Reading: 45-64 minutes
Table Of Contents
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Why Is It Usually Hard To Enjoy Practice?
- 3 Part 1: Plan Your Practice
- 4 Part 2: Learn To Love Practice
- 5 Part 3: The Self-Discipline Toolbox
- 5.1 1. Overcome Fear
- 5.2 2. Kaizen Method to Forming Habits
- 5.3 3. Lengthen time between stimulus and response.
- 5.4 6. Accept Pain & Expect Mistakes (They are your friends in improvement)
- 5.5 4. Reframe failures and mistakes as learning experiences and plan what you’ll do differently
- 5.6 7. The Growth vs Fixed Mindset (& the ‘Talent’ Myth)
- 5.7 8. How To Regulate Focus
- 5.8 8. Just Start – The Zeigarnik Effect
- 6 Time To Practice
Do you ever think to yourself:
“I wish I could be excited to practice consistently every day”
“Practice is frustrating and it feels like work.”
“I’m disciplined in one area of my life, but in this other area I’m completely hopeless”
Any of these problems sound familiar? Unfortunately, they’re very common.
And because they’re so common, it’s accepted that practice should always be a struggle. Most people don’t think it’s possible to enjoy practice, or they think they’ll only enjoy practice when they find ‘that one special activity’ they were meant to do.
However, the ability to develop a skill and the ability to enjoy consistent practice are skills in themselves.
The secret to practicing consistently is to find a way to enjoy the process of practice, forget your worries and frustrations, and stay focused on the current moment.
There was once a time when you didn’t know how to do much of anything. You couldn’t write, talk or even feed yourself. All of these skills came with practice.
But when learning these things, you didn’t have a sense of frustration or a hatred toward learning something new. You didn’t resist when it was time to practice. You just went ahead and learned like there was no other way to live.
As we grow up, we come to associate new skills with frustration and setbacks, punctuated with infrequent success and reward. We forget that learning new skills is a continual, natural process that doesn’t need to be a struggle.
The secret to become ‘good at practice’, and ‘disciplined’ is to embrace your natural learning ability, eliminate the noise, and go back to a time when curiosity and learning was the only way to live. A time when the experience was all you needed to focus on, without worrying about long-term reward.
In this guide, you’ll learn a process that leads you to enjoy the process of practice. Once you learn it, you won’t have to force yourself to practice anymore. When you understand the dynamics of practice and the tools you need to be successful, practice becomes stress-free and peaceful. For people who learn this skill, it becomes the preferred method of experiencing life.
Learning the discipline of practice comes with many benefits:
- Master sports, languages, instruments or anything else that requires consistent practice.
- Stress-free, blissful practice sessions you look forward to as an escape.
- Focused, relaxed attention
- Better emotional control with longer separation between ‘stimulus’ and ‘response’ (I’ll explain exactly what that means)
- The ability to overcome obstacles with less frustration
- The satisfaction of finishing what you start
- Less burnout and overwhelm
- A boost in self-confidence
- Increased learning ability for any new subjects
Three Important Points Before We Start
Remember to read this entire guide from front to back. Don’t pick and choose chapters that appeal to you and think they will help you by themselves. Though you may get value from reading certain parts, this book is designed as a system to take you from ‘where you are now’ to ‘where you want to be.’
Skipping parts might leave out vital details about the path that lies ahead of you.
Even if you think that ‘I’m a born procrastinator’ or ‘I’m just untalented’, this system will still work for you. You’ll see why soon.
Please suspend any disbelief or pre-judgements about what you’re about to learn.
If the mindset you’ve been using so far hasn’t worked for you, give something new a chance to work. Even if you’re not sure it will work, take a few days to test it out before you dismiss it. You might be surprised.
This system is designed to work with human nature, but it’s also human nature that everybody is different. Therefore, you need to experiment with what works for you.
Don’t just read this book and forget to incorporate it into your life. You need to put what you learn into action, and figure out how it jives with your own personality if you expect it to work for you.
To help you with this, I’ve included an action plan at the end to make it easy to put this information to work for you right away, and to review your progress and iterate your plan.
That’s all you need to know for now. Let’s get started!
Why Is It Usually Hard To Enjoy Practice?
Have you ever wondered why you don’t enjoy the process of practice? After all, it can be extremely rewarding in the long-term.
The main problem is that there is no immediate gratification unless you enjoy practice itself. If you are only in it for long-term rewards, it’s easy to allow frustration and worry to take over during practice. Then practice becomes a chore, and you’ll have to force yourself to begin each practice session.
So why don’t you enjoy the process of practice? And why can’t you get to practice every day with consistency?
As it turns out, there are a handful of common causes for these problems.
