Time Flies When You’ve Practiced Your Butt Off

One of these ideas that I like being hammered with over and over is that performance (skill) is about repetition. It’s about muscle memory for athletes and autopilot recall for exam-takers.

And this is what it’s about for Navy Seals:

The best preparation for any scenario is having done it before — or the closest thing to that.

Via Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

When U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 mounted its May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, it prepared by constructing full-scale replicas of the compound in North Carolina and Nevada, and rehearsing for three weeks. Dozens of times the SEALs simulated the operation. Dozens of times, they created various conditions they might encounter. They used the power of repetition to build the circuitry needed for the job.

This is one of the key principles of deliberate practice, the best system for building expertise.

Another way of putting this is that these SEALs have planned and practiced reactions to every conceivable scenario. That way they can maximize how many situations they react to with ‘instinct’, which is just a way of saying they’re on mental autopilot. When trained properly, autopilot is simply a faster and more reliable mode of human thought than focused attention.

The cornerstone of my exam strategy is mental autopilot. I maximize what I can achieve without really thinking, saving my mental resources for the very end. Here is the progression I go through at exam time:

  1. Comb through the test and read every problem. If I know the answer INSTANTLY, I work the problem (category #1 problems). If I have any hesitation at all, I skip it. If I don’t complete more than half of the test on this pass, I am in big trouble. Time: 25-33% of total allotment (45 mins-1hr in a 3-hour test).
  2. Go to the problems (category #2 problems) that I think I can figure out quickly and skip the ones that are really tough. Most of these problems are easy problems disguised as really hard problems. Once I crack it, I switch on autopilot again and blow through the sucker. This should get me to about 75% complete. This is probably about another 25% of the exam time.
  3. Go back over every question and (re-)work them all. I’ve probably screwed up a few category #1 problems (which are actually category #2) and I correct these here. It takes discipline to keep skipping the really tough problems but I need to save those. Get the easy ones right!
  4. The real toughies should be <10% of the total problem set. Now you tackle them.  You’ve probably got about 20-30 mins left on the exam and your brain is nearly fried. These last few minutes will take FOREVER because once you switch off autopilot the world slows down.

This is why return journeys feel quicker, why childhood feels like it takes FOREVER and why time flies when you’re having fun. Thinking is HARD. Thinking is PAINFUL. Your brain only has a finite amount of focus and attention and lighting up all those neurons is costly.

When you are studying, your goal is to have an autopilot that is as complete as possible. Understand that to sign up for an exam is to sign up for mental torture: you need to think a LOT to learn and, as I said, thinking is PAINFUL. That’s ok: no pain, no gain and you’re here to make something of yourself, dammit.

If you don’t train properly, you need to do more thinking on the test, which is costly. You need to work dozens/hundreds/thousands of problems to have well worn grooves in your mind for the problems you encounter.

Generally speaking, kids have no grooves. Older folks have nothing but grooves. Neither group likes putting down those grooves; kids just have no choice in the matter.

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