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The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner - 3 Big Ideas

This book came at a great time for me and has genuinely swept away a lot of the anxiety that I usually associate with my work.

Quick Intro

This book is 168 pages paperback and 3 hours 51 minutes audible.

It is described on Amazon as follows,

"In those times when we want to acquire a new skill or face a formidable challenge we hope to overcome, what we need most are patience, focus, and discipline, traits that seem elusive or difficult to maintain. In this enticing and practical book, Thomas Sterner demonstrates how to learn skills for any aspect of life, from golfing to business to parenting, by learning to love the process.

Early life is all about trial-and-error practice. If we had given up in the face of failure, repetition, and difficulty, we would never have learned to walk or tie our shoes. So why, as adults, do we often give up on a goal when at first we don’t succeed? In his study of how we learn (prompted by his pursuit of disciplines such as music and golf), Sterner has found that we have forgotten the principles of practice — the process of picking a goal and applying steady effort to reach it. The methods Sterner teaches show that practice done properly isn’t drudgery on the way to mastery but a fulfilling process in and of itself, one that builds discipline and clarity."

So, what are three things we can use from this book?

3 Things You Can Use

1. Life is Practice

All of life is practice in one form or another. Life forces us to continually develop skill after skill.

Thomas M. Sterner points out that we recognize the value of possessing many diverse skills, though we miss that the ability to develop any skill as swiftly as possible with the least effort and to experience inner peace and joy in the process -- is a skill itself.

There is a proper mechanics to practice without frustration and anxiety -- and if this skill is mastered, or at worked at, your process of skill building becomes joyful and focused.

Though if not mastered or considered, this joy and focus is replaced by anxiety.

2. The Process

"When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goal comes toward you with frictionless ease. However, when you constantly focus on the goal you are aiming for, you push it away instead of pulling it towards you. In every moment that you look at the goal and compare your position to it, you affirm to yourself that you haven't reached it. In reality, you need to acknowledge the goal only occasionally, using is as a rudder to keep you moving in the right direction."

Sterner gives an example here to further make the point,

"It’s like swimming across a lake toward a large tree on the other side. You focus on keeping your head down and pulling the water past you with each stroke. You fill your lungs with fresh air and then expel it in a relaxed fashion, glancing at the position of the tree on the distant shore every so often to keep your sense of direction. Do this with total detachment, or at least as much as you can muster. You say to yourself, “Oh, I need to steer a little to the left; that’s better.” If, however, you try to keep your head above the water the whole time, watching the tree and measuring how much closer you are to it after each stroke and kick, you’ll waste enormous amounts of energy. You will become frustrated, exhausted and impatient."

3. The four "S"s

There is also a way to make your practice easier on you and reduce anxiety, beyond being present and focused, one only needs to remember the four Ss.

  • Simplify

  • Small

  • Short

  • Slow

Starting with Simplify. Break your task down into component sections. Large tasks can be daunting and breaking them down can generate motivation and reduce fatigue.

Now Small. Do the same thing as above, except do this with your overall goal instead of with your task. Break it down into it's components. Looking toward the horizon and seeing many hills is an easier sight than seeing a large mountain.

Short. Break your tasks down time-wise as well, if they seem daunting. Tell yourself that you will only work towards your goal for 30 minutes or an hour, instead of three hours. This helps you to get started by reducing the dread for your task -- and usually, once you get started it is hard to stop.

Finally, Slow. Work at a pace that allows you to pay attention to what you are doing. Sterner found that this not only is the best way to maintain a presence throughout your work but it actually got him through his work faster. Slow keeps you deliberate and deliberation keeps you efficient.

Aside: If you want to further explore the strategy of breaking down and simplifying goals I would suggest the book The 12 Week Year, by Brian P. Moran.


We all agree that skills are essential to a healthy life -- so the skill that makes skill-building an enjoyable, peaceful and satisfying process is paramount!

A focus on the end goal while practicing is unhelpful. It's distracting and it creates anxiety from an unhealthy perspective. The real way to practice is to see the practice as the goal and to immerse yourself peacefully and pleasurably in the actions of your goal.

To easily remember some good tips for practice, just remember the four Ss: Simplify, Small, Short and Slow.

This book has some great insight. It is one of my favorites now. It's not one of those all encompassing, massive shift for the better books like Think and Grow Rich or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People -- but it is useful for people who are striving toward greatness in some way, and who are practicing in that sense. It came at a really good time for me and it really has sucked a lot of the anxiety out of what I do for Average Optimized.

And finally I'll leave you with a quote from the book, which I think is true and is very important to keep in mind:

"All things of lasting and deep value require time and nurturing and come to us only through our own effort."

Want to Read it?

Audible Free Trial (get this book for free!)

The Practicing Mind (Audible Version)

The Practicing Mind (Physical Copy)

(disclosure: ^^^ these links give me a commission -- at no extra cost to you! They just give me a little bump if you decide to use them. Thank you!)


Punching Sounds (in video) by: Mike Koenig

Reading Photo at end of video by: Marketa

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