3 Ways to Deal with Practice Guilt (Aside From the Obvious)

I was never particularly enthusiastic about practicing. Even into my grad school years, I probably spent more time every day creatively procrastinating and avoiding practicing than I spent actually practicing.

Case in point, one of the reasons why I was so well-read as a kid, was that reading was a parent-endorsed activity (vs. watching TV). I learned that being in the middle of a book seemed to reduce the frequency of reminders to practice, so I always had a book handy. Until they wised up to my tactics, and started hiding my new/favorite books during the day (a move I’d counter by re-reading books that weren’t quite so interesting…and you can probably see where this went).

But at the end of a long hard day of avoiding practicing, the guilt would be pretty substantial and I’d go to sleep feeling not so good about myself.

In the years since, I’ve learned that it isn’t just me that has experienced practice guilt. Whether it is musicians and practicing, athletes and training, or writers and writing, we all experience guilt when we aren’t doing enough of the thing we think we “should” be doing.

But we can’t be practicing 24/7. Sometimes we really do need a break. And even if we do have to practice, guilt-motivated practice, at least in my experience, isn’t especially fruitful.

So…what are some ways to deal more effectively with “practice guilt”?

Strategy #1: Take a nap (or a “cross-training” break)

Sometimes we need to practice, but are so tired or brain dead, that practicing is probably not the most productive use of our time.

Our energy levels fluctuate throughout the day, so if you are in one of your low-energy/low-productivity periods of the day, the most productive thing you can do may be to take a 10 or 20-minute power nap. Guilt-free!

Alternately, you could go for a walk/run, meditate, take a shower, or read something helpful, productive, and engaging that might in some (even tangential) way relate to a project you are working on, or an interest/curiosity you are developing (e.g. the composer, time period, procrastination, exercise, meditation, sleep, jazz improvisation, learning and creativity, etc.).

You’ll get something more valuable out of the time than mindlessly going through the motions of practicing, and also be ready (and inspired perhaps) to get back into the practice room when your next high-energy/high-productivity period comes back around.

Strategy #2: Re-evaluate

Sometimes our practice guilt may be undeserved.

Often, our guilt is proportional to the amount of time we have (or haven’t) put into mastering our craft for that day.

BUT…if you focus more on goals than time, there might very well be days where you have accomplished everything you really needed to in much less time than you expected, presenting you with a great opportunity to reward yourself by doing something that recharges your batteries and makes it easier to jump back into the fray the next day.

For instance, one of the things I learned when trying to get my kids to do math, is that pushing their math tolerance to the limit makes it harder to get them to do their math homework the next day.

If, on the other hand, I have them stop doing math while they still have the patience do a couple more problems, then they’re like “Oh, that’s it? That’s not so bad” (although they never actually say those words…) and are less resistant to doing their math the next day.

Strategy #3: Avoid guilt-inducing activities

TV and video games often get a bad rap, but sometimes they actually can be a helpful stress-buster and restorative activity.

If we choose to play video games or watch TV as a deliberate recovery strategy, there are some indications that we can gain energy and enhance our recovery. It might sound silly, but my college roommates and I found Mario Kart to be an integral part of every successful all-nighter and it was my go-to activity whenever I got frustrated or stuck while working on my dissertation.

On the other hand, if we’re tired, our willpower is tapped out, and we give in to the temptation to watch something mindless on TV instead of doing something we think is more productive, we may experience more guilt and end up being worse off.

Bonus Strategy #4: Just do it

Ok, sometimes there’s no getting around it. The guilt may be a reminder that we really do need to suck it up, work on our craft, and get things done. But it needn’t feel like pulling teeth.

One of the things we can do is to aim to start with the simplest thing possible, rather than creating huge (and overwhelming) plans for retooling our technique or perfecting an excerpt. All we need to do is get our instrument out and tune. Or play a slow scale. Or anything at all, for 5 minutes.

At the end of the 5 minutes, if you’re still not feeling it, stop and try again later. But you’ll find that most of the time, you will probably just keep on going once you’ve built up some practice momentum.

Another helpful strategy is to make binding plans with a friend or two for later in the day – something fun, that you want to do and can’t easily cancel or back out of.

This will tend to increase the urgency to get all your work done in the time that’s remaining, and you’ll often find yourself being more focused during that time as well.

