A compendium of keys and tips for effective practice
First, let’s consider the possibilities.
I’ve gotten interested in practice because I have ambitious goals for the coming year. Some of them obviously involve practice: learning Portuguese, learning Kotlin, improving aspects of fitness. But it turns out that practice is much more powerful and broad than I’d imagined. It’s going to help me reach all my goals — writing goals, learning goals, career and financial goals, moving to Portugal, and more — in lots more ways than I’d realized before.
Our brains aren’t as rigid as we used to think they were. They respond to what we do, by growing new gray matter that reflects and adapts to our activities — in ways thought impossible just a few decades ago. Meaning, we may have vastly underestimated the degree of learning and change that’s possible with effective, science-informed practice methods.
“The discovery of lifelong ‘experience-dependent plasticity’ has drawn attention to the crucial role that the outside world — the lives we live, the jobs we do, the sports we play — will have on our brains.” (brain researcher Gina Rippon)
My friend Paul, a brilliant programmer, got interested in snowboarding at the age of 42 — about ten years ago. That led to parkour. He set his sights on performing a kong vault, which he didn’t really think he’d ever be able to do. But about four years ago, he accomplished that. Fast forward: Paul, now 52, is currently enrolled in circus school in New York, aiming to become a Chinese pole performer.
Paul and I talk a lot about the incredible adaptability of the body and mind. It’s as if you inform your body, “I want to do this” — whatever it is, say, a drop-back to a bridge, or running a marathon, wriggling your ears, speaking Welsh — goals that you communicate to your body and mind simply by attempting, over and over again, to do them. And your body and mind say, “Okey doke! Hang on for a sec while I build up the synapses/ muscular strength/ coordination/ cardiovascular capacity/ flexibility (and whatever else you’ll need) to do it!”
Another Paul, Paul Foxton the painter, talks about using practice to develop the skill of composition. I don’t know a lot about painting, but I’d always thought of composition as a matter of knowing some principles and having a good eye — not a skill that a person could improve by simply doing it a lot. Yet here’s Mr. Foxton, doing just that.
Another example of a skill that practice can enhance: Researchers have shown that people improved their mental rotation performance — 3D visualization — by doing origami. Cool: That could help a lot when I learn cabinetmaking next year — so I’m going to prepare for my woodworking course by doing origami.
- develop new skills and knowledge
- enhance personal abilities, capacities, and qualities
- instill habits and priorities
- foster self-discipline, self-confidence, and self-esteem
- bring ambitious visions, dreams, and hopes into reach and then into reality
The body and mind aren’t infinitely malleable. There are limits. But I suspect we far underestimate the learning and adaptive capacity of our bodies and minds, achievable through effective practice.
Let’s have a definition:
“Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement.” (educators Annie Bosler and Don Greene)
Practice isn’t the only form of learning. But it supports learning in myriad ways, by ingraining the learning in our bodies and minds — making the learning part of ourselves.
Practice is a means of creating the physical, cognitive, psychological, and habitual “infrastructure” that will enable me to do what I want to do.
Through practice, you’re essentially, bottom line, working to develop myelin — the “insulation” around nerves that enhances their functioning. A high volume of practice appears to be indispensable for producing significant growth of myelin, but the quality and proper distribution of practice make a difference, too.
I’ve been reading about how musicians, artists, athletes, and language learners practice. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about best practices for practice.
Before the practice session: the essentials
Set goals. Experts agree that setting goals is absolutely crucial for effective practice. By setting goals you harness the power of intention and focus. You motivate yourself by connecting your practice to your hopes and dreams.
Consider exactly what you’re aiming to achieve. I want to become a better writer, but there are a million definitions of “better.” What I mean is, I want to make my writing more imaginative, engaging, immersive, transparent, impactful, prolific, and marketable. Someone else’s definition of “better” writing might be completely different.
