If not, I’d like to structure this post in a unique way. This isn’t an intro. I’ve already given you the goods. That advice alone is worth the price of admission.
The problem is, my experience with giving advices tells me you will shrug this off. Something isn’t clicking yet. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this advice sink in for anyone. I have told people this and watched as the idea bounces off of them, hits the floor, and oozes to the nearest drain.
Heck, I’m the one writing a post about it and even I forget about it sometimes. It sounds like it shouldn’t work as well as it does, so most of us dismiss it out of hand.
So, to wrap up the point, let me just ask you this: don’t dismiss it out of hand.
I know. It doesn’t seem like it should work. But it does. Reliably.
You can practice literally anything, without any risk, and without any money, right now, in the holodeck of your own mind.
It costs you zero dollars, zero embarrassment, and requires zero physical consequence when you fail.
Here’s why it’s so great.
Why It Works
Point #1: Mental Practice is Just as Good as Physical Practice
If you practice something mentally, it’s often just as good as if you did it in physical reality.
People who didn’t practice free throw shooting at all
People who physically practiced shooting free throws for half an hour a day
People who practiced free throw shooting, but simply visualizing with their eyes closed
As you might expect, the first group showed no improvement. The second group did, improving their accuracy by 24%. That’s about what you’d expect.
Here’s what you might not expect. Even without the same physical feedback available to them, the third group improved free-throw shooting by 23%.
Statistically, that’s identical improvement.
How is it possible? Let’s remember why practice works in the first place. Yes, for physical endeavors, you’ll want to improve the muscles and repeat the feeling of a successful shot. But far more important than that is laying the neural groundwork.
So much of what we think of as “muscle memory” isn’t related to the muscles at all. It’s just the well-worn grooves in our brain.
And as it turns out, imagining a shot does just as much to exercise those neural pathways as real-world experience.
In the world of boxing, the efficacy of shadow boxing is common knowledge. Yet few of us seem to consider that “invisible practice” can work in any other field.
Point #2: You Need “Reps” To Remember Something Anyway; You Might As Well Take Reps Without Any Risk
For some skills, you might as well go ahead and mess up in public. It’s not like many people will judge you for going to a basketball court and missing a couple of free-throws when you’re clearly practicing.
You may have experienced it yourself. Have you ever been nervous to kick off something like a webinar, so you rehearsed your intro? Rather than freezing up when the time comes, you already have a reference point to lean on. It might not be 100% smooth, but at least you can now flip through a rolodex of these internal reference points and say, “well, I can always say that one line I practiced.”
This has all sorts of implications for consequence-free practice: you can practice small talk; you can practice phone interviews with clients; you can write down a list of common job interview questions, collect some of the web’s most powerful tips, and write your best answers on a 3×5 notecard.
It doesn’t mean everything will go perfectly for you.
But it does mean that you’ll have an extra gear when crunch time arrives.
One of the great benefits of visualization is you can use it to calm your nerves. It’s one thing to feel nervous if it’s your first time in a new place. But if you’ve practiced it internally a hundred times, you’ll have a strange confidence lurking within you, like you’ve been there before.
That part alone is worth the price of admission.
Think about the anxiety you have on the first day of school and the last day of school. On the first day of a new school, you’re in unfamiliar territory. The halls are weird, you don’t know where to look to see the classroom numbers, and you have to learn about a zillion new names.
On the last day of school, you already know Timmy and Tina in your homeroom. You already know that you have to take the stairs to get to second-period math. What was once a dense, unexplored jungle of ambiguity and fear has become a well-paved trail you’ve walked a thousand times.
As a result, anxiety plunges down to nothing. You’re not nervous to go to the last day of school.
What if you could feel more like “last day of school” during a job interview than “first day of school”?
Point #3: It’s Free
“Give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.”
If you’re like me, you love a good leverage point.
You’re not the type of person to dig a trench with your bare hands. You’re more likely to spend the afternoon looking for a quality trench-digging machine to make the work easier for you.
And you can apply it anywhere.
Of course, there’s not a machine that can learn for you. So how do you practice leverage when you want to learn a new skill?
Simple: you take on learning activities with asymmetrical risks. Mental practice is one of the best there is. You can get 100% of the results with 0% of the risks.
To help illustrate just how beneficial this is, let’s consider the entire list of downsides when you practice something in your head:
Time. There’s no getting around this. You’re just going to have to accept that if you want to learn something new, you’re going to have to spend a minimal amount of time on it, consistently.
