A Clever Practice Hack From Behavioral Economics That Could Make Practicing More Enjoyable

We all know that exercise is good for us. But developing and maintaining an exercise habit is much easier said than done.

How hard is it? Well, I remember my exercise behavior prof once remarking that statistically, we have a better chance of quitting heroin cold turkey than we do of maintaining an exercise program beyond 6 months. Yipes.

Why are the numbers so discouraging?

Well, working out – especially at first – isn’t inherently fun. I mean, it certainly can be, but cycling until your legs burn, or lifting heavy things to failure is not most folks’ idea of a good time. Is a good workout satisfying? Totally. But are you having fun in the 5th interval of a Tabata workout? Probably not.

And that’s pretty much what practicing the violin felt like for me. 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 and enjoyment? Ha. Please.

Looking back, this was partly because I didn’t really know how to practice and so often had no idea how I was supposed to fill the time. But also, the kind of work that is necessary for improvement is not necessarily enjoyable. Picking apart our weakest areas. Super slow practice. Working on scales, etudes, and technical exercises. Satisfying? Yes. But fun? Not by most folks’ definition.

As such, I would often spend most of a day putting practice off, making excuses, allowing myself to get distracted, and guilt-tripping myself, until it was easier to just get it over with than to keep delaying the inevitable.

But what if I could have made practicing more enjoyable – without diluting its intensity or effectiveness in any way? Might I have been more likely to practice without wasting so much of the weekend dragging my feet?

A recent study of exercise behavior and behavioral economics suggests that there is a simple adjustment that could potentially boost our enjoyment of practicing, and thereby increase our likelihood of getting in a good practice session.

We are not rational decision-makers

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor once remarked “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”

And research in behavioral economics has found that our decisions and actions are indeed often based in emotion, rather than logic.

For instance, we have plenty of research and information about how beneficial exercise can be. But being more informed doesn’t get us into the gym any more than understanding the benefits of practicing scales makes us any likelier to crack open our trusty book ‘o scales.

So it’s intriguing that there’s a growing body of research which suggests that a better way to increase our likelihood of exercising is to increase the enjoyableness of exercise (i.e. how exercise feels).

Which naturally leads to the question – how do you make exercise (or practicing) more enjoyable?

But wait, there’s a twist!

Well, therein lies the challenge, because we don’t want to increase one’s enjoyment of a workout by making exercise easier, and thus less effective. After all, sometimes there’s no getting around the fact that we just have to roll up our sleeves and do the work. Fortunately, it turns out that the enjoyableness of a challenging experience is not as set in stone as it might seem.

For instance, our perception of how much we enjoy or dislike an experience depends quite a bit on how that experience plays out over time. As in, 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 we can’t believe we sat through the whole thing just for that (e.g. Arlington Road ).

Two workouts

To take a closer look at this in the context of exercise, a group of researchers 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 intensity progressively increased over the course of 15 minutes.

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

So what sort of difference did this make?

Two very different experiences

As predicted, the increasing-intensity group’s pleasure ratings 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.

The increasing-intensity group’s average post-exercise pleasure rating was 2.092. The decreasing-intensity group’s average rating was 2.56, indicating that they remembered the workout as being more pleasant even though there wasn’t any 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. So apparently, a workout that starts tough, but gets easier towards the end, is a more enjoyable workout.

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.

Take action

Exercising and practicing aren’t exactly the same, but this “start tough/end easy” principle is intriguing. I certainly wish I could rewind the clock and see how I might have responded to this back in the day.

I think there are a couple applications of this principle in the practice room (and in theory, rehearsals and lessons too). The most direct application is perhaps to identify the most important – yet most challenging – practice task or practice challenge on your to-do 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 things on your list. You may know this as the “eat your frog” strategy.

Of course, this means creating a practice to-do list and taking a moment to do some prioritizing, but that’s probably not such a bad idea anyways, no? As someone once said, “In the absence of clearly defined priorities, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”

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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 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.

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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14 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!

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