The Best People Are Also The Most Efficient

Cal Newport, an MIT grad, Georgetown professor, and author, has an interesting blog about success and happiness. One of his recent posts highlights a very interesting study in which researchers asked violinists at a prestigious arts academy in Berlin to keep a log of their daily activities. They picked two kinds of violinists: elite ones who would likely go on to play professionally, and average ones that would likely go on to teach music. (It turns out those who can’t, really do teach.) Then they looked at the differences between the two groups’ logs, after noting that both of them put in the same number of musical hours per week:

  • Elite violinists spent 3x more hours on “deliberate” practice — that is intense, boundary-pushing violin playing
  • Average violinists spread their work over the entire day, while elite ones split their daily work into two sessions: one in the morning and another in the afternoon
  • The elite ones slept an hour more per night

Photo by Peter Harrison


So the really good violinists concentrated their work into two major blocks of time and spent a lot of it pushing themselves. This method has several advantages over spending an hour here and there practicing over the whole day:

  • the routine makes measuring progress from day to day easier, and also fosters more commitment to the work
  • the “deliberate” practice is very difficult but ensures progress, and because it’s concentrated into short sessions, it’s not as draining as worrying about it all day long
  • the fact that it’s scheduled means it didn’t cut into their free time, and they had more time to sleep, which is very important for the brain.

In short, the elite players had the same amount of time as the average ones, but they put it to better use and got more out of it: they were more efficient because they had a better way of optimizing their resources. And at the end of the day, they ended up having their cake and eating it too: they were better musicians and also had more time to relax.

From Cal Newport


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