“Less skilled musicians focus their practice sessions on how to get through a piece without making any mistakes, while the best musicians focus on how to make the piece sound like the vision they have in their head.” (Nicole Dieker)
Set both ultimate and intermediate goals. Set goals in terms of performance or outcomes — not in terms of quotas of time or repetitions. (You want to learn to do something — not learn to spend time doing something.) Paul Foxton considers the amount of time that you spend in a practice session unimportant. He recommends not scheduling your sessions in terms of blocks of time but instead in terms of a start time and a specific intention and plan. It’s far more important, apparently, to be consistent in terms of practicing regularly, ideally daily—even if only for a few minutes — than it is to put in X amount of time.
“Just playing through your music isn’t the same thing as practicing.” (NPR Music reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas)
Plan your practice. Setting goals is necessary, but it isn’t enough — you have to have a plan for how to reach those goals. Foxton describes what happened to him when he attempted to practice with goals but without a plan — he quickly became demoralized and demotivated because he wasn’t seeing progress. His practice felt aimless and purposeless. Even though he was dutifully putting in the hours to practice, he was spinning his wheels because the practice activities weren’t clearly connected to his goals. That’s what a plan does for you.
“Ineffective practice is unfocused and meandering.” (painter Paul Foxton)
Aspects of goal setting and planning
Set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART) goals. Specific goals will enhance your focus and guide your practice. Measurability (even if the measurement is as simple as: Did I achieve the goal, yes or no?) will make it possible for you to track your progress. You need realistic and achievable goals, as well as the time element, to gain a sense of accomplishment — indispensable for staying motivated during challenging, sometimes frustrating or boring practice programs. You want highly purposeful, intentional practice aimed at specific, valuable objectives.
These SMART goals will provide a natural launching ramp between goal-setting and planning.
“Broad goals like ‘I want to sound better’ are not nearly as helpful as specific ones, such as ‘I want even rhythms on arpeggios in both fast and slow tempos.’” (music psychologist Robert H. Woody)
Push yourself! Psychologist Robert A. Bjork found that learning tasks should have “desirable difficulty”: hard enough to require effort and present a challenge, but not so hard that they can’t be achieved. This kind of learning task might seem to yield slower progress, but it will give better results in the long term. Easier learning tasks give the illusion of accomplishment without producing lasting effects.
According to GOLF magazine, effective practice pushes you to the edge of your current abilities and a little farther: you expand your comfort zone, rather than trying to jump outside of it. You’ll make plenty of mistakes as you press against the bounds of your comfort zone and gradually increase your competence, and those mistakes are a good sign of an appropriate level of challenge. But trying to go too fast will result in constant discouraging failures and demoralization. By going too fast, you also risk automatizing mistakes and bad habits. Move ahead in small increments that produce gradual, genuine, high-quality learning.
Push yourself in terms of your goals, your practice plans, and your attitude during practice sessions.
“What you put in is what you get out.” (pianist Hilda Huang)
Focus on weaknesses. Experts generally agree that effective practice targets errors or areas of weakness. You will see little improvement by repeating skills you already perform well or reviewing knowledge you already know. When you’re focusing on weaknesses, you’ll find yourself having to go slow and correct lots of mistakes. Again, frequent small fails will mean you’re where you want to be — at the edge of your scope of competence, pushing to expand it.
Music career educator Dylan Welsh recommends keeping a list of your weak areas, along with a list of exercises that will address them. Focus on systematically improving those weaknesses, via detailed daily practice plans.
“Seeking out what we do poorly is not most people’s idea of fun, so few of us do it. But the best players find deep satisfaction in the challenge and immersion in the task.” (GOLF magazine)
Personalize your practice. GOLF magazine points out that effective practice is “highly personalized.” Because you’re aiming for your own individual goals and targeting your own areas of weakness, your practice will be tailored to you. You’ll need to have intimate, detailed knowledge about yourself, your goals, your current areas of competence, and your weaknesses in order to work at the edge of your comfort zone and methodically expand it.