To start you off on the right foot, let’s go through them now:
Common Causes of Low Self-Discipline and Frustration During Practice
Though some of these may not apply to you, they are the most common causes of low self-discipline and the inability to enjoy practice.
1. You don’t have a strong reason why in your area of practice.
Because you don’t have a strong reason why you want to practice, you can’t eliminate distractions. You can’t focus on something important because you don’t know for sure what is most important to you.
Maybe you only practice a sport or an instrument because other family members or friends practice it. Or maybe you went into a line of work because others thought it would be good for you.
Because of this, you’re trapped in a state of ‘habitual indecision’. A surprising amount of people are trapped in this state for much of their lives. For example, kids who come out of college only to jump around from job to job for years.
If you don’t take a bit of time right now to figure out what’s important to you (or at least what activity is satisfying to you), you might waste a decades doing things that don’t give you real satisfaction.
Also, when you don’t have a strong enough reason to do something, you’re not ready to do what is necessary to commit to practice and keep improving.
2. You think that using ‘self-discipline’ and ‘willpower’ means forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do.
According to Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, a core function of the conscious mind (the prefrontal cortex) is to inhibit automatic behaviours of the brain. This is Willpower. Willpower helps you overcome the urge to eat ice cream when you’re on a diet, or the craving to watch TV when you should be working. It is
By using willpower and discipline to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do, you are building conflict in your mind. One part of your mind wants to do it, the other part does not. This conflict doesn’t resolve on it own unless you do something about it.
Also, forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do creates poor associations with practice. Practicing when you’re in a bad mood makes you less likely to want to practice next time.
Instead of using willpower and self-discipline to struggle against frustration and force yourself to practice, there are 3 better ways to use them:
- Build your ‘burning desire’ for the activity (e.g.. use Rewards, Reason Why, Accountability)
- Eliminate indecision and other options while you practice. This removes habitual cravings of the subconscious mind so that you can focus on something else.
- Focus on changing habits, which is your built-in ability to repeat actions you’ve done before without debate or worry.
Some people do all 3 of these automatically. Others, like you and me, must learn how to do it, then work at it. You’ll learn how to do these things in this book.
4. You are constantly focused on your level of ability or your results. You constantly check results, and judge yourself on your progress.
When you focus on results you’re focusing on what you don’t have (yet). You haven’t achieved the result you want, after all. That’s why you’re practicing.
So when you focus on your level of skill, it’s automatically demotivating and depressing, right from the start.
Think to the last time you practiced: do you judge yourself for your level of skill? Do you constantly test yourself? Or do you focus on enjoying the process of the activity (e.g.. The perfection of your golf swing or the smoothness of movement across the piano keyboard)?
When you focus on your level of ability, fear sets in. When you focus on the process of improvement, the process becomes more and more enjoyable.
6. You have one or more of these 3 discipline-killing mental habits:
You’re habitually indecisive – You constantly second guess yourself and you have no trust in your own plan. You have little tolerance for risk and possibly low self-esteem when it comes to the given activity.
You’re habitually lazy, bored and indifferent – You probably weren’t born lazy, but laziness can become a habit that is hard to break. You come to identify with ‘laziness’ as a personality trait, but only because you don’t know that it’s possible to escape it. Most lazy people cannot imagine life from another point of view (myself included), and you allow indifference to lead your life. If this is you, just remember: if you don’t play you never have a chance to win.
You’re habitually compulsive – you constantly move from one thing to the next. You’re always trying new things, but it’s hard for you to focus your energy and settle on one thing at a time. You feel like you’re constantly being pulled in a dozen different directions. Social media & cell phones can cause this problem by forcing you to expect distractions constantly.
The key is to find a middle ground between these extremes, where you have balance and peace and you’re in control of your attention. This will allow you to focus on what’s important to you.
7. Thinking what you do today exists in isolation.
You are constantly creating the ‘you’ of tomorrow. You’re constantly rewiring your brain, every second. What you do today influences who you are tomorrow.
This might seem obvious, but we’re usually not aware of it in everyday life. And when you’re not aware of it, bad habits seep into your life and escalate.
When you eat too much fast food, you’re conditioning fast food cravings. When you bite your nails, you’re conditioning more nail-biting.
Same goes for mental attitudes. When you are indecisive today, you are conditioning more indecisiveness tomorrow. When you’re too hyper today, you’re conditioning more hyperactivity. When you’re lazy and bored, you’re conditioning more laziness.
For example, when I come back from a week-long holiday, I can feel this laziness when I get back to work. It’s necessary to recharge, but it always takes me one or two days to get back into the groove of work. After all, I’ve been conditioning detachment for a week.
Ask yourself: Are you conditioning more laziness, or more activities that will lead to fulfillment? Is your life moving upward or downward?
