If you’re serious about New Year’s resolutions, read this.

In 2009, Dan McLaughlin was at a golf course in Nebraska with his brother, when the two of them came up with a wild idea for Dan: drop everything in his life to pursue something single-mindedly and wholeheartedly.

More specifically, Dan, then age 30, set out to become one of the 245 professional golfers on the PGA Tour, despite no previous training or real experience.

Dan’s efforts to become a professional golfer — deliberate practice — were strategic and surgical, to say the least. In fact, he didn’t even play his first full round of golf until 18 months into the full-fledged experiment!

For the first handful of months, all Dan did was learn how to putt. Only after mastering the putter, he expanded his set of clubs, adding just one club type at a time, and not moving onto the next club until he excelled with the one at hand (no pun intended).

The results were impressive, to say the least: Dan lowered his “handicap” (a measure of an amateur’s ability to play golf) to 2.6 — a mark achieved by fewer than six percent of golfers worldwide.

One thing at a time

“The Dan Plan,” as he called it, eventually failed, if you measure it by his ultimate goal of making the PGA Tour. After more than 6,000 hours of purposeful practice, Dan suffered a back injury, effectively ending his experiment.

But it’s Dan’s approach to this experiment that is a lesson to us all — including New Year’s Resolutions and, really, any “game-changing” decision we want to make in our lives.

Like learning how to play golf, becoming good (and even great) at anything — a professional skill, dieting, exercise, an instrument — is often a convoluted process with so many steps, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. This produces more action than inaction, and eventually we give up, because there’s too much “friction” involved.

Hence the genius of Dan’s “one thing a a time” mindset. Instead of beginning with the notion that he had to become great at golf, Dan’s mindset and subsequent efforts were more along the lines of: “one club at a time.”

The lesson: When looking at a big-picture goal, break it into smaller, individual objectives, and tackle them one at a time, only moving on to the next when you’ve mastered the current one (or are, at least, truly satisfied with your progress).

Instant versus delayed gratification

Many of us (myself included) yearn for instant gratification, and when we realize it’s nearly impossible to achieve it, we start rationalizing against our original goal. Or, we simply stop caring, in preference of our current, more comfortable (but less meaningful) state of affairs.

When Dan started learning to play golf, notice how he didn’t play an actual game (the ultimate test of one’s skills) until 18 months into his experiment. Dan’s acceptance of delayed gratification enabled him to master each club type, one at a time, which in turned enabled his handicap of 2.6, and placed him in the top six percent of golfers worldwide.

The lesson: Upgrading your life in any meaningful capacity usually requires the mindset of “one step back, two steps forward.”

Purposeful practice

With the help of a coach, Dan tracked his progress and sent the data to Anders Ericsson, co-author of Peak: Secrets From the New Science on Expertise, who plotted his improvement.

In doing so, Dan implemented what Ericsson, widely considered the “expert on experts,” calls deliberate practice.

Unlike naive practice, which is charactered by trial and error, and mistaking motion for progress, deliberate practice (also known as purposeful practice) is the most effective and powerful form of self-improvement.

Furthermore, applying the principles of deliberate practice is the best way to design practice methods in any area, according to Ericsson and his co-author Robert Pool in their book Peak.

The lesson: In order to ensure optimal success, use the principles of purposeful practice when trying to achieve a goal.

Article Recap

  1. When looking at a big-picture goal, break it into smaller, individual objectives, and tackle them one at a time, only moving on to the next when you’ve mastered the current one (or, at least, are satisfied with your progress).
  2. Upgrading your life in any meaningful capacity usually requires the mindset of delayed gratification.
  3. In order to ensure optimal success, use the principles of purposeful practice when trying to achieve a goal.

There’s more where that came from at Hack My Time.

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Josh Hoffman

Josh Hoffman

Founder of IZZY – Stream Israel, basketball lover, mental health advocate