You Get Better at What You Do

I was sitting in Ecuador listening to a talk from the blogger I had come to see. Halfway through his speech, which was more like a fireside chat than a lecture, he made a comment that shifted my mindset. He uttered the words casually as if everyone already knew it. Maybe they did, and I had missed the memo. He simply said, “you get better at what you do.”

Sure everyone knows “practice makes perfect.” But what he pointed out to me is that I get better regardless of whether or not I mean to. I quickly put two and two together and realized I could use this to my advantage, and unfortunately, I wasn’t. Since thinking about it and looking for it in the world around me, I now believe that the adage is true and might be a law of nature.

Works Both Ways

Without looking at it both ways, it seems like an unimpressive adage. “You get better at what you do,” is almost common sense. It sounds like the definition of practice. But this wording, to me, pointed out that you get better at ANYTHING you do. Whether you want to or not.

I write every day, it’s an innate habit at this point, and I’ve gotten better at it. Everyday I take time out on purpose to write and get better at writing. I also watch TV while eating lunch every day.

So every day I get better at watching tv at lunch. I’m better at finding a tv show to watch. I’m better at craving that entertainment while I eat. And worst of all, I’m getting better at getting off track, because to be honest I rarely stop at watching just one show at lunch. Meaning I say goodbye to any chance of afternoon productivity.

The worst thing that this has happened with is Netflix during the beginning of my sabbatical. I spent all day watching Netflix. I’m not exaggerating. There were days when I laid in bed for 10 hours and just binged whole shows. Not whole seasons, entire series of shows!

It’s not easy, and most people can’t do it. But I got better and better at spending my day consuming Netflix, and I finally got to a point where ten hours in front of my computer watching videos was no problem.

It’s easy to do something boring and unproductive or even actively run away from your problems. The issue is that you will get better at doing those things. I was depressed and didn’t want to do anything but watch Netflix. I didn’t want to work on writing, so I didn’t. The writing was hard, so I never put time into it. I never got better. I watched Netflix and got better and better at binging it. Netflix was almost a fatal error.

It’s an Advantage

I want to be awesome. More importantly, and realistically, I want to be better every day. I need to push myself, and sometimes that’s in the form of rigorous practice. But most days it’s simply showing up and doing something as best I can.

Think about it, if I do it the same thing every day, am I going to be worse at the end of the day? I’m not gonna lie, it might feel like you are, but I’ll be better over time.

Sure there are issues with having poor form, and in most cases, if you practice wrong you could make the whole thing worse. However, not showing up, day in and day out, isn’t going to get me to my ultimate goal. And the more I show up, the more I put my butt in my chair and write, or show up to the gym, or even bike to work, the more I will learn and the more I will be able to iron out the form issues. Because reading another article online about how to do something starts giving me diminishing returns compared to genuinely trying something and making mistakes.

If you spent a year, two years or even a decade singing for ten minutes a day are you going to be any worse? Unless you hurt yourself, no. Are you going to be the same? Probably not. Chances are you will be better, after a decade you will be significantly better. You might not be Mariah Carey amazing, but you won’t sound like my father singing happy birthday either.

A Simple Solution

If you’re spending time on something that you don’t want to get better at a simple solution is just to spend a little less time doing it. For me, this looks like only watching a YouTube video at lunch instead of a show on Netflix. I’m not quitting the habit cold turkey, but I’m not spending as much time on it, so I’m not getting much better at it.

I am putting in a little bit more time writing every week. I only track the first hour of writing every day, but I am confident that I spend more than 7 hours writing a week. It’s probably not double, but it’s not nothing. That little bit of extra time makes me a bit better, and it has helped me get this site launched and running.

So I’m curious. What skill do you want to improve? And what do you do on a daily basis isn’t the best use of your time? For me, today, it’s writing and watching TV at lunch. This week and the next I’ll try to implement my simple solution. So far It’s been doable and helpful. If I’ve found myself wondering lately, is this something I want to get better at? My time is my most valuable asset, I don’t want to waste it on too many idle tasks.

So be careful what you spend your time doing. Good luck in your creative endeavors and I hope you find a little less time to spend on the skills you know you don’t need to be improving.

Photo Credit: Brian Evans, Hanno Rathmann, Vassilis

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2 thoughts on “You Get Better at What You Do

  1. Nicholas, thanks for sharing on a continuing basis. I read them all. I once heard a story of an aspiring songwriter who met a very well-known and successful songwriter at an event. The young hopeful writer introduced himself and said, “I’m a songwriter, too.” The established writer took a moment to ask, “Yeah, what have you written today?” The young man replied rather sheepishly, “Well, nothing today.” The older writer said, “You can’t call yourself a songwriter if you don’t write every day.” I can relate to that given that I’ve written dozens of songs, 30 or 40 short stories and have the outlines for several novels waiting in the wings. Still, I’m not a writer. Maybe I will be someday.

    One thing I wanted to share is something that changed my life during the time I spent actively writing and attending critique groups weekly: The act of carrying a notebook! The ability to instantly record your thoughts, overheard words and phrases, observed acts, and interesting tidbits greatly enhanced my ability to add quality and polish to my writing. You probably already carry a notebook, but there’s one other important piece of advice I would give any aspiring writer. The advice is to join a writers group and attend regular meetings, exposing your work to other writers for brutally honest feedback. The value educated critique can be to your writing is immeasurable. Find a group that suits your style and is populated by others seeking similar goals. DFW Writers Group is one I enthusiastically recommend.

    1. One of my favorite books about being creative is called the War of Art, and it talks about the difference between a professional, and an amateur is that a professional shows up every day to his art. That’s what I’ve been focusing on for the past year. As you know, I was writing every day long before I started publishing on a regular basis.

      I do always carry a notebook. However, I rarely use it. Something about jotting down things people say makes me uncomfortable. There is a time in my mind where I wish I had the guts to do it though. I was in Hobby Lobby, and a lady on the aisle next to me was going on and on about her problems with CPS. She was being quite public and using phrases in a colloquial way that I would have never done. Maybe if I had taken notes, I would have remembered what some of them were.

      I agree that honest and educated feedback is invaluable for a writer. As for the writer’s group, I am a part of one in Frisco. We focus on writing and making something while we are together which encourages the concept of “What have you written today?” Then since I know these people have the same philosophy as I do, I can ask them for one on one feedback outside of the group.

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