This post originally appeared in “The Load In” the weekly digital magazine from Startup Musician. To sign up for free, fill out the form below.
When I was in college, about every month or so I would get a flash of inspiration. This huge surge of motivation would come out of nowhere and I would be SO EXCITED about practicing.
There’s something you should know about me before we go any further. I have NEVER liked practicing. Not when I started piano when I was 5 (just ask my mom), not when I picked up bass in elementary school, not through middle or high school, and not even in college. I love playing music, but I just find practicing scales and etudes to be incredibly boring. While I understand the high value that practicing brings, I’ve never enjoyed it.
So anyway, in college I would go through phases where I was SO FREAKING STOKED about practicing. I would do the math in my head. 3 hours a day X 6 days X 4 weeks in a month, carry the 1… that’s a bajillion hours of practice! I would be so good if I practiced just 3 hours a day!
So, you already know where this is headed, right? The longest streak I think I ever did was practicing 3 hours a day for 3 days in a row. After that I would get frustrated, annoyed, say “screw it” to the whole idea of practicing, throw on some LOST and play with my Palm Pilot (it was after all, the mid 2000s)
Again, I’ve always disliked practicing, but I understand the value behind it. The problem I had was that I set the bar way too high for myself. Going from hardly practicing at all to 3 hours a day when you hate practicing is a horrible idea. There’s no way I could sustain that. I was setting myself up for failure.
Instead, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: setting the bar real low. You may think I’m joking, but I’m completely serious.
Tell me which of these are better for long term development of your musicianship?
- You commit to practicing 3 hours per day. After 3 days you give up and return to not really practicing because, oh yeah, you hate practicing. Total hours practiced = Basically 9
- You commit to practicing only 20 minutes per day. You stay consistent with your 20 minutes because 20 minutes is super easy to do. After a month you’ve actually stuck with this practice routine because the bar is so low, it’s an easy win. Total hours practiced = 10 hours plus the times that you accidentally practiced more.
By setting the bar low and making my practicing goal something that I can absolutely do every single day, I actually end up practicing more. Sure, 20 minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s the point. Some days I’ll end up practicing more, which is great, and even more beneficial. But other days when I don’t feel like putting in any more than the required 20 minutes, I still get the satisfaction of knowing that I still met my goal.
“But imagine if you practiced 3 hours a day for a whole month!”
NO. Because I know myself and I know that I’m never going to actually do that. It’s fun to think about, but that’s just not realistic. I’ve tried and tried and tried, but I have never practiced 3 hours a day consistently. (And I have a master’s degree…)
Maybe you’re the practicing type. My brother certainly is. He can practice for literally 8 hours a day and not get burned out. Hey, if you can do that, good for you! But for the rest of us, setting the bar low ironically ensures long term success.
Practice for 20 minutes a day this week. Before you go to bed just brush 1 tooth. Just put in 5 minutes on the elliptical. Whatever the thing is, if you want to make a habit of doing it every day, set the bar low.
Alright, I’m gonna go practice for a quick 20 then pull up some LOST on Netflix. I just gotta know what’s in that hatch.