A Simple Strategy for Worrying Less and Practicing More Productively

One of my enduring memories of my grandfather is of him sitting on the living room floor reading the sports section in the local paper, whilst watching one game on TV and listening to another on his portable radio.

At the time, I thought it was an amusing and impressive feat of multi-tasking. But this would barely be considered multi-tasking by today’s standards. With email, texting, TV, kids, work, side projects, social relationships, and more, we probably juggle more inputs and outputs before breakfast than our grandparents did in a year (ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a wee bit).

Nevertheless, multi-tasking has become a prized skill, with many job postings specifically mentioning multi-tasking ability as a key requirement of the position.

So, how would you rate your multi-tasking skills?

Ready to put your abilities to a simple test?

The David Copperfield multi-tasking test

Take a moment to watch this 1-minute video and follow the instructions.

How’d you do? Pretty crappy, right?

That’s ok. This was a bit of a trick. The reality is that we all suck at multi-tasking.

We’re simply not wired to pay attention to and process multiple inputs simultaneously. For more, check out an excerpt from John Medina’s Brain Rules (more Brain Rules here). In fact, there is troubling evidence which suggests that our habit of trying to process multiple inputs simultaneously is actually making us worse at single-tasking.

Divided attention in the practice room

Sometimes we go into the practice room, and quickly settle into a groove where we are very efficient, effective, and surprised at how quickly time flies by.

At other times, we find ourselves being constantly interrupted by random thoughts, worries, things we have to remember, emails we have to send, bills we need to pay, ideas for blog posts, and nagging questions about our friend’s cryptic Facebook status update.

We end up spending our practice time feeling scattered and unfocused, like trying to practice in a room with mosquitos that sporadically fly by our head making that seriously annoying buzzing sound.

We all know that trying to process all these extraneous inputs and outputs in the practice room is hugely unproductive. But how can we quiet our inner mosquitos and be better single-taskers in the practice room?

Parking your worries

A common psychology strategy called “parking your worries” can help.

The idea is that we tend to worry about, or have recurring thoughts about the same things during the course of a day at times when we are not in a position to do anything about them.

For instance, you may be worrying about an argument you had with your spouse, and trying to figure out how to smooth things over. As important as this may be, are you in the best position to make decisions about this or plan next actions when you’re in the middle of working out a new fingering?

Or you may remember that you have to pick up eggs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Elmer’s glue before returning home at night. But are you in a position to do anything about that at 1pm when you’re trying to do some score study before a 3pm rehearsal?

Open loops

These are called “open loops” or things that we are committed to doing, but haven’t put into a reliable tracking system.

The problem with open loops, is that they tend to keep circulating about in our heads, which is distracting and gets to be really stressful after a while.

It’s like double parking in NYC, and rushing in to grab something from the store. We may only be gone a few minutes, but it’s super stressful to worry constantly about being ticketed or towed. Contrast that with going to the mall, parking your car in the garage, and having the peace of mind to shop at your leisure, knowing that your car isn’t going anywhere, and you know exactly where to find it when you need it.

Close the loops

What we have to do is close these open loops, so we can put them out of mind and get to a more quiet, focused state where we can practice in peace.

Note that we don’t necessarily have to resolve these open loops, we just have to close them. How, you ask?

Keep a small notebook or sheet of paper handy while practicing, write down any thoughts, worries, or open loops as they occur to you, and then schedule a time to think about and resolve those loops when you are in a better position to do so with the time/energy/resources you need.

Important: for this to actually work, it’s not enough to simply write the thought down. You must also (a) schedule a time to return to the thought and (b) actually follow through. Otherwise, your brain is going to figure out pretty quickly that your system isn’t to be trusted, and will just keep any future loops open.

So that argument with your spouse? Maybe the best time to think about that is at lunchtime, when you have 30 minutes to eat your sandwich and brainstorm a few ways to make it up to your significant other.

Eggs, cereal, glue? Set a reminder to go off around the time you will be driving home, or better yet, a location-based reminder that will be triggered when you leave your work place.

