How to Become Deliberately Better at Anything

At the start of 2018, I launched an idea called Deliberately Better.

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Deliberately Better was created with two main aims in mind:

  1. It was intended to inspire people to believe in positive change, and
  2. It was meant to motivate others to want to put some tangible and small steps into place towards achieving their overall goals and improving their life.

While these are admirable aims, I’m not quite sure if this vision has been fully realised. The Facebook group has over 300 members presently, but engagement has been variable, and it hasn’t been as much of a community of people sharing their positive improvements as I initially hoped.

One of the reasons for this could be put down to how busy everyone is. But that is the case for every group on Facebook, so I’m not going to rationalise it away like that. Another possible explanation is that I haven’t been clear enough with the basics of skill acquisition, to begin with. Before we can improve anything, we must first know what steps to take if we want to develop something.

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My Journey Towards Becoming Deliberately Better

My love of learning has now been my #1 key strength the last two times I have taken the VIA Character Strengths Survey. My curiosity and interest in the world have also climbed from 3rd to 2nd, which means I am always taking in new information and trying to see how I can apply these findings into my own life. I haven’t always been like this, and I definitely don’t expect everyone else to be either.

Growing up, I had a fixed mindset for sure. It meant that I thought that things like personality and intelligence and even sporting or academic capabilities were what they were and could not be changed, even with practice. It is for this reason that I hated training for sports such as basketball, and hated homework even more. It’s also why I managed to go from being second in my class and getting A+ in Mathematics in year 9 to nearly flunking out in year 11 and getting an E+ on my end of Semester exam. I had always been told how “good I was at Maths”, and equated this with being able to do it quickly without putting in much effort. That is the definition of talent, and maybe I was naturally talented with Maths to some degree, but talent can only take us so far…

Some books really helped me to change my view on this:

  1. ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell
  2. ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ by Carol Dweck
  3. ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by Angela Duckworth
  4. ‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’ by Anders Ericsson

‘Outliers’ was the first book that I read. The main takeaway message I got from this is that to really become an expert at something, it requires a lot of effort and a lot of time, and there is no such thing as an overnight success, even though the media likes to portray things in that way. The Beatles, Bill Gates, and especially any fantastic violin player all had to put in many hours of deliberate practice – as many as 10,000 hours before they are truly exceptional.

‘Outliers’ helped me to focus less on what I was talented at, and more on thinking about what I would be willing to spend 10,000 hours doing. Psychology came back as the logical answer for me, and I’ve been applying myself towards learning as much as I can about the field and the latest research ever since.

‘Mindset’ was the second book I read and taught me that a fixed mindset can be turned into a growth mindset. The way to do this is to focus on the process rather than the outcome, and to focus on effort applied rather than results achieved. By being happy with how much I apply myself towards something and how quickly I try something again after a setback, I just feel more and more encouraged to keep pushing myself and growing rather than being afraid of making a mistake or staying in my comfort zone.

‘Grit’ was the third book and highlighted to me the simple equation that success = talent x (effort x effort). Essentially, how much effort we put into getting better at something is much more important than how talented we are initially at something. Talent is still valuable, and factors such as height do play a role in likely someone is to be a successful jockey, gymnast or basketball player. However, it will never carry you all the way to the top or help you stay there.

Both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have remained atop the tennis world for so long based on how meticulous and reflective and hard-working they are. Bernard Tomic never realised his potential for the opposite reason. He didn’t like to work hard, and even found the “I’m a celebrity…get me out of here!” jungle to be too harsh an environment to stick around in. If we want to be grittier, we need to identify our passion first, and then persevere through whatever obstacles and challenges may come along in pursuit of our goals.

The last book that I read was ‘Peak’, and this really highlighted the difference to me between play and deliberate practice. Play is generally fun, not too specific and not too challenging. Deliberate practice is very focused on learning a particular skill, that is challenging and just outside of one’s comfort zone, and can be very draining and often not that enjoyable. I’d previously wanted to get better at things while having fun, but knowing that this may not be possible was actually a relief. Now if I want to get better at something, I expect it to be painful and frustrating at times. The fun comes when I see my improvements, and the next time I apply these newly acquired skills through play.