If nothing else, you could practice refining your practice skills. As in, using the time to experiment with different practice strategies that could make future practice sessions more productive and keep you more engaged by breaking up the mundanity of your practice routine.

Take action

Not motivated to practice at this very moment? Yay! Pick a strategy and give it a try.

In the meantime, I’m curious…what are your strategies for dealing with practice guilt?

photo credit: Kevin Micalizzi via photopin cc

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.

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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!).

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17 Responses

  1. My all-time favourite, for lazy days is to find a TV channel with a stack of great documentaries. The secret is to jump to my feet, the second the adds start, and practice with SPECIFIC intent, till the program starts again. Not only do I stay awake and enjoy the programmes, 3 – 5 minutes focussed practice every 15 minutes, does far more for me than the usual hour or so.

    1. What a great suggestion. I have to admit, I don’t practice as much as I should, but I have learnt to be more productive as I’ve got older. I might have fiddled round on the piano for hours as a teenager, thinking I was practicing, when in reality, I wasn’t really.

      Now I can get a lot accomplished, even in 15 minutes. There are never enough hours in the day, but it really helps if you tell yourself you don’t need to practice for a long time as long as you focus and don’t deviate from a methodical approach.

      For me, my practice time is when I have an absent student 🙂
      Martyn => http://www.musicteacherinfo.com

  2. Love this post!!! I loathe practice guilt.
    My ‘key’ to start practising is to make a hot drink, taking it to my piano and start playing!!! Usually works for me 🙂

  3. There are always so many things to feel guilty about – the house isn’t so clean, i haven’t called my mother, children, siblings recently, the dog would like a walk, etc. When I feel the urge to procrastinate practicing violin, I pick one of the other to do items that is not as much fun and do that first. By the time the house is clean, I am happy to pick up my violin. Oddly enough, just picking it up is all it takes at that point to get mentally ready to practice! I wonder… perhaps I’ll try just picking it up next time.

  4. Thanks, Noa, I really like your blog. I suggest it to all my students, and I find it really fun that they find good suggestions about practising and the process.

    I would like to click the like button, but I can’t seem to find it….

    Keep up the great work. You’ve got lots of fans here!

  5. Always great posts here, Dr. K. Go further upstream about why we avoid practice and how we deal with those root causes.

  6. Great site! I’ve spent over 40 years feeling bad about not practicing. It did not go away by avoiding practice altogether. Lately I do yoga to escape those bad feelings and ironically, it might be the very thing that teaches me the art of practice at the piano. To get to yoga, I remind myself how great I will feel after the practice. The sense of calm and expansion that comes after being in a state of exertion and dis – ease is addictive. The goal now is to take the experience on the yoga mat to the piano bench.

  7. Thank you for the wonderful, helpful post! I am sure you’re acquainted with Steven Pressfield’s book about resistance, “The War of Art.” He proposes that anything and everything that takes our attention and energy from our creative work is Resistance and that the secret to getting down to business is finding our own ways of outsmarting that tricky demon, Resistance. Your excellent suggestions help musicians to do just that–

  8. Two ideas come to mind:
    1. When I was young & learning, regular lessons, etc., it was always exciting to be assigned a new piece – even though it would eventually mean lots of fairly routine work. The thought of practicing yet one more time can be counterproductive, so I either start by sight reading something new from my collection of scores, or thinking of it as “playing” – as in “for fun” – and it frequently morphs into some serious work on aspects of a piece. (I encourage students to take time to “play” their instrument. Get out pieces that have been especially meaningful or fun over time. – May not be quite the frame of mind a concert career pro needs. However we all need to keep in mind our “first love” for our instrument: And now we can actually PLAY the thing.

    2. Instead of battling the thoughts of procrastination at the moment, project your thinking to the end of the day: At – say 10 in the morning – think “How will I feel by bedtime this evening if I haven’t practiced / played, or put real work into some musical goal. (This is also my strategy for making important decisions when confronted with several viable possibilities: “How will I feel 6 months from now if I do or don’t do A, B, or C.” – Almost always solves the question.)

  9. This was a nice post for me, Noa, as I am grappling with extra strong practice guilt since other creative projects are vying for my attention at the moment. But here’s something a writer friend suggested, regarding preparing one’s practice space:

    ‘Set the table, so to speak, for the next morning. Have everything assembled and waiting for you, so that you’re reminded, when you sit down, that you are following through on what you want for yourself. It might just be your laptop and your list of scenes, but clear the desk of other distractions. The night before, leave a small gift for yourself: a single flower, a candle, a stone.’

