We've all said it a million times: Practice makes perfect. While no one is arguing that practice isn't necessary to become proficient at anything from playing the piano to shooting hoops, studies suggest that how you practice—not just how much you practice—plays an important role in achieving perfection.

Take a Break

A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences says that performance on certain kinds of tasks usually improves with training, but too much consecutive training can actually be detrimental. That's because in order to learn anything, from academic material to athletic skills to musical instruments, researchers agree you need consolidation to "cement" information in the brain—and consolidation usually occurs during sleep. Sleep provides the time for your brain to properly absorb, or consolidate information. So taking breaks or even getting some sleep between practices is a better way to really reinforce information in your brain than non-stop repetition.

Try Variable Practice

Another study in the journal Nature Neuroscience indicates that in order to improve a skill, using the same technique isn't as effective as using a variety of methods. For example, attempting to perfect a specific song by practicing the same measures over and over isn't the best approach. Instead, playing several measures, other songs and jumping around between skills might help you nail it down more effectively.

In the Nature Neuroscience study, researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles compared the performance of subjects who engaged in rote repetition, and those who underwent "variable practice," in which participants worked on a combination of skills during a training session. Participants "practiced" a tennis serve by mimicking a 60-degree forearm movement on a computer screen; performance was measured by how well the movement mimicked the target. Subjects who engaged in variable practice—first performing the 60-degree movement 60 times, and then performing a mix of 30-, 45-, and 75-degree movements 20 times each in random order—had just as good results as those in constant practice, who repeated the 60 degree movement 120 times.

These studies support the idea that in order to perfect a new skill, or really understand a new piece of knowledge, practice is definitely important. But using a variety of techniques to practice, and allowing your brain the time to make sense of what you've learned, is as effective as repetitive practice—and possibly more interesting, too.

Time It Right

Dennis Bley, DO, at Broadway Medical Clinic in Portland, OR, says, "People generally remember the things they study or practice at the beginning and end of any learning session. If you break that up into 30-minute blocks and allow time for breaks in between, you'll absorb more information than if you chug coffee and stay up all night." The key to perfection seems to be allowing your brain time to assimilate new information.

Dennis Bley, DO, reviewed this article.



Soren Ashley and Joel Pearson. "When More Equals Less: Overtraining Inhibits Perceptual Learning Owing to Lack of Wakeful Consolidation." Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences. October 2012; 279(1745): 4143-4147

Shailesh S. Kantak, Katherine J. Sullivan, Beth E. Fisher, Barbara J. Knowlton,

Carolee J. Winstein. "Neural Substrates of Motor Memory Consolidation Depend on Practice Structure." Nature Neuroscience 2010(13): 923-25.