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How Do You Get Better At Something Though?

With most things, people do get better quite quickly when initially learning something new, even without too much effort. If you are willing to spend 20 hours on actually trying to learn a skill, and schedule these hours into your daily and weekly schedules, you will always get better than someone who doesn’t prioritise the task or put in the time.

If you follow the following 10 principles of rapid skill acquisition, as set out by Josh Kaufman in his book ‘The First 20 hours: How to Learn Anything Fast’, you will improve:

  1. Choose a loveable project
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time
  3. Define your target performance level.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into sub-skills.
  5. Obtain critical tools.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
  10. Emphasise quantity and speed.

After 20 hours, learning and further skill acquisition then begin to plateau off, and you will then have a further choice:

  1. If you are happy with where you are at concerning this skill, then enjoy it. Go out, have fun, and put any of the time that you spend on this skill into play. You will have fun, but may not get much better, and that’s okay too. I’ve been that way with juggling since high school, and still enjoy it when I do it. OR
  2. Keep striving to improve, highlight areas for continued improvement and what skills to focus on, get feedback on your progress and/or coaching from an expert in that field, and alternate periods of deliberate practice with periods of play too. It won’t always be fun, but you will get better.

Tim Ferriss is also a bit of a role model for me when it comes to his dedication towards lifestyle design or self-improvement. His third book ‘The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life’ is mostly a cookbook but also goes into skill acquisition in the first 100 pages, which makes it the most random cookbook I’ve ever seen. He uses the acronym DiSSS to help you to remember the steps of getting better at any skill:

D = Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?

i = Nothing, DiSSS is easier to remember than DSSS.

S = Selection: Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?

S = Sequencing: In what order should I learn these blocks?

S = Stakes: How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?

Now that you know what the experts say about improving any ability quickly and efficiently, I want to share with you my 8-step process towards becoming deliberately better.IMG_7016

The Deliberately Better 8-Step Process

Step 1: Determine if there is a skill that you would like to learn that you would be willing to spend 20 hours learning. If there is, write it down.

Step 2: Find an expert in this skill who has done what you would like to do or has helped at least five people to do what you want to do. This could be either in person, in a book or over youtube.

Step 3: If their learning process is not easily described, ask them if you can book an appointment in with them in person or over the internet or if you can send them a few questions via email.

Step 4: Ask them to deconstruct the skill for you, help you to select the 20% of this learning process that is likely to give you at least 80% of the outcome you are going for, and what you should be tracking to assess progress and get feedback along the way when you are stuck or need help.

Step 5: Obtain a baseline assessment of where you are at with the overall skill or the areas that you would like to improve so that you can monitor your progress and see how much you have grown by the end.

Step 6: Learn the skill for 20 hours and track what you did and your progress by writing it down or recording it in some way (audio or video), getting feedback along the way as needed.

Step 7: Conduct a final assessment to measure how much you have improved since you first began at the skill and all crucial areas that you wanted to upgrade.

Step 8: Share how you found the whole process with the Deliberately Better Facebook group, show us (and the expert if you want to) how much you improved, what the science suggests for people who wish to develop this skill themselves and where people can go to learn more, including:

  • experts to see
  • books to read
  • videos to watch
  • courses to take

This is where I see the real benefits of having a community of like-minded people, all coming together to support and encourage each other with whatever it is that we are trying to improve, and providing guidance wherever it is needed along the way.

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I hope that you found some of this information interesting, but more importantly, I hope that it does inspire you to believe that change is possible and motivate you to try something new and grow. If you do, we’d love to hear about your challenges and successes. I wish you all the best on your journey!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Can You Improve Your Sleep By Going to a Sleep Retreat?

