In the 1990s, a trio of psychologists of Universität der Künst embarked on a quest to uncover a secret: What separates elite achievers from the average.

As elaborated in their resulting paper — published in APA Psychological Review — the researches demanded academy’s professors to present them with a set of star violin players — the ones who the professors believed to turn out to become world-class performers.

Let’s call this group the stars.

As a comparison point, they also selected a group of students from the school’s education department. These were students with the vision of becoming music teachers. Serious about the violin, but as their professors noted, they were not in the same league as the stars.

Let’s call this group the average group.

The researchers put both groups under deep scrutiny, through a series of interviews. To add the scrutiny, they asked the subjects to minutely log how they spent their time each day.

Equipped with valuable data, the researchers aimed at finding the answer to a fundamental question: What separates the stars from the average?

In today’s world where we valorize non-stop hustle and 100-hours work-weeks (as Elon Musk advocates and I hold myself guilty of following), our guess would be that the stars are more dedicated to their craft. Namely, we would guess that they put more hours into sharpening their skills while the average are off goofing around. 

As it turned out, the analysis of the data told a different tale…

The Secret Element of The Stars

Let’s begin by cross-checking our primary guess (stars dedicating more hours to practice) against the data.

Through the diaries, psychologists found that both groups, on average, put the same number of hours into practicing music (around 50 hours per week).

There was, however, two crucial factors that differentiated the two groups.

How the Stars Spend and Scheduled Their Practicing Time

The stars spend almost three times more on deliberate practice than the average group. (Deliberate practice is the uncomfortable, purposeful practice where you stretch your abilities.)

The importance of deliberate practice had been replicated through many works including the book Peak (authored by Anders Ericsson one of the researchers of this study) and the best-selling book Outliers.

But it was not the most surprising finding of the researchers.

The second key differentiating factor was the way the subjects scheduled their practicing time. The average group, researcher discovered, scattered their practice throughout the day. In figure 1, the left graph demonstrates this scheduling. It shows that the average time spent practicing relative to waking hours of the day is virtually flat. 

deep practice
Figure 1 - The proportion of time spent practicing along with the violin as a function of time of day for the average group (left panel) and the stars (right panel) [1]

specific periods. The plot of their practicing pattern (figure-1, the right graph) illustrates two prominent peaks: One in the morning and one in the afternoon. 

The study shows that the expertise and skill of the performers are directly proportional to the magnitude of these peaks. 

In fact, for the best of the best, there was essentially a non-deviating two-sessions a day schedule.

The effects of such strict isolation of practicing time from the leisure time cascaded into other areas of the subjects’ lives as well.

As for relaxation, for instance, the researchers asked the players to estimate how much time they dedicated each week to leisure activities — an important indicator of their subjective feeling of relaxation. By this metric, the stars were significantly more relaxed than the average.

And the best of the best? They were the most relaxed of all.

Deep, Deliberate, and Value-Producing Work is Different from Difficult Work

To summarize the findings so far:

  • Stars and the average group spend the same amount of time on practice (50 hours per week on average).
  • The average group is not dedicating these hours to the value-producing type of practice. Namely, they are putting 3 times fewer hours than stars on deliberate practice.
  • The average group spread their practicing hours throughout the day. Thus, even though they are not doing more practice than the stars, their own reports indicated feeling more stressed. Needless to mention their inferior performance at the violin. 

I constantly measure my productivity. Time and time I have realized this paradox. The days when I return home, exhausted, stressed, and delusional on how productive I was, when I reflect on what I have actually accomplished I face the sobering truth that again, I have mistaken busyness with being productive. 

This study provides empirical evidence that there’s indeed a difference between value-producing work and difficult work.

  • Value-producing work is deliberate and deep practice. It does not feel comfortable when you’re doing it, but a two-hour laser-focused of working this way yields tremendous results (The stars, on average, spent 3.30 hours per day engaging in deliberate practice divided into two sessions). Although deep practice might drain your energy, in the end, it will noticeably increase your skills, bring you contentment, and fuel you with motivation.
  • Difficult work, by contrast, is evil in that it gives you the delusion of productivity while you have not achieved or produced any values of significance. It has you running around all day in a state of false busyness that leaves you, like the average group from the Berlin study, feeling exhausted and stressed. 

This study entails a striking conclusion. Whether you’re a student trying to cultivate your mind or you are in your career striving to take it to the next level, then busyness and exhaustion should be your enemy. If you’re constantly stressed and up late working, you’re doing something wrong. You’re putting yourself into the group like the average from the Universität der Künste — not the stars. You’ve become a victim of the delusion rooted in difficult work. You can always reschedule around the value-producing work and join the stars. 

The solution suggested by this research, as well as my other readings (Mastery by Robert Greene, Deep Work by Cal Newport, Your Brain at Work by David Rock) all point to the same conclusion: 

Do less. But do the work with absolute, intense, and hard focus. Then when you’re done be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day.

Following the previous paragraph, of course, what I’ve experienced is that, over time, you develop so much passion for the work you do that you won’t need the joy of taking time off and chill. The work itself becomes the joy. 

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