Saturday, December 18, 2010

Thoughts on Training Your Nervous System for More Success

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.”
–Mahatma Gandhi
One of the fundamentals of developing new skills you can sell in the marketplace is practicing them until they are routine and easy for you to do.  If you can easily do work that others find difficult, you are well on your way to finding an area of expertise others cannot match.
One of the keys to specialization is training your nervous system to perform difficult tasks automatically. 
I am reminded of two guitar instructors I had years ago.  I wanted to learn classical guitar in my early twenties.  Classical guitar is a challenging instrument to learn because you have to use both sides of your brain at the same time.  My instructors were often saying “Brad, train your nervous system so you don’t have to think so much.” 
What they meant was if I made a habit of the difficult chord progressions, I could forget about the easy music until I got to it!then rely on simple thinking to get through that part. 
So how did they recommend I train my nervous system?  They recommended repetitive practice of difficult chords and picking.  One instructor recommended that I play one troubling chord progression over and over 10 times every day for a week to get it right.  He said “If you do that, your nervous system will learn it and you won’t have to worry about messing it up any more.” And he was right.  Although the practice was difficult at first, and boring toward the end of a week, I still can play that same piece from memory some 20 years later.
I have found this tip so valuable over the years.   It can make you an expert with little effort.  One small example in how I’ve applied it to my work is I am excellent at connecting to SQL server databases from a customized application.  Many developers hate doing SQL connections.  But I can do it without having to think about it because I spotted it as a weakness in my skills and I spent a week doing the nervous system training. 
I followed the same method described above slightly altered for software development:
1.  Write the code to connect to a database
2.  Erase all my work and write it again
3.  Repeat steps one and two 10 times a day for a week
It wasn’t all that fun.  It was tedious and boring at times. But eventually, it became a habit.  Now, I can sit down almost anywhere and bang out a customized application that will connect to a SQL Server in about 10 minutes.  I don’t really have to think about it.  This skill comes in quite handy when failures happen and quick decisions need to be made.
Do you see any weaknesses in your work in which you could use some improvement?  If so, figure out a way to break it down into small chunks.  Then you can apply the three steps above to train your nervous system to make it an integrated part of your skill set.

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