That’s the entire list.
Now let’s consider the upsides.
Gaining skills invisibly. If the legends are true and you really can gain skills by mentally rehearsing them, then you gain skills without anyone ever seeing you practice. Score.
Low cost. You don’t have to buy a grand piano; you can buy a cheap keyboard at home and turn on the “grand piano” setting. Heck, you don’t even have to do that; you can start practicing piano with YouTube and a bunch of cut-out pieces of paper you’ve dressed up as piano keys.
Low embarrassment. Sometimes, skills require a social element. This can be so inhibiting that you avoid building the skills at all. But if you practice something at home, shadow-boxing against an opponent rather than going toe-to-toe with them, the only one who will be embarrassed for you is your dog.
Low physical activity. I don’t have to tell you that practicing skills physically can take a toll. We see NBA players require knee replacements. Piano players with carpal tunnel. Candle-makers with wax gut. (Checking to see if you were paying attention). Practicing something invisibly takes no toll. All you do is clock in and clock out. You can do it where you are.
Increased understanding. In some cases, practicing something mentally can offer additional benefits. When I had to learn a piano song to play at a wedding, I ditched the rote memorization route and started playing the song with my eyes closed. It was strange at first. But what happened? I was forced to visualize where my hands would go next. Because I was imprinting the song at a deeper level of understanding, the practice went smoothly from there on out.
Point #4: All Learning Is Done in the Head Anyway
That last point—practicing a song I had to know cold so I could play it at a wedding—is important. By closing my eyes while I played, I learned faster. Moving the practice from my fingers to my head improved my ability to pick things up. It didn’t slow me down.
That gets to the final point: all learning is done in the head.
I won’t tell you to avoid learning-by-doing, which is the fastest and best way to learn.
But I will tell you that practicing something mentally is far closer to learning-by-doing than you think.
It sounds made up, but some research has even found that visualization can help build physical strength. In one study, a group visualized finger exercises while the other performed the exercises physically.
You won’t be surprised to learn that for strength-building, physical exercise worked better than mental exercise. But it was surprisingly close. The physical group saw strength increases of 53% while the visualizers saw 35%. Said they:
We conclude that the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.
This means that the mere thought of moving a finger is doing much more than you might imagine. It’s driving muscle activation in unconscious ways. It’s laying neural pathways that say “hey, I need to use this in the future. It’d be nice if it got stronger.”
If visualizing strength exercises resulted in 2/3rds the strength improvements as actually performing the exercises, how much more effective is visualization when you’re not trying to build muscles?
The implications are profound. You can practice anything in your own imagination, right now. Think of the possibilities.
Social skills (mental rehearsals for job interviews, for example, or warming up for first dates)
Physical challenges (mental boosts when you’re far from the finish line in that 10k, for example)
Music and other dexterity skills
Rehearsing emotional reactions to challenging events
Skateboarding (no knee scrapes!)
Taking the leap when you go skydiving
I’ll stop there, because the list will get too long.
If it’s an activity that a human can perform, you can practice it in your head. And that practice will be just as valuable as “real” practice.
You may remember James Holzhauer as one of the all-time winningest Jeopardy! contestants ever. Not only did he have a long streak, but he would win unprecedented amounts of money, time and time again.
Like many champions, has a lot of secret sauces that made him such a devastating Jeopardy! figure. But one of the most interesting is that he honed his notorious lightning-quick buzzer skills by practicing from home. Said The Ringer:
But what sets apart the really, truly dominant players like James isn’t just luck, smarts, or betting strategy: It’s the buzzer, and James is very, very, very good at using it.
That edge he went about sharpening? Buzzer reaction time. Jeopardy!, he says, is a unique beast in the trivia world. “If you’re playing a College Bowl or quiz bowl or that kind of thing, people can ring in anytime,” he says. “But Jeopardy! is really unusual and different and it has this one twist, which is it’s basically a reaction-time test tacked onto a trivia contest.” He wondered: Could he hack it?
You might not know it, but there’s a trick to the Jeopardy buzzer.
But of course you can’t practice something like that if you’re not near the Jeopardy set, right?
Of course you can! You read this post! And as if Holzhauer read it, he created a makeshift buzzer at home and set about practicing his timing.
With the help of some friends, he created a wired buzzer that timed his buzzing speed, and over the course of some 27,000 tests, he managed to lower his reaction time from .228 seconds to as low as .126 seconds.
The result was what appeared to be superhuman speed. It was really just the result of sitting at home and practicing something that no one else was practicing.