Just the other week I was featured in an article in the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun on sleep retreats. It was weird because I had been planning on running some sleep retreats already, but hadn’t yet. Stranger still, I hadn’t told anyone about my idea yet, and it was the first article that I have been mentioned in that I am aware of without being interviewed or asked for permission first.

In the article, the first retreat that was recommended was Golden Door in the Hunter Valley, NSW. From what I had been told about it, it is generally known as a wellbeing retreat rather than a sleep retreat.

An excellent Sleep Physician that I work with at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre, Dr David Cunnington, did inform me that he often goes up there on weekends to be a guest speaker on sleep difficulties and how to improve them. He asked if I wanted to accompany him one time. I willingly obliged.

We flew up to Newcastle on Friday the 18th of May just after midday, drove an hour from the airport to the Hunter Valley, and settled into our rooms just before 4pm. It was a charming private villa, with my own balcony with a view, a long couch to relax on, a nice big bathtub to relax in, and my own king bed to sleep in. And that was just the room.

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The main building where the reception was consisted of a huge golden door opening up to steps and a waterfall running through the building. A chef was on site to prepare healthy meals for everyone for breakfast, lunch and dinner (no red meat or processed carbs, no caffeine and no alcohol). Not to mention a day spa offering five pages of treatments, an indoor pool for deep water running or lap swimming, an outdoor pool for relaxing, a steam room and spa, a yoga studio, indoor basketball court, a huge gym, two tennis courts and even a table tennis table.

I wanted to get to it all, but also remembered that this was a perfect opportunity for me to switch off, relax and unwind. Instead of participating in the afternoon activities on Friday, I decided to run myself a hot bath, listen to an audiobook, and rest until dinner time.

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Golden door seemed to attract an eclectic mix of people, from stressed executives, burned out executive assistants, and people in need of a career, family or relationship break or change. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and most obliged with wearing their name tags across the weekend too, making it easier to approach and ask people what brought them to Golden Door and what they were hoping to get out of it.

The staff were fantastic too, often mingling with the guests at meal times and participating in as many activities as possible. After dinner, at about 7pm, those who were interested went for a leisurely walk and stopped to lie back and stare up at the stars. Living in the heart of Melbourne, this is an opportunity that I don’t often get, and I relished just looking up without feeling like I had to rush off and do something else.

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After the walk, we headed back to our private villas where I continued to try to stay away from bright screens. I did 10 minutes of meditation, listening to the app ‘Calm’, listened to an audiobook while relaxing on the couch, and once I felt sleepy, went off to bed.

The Saturday morning I was awoken by a knock on the door and a ring of the doorbell at 6am. If you don’t want this, you can put a do not disturb sign on the outside of the door, but it is to help people get up for the 6:30am tai chi session up on meditation hill. I didn’t want my sleep to be over yet, but managed to get dressed and strolled up the hill just as the sun was rising across the Hunter Valley.

With 360 degree views of the valley, Meditation Hill is probably the most picturesque part of the Golden Door retreat (it’s all pretty nice though). I’d never done tai chi before, but it wasn’t too bad, especially with the hot air balloons taking off for their flights from the valley below.

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Following that, it was straight to the pool for some deep water running. I thought it would be some light aqua aerobics for oldies, but it was much more intense. After breakfast was a 10km hike, then tennis after lunch, and table tennis after that. Way more exercise than I expected to do, but I didn’t regret it. I then headed off to yin yoga, another activity I’d never tried before. I may have fallen asleep a little bit during this, but power naps are healthy for you, right?

A 50-minute deep tissue massage was next at the Elysium day spa. A bit pricey at $140, but it felt amazing after all of the activity I’d done, especially my calves. These treatments are optional, but quite a few guests seemed to be getting them.

David’s talk on sleep was after dinner. Then it was off to bed again. My second night of sleep was longer, but not quite as deep as the first one.

