Routines are a great way to help us stick to a practice schedule and build up discipline, especially during times when there are no externally-driven deadlines (such as performances or lessons). But do you ever feel that a seemingly reliable practice routine holds you back sometimes? Perhaps after a while of following a schedule you hit a plateau, and practice starts to feel like a waste of time. And what about instances when something important comes up in your life and it no longer makes sense to stick to the plan? Routines have their time and place, but I think it’s equally important to recognize when it’s time to stray away from their rigidity.
A similar concept can be considered in goal-setting. Too often people get overwhelmed and quit at the first instance of not meeting their goal, labeling the attempt as a ‘failure’. This usually involves very specific and time-based goals with numerical values behind them. I used to set the exact same numerical goal month after month after month, only to come short of reaching it almost every time. Something didn’t make sense. Logistically it should have been completely feasible to achieve that goal, but for some reason it just never happened. While it’s great to have specific goals, focusing on them isn’t always the best strategy. We need to recognize when it’s time to take a different approach, at least temporarily.
So what other approaches can we take?
A Broader Plan
One thing I came to realize through trial and error is that for most humans, it’s close to impossible to accurately predict how long it will take us to achieve something. The best thing we can do is make an educated guess and estimate the time based on what we know about ourselves (including our environment, history, current skillset, etc). Understanding this, what if we were intentionally less specific? If we zoom out from all the details of our plans, we can focus on the broader values and principles which we adhere to. This change in perspective can help us pay attention to what truly matters to us in life. Focusing on our values and principles is a catalyst to activating our intrinsic drive and feeling a sense of purpose. Once our actions are aligned with what we deeply care about, in the long run, that can be more powerful in itself than any written goal. This is especially true when the activity in mind isn’t yet deeply ingrained into our regular habits or routines – something we are gradually making room for in our lives. This approach is also great to turn to if your current strategy isn’t working or leaves you feeling stuck.
Examples in Practice: When to switch from specific to broad.
If the daily scale routine becomes stale, or you have trouble sticking to the goal of playing scales for a certain % of your total practice time:
Focus instead on the more general concept of maintaining and/or expanding your fundamentals. Choose a few exercises that will pique your curiosity. Remember why you’re doing this kind of work and how it supports the repertoire you play and/or the lessons you teach.
If you’re very busy and constantly have trouble meeting the goal to practice ‘x’ amount of hours a week (or a similar type of goal):
Stop setting that as your goal. If you keep meeting your numerical goal short, it’s easy to get very discouraged and lose the wish to practice altogether. Instead, simply show up, and don’t count the hours. Bite-sized sessions of high-quality practice randomly dispersed throughout the day can pay you big dividends in the long run. Turn “I’m going to practice 3 hours a day” into “I’m going to work on this technique and explore this music.”
If you’re used to practicing a lot, but are constantly burning out:
It’s time to re-think your practice strategy. There are many possible approaches, depending on what your gut tells you based on your situation. Perhaps it’s time to utilize more mental practice or score-studying. Listen to other music – you might find ideas in unlikely places. How can you get more done in a shorter period of time? Also, keep in mind that burnout tends to happen more frequently to those whose values don’t align with their activities! There might even be a deeper root causing the burnout that’s not related to music.
If you’ve reached a point in which you feel repulsed by the whole idea of practicing:
It may be a good idea to take some time off to consider if there is something else in your life causing you to feel this way. Some great ways to get back into practicing is by listening to music and/or draw inspiration from other disciplines (another artform, a sporting event, etc). See what they have in common with playing your instrument. Listen to musicians you deeply admire. Remember why you play – Fall in love with the harmonies again or discover something new. Instead of dreading an obligation to practice, let your love for the music lead the way instead. Listen to what makes the piece you’re learning so magical.
We can keep goals without getting obsessed over them. We can keep routines without getting overly attached to the schedule. Goals and routines are great, except when they’re not. They can feel very rigid, while our values and principles are really the true leaders of tenacity for a specific activity. When we take this broader, less strict approach, the act of playing our instrument can begin to feel like an “end in itself” rather than being a “means for an end.”