What’s the key to on-the-job employee happiness and a better-paying job?

Many people will answer ‘boost your productivity.’ And why not? Productive people can get more done with the same amount of time. And with tasks completed well ahead of their deadlines, they don’t suffer from unhealthy levels of stress and pressure to stay on track.

Productivity sure sounds like the ticket to work satisfaction and promotion!

But while the perks of getting important stuff done and good time management are well-known, research has found that challenging work and getting better at what you do are two of the most important ingredients in staying happy and getting paid more at work.

Think about it:

Getting stuff done and doing an excellent job is better than getting stuff done alone.

And if you agree, this brief guide will show you three strategies you can use to “up” your skills and your career. These strategies can work wonders on their own. But even better, you can use them together as a system – one that will make you an unstoppable force at work!

Approach Practice Like An Athlete

Becoming world-class at anything – from chess, music, to basketball – takes time.

Research by journalist, best-selling author and speaker Malcolm Gladwell concluded that attaining expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice. Since publishing the study, self-improvement experts, bloggers, and life hackers quoted the 10,000-hour rule.

What many miss, however, is the type of work put into those hours: deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is the repetitive performance of a skill you want to learn or improve. It’s systematic, purposeful, and hard. You need to practice things you’re not good at (yet) again and again until you become proficient.

You may not be an athlete or a musician. But getting better at work requires the same type of focused practice.

The good news, however:

Becoming exceptionally good at, say, programming or cold-calling may require far less than 10,000 hours.

“To become a grandmaster requires 5000 hours of DP. But to become a highly sought-after CRM database whiz, or to run a money-making blog, or to grow a campus organization into national recognition, would probably require much, much less,” said author and computer science professor Cal Newport in a blog post.

“Unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on DP. Instead, they’re putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion,” he added.

But how exactly do you apply deliberate practice to office skills?

Here are three steps to get you started::

  • First things first – focus on improving performance. The point of deliberate practice is to stretch just beyond your current abilities. Avoid the type of practice where you keep drilling on skills you’re already good at.



  • With the note above in mind, make a stock of the skills that are important for your work. A writer, for example, needs to know how to develop ideas, weave smooth sentences, paint pictures with their descriptions, and create attention-grabbing headlines.




  • After taking stock, identify your proficiency at each skill. Rate your performance between 1 to 10, with the latter being superstar level. You should also write down what being a 10 means, and highlight the skills where you rated yourself 6 or lower.



You’ve just identified the areas for improvement in your skillset, and you’re now ready to patch up these holes through deliberate practice. The actual specifics of the practice will, of course, differ depending on the type of work you do. However, the following reminders will help you ensure you’re getting the right type of practice.



  • Pick a skill (or subskill) to work on. You don’t want to spread yourself too thinly by focusing on too many things at once. So just choose one.




  • Set a goal, and keep it SMART – specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound. Take Six Sigma’s template for stating project goals as an example: “Improve (primary metric) from (baseline) to (target) by (due date).”




  • Train through repetition and expect the practice to be hard. Doing things we already do well may be enjoyable. But improvement comes happens you go out of your comfort zone and practice until a skill feels natural.




  • Get continuous feedback. Only through continuous feedback will you know if you’re making progress. If you’re a sales rep, for example, listen to recordings of your sales calls to find your sticking points. If you’re a blogger, re-read your posts while keeping an eye for weak writing. For professionals in other fields, managers, mentors, and online communities can provide valuable feedback – and even help you build your network.


Read But With A Slight Twist

“Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it,” said Warren Buffett when asked about the key to success.

Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and other highly successful (and effective) people went through stacks of books on their way to the top.

While wading through 500 pages a day may not be possible, you want to set aside, at least, one hour a day for reading. But first…

What Should I Read?

Make no mistake. Just about every reading material has its benefits – whether to entertain oneself, find a quick solution to a problem, or improve your understanding of a subject.

But since we’re talking about upping our skills and performance, the focus must be on resources that provide you with actionable ideas and important industry updates.

Case studies, how-to guides, and trend reports make for excellent career-advancing materials. Not only do they leave you knowing more. But you’ll also walk away with concrete steps to do better work by putting what you’ve just learned into practice.

