A few days ago, on my way back from an overseas trip, I had a 9-hour layover at an airport where the only place to plug in my laptop was the food court across from a McDonald’s.

In the early hours of my layover, I felt pretty good about myself as I munched on a grilled chicken wrap instead of an Egg McMuffin.

But as I continued to sit there through the day, surrounded by the mouth-watering smell of fries, cheeseburgers, and even the puzzling Maestro burger (a double-stacked burger with…brie and corn?!), I began to have this really strong craving for a Big Mac and fries.

Ultimately, I ended up getting a curried broccoli salad for dinner – but have you ever tried eating a salad, while surrounded by a room full of people chowing down on burgers and fries and other tempting treats? ARGHH!

To a degree, that’s what practicing always felt like to me. Intellectually, I knew how important it was to practice. I knew how much time I ought to devote to thoughtful, mindful practice. And I did like the feeling of figuring things out, and sounding better when I put in the time.

But it’s not easy to do the right thing when you look out the window and see all the other kids in the neighborhood riding their bikes and playing outside. Or know that your buddies are back in the dorm, studying, hanging out, and playing Mario Kart.

So practicing was always a bit like pulling teeth, and it took a ton of willpower.

That is, until my second year of college, when I noticed a really cute pianist who always practiced until the building closed. And discovered, that if I practiced until closing too, sometimes we’d run into each other leaving the building and I’d have an excuse to walk back across campus with her. Or stop by the cafe together for a blueberry muffin and hot chocolate before heading home.

This small change led to a significant improvement in the consistency of my practice habits. Not because I was suddenly more serious or dedicated or strong-willed, but because I was motivated to find excuses to be around her more often – and that meant practicing. And regardless of the motivation, spending more time with someone who already had the habit that I needed to develop, really did seem to shape my own behavior in a meaningful way.

Which seems to reflect motivational speaker Jim Rohn’s idea that “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.”

So…is there any truth to this saying?

What does it take to stick to an exercise program?

One of my advisors at Indiana University conducted a study of 62 married adults who signed up for the Indiana University Adult Fitness Program.

32 of the participants were married couples who signed up together (the married-pairs group). The other 30 participants were married too, but their spouses were not in the program (the married-singles group).

Everyone started out by taking a series of physiological and psychological assessments. Like a body composition test to measure body fat percentage, a treadmill test to measure aerobic fitness, and assessments of mood and motivation.

Then, a trained exercise leader worked with each participant to create an individualized exercise plan, which prescribed 3 weekly workout sessions, between 20-60 minutes each.

Each participant’s exercise habits were then tracked for the next 12 months, to see which group would have more success sticking with their exercise program.

Motivation, shmotivation

Both the married pairs group and married singles group started out the year with about the same level of motivation.

But by the end of a year, there was a significant difference in the participants’ monthly attendance and dropout rates.

The married couples who went to the gym together attended 54.2% of their workout sessions, while those who went to the gym on their own attended only 40.3% of their workouts.

And more significantly, after 12 months, 43% of the folks who came to exercise by themselves had dropped out (a pretty typical dropout rate, btw), while the dropout rate for the folks who came to the gym with their spouse was just 6.3%.

In other words, an impressive 93.7% of the married-pair folks were still exercising a year later!

Why might this be?

Studies in this area do suggest that social support can be a big help in sticking with challenges like maintaining an exercise program.

After all, it helps to see others – especially those we admire or look up to – modeling the behaviors we want to make more of a habit ourselves. Whether it’s practicing early in the morning before your first class, doing more frequent recorded run-throughs, or cutting back on visits to Starbucks after noon, whatever our friends habitually do begins to seem like pretty normal behavior over time.

Which perhaps increases the likelihood that we might start to act in similar ways too.

Take action

So, if motivation alone doesn’t seem to be leading to the kind of diligent practice habits that you’re trying to cultivate, here are a couple ways you could try to leverage social support.

Way #1: Get a go-together/leave-together buddy

As in the IU study, where the married couples went to the gym together and left together (but didn’t necessarily exercise together while there), see what happens if you simply arrange with a friend to meet up and practice at the same time.

And depending on how that goes, perhaps you could arrange to leave together too, and see if that changes anything.

Way #2: Get an accountability partner

  • Pick a friend whom you trust to call you out on your BS and excuse-making (but can do so in a fun, supportive sort of way).
  • Have a chat about what you’re trying to accomplish this week, this month, or even further out. The rep you’re trying to learn, the specific things you’re trying to get done.
  • Be sure to also talk about how you’re going to achieve these goals. Slow practice? Note groupings? Recording yourself?
  • Plan a regular schedule for checking in with each other to discuss progress and share the new insights you gained. Perhaps at the end of the practice session, if you go to school together. Or at the end of the day or week if you live in different time zones.

Don’t make it too complicated – if nothing else, start really simple by planning to meet up and practice at the same time, and leave together to grab some coffee or head to the dining hall afterwards.

Or simply make a pact with your practice buddy to have a daily “one thing I learned today” text exchange at the end of the day, regardless of when or where you practiced.

Oh, and what happened to that cute pianist from my sophomore year? Well, to be honest, I haven’t practiced for some years now…but we’ve been married for ~14 years, so I guess you could say that things worked out ok! =)

And…a special offer for you and your practice buddy

Speaking of practice buddies, if nerves have been a major frustration, and you’d love to perform up to your true abilities more consistently in 2018, Beyond Practicing (an online course devoted to mental skills and performance practice) will be available with a special holiday 2-for-1 offer starting Friday, December 8th.

Meaning, when you enroll, I’ll create a second bonus account at no additional cost that you can gift to a practice buddy of your choice. A friend, colleague, student, or teacher to journey through the course with, and support each others’ progress. So if you’ve been thinking of signing up – wait a few more days, and sign up on Friday to get the free bonus account!

Click here to see what you’ll learn in Beyond Practicing.