“By having a plan, I am able to maximize my time, juggle lots of different music, and prevent aimless practicing or mindless playing through.” (violist Ren Martin-Doike)
Use distributed practice. Distributed practice means breaking your practice into short bouts versus practicing in longer, uninterrupted blocks (massed practice). Distributed practice aligns with the way the brain works. Specifically, it exploits the spacing effect: when study is spread out over time, it yields better learning than study done in a single session. (That’s because material studied in short sessions benefits from more cognitive processing.)
The linguist Paul Pimsleur based his language-learning system on a type of spaced repetition called graduated-interval recall. Pimsleur had discovered the exact spacings of practice that would produce optimum learning. The Leitner system of learning with flashcards uses the same principle — reviewing material at gradually increasing intervals for optimal learning.
Bottom line: Practicing for ten minutes a day, every day, will probably give better results than weekly 90-minute sessions.
However: Research shows that if you’re working on a discrete skill — a brief, well-defined skill with a clear beginning and end, e.g., typing, throwing darts, moving from B-flat to F on the guitar — massed practice can be more effective than distributed practice.
“Set goals, hold yourself accountable to them, and create a practice log you can be proud of!” (violist Ren Martin-Doike)
“Splinter” your goals. Break your SMART goals down even further. Atomize them. I call this splintering. Experts generally agree that tiny, super-specific goals produce better results. Splinter goals align with high levels of focus and intensity. They also allow small, frequent wins and rewards. As you plan your practice sessions, set a series of learning-based micro-objectives that you must satisfy in order to move on. You want to be able to feel that you’ve accomplished something definite during each bout of practice and, ideally, continuously throughout the session.
“It’s a struggle to remember 10% of 50 words, but remembering 100% of 5 words is easy!” (language educator Donovan Nagel)
Be consistent and persistent. Dylan Welsh urges sticking to a daily schedule — even if that means spending less time practicing overall. Welsh writes, “This consistency will not only allow you to retain information better, but will also keep your technique from dropping below its full potential.”
“If it is important, do it every day. If it isn’t, don’t do it at all.” (legendary wrestler Dan Gable)
As mentioned earlier, Paul Foxton recommends not scheduling your sessions in terms of blocks of time but instead in terms of a start time and specific plans for each session. He considers it far more important to be consistent in terms of practicing regularly than it is to put in X amount of time. Doing something frequently and regularly teaches your brain that that thing is important.
“Successful musicians set their goals in stone and don’t quit until they’ve been reached.” (music educator Dylan Welsh)
During practice sessions
Focus. Focus is the heart of effective practice. Splintered goals and distributed practice enable high levels of focus. Enhance your focus during practice sessions by preparing a dedicated practice space, even if it’s a temporary one. Eliminate distractions as much as possible. Find ways to organize your tasks so you can isolate and work on one aspect at a time.
“You can play all day, but if you aren’t intensely focused on doing a specific thing better than last time, you won’t improve.” (Geoff Colvin)
“Instead of playing a piece over and over and hoping the mistakes will eventually iron themselves out, I’m going to focus on a single section until it sounds the way I want it to sound.” (Nicole Dieker)
During the practice session, use a timer to delineate micro-sessions, say five minutes, where you work on a single problem. If you have a set end time for the overall practice session, use an alarm so that your mind isn’t constantly wandering, wondering what time it is. A simple ritual for opening and closing your practice sessions (including gathering your materials and putting your phone on airplane mode or DND) can enhance your focus and intention.
“By playing too quickly, students reinforce and practice mistakes instead of making the work perfect with good shifts and intonation. They just build on what is wrong.” (cellist Jian Wang)
Depending on what you’re practicing, consider doing it slowly in order to perfect the action. Dylan Welsh advises, “Practicing things slowly will really drive in the information and muscle memory, thus allowing you to play quickly, but also accurately.”
“Slow and highly focused practice will get you faster results in your musical development than any other method.” (music educator Leon Harrell)
Actively participate in your learning process — this boosts your engagement and focus. Musicians write on their sheet music. If you’re studying out of a book, scribble notes in the margins. When you learn something new, find ways to apply it right away. The Pimsleur method of language learning forces you to participate by responding to prompts.
