for writing it! I know I see the benefits of this deliberate practice method with my children’s intense music education, and I believe what you are describing is true.

  2. I’m a classical pianist, and this book (and the 10,000 hours rule) is often cited in my circles. (Although recently, I heard a de-bunk of it.) Anyway, I never thought of applying it to prayer. But, it’s a great parallel you’ve made. Nothing annoys me me more than when people think what I do as a pianist is just a fun hobby or a talent I was born with. Maybe a tiny fraction of it is fun or innate talent, but it takes WORK to be good. Consistent work, over years and years, often when you don’t feel like it, and a great teacher can really help. Thanks for writing this. Very thought provoking!

  3. I loved these tips so much. Definitely keeping these in mind over the next few months as I try to establish a new (or should I say an actual?) spiritual/prayer routine.

  4. I really like these tips for strengthening your prayer life! Trying to be better at praying can get really overwhelming so having some concrete steps to take helps make the process much easier.

  5. Sounds like a great book and idea – if you want something you have to deliberately practice it.
    Have you heard of the book, “Forming Intentional Disciples? It’s kind of on the same vein as you’ve written, that if we want to really live as true disciples of Christ we have to be intentional about it. It’s doesn’t just happen on its own.
    Speaking of good book, on a different topic, have you heard of or read Out of My Mind? My 7th grade daughter literally made me read it and it’s so great! I think you’d like it.
    Thanks for hosting and giving me an excuse to blog again.

  6. Great tips and insights on improving ones prayer life. Learning to just sit in silence is what I’m working (and totally failing at) but trying to continue to make it a deliberate practice and work on improving. Baby steps.

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