Naive approaches to practice rapidly plateau

If you want to pick up a new skill, like sketching, you might read some books, take a few lessons, then repeat the basic procedures you’ve seen until they’re comfortable. This approach often plateaus rapidly once you reach a basic level of automaticity. Ericsson and Pool (2016) call this “{naive practice}”: a student {performs an action repeatedly}, expecting that {repetition alone} will {improve performance} (p. 14), contra Skill development requires challenging homeostasis. Performance plateaus often require a change in approach to surmount.

The naive approach to practice might be best summarized by this exchange between a music teacher and his student: “How did you practice it?” “{I dunno. I just played it.}” (Oare, 2012).

Empirical examples:

  • In a series of experiments on Span of working memory, Chase and Ericsson report that subjects’ naive strategies—rehearsing digit sequences aloud—consistently lead to a plateau (1981, p. 146).

This may partially explain Note-writing practices are generally ineffective: anecdotally, most people seemed to spend some ineffectual effort thinking about note-taking practices in school, reached a level of automaticity, then stopped thinking about it again. It may also explain aspects of Core practices in knowledge work are often ad-hoc (e.g. Knowledge workers usually have no specific methods for developing ideas over time).


Chase, W. G., & Ericsson, A. (1981). Skilled memory. In A. Ericsson (Ed.), Cognitive skills and their acquisition (pp. 141–189). Erlbaum.

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (1 edition). Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Peak - Ericsson and Pool

Oare, S. (2012). Decisions Made in the Practice Room: A Qualitative Study of Middle School Students’ Thought Processes While Practicing. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 30(2), 63–70.

Last updated 2023-07-13.