When I compare it to how I slept two nights before the retreat and two nights after it, I can see that a wellness retreat really can improve your sleep on the nights you are there. This is because it gives you so many things that can help you to have a good night’s sleep, including:

  • Lots of physical activity during the day but not too late at night
  • A vast amount of morning sunlight to help entrain your circadian rhythms and wake you up for the day. This can also help you to fall asleep earlier that night
  • Healthy food
  • No caffeine
  • No alcohol
  • Plenty of activities to relax and unwind
  • More time in nature with beautiful scenery and less time indoors looking at bright screens
  • Opportunities for engaging conversation with friendly and welcoming people that are also wanting to improve their health

What it doesn’t offer is clear guidelines or individual recommendations around sleep or how to keep improving it once you go home. For some, a 6am wake-up call is perfect to help them not spend too long in bed. For others, it could cause anticipatory anxiety or lead to them putting too much pressure on themselves to get to sleep early the night before.

Thanks for reading! If you would like a personalised sleep report and the five things that you could do to best improve your sleep, please check out our services.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

Will Your Sleep Improve if You Take Melatonin Tablets Regularly?

The twenty-fifth and last variable that I tested in 2017 to examine its impact on sleep is melatonin. I will see if taking melatonin every night for a week can have a substantial effect on my sleep quality. 

I will discuss what my data shows, how easy or difficult I found this strategy to implement, and what previous research says. These three factors will be combined for an overall score and grade on how effective melatonin can be for improving sleep.

HOW COULD MELATONIN IMPROVE SLEEP QUALITY?

Melatonin is naturally produced in the body. It is considered the sleep hormone, and it usually begins to be released about two hours before we normally fall asleep at night.

If you are young and healthy, there is a good chance that your brain already produces enough melatonin. In this case, adding melatonin in tablet form may not make much of a difference to your sleep at all.

As people age, sometimes they don’t produce enough melatonin naturally, so taking pills can help them to sleep better. It’s also really good if you have a delayed circadian rhythm (internal body clock) and want to bring your sleep times forward, or if you have jet lag and again want to sleep at times that are more appropriate for your new timezone.

By combining melatonin at the right time with light exposure at the right time, people can shift their internal body clock by as much as two hours every day. Bigger doses may make you feel sleepier, but doses as small as 2mg still have phase shifting properties, meaning they can help you to fall asleep earlier at night.

Melatonin can be bought over the counter in the US, and this is what I did while I was there to try it out. In Australia, you need a prescription, and this can be provided by your GP.

THE EXPERIMENT

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For the first week, I took melatonin tablets 90-120 minutes before I wanted to sleep. This was as early as 8pm on the Friday, and as late as 11pm on the Saturday.

For the second week, I took no melatonin tablets, and have not taken any since then either.

Let’s see if the melatonin pills had any impact on my sleep for the week…

THE OUTCOME

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Comparison: Melatonin vs No melatonin

Based on my sleep diary data, the findings were as follows:

  • The number of awakenings:
    1. No melatonin – 0.86 per night
    2. Melatonin – 1 per night
      • less is better
  • Time in bed:
    1. No melatonin – 7 hours 49 minutes
    2. Melatonin – 7 hours 28 minutes
      • 8 hours is ideal for me
  • Time to bed:
    1. Melatonin – 10:59 pm
    2. No melatonin – 10:38 pm
      • 11:30pm is ideal for me
  • Total sleep time:
    1. No melatonin – 7 hours 24 minutes
    2. Melatonin – 7 hours 4 minutes
      • 7 hours 30 minutes is ideal for me
  • Sleep onset latency:
    1. Melatonin – 10.71 minutes
    2. No melatonin – 12.86 minutes
      • quicker is better
  • Wake after sleep onset:
    1. No melatonin – 12.14 minutes
    2. Melatonin – 13.57 minutes
      • less is better
  • Rise time:
    1. Melatonin – 6:27 am
    2. No melatonin – 6:27 am
      • 7:30am is ideal for me
  • Sleep quality:
    1. No melatonin – 4.57/5
    2. Melatonin – 4.29/5
      • more is better
  • Sleep efficiency:
    1. No melatonin – 94.67%
    2. Melatonin – 94.64%
      • higher is better

AND THE WINNER IS…

With a count of 6.5 points to 2.5 points, the no melatonin week was a generally better week of sleep than the week where I took melatonin tablets every night.

