A Clever Practice Hack to Make Practicing More Enjoyable

In her viral 2008 TED Talk , neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor remarked that “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”

I’m often reminded of this quote around this time of year, when our thoughts turn to the new year and the new habits we’d like to incorporate into our lives.

Habits like exercising more regularly. Or practicing more consistently. Or flossing!

A lot of these goals seem simple enough on paper. But we know from experience that it can be a real challenge to maintain these new behaviors.

How hard?

Well, take exercise, for instance. I still remember my exercise behavior prof in grad school saying that statistically, we have a better chance of quitting heroin cold turkey than we do of maintaining an exercise program beyond 6 months. 😳

And why are the numbers so discouraging?

Information isn’t the problem

Well, for better or worse, research has found that our decisions and actions are often aligned more with how we feel, than what we think.

For instance, your brain already knows plenty about the benefits of exercise. So the problem is not a lack of information. And cramming more knowledge into your noggin isn’t going to get you to the gym any more than reading an article about the benefits of practicing scales will make you crack open your trusty book ‘o scales on a consistent basis (though I’m going to put that link there anyway, just in case 😁 ).

Thinking vs. feeling

The challenge, is that many new habits aren’t inherently fun at first. So as much as you may want to work out, you may not feel like working out, and the feeling could win out. Because is a good workout satisfying? Totally. But are you having fun in the 5th interval of a Tabata workout? Probably not.

For me, practicing felt like this too. I did it every day because I wanted to get better, and because playing well was important to me. But was it something I’d do for fun? Ha! Not so much. 😂

More often, I’d spend the day procrastinating, allowing myself to get distracted, and guilt-tripping myself, until my desk was spotless and all of my pens were organized by color and ink remaining…

So what are we to do when our wants and feels are in conflict?

Tapping into the feeling side of the equation

Well, instead of focusing on the “want” side of the equation, some researchers have explored this challenge from the “feel” direction.

As in, is it possible to get more people to stick with an exercise program by increasing its enjoyable-ness?

Spoiler alert – the answer appears to be yes. But the more important question, and the real challenge, is how do you make exercise (or practicing for that matter) more enjoyable – without making it easier and reducing its effectiveness?

How our experience unfolds over time

It turns out that our perception of how much we enjoy or dislike an experience depends quite a bit on how that experience plays out over time. 

Specifically, we tend to prefer experiences that become more pleasurable over time, as opposed to experiences that start out great, but become increasingly unpleasant over time – even if the total amount of pleasure we experienced is about the same.

Sort of like a movie that takes a while to get into, but ends great (e.g. The Usual Suspects ), vs. a film that hooks you from the start, but ends with such an unsatisfying conclusion that you can’t believe you sat through the whole thing just for that (e.g. Arlington Road ).

Two opposite workouts

To take a closer look at this in the context of exercise, a group of researchers (Zenko et al., 2016) recruited 46 participants to participate in two mirror-opposite 15-minute exercise sessions.

22 participants were in the increasing-intensity group. They started out on an exercise bike at an easy, comfortable pace, but their workout got progressively more intense and challenging over the course of 15 minutes.

24 participants were in the decreasing-intensity group. These participants began their workout at the most challenging level, but the intensity gradually decreased to an easy, comfortable pace over the course of 15 minutes.

The overall workout intensity was identical. The intensity was just organized differently for each group. 

And did that make any difference in how they felt about the workout, and whether they’d do it again?

Perception during the exercise session

As predicted, the increasing-intensity group’s pleasure ratings of the workout decreased as the workout became more challenging1. Meanwhile, the decreasing-intensity group’s pleasure ratings increased, as their workout became easier. 

And interestingly, the average overall ratings for the workouts were pretty much the same. Meaning, that overall, both groups experienced about the same amount of pleasure (or lack thereof) during the course of the workout.

However, a very different story emerged when participants were asked how they felt about the workout after they finished exercising.

Perception after the exercise session

The increasing-intensity group’s average pleasure rating of the workout after completing it was 2.092. On the other hand, the decreasing-intensity group’s average rating was 2.56. This suggests that the group that ended easy remembered the workout as being more pleasant than it actually was (because there was no difference in their ratings of the workout during the exercise session itself).

The post-exercise enjoyment numbers were also quite different. While the increasing-intensity group’s average enjoyment score was 86.64, the decreasing-intensity group’s score was 100.393. Which suggests that a workout that starts tough, but gets easier towards the end, is a more enjoyable workout.

Remembering the past; forecasting the future

Most intriguingly, there was a big difference between the two groups’ remembered and forecasted pleasure ratings. The decreasing-intensity group remembered the workout as being much more pleasurable than the increasing-intensity group – with scores of 55.51 vs. 25.054.

The decreasing-intensity group also anticipated that they would enjoy doing the same workout again in the future way more than the increasing-intensity group thought they would – with scores of 51.75 vs. 31.475.

So what are we to do with this?


This study didn’t include a follow-up to see if participants in the decreasing-intensity group were actually more likely to work out in the days that followed, but this study reminded me of some advice I received years ago, related to helping young kids study.

I was told that instead of pushing your kids right to the edge of their tolerance level, stop a few questions short of what they can handle. That way they’ll remember the session as being easier, than if they ended it feeling spent and exhausted. And then it’ll be easier to get them to start studying again, with less resistance the next time.

Take action

Exercising and studying and practicing aren’t exactly the same of course, but this “start tough/end easy” principle might be interesting to experiment with as you start off the new year.

For instance, what might practicing feel like if you identify the most important – and most challenging – practice task or challenge on your list, and tackle that first in each practice session? With that out of the way, you could then move on to less onerous tasks, and end with the most enjoyable/easiest/funnest things on your list.

Or what might happen if you front-load orchestra rehearsals, choir and band practice, and chamber music rehearsals with the most challenging items on your to-do list? And then progressively work on easier or funner things as the rehearsal progresses?

This also means creating a practice to-do list and taking a moment to do some prioritizing, but that’s probably not such a bad habit to cultivate for the new year too. As author Robert Heinlein once said, “In the absence of clearly defined priorities, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”

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Zenko, Z., Ekkekakis, P., & Ariely, D. (2016). Can You Have Your Vigorous Exercise and Enjoy It Too? Ramping Intensity Down Increases Postexercise, Remembered, and Forecasted Pleasure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 38(2), 149–159. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.2015-0286

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  1. While exercising, the participants were asked to rate how they felt every 3 minutes or so, on a scale of +5 (I feel very good) to -5 (I feel very bad)
  2. On a scale of +5=I feel very good to -5=I feel very bad.
  3. Where 72 is the mid-point, and 126 is maximum enjoyment.
  4. Where +100=very pleasant and -100=very unpleasant.
  5. Where -100=most unpleasant imaginable and +100=most pleasant imaginable.

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

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

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.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


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