A Way to Get Yourself to Practice When You Don’t Feel Like It

You know those days when you soooo do not want to practice?

Where you sort of putz around the house looking for an excuse to do almost anything else?

On the plus side, I suppose those are the days when the refrigerator gets cleaned out and the bathroom cabinets get organized, but those things don’t leave us feeling especially great about ourselves at the end of the day.

Yes, that inner drive sure is nice when it’s there, on those days when we feel the motivation to develop our skills, learn new rep, or prepare for an upcoming performance or audition.

And sure, there is something to be said for having a non-negotiable daily routine. Or sucking it up and just doing the work. But on days when our willpower is sapped, there’s another source of motivation that we might be able to tap into.

It’s called the “resumptive drive.” Or the Zeigarnik effect (which I think sounds way cooler).

What’s this all about?

Waiters and memory

Bluma Zeigarnik described a phenomenon way back in 1927, in which she observed while sitting in a restaurant that waiters seemed to have a selective memory. As in, they could remember complicated customers’ orders that hadn’t yet been filled, but once all the food had been served (or maybe when the bill was paid?), it’s as if the order was wiped from their memory.

Back in her lab, she found that indeed, participants were much more likely to remember tasks they started but didn’t finish, than tasks that were completed (hence, the Zeigarnik effect).

Another form of the Zeigarnik effect – and the one more relevant to what we’re talking about here – is the observation that people tend to be driven to resume tasks in which they were interuppted and unable to finish.

The resumptive drive

Researchers at Texas Christian University & University of Rochester ran a study on this form of the Zeigarnik effect.

Subjects were given eight minutes to shape an eight-cube, three-dimensional puzzle into five different forms. They were told to work as quickly as possible, and given three minutes to complete the first two puzzles as practice.

Then they were given five minutes to solve the last three puzzles.

The researchers deliberately made the second practice puzzle difficult – one that was unlikely to be solved within the time available. And just as they had hoped, only 6 of the 39 participants solved the difficult puzzle.

After their time was up, the participants had eight minutes of free time to do as they wished while the researcher running the experiment left the room to retrieve some questionnaires they accidentally forgot to bring, saying they would be back in “5 or 10 minutes.” This was all a ruse, of course, to see what the participants would do when left alone.

Despite there being other things in the room to do (e.g. a TV, magazines, newspaper, etc.), 28 of the 39 participants (72%) resumed working on the puzzles.

But wait! That’s not the cool part.

The cool part

What’s interesting, is that those who completed the challenging puzzle were far less likely to resume working on the puzzles in their free time than those who did not complete the puzzle.

Of the six who completed the difficult puzzle, only one (17%) resumed working on the puzzles (and did so for one minute and 18 seconds).

Of the 33 who did not complete the challenging puzzle, 27 (82%) resumed working on the puzzle, and on average, spent more than two and a half times as long (3:20) working on the puzzles.

So, when interrupted in the middle of a task, not only were participants more motivated to resume working on that task, but they also continued working on it for much longer.

Take action

So how can we apply this finding to our practice motivation issue?

There are a couple things you might try.

One, many have found that simply getting started is 90% of the challenge (and yup, I totally made up that number…but you get the point).

It’s like washing dishes. If I have a sink full of dirty dishes, and think about the sink of dishes, I’m likely to put it off. But if all I think about is washing one dish, or simply putting the silverware in the dishwasher, it often ends up being easier to just keep going than it is to stop and leave the task half-done.

So instead of thinking about practicing for an hour, or having to work on 10 excerpts, or memorize a concerto, just tune your instrument. Or play a scale really slowly. Or set the timer for five minutes and pick one little thing to fix. And if at the end of five, you don’t feel like continuing, put your instrument away and try again later.

Second, once you’ve played yourself into the mood to practice, try stopping in the middle of a task. Meaning, if you’re working on a tricky passage that has you stumped, test out a few solutions, but leave yourself a few possible solutions remaining before taking a practice break. See if that makes it easier, and more motivating, to pick back up when your practice break is over.

The one-sentence summary

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” ~William B. Sprague

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22 Responses

  1. That totally concurs with my findings. Just get started, play one scale or decide to play just for 15 minutes and once I’m started I’m hooked.
    I love the idea of breaking with a problem unresolved or part completing a task…simply irresistible to come back. I might even take it a step further and finish for the day in the middle of a task. I won’t be able to wait to get started the next day!

  2. This corresponds with my daughter’s advice to me for exercise. “Just put on the clothes you would wear for running/biking/whatever.” Once you’ve done that, it’s difficult not to haul yourself out the door and get moving. Maybe I should have something special I wear just to practise in?!

  3. I totally agree with this. On the flip side though sometimes I find it very very uninviting if say I have multiple compositions that I have started but have yet to finish. There is this apprehension about finishing them that is hard to shake.

    It’s like once you keep putting something off long enough it’s more of a damper than a desire to finish. Would be awesome if you could do something about that side of it as well.