Both weeks were much better than the two weeks prior when I was experimenting with creativity before bed, but it’s hard to know if the second week was better because I had taken melatonin the week before it, or if it was better because I was on holidays and was more relaxed during the days as well as at night time.

I flew down to Tasmania on Boxing Day and spent a really nice week in a secluded spot right on the coast, so I do think this could have contributed to the better sleep I experienced in the second week.

This means that melatonin is potentially helpful, but other factors may play a bigger role than just taking a tablet if you want a consistently better night of sleep. 

IS TAKING MELATONIN REGULARLY A GOOD SLEEP STRATEGY?

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IS IT EFFECTIVE?

It depends. It has been shown to be effective for people with jet lag, delayed sleep phase disorder, astronauts in outer space, blind individuals and the elderly. For me, it did lead to better sleep than the two weeks before it, but not as good a sleep as the week after I stopped taking it.

I, therefore, give the effectiveness of this strategy a 13/25.

CAN IT BE APPLIED?

It can, but you need a prescription for it in Australia from your GP, and then the tablets can get costly over time if you need to keep refilling your prescription. It’s much easier to take it in the US as they can be bought over the counter.

Once you have melatonin tablets, it still becomes important to know if you are taking the right medication for your sleep problem. A regular review by a sleep physician would help to ensure you are taking the right tablet at the right dose at the right time. This can be expensive, but it is important to ensure you are doing what is best for your sleep and overall health.

I, therefore, give the applicability of this strategy a 15/25. 

IS IT SCIENTIFIC?

Garfinkel, Laudon and Zisapel (1995) found that controlled-release melatonin can improve sleep quality in the elderly more than a placebo can. This helps to offset the decline in natural melatonin production, and is especially effective for elderly people who complain of insomnia (Garfinkel et al., 1995).

A 2005 meta-analysis by Brzezinski and colleagues found that across 17 studies, melatonin reduced time taken to fall asleep by 4 minutes, increased sleep efficiency by 2.2%, and increased total sleep time by 12.8 minutes. For people with insomnia and no other medical conditions, the improvements in sleep efficiency and total sleep time can be even greater (Brzezinski et al., 2005).

A more recent meta-analysis showed the strongest benefits for melatonin in individuals with delayed sleep phase disorder, primary insomnia and blind patients (Auld, Maschauer, Morrison, Skene & Riha, 2017).

As Gandhi and colleagues (2015) said, melatonin is required for effective sleep regulation. For a lot of people, this occurs internally at the right times. Where it doesn’t, external melatonin given at the right time can help.

I, therefore, give the science of this strategy a 40/50.

Overall, taking melatonin tablets regularly at night as a way to sleep better gets a score of 13/25 + 15/25 + 40/50 =

68/100: Credit

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WHAT I RECOMMEND

First, get some morning sunlight if you are wanting to go to bed a bit earlier at night. Even 30 minutes shortly after you wake up can help you to feel more energetic during the day and get to bed earlier at night.

Avoid any devices that emit blue-light in the last two hours before bed. If it’s a phone or a tablet and you want/have to be on it, but it on night mode under the brightness and display in your general settings. If it is your computer and you want/have to be on it, download f.lux and have it installed on your computer. If it is the TV and you want/have to watch it, buy a pair of blue-light blocking glasses and put them on in the past two hours before sleep. There are even new lights that you can have installed in your house that become more orange/red in colour the closer it gets to bedtime. All of these things are likely to assist you more than melatonin tablets.

If you have tried all of the above strategies and you are still not sleeping at the times you want to, see your doctor or get a referral to see a sleep physician. They will tell you if melatonin is likely to be helpful for you, how much to take, and when to take it.

Thanks for reading and coming along on my sleep experiment journey for all of 2017. If you would like a personalised sleep report and individualised recommendations on the five best things that you could do to improve your sleep, please check out our services.