    Oddly, it’s never occurred to me to pay attention to the physical space I occupy during practice. Certainly, the practice rooms of my youth were hardly peaceful oases. It feels a little new age-y, feng shui-y to do this, but perhaps it’s something to consider.

  10. Great Post! I love getting the Bulletproof Musician articles. I make all my students read them. Thank you for providing such a useful/helpful service to us all. Greatly appreciated and hope they keep coming. Of course, I re-read all of your articles and never tire of them. By the way, I’m a flutist 🙂 we all have the same things to deal with…

  11. It took me a very long time to finally figure out why I avoided practice, or even playing my instrument at all.

    I could not play technique on my pipes that I could easily play on the practice chanter. I became so discouraged I would rather do anything else in the world than play the instrument which had given me so much joy.

    I couldn’t consistently play technique from D to Low G without the sound squealing like a little pig. I tried everything I knew, including taping holes and putting in little barriers to keep my fingers in place. I tried all sorts of different chanters, including one that everybody else said was to die for. I asked some of the best pipers for help, and they couldn’t say anything more than keep trying (surprisingly, it never happened during my piobaireachd lesson – why?) . I even pulled out my Dremmel. When my right hand started hurting worse than ever, I started looking into the ergonomics of my pipes. I changed things with my pipe, all sorts of things, but still had problems. It was my student Kevin who suggested I try a completely different kind of bag, leather instead of synthetic or composite (I had one on each pipe). Since my hand hurt too bad to do the work myself, he took it to our mutual friend, and they both put the new bag on.

    I could not believe the difference. I was back to playing with the ease and accuracy I hadn’t had in, ah, when I put the old bag on!!! But I never made the connection between the bag and missed technique. I had played the same brand for years, and never had a problem before. I was suddenly thrown from musical dead-end back into preparing for competition. Amazing.

    But then, another part of the equation came to light. My right hand, which had hurt since a kick by a horse in 1974 ended my flute career, starting hurting worse than ever. Diagnosis – severe arthritis to the thumb joint. Treatment – perhaps joint replacement. I’ll know within the next two months.

    All that time, over six years, I had thought I was a bad person, a lazy person, all the negatives in the world. But that wasn’t the case. As soon as I got my pipe working, I couldn’t stop playing. Until the thumb issue needed intervention, just 10 days before my return to competition. It could be worse. I could be trying on swim-wear!!!

    My takeaway is that I needed to look far deeper into my reasons for not practicing. Mine ultimately was the ergonomics of my pipe, something I preach endlessly to students who miss technique, but which I thought was not my case. It was a combination that my bag didn’t fit me at all, and I was in pain. So be careful not to cast yourself in negative light before going through a much longer check list than you think you might ever need. It is terrible to think that I lost a rewarding career as a professional musician – because I had lost all my self-confidence – because I had the wrong bag on my pipe. This could come up with any musician on any instrument. Your instrument must fit you, not the other way around.

    Don’t be quite so fast to label yourself!!!

  12. I had never heard the term “practice guilt,” but that sure is something I’ve recently dealt with. Even if I spend a good amount of time, I can feel like I should be practicing more if I haven’t accomplished as much as I had hoped. Sometimes my own expectations are unrealistic though. Splitting my practice up definitely helps me be more productive, but the struggle is making sure I come back to the piano after the first session. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  13. The best strategy I have found is to do the important things first, so that guilt never has a chance to get started. This is the “just do it” strategy, combined with an proactive approach to scheduling your day.

    I don’t like to exercise, so I do it first thing in the morning. My son doesn’t like to practice, but at Meadowmount, which is where we are this summer, they make him do it in the morning. It’s amazing how quickly four hours of intense practicing can pass when he’s starting fresh.

    I wish the whole school year could be like this — practice in the morning and then academic classes (which he finds easy) in the afternoon. Turn the whole schedule upside down! The world isn’t set up to work this way, but for self-starting people it makes a lot of sense. Schedule the difficult but important stuff — the 20% of your activity that makes 80% of the difference — first thing in the morning when you’re fresh, then kiss practice guilt goodbye.

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