Subscribe to the weekly “audio edition” via iTunes
Have you ever woken up the day before a big performance or audition, had this sudden realization what day it was, and wondered to yourself “Oh [email protected]#%. How is it possible that tomorrow is here already?”

I certainly remember the moment I realized, on the day before the second round of an international competition, that my Bach Chaconne was not fully memorized.

Which I know sounds utterly ridiculous, but it’s the kind of thing that would happen when I had my blinders on. I’d get so fixated on the immediate problems in front of me (i.e. the intonation problem of the day), that I’d neglect the more important issues (like memory) until too late.

I’d always vow to practice more the next time. To start earlier. To be more organized. But it was always the same last-minute scramble, where I never felt quite as prepared as I ought to be.

Why does this happen? And how can we manage our time better in the practice room, so that we’re more fully performance-ready when the day arrives?

Urgent vs. important

A team of researchers ran a series of studies to explore how we make decisions about tasks that are urgent, versus tasks that are important.

Wait – what’s the difference?

Well, urgent tasks are things that have to be done now, or else we may lose the opportunity to do so. Like, there’s a small window of time after I wake up in the morning for me to walk my dog, before he pees on the carpet.

Important tasks are things that have major impacts. Like eating healthily or brushing your teeth.

Four categories

And the two intersect, so some things are both urgent and important. If you fall off a horse and break your leg, for instance, you’ll probably want to get to the hospital sooner than later.

Other things are urgent, but not important. Like the pizza coupon that expires at the end of the month.

Then there are things that are important, but not urgent. Like spending time with family. Or flossing.

And things that are neither important nor urgent. Like organizing your CD collection by composer’s birth date.

Decisions about the first and last categories are easy. It’s the middle two, where things get tricky.

So when faced with such a choice, do we lean towards urgent things? Or important things?

A choice of two tasks

124 university students were given a choice between two tasks of equal length and difficulty.

Each task involved writing short 1-minute reviews for five different products (like a phone). For each completed review, participants would receive a bonus of either 6 points (if they chose Task A), or 10 points (if they chose Task B). And they’d receive one chocolate Hershey’s Kiss for every 10 points earned.

But half of the students (urgency group) were told that Task A would expire in the next 10 minutes. While Task B would remain open for 24 hours.

The other half (control group) were told that both tasks would expire in 24 hours.

What did they choose?

Logically, Task B is the better choice, since you get 2 more chocolates for the same amount of work.

But the 10-minute expiration window seemed to distort some participants’ thinking, as 31.3% of the students in the urgency condition selected the low-payoff task. Compared with only 13.3% of students in the control group.

But why?! Isn’t it obvious that Task B leads to a bigger payoff with no difference in the work involved?

Time vs. payoff

Maybe, but the researchers conducted a few more studies to dig a little deeper, this time with real money involved, and found that:

  1. Participants who chose the low-payoff task, tended to be more focused on time (when the task would expire) than the payoff (how much money they’d gain).
  2. But when participants were reminded how much money they’d be earning from each task right before making their decision, the “urgency effect” disappeared, and they chose the higher-payoff task.
  3. The “urgency effect” was even more noticeable amongst participants who perceived themselves to be busier.

So what does this all mean in the context of practicing?

#1: Deadlines

This is an obvious one, but it can be tempting to spend time on things that have to be played sooner than later.

For instance, today’s rehearsal or gig is more “urgent,” so there’s a clear, immediate payoff to spending the morning working on this.

And though the audition in 2 months may be more “important” in the grand scheme of things, there’s not as much of a payoff today from spending an hour googling how to connect a mic with an XLR connection to the computer via USB, so as to make our run-throughs and mocks more productive.

#2: What’s actually important?

Some problems may also seem more urgent than others, simply because they’re more conspicuous.

Meaning – and maybe this was just me – but intonation, sound, and all the little technical glitches that popped up every day as I went from one passage to the next always felt more urgent than taking the time to develop a clearer overall concept of the piece, and experimenting with phrasing, character, and so on. Even though, it’s the latter, especially when it comes to giving a compelling, inspired, engaged performance, that is probably more important.

I used to rationalize this behavior by telling myself that I just needed some time to get things cleaned up first, after which I’d be more than happy to work out all the musical decisions, record myself, and do more performance practice.

But the reality, of course, is that there is never an end to the number of technical problems you can find. I know it feels like there’s an end there somewhere, but there just isn’t, as this recent study explains.

All this to say, we’ll never be “ready” to do run-throughs and mocks and put ourselves in practice pressure situations until it’s too late.

So how can we overcome the “urgency bias” and ensure that we devote enough time to the activities that will actually put future us in a better position?

Take action

1. Identify your MIT’s (Most Important Tasks)

I used to practice by starting at the beginning of a piece, stopping whenever I heard something I didn’t like, working on it a bit, and moving on until I got to the next problem area.

The problem with this method, of course, is that what you hear when you’re playing through a piece casually, is not necessarily what you’d hear if you were performing the piece from beginning to end, and don’t have the luxury of stopping.

So while you may be tempted to stop and address many things that feel urgent, they may or may not be the most important issues to address. And so your time ends up being devoted to issues that could use work, but come at the expense of bigger problems that you don’t realize are there until the day of a performance.

Though it can be a blow to the ego, an easy way to identify your MIT’s is to record yourself doing a run-through, first thing in the morning after warming up. Not necessarily every day, but certainly more often, and sooner in the preparation process than would feel comfortable.

Percussionist Rob Knopper has written about why this is such an effective way to maximize the impact of your practice time, and we recorded a conversation about this subject here as well.

2. Stay focused on your MIT’s

I stuck a little post-it on my computer monitor for about a year, on which was written a simple question: “Is this the most important thing you could be working on right now?”

I can’t remember where I read about this, but as simple as it sounds, it ended up being surprisingly helpful!