If you’re trying to improve your golf swing or master that tricky guitar chord progression, here’s some good news from researchers at Johns Hopkins University: You may be able to double how quickly you learn skills like these by introducing subtle variations into your practice routine.
The received wisdom on learning motor skills goes something like this: You need to build up “muscle memory” in order to perform mechanical tasks, like playing musical instruments or sports, quickly and efficiently. And the way you do that is via rote repetition — return hundreds of tennis serves, play that F major scale over and over until your fingers bleed, etc.
The wisdom on this isn’t necessarily wrong, but the Hopkins research suggests it’s incomplete. Rather than doing the same thing over and over, you might be able to learn things even faster — like, twice as fast — if you change up your routine. Practicing your baseball swing? Change the size and weight of your bat. Trying to nail a 12-bar blues in A major on the guitar? Spend 20 minutes playing the blues in E major, too. Practice your backhand using tennis rackets of varying size and weight.
“What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row,” said Pablo Celnik, an author on the study, in a statement.
– Christopher Ingraham