Self-observation and self-feedback are essential forms of active participation. Hank Haney, Tiger Woods’ coach, describes how Woods would hit a few balls, no more than 25 at a time, and then retreat to his cart, where he’d sit for a while and consider what he was doing and how he could improve it.
Get feedback. Last but definitely not least, effective practice depends on constant real-time feedback.
“You can’t improve if you don’t know how you’re doing.” (GOLF magazine)
It’s ideal if you can hire a coach, even if only for an occasional session. If you’re on your own, you’ll have to be your own coach. You’ll need to be able to study your own performance objectively. Musicians record themselves or practice in front of a mirror.
When you identify a problem, actively work to eliminate it by identifying the cause and correcting it. You can also learn by observing experts to see what they do differently, and incorporate these differences into your own practice.
“Error detection and correction is a special hallmark of expert practicers, as compared to novices.” (music psychologist Robert H. Woody)
And in general…
Know that practice won’t necessarily be fun. Expect to feel uncomfortable, strained, and sometimes bored during your practice sessions. If you’re not pushing yourself and focusing intensely, you’re not going to see significant improvements.
“The flow state, which is what many of us are going for when we sit down to play through music that’s not too difficult to handle (or playing music that’s a little beyond our skill level and hoping the mistakes will eventually go away), actually prevents us from getting better as musicians. We don’t want to be flowing through our practice sessions; we want to be focusing on the most challenging aspects of the pieces we’re trying to learn.” (Nicole Dieker)
On the other hand, if you allow your practice sessions to become nightmares, you’ll risk losing interest. Paul Foxton points out, “It’s much better to enjoy our practice because firstly, it’s much easier to get started, and getting started is the hardest part of practicing.”
There seems to be a paradoxical combination of both strain and pleasure during effective practice. In my experience, some types of practice bore me to tears — I’m finding it difficult to stick with learning Portuguese with Pimsleur because I get soooo bored, even though this is a critical goal for me. But certainly, some forms of practice can be incredibly absorbing and even pleasurable — when you’re actively engaged, intensely focused, and highly motivated to get something right.
My conclusion is that rewards can be essential to maintain motivation when practice gets super boring or frustrating, or when it fails to provide intrinsic rewards. Specific, achievable goals can yield a pleasurable, motivating sense of accomplishment and mastery. The educator James Zull recommends that learners gain a “sense of mastery and success” from practice sessions. I’m also experimenting with extrinsic rewards, both during and after practice sessions, to condition myself to stick with my practice program.
Based on her research, Anastasia Tsioulcas suggests structuring practice sessions with a warm-up that will get you focused on the subject, a more intense block where you work on expanding your competence, and a final section that incorporates rewards and relaxation.
Maintain a positive attitude. Practice takes patience, commitment, and dedication. It’s not always intrinsically enjoyable. You’ll need to be able to see beyond frustrations and setbacks in order to keep moving forward. Maintaining updated, achievable goals that reflect your sincere hopes and dreams can keep you engaged and motivated. Building a social support network can help.
“Regular practicing is a path towards self-discipline that goes way beyond music — it’s a skill that has hugely positive ramifications for personal fulfillment and lifetime success.” (NPR Music reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas)
Get plenty of exercise. According to Dr. Majid Fotuhi, “People who exercise regularly and are physically fit have a much bigger hippocampus” (the brain structure essential to the formation and storage of memories).
Having learned all this about practice, I now incorporate a “practice” section in my periodic goal-setting and planning sessions and documents:
- How can I use practice to develop new skills, knowledge, and personal qualities that will help me achieve my goals?
- How can practice form a component of the steps I take to reach those goals?
- How can I make practice a part of my daily environment to support focus, consistency, and goal achievement?
Hope this helps you reach your magnificent goals this year. And remember to exercise! Grow that hippocampus!