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 if I just put in the time, the nerves would eventually 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 bad performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking the gap between practice and performance, because their practice looks fundamentally different. Specifically, their practice is not just about skill development – it’s about skill retrieval too.

This was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing more fun (and successful), but practicing a more satisfying and positive experience too.

If you’ve been wanting to become more “bulletproof” on stage and get more out of your daily practice too, 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 how to start making every day a good practice day. 😁


19 Responses

  1. Interesting as always. Anecdotally, the pattern found in the study doesn’t match my experience of exercise, which is more enjoyable when it builds in intensity and reaches an endorphic climax. But on a musical note, I’ve had great benefit from a “hack” suggested by Josh Wright, which is to “work backwards,” practising the end of a piece (or a section) first, then the part preceding that, and so forth. This means that attempts generally start difficult and then get easier as you get into material you know better. This tends to make each attempt finish in an enjoyable way. This seems similar to the result found in the study you describe.

  2. This strategy (“eat your vegetables before dessert”) certainly makes intuitive sense and looks good on paper, too. But I share Johann’s in having a different experience that this article implies. First of all, I typically can’t sit down at the piano and immediately begin digging into the “hard stuff” without some time spent warming up and getting my physical apparatus in a condition to play.

    Secondly, — and this may be completely contrary to all the warnings about not wasting time playing stuff you already know well, goofing off instead of focused practice, and just doodling around– but on those days I just don’t want to do the work, make excuses for not practicing etc., I sometimes use a strategy to “lure” myself back to the piano. That is, I will sit down and just play some things that I like and know well, just for pure pleasure because I love hearing that piece– “dessert” pieces instead of “vegetables” pieces. (After all, in the end aren’t we supposed to be doing this because of a love of music, and not because we like to torture ourselves?) When I do that– just play for the simple love of playing something– very, very often I will find myself “seduced” back into getting back into some real work. It’s as if experiencing that pleasurable part of music subconsciously reminds me why I’m practicing– so that the things I experience as “vegetables” will one day be experienced as “dessert”– i.e., mastery! I hope I’m not fooling myself with this strategy, but coaxing myself back at least gives a fighting chance that something may get accomplished, whereas there is zero chance if I don’t do anything at all.

  3. Just a quick comment that the ending quotation is a minor variation in a quote that is generally attributed to science fiction author, Robert Heinlein. His quote is:

    “In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”

    Overall, this is a great post and something I plan to address with my students.

  4. This may seem like a simplistic idea, but if a particular piece – easy or difficult, doesn’t matter – has a strong appeal or inspiration factor, I’ll move heaven and earth to work on it. Even if it takes weeks-months – maybe longer, to achieve a result worthy of performance. The work may be daunting, perhaps involve a technique one is still mastering, but the piece is enjoyable just for itself. (Example: A particular piece heard on a CD so captured my ear that I wound up ordering it from the publisher in Europe at considerable cost, as it wasn’t carried by any of the specialist retailers in the USA.) That said, pro-career performers must approach practice differently, so the necessity for a basic discipline settles in. An aside: I like to encourage career performers to include something in their program that is A. a personal favorite, and B. something that speaks to the person in the audience that was more or less dragged there by spouse, friend, relative, but not particularly keen on the style of music. It’s not “playing down,” rather providing something memorable for everyone to take home. (Sometimes the encores are the best part because they are “performer’s choice,” – personal favorites, with lots of heart and soul wrapped in.) When possible, play / practice something for yourself along with what you “should” to achieve artistic, technical goals. Should it come first or last in practice? May depend on personal psychological makeup. AND the commitment of sports athletes is inspiring when one finally becomes aware of the LONG perhaps somewhat dreary repetitious hours / days / months / years they must “practice.” It’s just part of doing it. I used to tell students “You don’t have to like it, just DO it.”
    – Also, the “practicing backwards” mentioned above has been advocated by some world-class artists in my instrument (classical guitar). – Not just for the “recognition pleasure factor,” but to establish a clear, expected direction for the preceding phrase or section.

  5. It makes sense to me and seems to be in the spirit of back chaining. (Learning the end first and working backwards so that we progress towards more familiar/practiced material or behaviors instead of away from them to the less familiar stuff.)

