Focus on the process: stop thinking and start doing

We often assume that the reason why we struggle to achieve our goals is a lack of knowledge. So we buy self-help books and online courses, hoping that it will get us closer to our objective. But what we often don’t do is practice and focus on the process. As a result, we accumulate a collection of strategies that don’t really help us improve or acquire new skills.

This approach is reassuring, but it doesn’t really yield results. So how can we go from passive thinking to active doing?

Active doing versus passive thinking

“Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything.”

Thomas Sterner, Author, The Practicing Mind.

While accumulating new knowledge about a particular topic you wish to master may seem like a productive way to approach learning, it’s very different from actually practicing that skill, and will result in a different outcome over the long term. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Writing a book. You could read about all the best strategies and methods from published authors to write a book, or you could commit to writing one page every day.
  • Learning a new language. You could explore blog posts from polyglots and learn about the techniques they used to learn new languages, or you could sign up to a service that allows you to practice with a native speaker.
  • Getting in shape. You could watch videos from fitness coaches to study the most effective routines, or you could commit to running for twenty minutes every day.
  • Learning how to code. You could study lots of coding tutorials, or you could commit to code something new every day.

Passive thinking can give you the illusion of productivity and won’t help you build productive habits. In each case above, the first option will result in lots of new accumulated knowledge, whereas the second option will result in developing a new skill over time.

Of course, acquiring new knowledge just for the sake of learning is a great thing, and my point is not that you should make all of your learning productive. But it’s important to take a step back and ask yourself whether you’re focusing on the thinking phase because that’s what you want to do, or because you’re avoiding the much more uncomfortable phase of active doing—with all the potential failures it comes with.

The science of deliberate practice

“Deliberate practice occurs when an individual intentionally repeats an activity in order to improve performance. The claim of the deliberate framework is that such behavior is necessary to achieve high levels of expert performance.”

Campitelli & Gobet, 2011, p. 280.

Research shows that deliberate practice is necessary to master new skills. Other factors come into play, such as the person’s cognitive skills. According to the latest findings, it takes about 3,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach an intermediate level.

focus on the process - accumulated hours of deliberate practice
Hambrick, D. Z., Oswald, F. L., Altmann, E. M., Meinz, E. J., Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G. (2014).

It’s important for deliberate practice to be on the edge of abilities, which means the process can sometimes be grueling. Also, many skills are cumulative—you need to master the basics before moving onto more advanced topics.

Deliberate practice can feel repetitive because you need to drill the same content over and over again in order to solidify the new connections in your brain. The fact that you’re struggling is actually a good sign.

What’s the takeaway? Stop hiding behind information and start practicing with purpose. Yes, it will feel hard at first, but you need to trust the process and build productive habits instead of relying on the crutch of passive thinking.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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