How to Practice Better

The following are excerpts from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daily email where he wants to cultivate “the positive corner of the internet”. While his emphasis is of course on physical fitness, many of the things he advocates for apply to any endeavor where you are trying to get better.

From the June 5 email:

Less Is More

Want to know what goes great with focusing on your wins? Narrowing your focus and not trying to do too much at once. A simpler approach can make all the difference between breaking through and experiencing setbacks.

Research suggests the more goals you try to tackle — and the more complicated you make them — the less likely you are to achieve your desired outcome. People try to “build Rome in a day” and overvalue complicated decisions over simple, repeatable behaviors.

[…]If you want healthy habits that last, you must make it so easy it’s hard to fail. Only then, can you progress to the more difficult challenges. I didn’t start by deadlifting 700 pounds or doing the workouts that made me Mr. Olympia. It began with pullups on branches and deadlifts in the dirt. Over time, as the reps and weights increased, I could train longer and harder and become stronger. But none of that would have been possible without tremendous focus that allowed me to build great routines.

So instead of setting 10 goals, start with just one or two — and make sure that they are realistic. Want to become a better cook? Start with basic recipes with simpler ingredients. Want to get up earlier? Limit your screen time later in the day and set an earlier bedtime. If you haven’t been in the gym in a few weeks, don’t start with an hour workout. Instead, See if you can do a 20-minute workout, two or three times per week. […]

The behaviors you want to achieve are the byproduct of stacking small wins and doing them repeatedly. The more they add up, the more you can add complication and challenges, and the more likely you are to stick to the plan, gain confidence, and achieve results better than anything you accomplished before.

So, how does that apply to practicing?

One Thing At A Time

Decide what you want to improve. If the goal is to play correct notes only, then you may have to temporarily ignore dynamics, articulation, expression, even rhythm to some degree. My favorite advice here is to “abandon fluency”.

Of course you are aware of what the dynamics, articulation, expression will eventually be, but for now, focus on that one thing: correct notes.

On the other hand, if your goal is to play with more expression, then you may have to ignore an accidental wrong note here and there.

Eventually, it will all come together, and you will be able to play correct notes with the correct rhythm and appropriate dynamics, articulation, expression, fluency, and tempo (which should always come last).

The goal should always be to make things so easy it’s practically impossible to fail.

The more concrete and manageable your goal is, the more likely you will accomplish it.

While some people are spurred on by failure, success is actually the best motivator. So, set yourself up for success, by focusing on One Thing At A Time.