Having Difficulty Motivating Yourself to Practice? Research Suggests That Copycatting a Friend Could Help.

I’d be willing to bet that there’s probably something in your life right now that you’re trying to change. Maybe you’ve resolved to spend more time working on scales and fundamentals this summer. Or perhaps you’re planning to do more metronome practice. Or exercise more regularly. Or eat more quinoa.

Whatever it is, staying motivated and following through on the things that we’d like to do more (or less) of, can be a real challenge, no matter how important the change may be to us.

There’s something about being surrounded by the right people though, that anecdotally at least, seems to help. For instance, cellist-turned-entrepreneur/executive Margo Drakos once said that watching and emulating other musicians around her – whether it was how Midori practiced a single note at varying distances from the bridge, or how Robert Chen prepared for concertmaster auditions, or the types of drills Hilary Hahn used to hone her technique – was not just fascinating and inspiring, but helped to accelerate her own growth and development as a musician as well.

So with that in the back of my mind, I was intrigued when I came across a recent study which suggests that this might really be a thing. As in, if you have a goal, but are struggling with motivation, or having difficulty following through, asking a friend for some tips might be a really simple – but effective – way to amplify your efforts.

Let’s take a look!

How can I get myself to exercise more?

A team of researchers (Mehr, Geiser, Milkman, & Duckworth, 2020) at the University of Pennsylvania recruited 1028 participants who had expressed a desire to exercise more.

Everyone was first asked how many hours they exercised the previous week, to get a sense of their baseline. And then they were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

One group (the “copy-paste” group), was asked to observe or elicit advice from a friend or acquaintance who exercises consistently and could be something of an exercise role model:

“In this study, we want to help you learn about an effective hack or strategy that someone you know uses as motivation to exercise. Over the next 2 days, we’d like you to pay attention to how people you know get themselves to work out. If you want, you can ask them directly for their motivational tips and strategies.”

A second group (passive advice group), was simply told that they would be learning a new strategy in a couple days:

“In this study, we’re hoping to help you learn about an effective hack or strategy that motivates people to exercise. Over the next 2 days, we’d like you to get ready to learn a new strategy to motivate you to exercise.”

And the third group (control group), was told nothing at all.

Two days later…

A couple days later, researchers followed up with participants, and asked them to describe the strategies they planned to use in the coming week to exercise more. 

In addition, the copy-paste group was asked to summarize the strategy that they planned to copy from their friend or acquaintance. And the passive advice group was given a randomly selected strategy, pulled from 358 strategies that were submitted in a previous study (e.g. “For every hour that you exercise, allow yourself 15 minutes on social media.”).

A week later…

A week later, the researchers followed up with the participants one last time, to find out a) how many hours they ended up exercising that week, and b) how motivated they felt (1=not at all motivated; 5=extremely motivated) to do so.

So did the copy-paste strategy help?

How much of a difference did it make?


On average, the copy-paste group exercised about 55.8 minutes more during the week than the control group, and 32.5 minutes more than the passive advice group.

The copy-paste group also reported feeling more motivated to exercise too (though not by much, so it’s kind of cool that they exercised substantially more, despite not being vastly more motivated than participants in the other groups).

So why is it that this strategy was so helpful?

Why did this work?

Well, there were a variety of factors involved that seem to be important parts of the equation.

One thing, was the usefulness of the strategy. Which I suppose makes good sense, since if your friend gives you a strategy that works for them, but isn’t feasible for you, it’s probably not going to lead to much change in your own situation.

Other factors included the participant’s commitment to using the strategy, the amount of effort the participant put into getting the strategy (i.e. the more effort they put into seeking out the strategy, the more of a positive effect it tended to have on their exercise habits), and the degree to which the participant regularly interacted with others who exercise.


You might be thinking that this strategy seems like kind of a no-brainer. Like, duh, of course we ought to observe and emulate friends and colleagues we respect, or ask them how they motivate themselves or turn plans into action.

But how often do we actually do this? Speaking for myself at least, sure, I’ve asked friends for advice on fingerings, how to sight read more effectively, or pick a watermelon that’s actually ripe (though I’m still pretty hit or miss). But I don’t know if I can think of many times when I asked a friend for advice on how they overcome the daily motivational challenges they face.

And of course, this study only looked at exercise behavior one week out, so it’s not clear how long this effect might last, but if you’re up for it, I’d be curious to see if we could give this a try as a group. In other words,

  • Select a change you’ve been trying to make – whether it’s practicing more, exercising, eating more healthily, etc.
  • Identify a friend or acquaintance who seems to excel in this area, and ask them what they do to motivate themselves and be so effective (incidentally, make sure the strategy they share with you is new to you, and not something you already know).
  • And then, post the new strategy that you learned in the comments below. Not just for the accountability that this will hopefully facilitate, but so that the rest of us can benefit from strategies that might be new and useful to us too!

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.


5 Responses

  1. I asked my husband, who is a phenomenal classical guitarist, what motivates him to practice. His answer was ‘a deadline’. Without a deadline, he putters around with exercises and songs, basically going through the motions. With a deadline, he is focused on improving with every repetition. His takeaway statement was that he doesn’t notice any improvements until his practice sessions exceed three hours. My takeaway is to create milestones for both my practice sessions and each individual piece, and target reaching three hours per day on instrument.

  2. I do totally agree that having a deadline is paramount!
    Three hours a day seems extreme, but my performances are not at venues that necessitate “Phenomenal” performances. In all honesty I have spent hours practicing. I once played the same song for six hours. My wife was annoyed. Practice needs to be tailored to the demands of the performance. Memorization is Key. Memorization is paramount. I have had the privilege of playing with phenomenal musicians who in their own words say, “I Play as well as I want to!” Will we ever reach that stage? At 75, I’m still working on it! 🙂 I will say that I have a peace with my perceived low level of playing ability. I enjoy “Playing out” and have done so for years. – Not “Phenomenal” performances, yet I have received so much enjoyment from the performance opportunities that I have had and continue to have, that I’m still at it. I sing, play piano, and synthesizers at private parties, in restaurants, in night clubs, and at my church. I also teach piano.

  3. Music motivates me… Many times when when I don’t feel like practicing I listen to some of my favorite pianists and it all comes to me.

  4. I also need deadlines and have created them for myself from an early age. Right now, preparing for online streaming concerts is the best I can do, but being essentially shut-in has given me the time and enabled me to work on music with my son, who is also a professional musician. We are finding new ways of having fun together, playing music we ordinarily wouldn’t have time to work up. The other day, he played in an all-strings BLM event at Washington Square Park, and the sound of all the string players, thrown together as it was, reminded everyone of the power and beauty of live music. It made us all so happy!

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