Dense practice and the non-linearity of human adaptation

Twenty-four days. That’s how much time I accrued playing Call of Duty 4 in the eight weeks of summer holidays after I left secondary school. Since then, I’ve had a weird relationship with gaming; I sold my first Xbox 360, then bought one a year or so later, and then sold it again. To this day I still toy with the idea of buying a console just so I can play some Halo or experience Elder Scrolls again. 

But I don’t. I overrule myself by saying that it’ll be a black hole for my time and attention, and that I don’t really need another distraction. Sometimes, my rebuttal to this argument is that I could get one and do something interesting.

“Do something interesting” means make it a project. For example, I often wonder, “How long would it take for me to become world class at a game?” Could I get a console then spend a year trying to climb to the top of a leaderboard and document my ascent?

Obviously, it wouldn’t be as simple as that. But the key component any time I visualise what it would take to achieve such a feat is dense practice. I’d have to play whatever game I was trying to get good at a lot, and often. That may seem self-evident. But it isn’t, really.

Take two individuals who practice a skill. It could be a physical one, like a martial art, or a mental one, like chess. All is equal between them, except one thing. They both train for the same total amount of time, the quality of their time spent training is equal, they have access to the same resources, and neither has a nature- or nurture-derived advantage over the other. The sole difference is the density of their practice: They both accrue 3,120 practice hours. But the first does it by practising for six hours a week over ten years. The other does it by practising for twelve hours a week over five years. Who is going to be better? Answer: the latter, the one with the greater density of training.

Why is that? It has to do with the aggressiveness of adaptation. Continuing with our example above, we can say that the one whose training density is twice as much as the other has to adapt to twice the stimulus in the same period of time. But here’s the key: the response to the stimulus of the person training twelve hours a week will be more than twice the amount of response experienced by the person training only six hours a week.

The human organism is a complex system, and thus non-linear in its adaptation. Twice the stimulus results in more than twice the adaptation. That’s why high performance training is such a tricky discipline. To get maximum adaptation, you have to tread along the boundary between maximum adaption and over-stimulation. 

The consequences of this are pretty simple. To get really good at something really fast, you need dense practice. You need a high quantity of high quality training, and you need to do it in a short period of time. Doing so exploits the non-linearity of our response to stimuli and propels us rapidly along the path of skill acquisition.