  4. Great idea. After an unavoidable hiatus (family needs), I’m back to practicing. Re-establishing the habit is rewarding, BUT along the lines discussed here: I’m reviewing a piece I love, which is (eventually doable, but very challenging physically (guitar fretboard reaches, etc.) Just the thought of finally accomplishing it keeps me going.

    Another practice activity is doing lots of sight reading. When you think about it, there’s ALWAYS a “next piece,” when you’re a musician, no matter how many the years.

  5. Great advice. Because my time is so limited right now, due to school work and other things, when I do practice it is usually in 20 minute chunks. I might work on something specific for 20 minutes, take a break for 5, just play freely (no specific goal) for 10-15, and then get back to what I was working on. It seems to be pretty effective. I seem to retain the information better after a good night’s sleep as well.

  6. GREAT ARTICLE on so many levels! First as a teacher, I can’t help but think of my students who have slow-starts. Often they’re discouraged because they really love the idea of playing the guitar and want to be good at it, but in reality they should be ENCOURAGED because their lack of immediate success means that they will naturally be more motivated to stay at it and get it right. Another reason this article is great is because it reminds me as a player to not be so analytical in my practice time. I heard it said this week on a podcast that practicing should be like eating, you make time for it everyday. So often I hesitate because I wonder if I will be able to maintain a regular weekly routine because I really care about seriously improving. Sometimes (maybe even most times) you have to set aside your feelings and just dive in. Thanks!

  7. I agree totally. If I can get myself to tune up I’m hooked. I often say my cello is a time machine. I sit with her just for a few minutes and then check with the clock when my hands start aching an see that an hour or more has passed. How does that happen? The magic of music.

  8. This would be my first time commenting on your (absolutely incredible) blog, but this article really resonated with me. Your insights have given me perspective on why the pieces I’ve let remained ever so slightly unfinsihed end up being my most comfortable and articulately played. Furthermore, it gives me further thought into why the songs that are “done and dusted” seem to do exactly that – collect dust, requiring time when I need to go back and sharpen and re-memorize certain measures or nuances.

    Please don’t stop sharing your thoughts with the world, Dr. Noa.

  9. Dear Dr.Kageyama,

    I am a 14 year old violist, going into 9th grade this fall. This summer I am going to the Perlman Music Program. Your blogs have helped me tremendously. Lately, I have been experiencing trouble getting myself wanting to work. I don’t think my interest is declining in music, but I’ve noticed that starting and getting through my practicing well and thoroughly has been increasingly cumbersome. For a long time being told to practice wasn’t really a thing, because I would do it without being told. (It’s still that same way, but is getting more difficult to do so) I have a great teacher, so it’s not as if I am not receiving guidance and am wanting to stop, but am I really burning out? And if so, is there anything I can do to stop it?

    Thanks a ton,


    1. Hi Joe,

      Hmm…sounds frustrating. Tough to know how to be most helpful to you without knowing more, but I’m sure you will have a great experience this summer which will help. Personally, I was never all that enthusiastic about practicing, and it wasn’t until I figured out how/why to practice when I was in my 20’s, that it became sort of interesting. For me it was about realizing that practicing is really all about solving puzzles, and once I could figure out what the puzzles were, my curiosity/desire to figure things out took over and made practicing a more engaging and rewarding experience. But for me, the difficulty was not so much in solving the puzzles, but learning how to identify the puzzles in the first place. I know this may sound vague, but I’m sure your teacher and faculty at PMP will continue to help you take great strides towards developing in this way as well. Have a great summer!

  10. For me, this has been one of the most significant posts on this blog. And that’s saying a lot, because so many of

    Noa’s posts here are absolutely terrific. But this one really helped me to realize something that’s almost a

    universal principle. And it might be useful in other facets of life other than in music. (I’m assuming there ARE

    other facets of life…)

    Noa wrote in this post

    “…once you’ve played yourself into the mood to practice, try stopping in the middle of a task. See if that makes it

    easier, and more motivating, to pick back up when your practice break is over. ”

    Well, what I realized from this is that it may be possible to make it easier to pick up one’s instrument using any one

    of a variety of “stop in the middle” techniques. Stopping in the middle of a task is a good one. But so is stopping

    [after] a really sweet piece that you wouldn’t mind doing again … later. Or looking at the overall picture of what

    you are trying to do, and timing your stopping so you can get to complete that bigger picture when you pick up the

    instrument again.

    Unless someone is banging on your practice room door and your practicing time just HAS to end abruptly, you

    can always figure out some way of self-baiting yourself back into practice mode after you’ve taken whatever kind

    of practice break you’ve taken. Self-baiting, yeah. Once you realize this you can sort of chain all your practice

    sessions into one fun experience.

    It’s funny, but I’ve always accepted that some times I have felt a lot more like playing than others. I thought it was

    maybe hormones, or the weather, or something. But looking back a bit, it’s beginning to look like the “semi-

    random” way i’ve been ending my practice sessions all my life may have been a big factor in my fluctuating

    musical moods. Haha… Live and learn.

  11. I asked myself if I should refuse to play the piano because I had not invented it. This made the essence of problem-solving appear clearly, I found. I could clearly see where the focus had to be when practicing.

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