    We also have more frustration tolerance when we are fresh.

    1. Hi Mario,

      With starting tough/ending easy, I think it’s more about how a particular practice session feels – so if variable practice is something that you find challenging and are more likely to avoid, this would be something to add to the earlier part of your practice session. But if variable practice is something that you find more engaging and fun, you could save this for the latter part of the practice session.

      1. Thanks Noa. There’s something I don’t quite get, I thought that most of the practice should be variable practice.

  6. church organist here
    performance anxiety sets in the day of mass
    I don’t want to go
    get fearful
    even though I am a highly sought after church musician in my faith and among the best in tri-state area !
    I never understood why I get this way almost to the point of not showing up at all! UGH!

    1. Hello Nemrac: Speaking as a now retired church organist with (Protestant) church music career spanning 60 years, I can relate somewhat. Some thoughts: A. Unknowns or Uncertains can contribute to jitters, no matter how long one has played services. If there are aspects to the mass that aren’t known to you ahead of time (seasonal responses; Psalm, etc), you might discuss with the priest regarding having these ahead of time. Even with a standard Catholic lectionary, seasonal music directives, it’s best to confirm specifics. Then stack everything in service order for the day, including repeat liturgical elements, Scripture readings – any and ALL. Make photocopies from service and hymnbooks if necessary. I usually ordered most items in a binder notebook to avoid surprises. (“What page in which service book is THAT response?!!!”)
      B. I did a lot of substituting in later years, and throughout all 60 years or so, insisted on adequate practice / rehearsal time at the organ in the week well ahead of services, whether complex or simple. (Depending on circumstances, anywhere from 6 – 12 hours each week average, not counting choir or special rehearsals.) You know the organ well, obviously. But any “unknowns” in the music can be stressful, no matter how long one has played.
      C. A very personal thought: Think of the reason you’re playing. Just love playing, your congregation. One never knows when some musical element – liturgy, hymns, solos – might touch a meaningful nerve in someone – a “healing” perceptive moment.
      D. Prepare thoroughly, follow the plans carefully, then relax and enjoy. Leave the results to the Almighty.

  7. Nooo…. this “hack” completely derailed my practice. As soon as I read this article I sat down with my list of pieces (I use a HIIT timer on my phone to track my practice) and reorganised them from ugh! (bach) to yay! (chopin). Since then I’ve played the piano about twice. I can barely remember what I was learning, but yesterday I decided I had to overcome whatever psychological hurdle was stopping me. I opened the app on my phone and there in number one position was bach! Ugh! So that was the end of that practice session. My task for this morning (after writing this) is to edit the list to start with something fun. Perhaps Bach can go in the middle, but definitely not at that start!

    1. Ha, yes, there’s something to be said for making it as easy as possible to get started with a practice session as well. Just like going to the gym – we have to reduce as many hurdles and barriers to getting started, otherwise we end up procrastinating or putting things off!

  8. Interesting post and many great comments!
    Experience has shown me that my body needs to begin a session with a physical and even a mental transition, so opening my practice with a Paganini Caprice is definitely a non-starter. Still I see the value of working on complex or novel passages early, while my mind is still fresh. As I move toward the end of a practice session, instinct, experience and muscle memory usually carry me through, though it’s pretty clear that’s not sufficient qualitatively to be dependable for a high stress performance scenario.
    Like another commenter, during “difficult” practice , I sometimes find myself at the leading edge of my technical ability. At these times, I am often at wit’s end on how move the needle forward without the benefit of a teacher, coach or mentor to move the needle forward. In those cases, isn’t it more about the strategic “how” one practices rather than the tactical “when?’

    1. Ha, yeah, I probably should have clarified above that unlike with exercise, it’s probably not so much about starting practice with the most physically demanding repertoire, but more about tackling the problems that we are mostly likely to avoid or feel the most resistance towards.

      I think it also makes sense to save the “easier” things that we’re most excited to work on until the end of a practice session for practical reasons too. In that if you start with the things you’re most excited to work on, it could be tempting to spend too much time on those things, and run out of time to work on the less fun parts that actually need the most work…

  9. “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” – Robert Benchley

  10. The quote, “In the absence of clearly defined priorities, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”, is from noted science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein.

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