Why ‘Practice More’ and ‘Be Consistent’ Is Not Helpful

"Practice more"

I hear this advice given to new players all the time. It's a truism. It's short and easy to give, but is it actually helpful? How many people don't already intuitively know that skill improves with practice?

If the problem is really with practice, then what's more useful is "how to practice" and "how to practice more." Here are some examples.

How to practice
  • Incorporate the principles of "flow."
    • Have a clearly defined goal.
    • Start with an attainable goal, and slowly move the goalpost further away as you improve (make it a challenge, but not too challenging).
    • Ensure you have feedback that tells you how you're doing.
    • Track that feedback.
    • Don't try to do more than one thing at a time.

How to practice more
  • Use a habit-tracking app to ensure you practice x minutes every day.
  • Use the "Seinfeld Strategy.
  • Plan your practice session right before/after an existing habit.

"Be consistent"

I often hear Tetris players talk about how they'd like to become more consistent. It sounds like a good thing. Couldn't we deliberately play very poorly to fulfill the goal of playing consistently (bad)? That argument is a bit facile, so what exactly does it mean to be more consistent?

I have observed from my own play that game performance outcomes generally follow a bell curve.

Good and bad outcomes happen less frequently than average outcomes. The frequency of bad outcomes tend to be obscured by how players restart games that aren't going well. Our personal best outcome represents an event that happens with the least frequency. We can think of our "consistency" as the variance of the distribution.

We can have high variance or low variance, but that doesn't mean our average or personal best will change. Is this what we really want?

In some instances, I would say yes. For the Classic Tetris World Championships 2011, I competed in the PSN Tetris 1v1 and team tournaments. The competition determined seeds by players' 40 lines records. A player couldn't restart without forfeiting their attempt, and they had a limited number of attempts. To prepare for this, I practiced without letting myself restart bad games. I was trying to get better records, but I was also trying to reduce the chance of bad outcomes, narrowing the bell curve. That is one example of when consistency counts.

However, I don't believe this is what most people mean when they say "I want to be more consistent." What they probably mean is, "I want better outcomes, which happen less frequently, to instead happen more frequently. Someone gets a great result and thinks "wow, why can't I do that every time? I need to be more consistent." Here they're comparing a rare event with an average one . What they're actually saying is, "I want my average to approach this rare outcome." That's a lofty goal, considering if your new average is your old best outcome, then your new best outcome will happen with similar frequency, but will be far, far better.

We really only improve once we shift our entire bell curve, regardless of its variance. We want to make a meaningful improvement to both average and best outcomes. What we really want is not so much about consistency as it is about improving altogether.

Power law of practice

The power law of practice states that the logarithm of the reaction time for a particular task decreases linearly with the logarithm of the number of practice trials taken. 
This explains why in the beginning, most players have a period of rapid improvement. As we become better, we need more practice in order to improve by the same amount. I believe this is why it is best to set practical, attainable goals. These goals may take more time to attain than we initially think.