You probably practice your favorite hobby for the simple reason that it's fun, but there are other reasons having an after-hours pastime is awesome. Not only does science show that hobbies can boost your work performance, but many of them, from playing video games to playing guitar, can also make you smarter.
So, if you want to intensify your commitment to whatever it is you enjoy in your free time, be it violin or ultimate Frisbee, how can you learn your new game or instrument even faster and make the most of your limited practice time?
The secret, according to new research, isn't grinding out more hours mastering a skill, but being clever about how you practice.
Variety beats repetition.
The study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine asked 86 participants to learn a new motor skill that involved manipulating a computer cursor using a device you squeeze. The volunteers were divided into three groups. The first was given a practice exercise which everyone repeated three times over the course of two days, a second group used two slightly different practice routines, while the final bunch acted as a control and only got one shot at perfecting their skills through practice.
What was the point of this exercise? To gauge the best way to practice a new skill, and it turns out variety beats repetition.
"What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row," commented lead author Pablo Celnik. How much faster? By shaking things up and varying your practice routine you can nearly double the speed at which you learn.
Celnik notes that it's important not to radically alter your practice. "If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidating," he said. "The modification between sessions needs to be subtle." So use a different bat or try hitting a different sort of pitch, rather than switching from batting to fielding.
Not just for motor skills?
While Celnik and his co-authors were only interested in motor skills (they're hoping to apply their research to helping stroke patients recover more quickly, among other applications), this study echoes previous findings that variety in practice can help you acquire a whole range of skills.
"Interleaving" is a research-validated approach to practice that says shaking things up and working on a variety of related skills can greatly speed your learning. For instance, in one study math students who used the technique saw benefits. "On a test one day later, the students who'd been using the interleaving method did 25 percent better. But when tested a month later, the interleaving method [users] did 76 percent better," PsyBlog reported.
Taken together these findings suggest that whatever hobby or skill you'd like to master, mixing up your practice beats plowing through the same material or drills over and over.
Give this approach a try and let us know if seems to help in the comments.