In the 1990s, a trio of psychologists from the Universität der Künst in Berlin embarked on a quest to answer the question: What separates elite achievers from average performers? Their resulting research became the basis of the so-called “10,000 hour rule,” popularized by psychology writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers — the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve true mastery of a skill. (Gladwell has pushed back on the interpretation over the years, but the popular conception of the rule has taken on a life of its own.)
For their study, the researchers gathered a set of star violin players, ones who professors believed would become world-class performers. Let’s call this group the stars. They also put together another group: students who were serious about the violin, but as their professors noted, not in the same league as the stars. We’ll call this group the mediocres.
All of the students were asked to log, in detail, how they spent their time each day. Through the diaries, the researchers observed that the stars put in an average of about 50 hours of practice per week. In today’s world, where we valorize nonstop hustle, a number this high makes sense: To get better at anything, we believe, we simply need to put in more time.
But what may come as a surprise is that the mediocres also put in 50 hours of practice per week. Yes, the group of average performers spent around the same amount of time as the elite players working on their scales, fine-tuning their tempo, and doing whatever else is necessary to improve their violin performance.
So what separated the two groups, if not hours devoted to their art? There were two big differences.
First is that the stars spent almost three times more time on deliberate practice than the average group. Deliberate practice is the uncomfortable, purposeful type of practice where you stretch your abilities. You’re not just running through what you already know; you’re challenging yourself to expand what you can do.
Second is when the two groups did their practicing. The mediocres scattered practices throughout the day, while the stars consolidated their practicing hours into two specific periods. As shown in the graph below, there are two prominent peaks: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
The proportion of time spent practicing as a function of time of day for the mediocres (left) and the stars (right). Credit: “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance,” Psychological Review.
From this chart, we can see that the best of the best tended to stick pretty strictly to two sessions a day, a schedule that sounds more stressful than it is: when the researchers asked the players to estimate how much time they dedicated each week to leisure activities — an important indicator of feeling of relaxation — the stars were significantly more relaxed than their less exceptional peers.
That’s a point worth saying again: The students who practiced harder — who committed themselves to a rigid plan of several energy-draining hours each day — were less stressed overall. They put in the hard, uncomfortable work, and then they left it behind.
When you’re trying to improve in something, whether you’re a student trying to cultivate your mind or a worker striving to take your career to the next level, then busyness and exhaustion should be your enemies. If you’re constantly stressed and up late working, you’re doing something wrong. You’ve become a victim of the delusion that productivity necessarily equals value.
To join the stars, do less. But do the work with absolute, intense, and hard focus. And when you’re done, be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day.