Practice Makes Perfect

Mikeala Petersen, teacher, UNHS

When we think of this concept of “perfect,” is it something feasible? Society has placed a great burden on people to achieve this impossible idea. So why is it that we continue to use the phrase “Practice Makes Perfect” in an attempt to get us to meet our goals? Is it helpful? Is it true? Doesn’t it feel like a losing battle when, after hours of practice, results do not match the expectations?

I would like to argue that perhaps the wrong word is being emphasized in the phrase. Maybe, instead of focusing on the word “perfect,” we need to shift our attention to “practice.” As kids, we were taught to brush our teeth two times a day to defeat plaque buildup. Our parents likely helped us to form a routine to brush in the morning and again in the evening. This has become a healthy habit for most people but then, sometimes, life happens. You may be running late so you rush out the door and forget to brush your teeth. Or, you are so incredibly tired you don’t have the energy to brush your teeth before you go to bed. Does that mean you throw in the towel and stop brushing your teeth forever? I am sure your dentist would hope not! Instead, you may just do it when you remember or at the next opportunity you get.

Most of the time we hear this phrase applied when someone is trying to accomplish a big goal. If the objective is to succeed at something, then let’s look at ways to deliberately work toward results that are meaningful instead of mechanical.

Set attainable and clearly defined goals

First, clearly define your goal. Make it an attainable, realistic goal with parameters that allow for objective successes to be defined. You want to set CLEAR intentions with tangible proof that progress has been made toward the goal. For example, if you want to work out every day, what does that look like to you? Does it have to happen at the same time every day or can it be flexible? Do you need 5-minutes to warm up and does that count toward your goal? Are you setting a time goal, distance goal, or number of repetitions goal? Are you focusing on arms, legs, cardio, or full body? Ask yourself the hard questions about what it is you want to accomplish and how success will be defined for the goal.

Create a schedule

Second, design a plan and schedule with an outlined checklist of what to do and when. The key is to aim for daily practice, remembering that weekends are not special occasions when you are working toward a goal. Be deliberate with HOW you are accomplishing your goals by remaining present and giving it your best effort. Recognize that to build better muscle memory for completing a task, sometimes frequency is more important than duration. For instance, how you study for tests is more important than how long you study. Set aside distractions like your cell phone and set a timer to complete a task like making notecards or rewriting notes. Spending more than 45 minutes at a time on one thing overwhelms the brain and makes it harder to retain information.

Read more on How You Can Apply the 80/20 Rule in Your Life.

Allow time for self-reflection

Lastly, allow for reflection at each step of your progress. It’s possible that early attempts at attaining your goal may not go as planned. That’s okay! Have a moment of meaningful reflection so that you can move forward. This is just evidence that you are learning resilience! Many experts and professionals in their field are just as interested in what they did wrong so that they can fix it in the future. Avoid the mindset that something is “good or bad” and focus on the technical side of things. Case in point, how often do you review the tests that you take? What do you look for when you review the test? If I had to guess, you probably only look it over once and probably only long enough to see your score. The best way to assess your own learning is not by just looking at the score you earned. Instead, look at each question that you missed and ask yourself the following:

Why did I miss this question? Was it a concept that I didn’t understand? Did I make a silly mistake? Was the question written in a way that I wasn’t expecting? After figuring out why you missed the question, ask yourself how you can improve on that problem for next time. Do I need to slow down when taking the test? Should I try making flash cards for vocabulary in each unit? Do I need to ask more questions while going through content?  

Now comes the hard part. How do we rewire our brains to work on the practice part and not get so caught up in the perfect part? First, I would like to suggest some new phrase options for you to adopt:

  • Practice makes progress
  • Practice makes improvement
  • Practice makes prepared
  • Practice makes advancement
  • Practice makes an imperfect journey with highs and lows to accomplish a goal set with clear intentions and refinement of the process to develop a new skill

Okay, so that last one is a bit of a mouthful. Nevertheless, my challenge to you is to pick one of those goals that you have been meaning to get started on and commit to following through with the necessary, and realistic, steps to complete it!

Author: University of Nebraska High School

Accredited online high school program providing award-winning curriculum to students in all 50 states and more than 100 countries.

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