Benjamin Franklin and the Thirteen Virtues
Can you practice being morally upright? Of course; you can practice anything that involves your brain.
Benjamin Franklin proved the efficacy of private, personal practice over two hundred years ago. Franklin writes in his Autobiography, maybe with tongue firmly in-cheek, that he once “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”
The problem? Franklin felt he was playing something of a moral whack-a-mole. He thought he could simply make the right choice all of the time and call it a day. But the endeavor proved more complicated than that.
While my attention was taken up and care employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.
-Benjamin Franklin, famous philanderer
Ben needed a new approach. He got more specific. He identified 13 precise moral values he wanted to practice every day.
I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I ruled each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. … I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respect that virtue upon that day.
Franklin reports that the mere exercise of observation proved to him to be “so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.” As that old business saying goes, hat gets measured gets managed.
Franklin assembled a system for managing his moral fortitude, and soon the mere act of observing himself every day meant vigilance towards improvement. The results, in the man’s own words:
On the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.
How Unathletic Old Me Got Two Interceptions in the Turkey Bowl
Back in my younger and more vulnerable years, me, my brothers, and our Illinois cousins would have a family tradition of playing the “Turkey Bowl.”
I wasn’t that good. If I was trying out for the team, they wouldn’t even give me a name; I’d be Defensive End #99. I was the only one of my brothers who never played high school football. My cousins were athletically superior. Two eventually played for Notre Dame; one graduated to professional football in Europe and a tryout with the Chicago Bears. In short, I was never the star; you could decorate my stat lines with lots of zeroes.
Except for one year. That year, I decided to practice for a few weeks leading up to the games. It couldn’t have lasted more than two or three sessions. I ran a few route trees, played catch with my brothers, and did a few footwork drills that might enhance my quickness. Or, better yet, give me any at all.
If I were reading this right now instead of writing it, I would roll my eyes. “That is not nearly enough practice to become any good at football.” You’re right.
Yet the difference playing that year felt dramatic. The game itself seemed to have slowed down. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the speed. My feet were more responsive when I saw an opposing cousin’s pass coming my way. I ended up with two interceptions—which is hilarious, because I otherwise never got interceptions in those games and I definitely ain’t the Champ Bailey type.
So what gives?
For starters, I think my cousin threw those interceptions my way because he (rightly) didn’t expect me to break on the ball. But that only serves as a point highlighting how much the practice had improved my reaction time.
Second, and more importantly, Idon’t think a few route-running drills got me in shape or made me physically quicker. I think I experienced the boost in confidence and preparedness that comes with merely putting in the effort to think about the thing beforehand. When I played the game that year, it wasn’t “Oh boy, just do your best, Dan. Try to improvise.”
It was, “I feel ready.”
Do you think that might matter when you have a job interview? A first date? The first dance at your wedding?
It doesn’t matter what you’re thinking about using it for. It works for everything.
And no one else will know you’re doing it.
How to Put “Invisible Practice” to Work
There are enough examples above that you should already have an idea of how invisible practice works, even if I didn’t cover your specific skill of choice. But let’s turn it into a method. Pick the one that best suits your desired skill:
Visualize the practice. Take your chosen practice and turn it into a scenario you can visualize. Let’s steal the “free-throw” example above. Sit down and close your eyes. Picture some specific details. The feel of rubber dimples in your hands. The dust the ball kicks up when you dribble it on the cement. The sound of the swoosh when the ball slips through the net. Practice this until you get ten solid reps of visualized perfection, then finish. Voila. You just practiced invisibly.
Shadow-box. In “shadow-boxing,” you pretend you’re in the situation you wish to practice. Let’s take the job interview example. Sit down in a chair and pretend you’re across from the people asking you questions. Research the most common interview questions. Now go through your answers, either out loud or in your head, until it starts to sound like it’s clicking. Once it clicks, rehearse that response and that feeling over and over until you feel like you’ve got it down.
Give yourself an obstacle. Legend has it that Tiger Woods used to create obstacles for himself by dropping some golf balls and stepping on them until the lie was horrible. He wanted practice to be more difficult than a real event. You can do this with anything. Let’s say you want to learn a piano piece. You do have a piano. But rather than practice rote memorization, make it more difficult somehow. Play it while closing your eyes. Play only one hand out loud, while the other just taps on the wood, mute. This will feel strange at first, but once you can do this reliably, you’ll notice something about the original piece. Playing it straight-forward will seem laughably easy.