How much we should practice every day is always a popular question. We google, we read books and interviews, and we ask around to find out how much the great artists practiced, how much our teachers practice, and how much our colleagues and fellow students practice.

Meanwhile, there is another question, perhaps even more important, that is rarely (if ever) asked.

When should we practice?

Why when matters

Most would agree that deliberate, thoughtful, and focused practice is a more effective use of our practice time than careless, unorganized, and mindless repetition. Of course, such deliberate practice requires the ability to concentrate and think critically and creatively about what we are doing and working to accomplish. It’s difficult to do this when we are tired, sleepy, or low in energy.

The early bird gets…tired

For instance, there was a time when I got up at 4:30am to practice before school. I’d drag myself out of bed, take out my violin, and sit down in front of my music to slog through scales and other technical exercises so I could get this out of the way first. Of course, I was slouched down in my chair, my mind pretty much still asleep, and I just went through the motions of playing etudes without paying much attention to what was happening. Needless to say, I didn’t keep this up for long, as it soon became apparent that this was a waste of time. I wasn’t getting much out of my morning practice, and I was so tired after school that I wasn’t getting much out of my afternoon and evening practice either. At the time, I just wasn’t built to practice effectively at 4:30am.

Sleep is certainly a critical factor in optimal performance, but this post is not about sleep per se. It’s about figuring out your internal biological clock’s daily schedule, and planning your practice schedule around those times of day when you are naturally more alert. It’s about using an understanding of your body clock to your advantage, so that you can practice more productively and get more done in less time. And no, this is not the same biological clock that Marisa Tomei refers to in My Cousin Vinny.

Our biological clock

Each of us runs on a 24 hour-ish schedule (some research suggests that it might be closer to 25 hours, and while the implications of this are kind of cool, it’s beyond the scope of this post). The various daily cycles of alertness, changes in body temperature, and hormone production are often referred to as circadian rhythms. These rhythms are pretty stable and predictable so long as we don’t mess with them. Things get a little screwy when we cross time zones (i.e. jet lag) or if we go to bed and wake up at irregular and inconsistent times during the week (that’s why it’s good to pick a bedtime, pick a wake-up time, and stick with it even on weekends).

Have you ever noticed that there seem to be certain periods during the day when you tend to be more alert, and others when you tend to be more drowsy? Around 9pm, for instance, is generally a pretty unproductive time for me. Even if I’m not so drowsy that I want to sleep, I just have a harder time getting my brain to work as hard or fast as it can at other times during the day. If I make it to 10:30 or 11pm, things usually kick back into gear and I’m pretty productive.

Two opposing forces

This occurs because there are two different forces at work. Let’s call them Sleepy and Red Bull. Sleepy is constantly trying to make you fall asleep, while Red Bull is always trying to keep you awake. Both Sleepy and Red Bull work all day long, but they each slack off a bit at different times depending on what time of day it is. For most, Sleepy is strongest in mid-afternoon, while Red Bull is stronger in mid-morning and late afternoon to mid-evening.

Chart your day

The key is to figure out when each of these opposing forces is strongest for you and your unique set of biological rhythms. Take a week to chart out when you are most drowsy and when you are most alert. Use a graph similar to the one below for each day of the week, and combine them into a single graph when you get enough data to see a pattern.

alertness graph

(source: Power Sleep, by James Maas)

Take a break from practicing – guilt-free!

Now that you know when your body is primed for practice and when it isn’t, don’t fight your natural biological clock. Practice during the high-alertness periods, and do something else during the low-energy periods completely guilt-free (like mindless chores, errands, reading for pleasure, or hey, take a nap!).