Shortly after finishing graduate school, I found myself struggling with a case of “gig face.” This is that condition that arises when you are playing all the time, so you aren’t out of shape, but you aren’t practicing enough to maintain the upper levels of your skill set. The question became, how do I motivate myself to get better when the work I am doing only requires a fraction of my current ability?
Around that time I read an article on lifehacker.com about comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s secret to productivity. His advice was simple: to become a better writer, you have to write every day. You can find similar advice from various creative disciplines. Of course, not every day that you write, or practice, or paint is going to be productive, but if you commit to it every day you will increase the odds of having those inspired moments. Many of us know this, but the difficulty is in finding the motivation to practice EVERY SINGLE DAY. Seinfeld’s solution was to get a calendar and put a big X over each day that he wrote. After a few days, you have a chain and your entire focus becomes “don’t break the chain.” The benefit of this is that the larger the chain grows, the more you are motivated to continue.
The first time I embarked on this type of challenge, I laid out some simple rules. I had to practice for at least five minutes a day and rehearsals and performances didn’t count. I made a pact with myself that if after five minutes, I still didn’t want to practice, I could stop. The goal of these rules was to make the challenge seem so easy that I wouldn’t procrastinate. After all, anyone can manage five minutes of something! Pretty soon I had built up a 30-day practice streak. The motivation became easier because I knew it would take 30 days to get the same streak back. I also noticed that my musician friends became inspired to join me. By the time I chose to end my chain, I had practiced more than 150 days in a row.
This summer, some of my friends and I decided to challenge ourselves and publicly tweet our daily practice. As our summer practice challenge draws to a close, I found myself reflecting on some of the lessons I have learned:
Getting started is the hardest part.
With few exceptions, I did not want to stop practicing after five minutes. I genuinely love playing my flute, and once I got started, I did not want to stop. The caveat that I could stop after five minutes if I wanted to was mostly psychological. If you have a busy day it is easy to think “I am too tired to practice for two hours, so I guess I will just skip it,” but five minutes is manageable. Of course on the days I was sick or only had five minutes available, I did stop, and I did not feel guilty about it.
Once I was truly motivated to practice every day, the majority of my excuses vanished. Earlier in the summer, I attended the wedding of two close friends. The day of the wedding, I had planned to practice beforehand so I wouldn’t have to worry about it after the celebration. As weddings often go, my friends ran into some last minute emergencies and I stepped in to help. Somewhere into the cake and coffee, I realized that I was in danger of losing the challenge and publicly admitting I missed a day. When we returned to the hotel, I asked the front desk clerk if I could practice in their conference room since it was so late. She told me that musicians did that all the time and to go ahead. My friends thought I was crazy, but I did not lose my practice streak that night. If I am being honest with myself, almost every excuse I ever made not to practice was just that: an excuse.
One of the comments I have received from my friends in the practice challenge is that they are surprised at how much of a difference five or ten minutes makes. When I was younger, I focused on the number of hours I practiced, even though much of that time was not productive. On days where I only have a limited amount of practice time, I have to be careful how I use that time. Next time you are working on something, ask yourself how you might practice if you only had five minutes. What if you only had one minute? The answers can be telling.
Just a few days ago, I was in rehearsal with a friend of mine who has been taking the practice challenge with me. He sounded great, as though he had been practicing all summer. I, on the other hand, sounded worse. I mentioned my frustration with myself, and he said, “Of course, you have been working yourself to the bone lately.” It is true. In addition to practicing, I have been engaged in a lot of physical activity outside of the practice room. My body was tired and it was audible. With the challenge drawing to a close in a few days, I don’t think I will take a day off until then. However, if I do another challenge in the future, I will add planned days off. The things is, when you practice every day, the days you really should take a break become distinguishable from the days you just don’t feel like practicing.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 Edition of the Texas Flute Society Newsletter.