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

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

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