Books can still prove valuable in this pursuit. However, blogs and websites can serve you better, especially if you’re in a fast-moving industry (ex: digital marketing, retailing, service). Here are some sites you should consider including in your digital must-read list:


  • Portals and news websites.  Bizbash and MeetingsNet, for example, publish event industry news and planning tips daily. If you’re a meeting or events professional, these two sites are a must-follow.



  • Blogs of industry experts. Look to people who have gone to where you want to be. Are you a junior IT security analyst? Reading the blog of Bruce Schneier – a CTO, cryptographer, and an IBM security consultant – is a good idea. For digital marketers, Neil Patel’s step-by-step guides sure are a treat.




  • Company websites of the tools you use. Getting the latest updates and fixes allows you to use your resources to their best potential. Not to mention company blogs may also publish case studies with actionable insights.


How Do I Read?

Click the link. Read the contents. Move to another post or article. Rinse and repeat.

Reading is simple, isn’t it?

This approach may work for many people. But I find that I get more value for my time by reading a post multiple times – but in different ways. Here’s how:



  • I start by browsing my list of blogs for titles that catch my attention. As you may have expected, I recommend considering titles with a “how to” vibe as they promise to teach you something actionable.




  • Next, I skim through the bunch, starting with the intro and conclusion. I also browse the table of contents (if the post has one), subheadings, and the latter’s intro, while keeping an eye for specific instructions on how to do something or a piece of research that’s unfamiliar. This inspectional phase helps me narrow down my reading material.




  • And finally, I spend the rest of the hour reading the handpicked posts with focused attention. I also use Evernote to save the posts and highlight the bits I find important. We will always have more to read than what we can read. Saving the posts allows me to go back to articles you may have had to miss because of the one-hour limit.


Now What?

Your reading habit may have taught you how to do better work. Maybe you’ve learned a formula for writing better email subject lines, how to better organize your business data or a workaround to a frustrating coding issue.

But what you can do at work is far more important than what you know.

Go back to the list of posts, and pick an actionable idea that inspires you to experiment. Even better, go for hacks or best practices (or whatever the experts call them these days) that address the gap in your skillset.

Capture Your Ideas And Review Them Later

You may have noticed that the first two strategies are centered on taking stuff in – getting feedback from experts and reading other people’s articles and posts to find actionable strategies.

As you build your knowledge and skills, however, you will start to form your own opinions and ideas on how to further refine your approach to common tasks and problems at work.

Some of your ideas will turn out good, but many will flat on their faces after a closer and more objective look. However, you must capture your ideas first so you can separate the wheat from the chaff later.

Your brain isn’t the place for that.

So I recommend using an idea-capture or note-taking tool. You can go low-tech and opt for post-it notes or a simple pocket notebook.

Mark Twain, for example, used pocket books to write down important instructions during his training as a steamboat pilot. He went on to keep up to 50 pocket notebooks – all of which contained his book plot ideas, thoughts on religion and politics, and sketches of interesting sights during his travels.

My preferred route, however, is to use Evernote.

Here’s what I like about the tool:


  • Evernote is everywhere. This tool is available on Android smartphones and iPhones, PC, Mac, and the most popular browsers – and keep everything in sync. The ubiquity of Evernote lets you make a note on your desktop and review in your smartphone during your commute.



  • Evernote lets you take notes however you want. You can take a screenshot, record your voice, snap a photo, save a webpage, or write text. The tool can help you capture your thoughts and ideas in the way you’re most comfortable with – even if ideas come to you at the most inconvenient times.




  • Evernote uses notebooks and tags for categorizing notes. Perhaps this is the most important advantage of the tool as far as idea capture is concerned. With a bunch of post-it notes, the only way to revisit an idea is to skim through your pile. The tags and notebooks of Evernote, however, allow you to add context and search for your ideas with a few clicks and keystrokes.



You don’t have to settle for Evernote, of course. But whatever system or app you use, make sure you stick to it to keep things simple. You also want to make sure that the ideas and notes you take will make sense when you read them later.

And most important of all:

Set aside time for reviewing them.

Having many ideas to improve your skills, while nice, will not improve your skills. Execution is what counts.


And it’s a wrap!

I hope the strategies we just discussed got you thinking about getting better at what you do at least. And if this post has cemented your resolve to take your work skills to the next level, then all the better.

And for our readers who are at the top of their game, do you have any other career-advancing tips and techniques you’d like to add? We’d love to hear from you!