I don’t know if any of my teachers ever said this out loud, or if it was just something I intuited, but I always had the impression that I was falling short of their expectations because I couldn’t bring myself to practice in a consistent and effective way.

So one day, I decided it was time to make a change. Time to buckle down and get really serious about practicing. I went to the bookstore, bought one of those hourly day planners, and sketched out exactly how I’d spend the next week. I mapped out when I’d practice, when I’d study, when I’d give myself down time, what I would work on, the whole nine yards.

It felt awesome to put it all down on paper. I immediately felt way more accomplished as I looked proudly at my uber-productive week ahead.

In reality, of course, my week ended up going nothing like how I planned it. And after a few such weeks, it began to feel pointless to even bother going through the motions of planning a week that I knew was never going to happen.

I found this all very frustrating. Why couldn’t I stick to a simple schedule? Was I not serious enough? Did I have motivation problems? A complete lack of self-control?

Or was I somehow going about this all wrong?

Daily goals vs. monthly goals

A team of researchers studied the study habits of 48 first-year undergraduate students at the University of Rochester, who volunteered to participate in an 11-week “Study Improvement Program.”

The 11-week program covered a range of useful skills, and included discussions, role-playing, and in-class practice of skills, on topics from time management, reading comprehension, and test-taking/anxiety management, to lecture note taking, writing, etc.

All very important skills, of course. But the researchers were primarily interested in seeing how the specificity of students’ plans (i.e. having daily goals and plans for achieving them) would impact their study habits.

The researchers thought that students who created specific goals and plans for each day would end up demonstrating better study habits by the end of the 11 weeks. That they would study longer and more efficiently than those students who created monthly goals or who created no plans at all.

So they split the students into three groups – a daily plans group, a monthly plans group, and a no plans group.

Monitoring changes in study habits

The students were asked to keep track of how much (and how effectively) they studied during the week. And then there were the “planning sheets.”

The no-plan students were given generic tips like “take breaks of 5-10 minutes after every 30-90 minute study session.”

But students in the daily and monthly plan groups were taught how to create simple, specific, achievable goals, and given planning worksheets to help with the process.

The daily plan students mapped out a 4-day plan of specific tasks, action plans, and a system of rewards for accomplishing their goals. The monthly plan students did some planning too, but it focused more on bigger chunks of activities, with a reward at the end of the month if they were successful.

Both groups were asked to keep filling out these worksheets as needed, and also asked to keep track of a) how many hours they spent studying each day, and b) how many of these hours they considered to be effective studying.

Hmm…didn’t see that coming!

Remember how the researchers predicted that more specific daily plans would lead to more and better-quality study time?

Well, this is one of those occasions where the researchers’ predictions don’t pan out – but that ends up being more interesting.

Because believe it or not, the students who were asked to make daily plans reported spending less and less time studying as the weeks passed. And they even stopped filling out their planning worksheets after about a month – only 1/3rd of the way through the program.

On the other hand, the students who were asked to make monthly plans reported studying more than any of the other groups. They didn’t experience a dropoff in study time over the course of the 11 weeks as did the others. They also reported more “effective” study time than any of their peers. And they were less likely to drag their feet and delay or avoid studying too. Even more surprisingly, many of them even continued to monitor and report their study time during spring break, even though they weren’t asked to – while almost none of the students in the other groups bothered to.

Why such a contrast in study habits between those who were asked to make daily plans and those who were asked to make monthly plans?

Why?

The researchers offer two explanations. One possible reason is that the planning itself became a burden. That having to create specific plans for each day became too time-consuming or stressful.

They also suggest that trying to impose order on an inherently unpredictable day may have backfired. Because when you set rigid or ambitious criteria for success, in a way, you’re setting yourself up to fail in many small ways over the course of a day. And over time, seeing yourself fail to reach your daily goals can become discouraging and demoralizing and lead to quitting, just as it was for me those many years ago.

Takeaways

There are undoubtedly those who thrive and do best when they map out clear daily goals and impose structure on the day ahead.

And I still think it’s helpful to map out specific goals within a practice session to ensure we stay focused and make productive use of time.

But when it comes to planning our day, I do think that for some people, trying to adhere too rigidly to a set daily structure can be counterproductive. That for some, it may be more effective to be flexible and go with the flow a bit more – as long as we keep our goals in mind and stay open to exploring others ways of getting there. After all, gigs come up unexpectedly, friends call for help, and we may decide that taking a nap and practicing later makes more sense than sticking doggedly to our plan and willing ourselves through an unproductive practice session.

So ultimately, perhaps it’s as Civil War veteran and diplomat Horace Porter once said: “Be moderate in everything, including moderation.”