The one-sentence summary

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” ~Corrie ten Boom

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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14 Responses

  1. I simply must use your concept of using a journal to write down open loops. I often have a very difficult time convincing my head to leave my head alone (there’s a Dave Matthews Band reference in there somewhere).
    Great post – thanks for the tip

    (BTW – I got all nine magic mentions, and 5 of the picture/names – not bad eh?!)

  2. Our failure to multi-task well is yet another argument in favor of slow practice, too. It’s much, much easier to keep track of the million and one things we need to do to play a piece well if it’s happening slowly enough to keep us from having to juggle too many balls at once.

  3. Important to realize that learning a musical instrument is already multi-tasking, when one lists everything that must be mastered both technically & expressively. Another idea to keep focused is asking the question “Is this relevant to the current practicing?” We all work on improving focus, and some years ago, while doing lots of regular reading & a sort of meditation (a benefit of being an at-home mother!), the idea of monitoring one’s inner thoughts, and table-ing (or however it’s spelled) the irrelevant, worked well.

  4. I think this concept comes from David Allen’s Getting things Done, no? I liked the book so much, I bought both the hard copy and audio book. After listening/reading together, my wife & I keep them both handy for reference. More indepth productivity systems here: http://www.davidco.com/

  5. I don’t mean this comment as a wet-blanket, but can one spend too much time on “how to stay focused” and organizing methods, when that time can just be “getting on with it” and doing what needs doing. My husband (now retired) used to comment on how much time some at his office used to keep their lists and planners updated, when that time might have been more efficiently used actually doing their work. (OK, I’m ready for the pros & cons, as these systems obviously benefit many people.)

    1. Hi Mary Jo,

      Great point – you’re absolutely right. I found myself spending hours upon hours trying to get my productivity system to be “just right”, until it became totally unproductive. Two things helped me with this – (1) stopping when the system was “good enough” and giving up on the idea of productivity perfection, and (2) setting a limit on the amount of time I spend organizing it every day.

      Nowadays, I generally just start off the day with a 5-minute (generally less) review of the things I have on my list, and rank order the 3-5 most important things, and try to knock those out before I tackle anything else.

      There are a bazillion different approaches and systems out there, but the simplest, easiest, fastest, low-maintenance one that works for you at a good-enough level is the best one, I think.

    2. I’ve definitely known people who were on that spectrum — they’d spend all morning or even all day organizing their mile-long to-do list, then take a break because they had “gotten so much accomplished.” No, you haven’t gotten anything accomplished. You’ve set yourself up to accomplish things, but unless you start doing and crossing stuff off your list, you haven’t accomplished anything.

      *eek* Sorry, but it was frustrating to watch for a very long time. 🙁 I swear people like that are allergic to actually doing stuff because it’s so much more fun for them to organize a 500-item to-do list than a 25-item one. I mean, if they did something on their list, then the list would get shorter!

      Yes! That’s the point!

      *agh* Shutting up now …

  6. This technique is great! It echos how the Pomodoro Technique (for time management) deals with interruptions, and I’ve found it very helpful for improving focus. I also will take a few minutes to ‘data dump’ when I have something angsting around my brain, just to get it out of my head.

    Thanks for the video–quite the reminder that I can’t do 12 things at once 😉

  7. I agree, based upon direct experience, that list making, and task organizing can be a major exercise in itself and may indicate ‘psychological’ issues well beyond getting things done in a timely and reasonable fashion. These habits may be a distraction pointing to the need to reevaluate ones goals or priorities. That said, I find it necessary to periodically create a comprehensive list of things I would like to accomplish or just explore. The key is to differentiate between long and short term goals. Many people have a vast range of interest and confuse, or other mix up immediate goals with other less immediate interest, and form lists with goal, interest, ideas, projects, and so on, when an agenda somewhat detailing the requirements of the day, or perhaps even a week of so is adequate. Stepping back and evaluating one’s habits may very well work to untangle the threads. Often the intervention a friend, counselor, or co-worker is necessary to fully raise awareness and help the individual get on a more productive track. BTY, some people who spend a lot of time creating these comprehensive list harbor a desire to write but haven’t identified this need, or given, thematically speaking, form and structure to such. Thanks.

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