A Simple Exercise that Helps You Stick to Your Practice Routine

When you skip practice, there’s usually a reason.

Sometimes it’s a bad reason:
You didn’t plan ahead and you ran out of time.
You’re good enough already and you don’t need to practice.
Your video game town has just been attacked by dragons and you have the only remaining black arrow that can save the kingdom.

And sometimes it’s a good reason:
You are physically fatigued and don’t want to risk injury.
You are seriously ill.
Your actual town has just been attacked by real dragons and you have the only remaining black arrow that can save the kingdom (I hope you practiced your archery skills ahead of time).

But whatever the reason, good or bad, we all know that practice is vital to improvement.  Consistency is something we all struggle with, so here’s an exercise that will help.

Be kind to yourself
No matter how terrible your reasons for skipping practice, remember that you are a human being, not a robot.  We all struggle with motivation and consistency, and we all get distracted by bright shiny things.  Beating yourself up about it will only make you feel bad.  In fact, there’s plenty of research that shows that harsh self-criticism will actually make you less likely to stick to habits in the future.  If you find yourself being mean to yourself, argue back.  It feels funny, but it works.

2. Make a list of reasons, excuses, and obstacles that get in the way of your practice.
Come up with good ones.  Come up with bad ones.  Write them down (this is important!). Make the list as long as you can.

3. Look for reasons behind the reasons.
If you got distracted by a text message or social media, is it because you were fatigued and low energy because you didn’t eat lunch?  Or is it because distraction has become a regular part of your life?  Or maybe both?

4. Write down potential solutions
If skipping lunch caused you to be low energy which, in turn, caused you to be more distractible, then a good solution would be to make sure you eat lunch.  Brain surgery, right?  If there’s just too much cell phone distraction in your life, consider how you can solve that.  Do you want to set an alarm for 15 minutes before your scheduled practice time and turn off your phone?  Remove certain apps?  Add an app that helps you reduce cell phone use?  Or maybe flush your phone down the toilet and be done with it?  There’s not a one-size-fits-all here.  Whatever your solution is, it should be one that feels right to you.

5. Consider solutions to good reasons, too
Let’s say you’re a singer and you catch laryngitis two weeks before a major audition or performance.  That’s a great reason not to practice.  What could you do that would help you prepare, that wouldn’t involve singing?  Could you practice silently, by imagining the physical sensations of your best possible performance?  Maybe you could study videos of other performers on your repertoire for insights into phrasing or tempo choices.

6. Plan for failure
No matter how great your planning, motivation, and willpower, at some point you’re going to slip up and miss a day.  What then?  Amateurs tell themselves stories: “I just can’t stay motivated; I always do this; why can’t I stick to anything?” Pros get back to work.

7. Revisit your list regularly
Don’t worry about getting your list right the first time—you won’t.  Come back to it every month or two (keep it with your practice journal) and look for common themes.  For instance, lots of musicians find that low energy is a real problem.  At first, you might assume that you need to exercise so you have energy throughout the day.  So you start to exercise, but that doesn’t solve it.  Maybe you need to eat better.  But that doesn’t solve it either.  Eventually, you might discover that you need more sleep, or that you practice better in the morning, or that your focus is better in short spurts than in long blocks.

It takes a lot of mental energy to solve a problem.  In the moment we are faced with a choice, we usually choose the easiest solution.  When you plan better options in advance, you can choose your response intelligently.  Some days you might still choose to skip practice, and that’s okay too.  Just as long as it’s a conscious choice and not simply the path of least resistance.  Now: what are you going to do about those dragons?

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