8. Habits that contribute to success are rarely ‘instant gratification’ habits.
Though instant gratification has it’s time and place, most of the actions that contribute to real fulfilment and success in life are not things that give us instant satisfaction. Most of the good things in life take effort.
Success in pursuit of a goal can take a long time, but our brain more strongly connects the feeling of satisfaction with instant rewards.
The more complex an activity, and the longer it takes to get rewards to it, the less the brain will find pleasure in that activity.
The reason for this is the brain wants to conserve energy. This was an important survival tactic when our ancestors had less abundant access to food and clean water.
Your normal routine is the most efficient way to stay alive. Everything that you’ve done so far has kept you alive, after all. Any change is probably dangerous, in evolutionary terms.
Of course, we now provide support and shelter for one another, so these evolutionary traits are no longer needed. Success is no longer mere survival.
But we still have the same brain. Therefore, you have emotions that tell you not to go to the gym. You just don’t feel like working on your book. You hear a little voice of doubt that your meditation sessions aren’t helping you at all.
Unfortunately, giving in to these little insidious thoughts causes you to enter a downward spiral. Laziness today leads to even more laziness tomorrow.
But at the same time, you don’t want to be constantly coercing yourself into doing things you don’t want to do in the name of productivity.
The solution? Find the reasons you want to be successful, set up goals and habits, and begin cultivating motivation and passion to enjoy practice and hard work. Once you learn how to do this, you’ll be on a continual upward spiral, and your self-control will grow and grow.
And when you finally start to see bits of success that YOU consciously created, your confidence will explode and a whole new world will open up to you.
You’ll learn what you need to do to accomplish this, as you keep reading.
9. You limit your own progress through deep-seated beliefs & excuses.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
Beliefs can be insidious. You often can’t spot the limits you set for yourself. Many of them are bred into you since childhood (when something small could drastically alter your beliefs).
Then your beliefs become your actions, your actions become your habits, and your habits change the trajectory of your life.
Say you’re a teenager, and you’re watching the Olympics on TV with your family. Your uncle says ‘those guys are freaks of nature’. This puts the thought into your head that you could never be like that. These Olympians were just born like that.
Of course, that’s not the truth. They all got there due to hard work and self-discipline. The truth is that labeling them with some extreme ‘talent’ you could never possess is just an excuse to protect your own ego. And it prevents you from doing the work that could potentially get you to the Olympics.
Just the simple act of thinking ‘I’m just lazy’, or ‘this is just the way I was born’ can cause major problems in your life. That belief will lead your life. Since it is fundamental to the way you act, there’s no way to escape it unless you learn how to change your beliefs.
Fortunately, once you’re on the lookout for these little beliefs you’ll be able to spot them and replace them with more useful beliefs.
10. Poor expectancy of the future.
This can be caused by poor practice habits. If you don’t know the mechanics of practice, that is, how to practice smoothly without any resistance to progress, then you’re going to be frustrated during practice. When you practice in this state of mind, you’re teaching your subconscious mind that practice isn’t pleasurable, so it will automatically look for distractions and excuses.
Any poor association in the future can cause lack of discipline in the present. The solution is to form good associations with the habit you want to develop, and draw instant gratification from the process of the activity, as opposed to looking for gratification in the results. I’ll be showing you how to do this in the following sections.
Part 1: Plan Your Practice
The first step to developing a consistent practice is to plan it out in detail. You need to know where you’re going if you ever expect to get anywhere.
If you don’t plan your practice down to the small details, you’ll be easily distracted when it comes time to practice.
Trying to resist distractions and instant gratification by using self-discipline doesn’t work over the long-term. The brain just doesn’t work that way.
Let me give you a simple example of why self-discipline doesn’t work. I’m going to give you a simple instruction and all you have to do is follow it:
Try NOT to think of a purple elephant.
Now, what are you thinking of?
A purple elephant, of course. It’s impossible to avoid. You see, your brain can’t NOT think of something. When you try to pull yourself away from distractions, you’re probably just making them more distracting.
Instead of trying to force yourself to practice, it’s better to provide yourself with a specific focus. And the more crystal-clear the focus, the easier it will be for you to avoid distraction when you practice.
You’ll have a reason to stay in the moment, let go of everything else, and enjoy what you’re doing.
Decide What You Want To Practice
The first step to planning your practice is to crystallize the reasons you want to do it.
If you already have something in mind you would like to practice, ask yourself if you know the reasons why you like it. Do you have specific reasons to practice the activity? Or do you just do it because your friends or family do it?
If you don’t have specific reasons that you can point to and say ‘that’s why I love to practice this’, then you might not be giving yourself a good enough reason.
When you don’t have a good enough reason to do something, distractions come easily. When do do have good reasons, and you keep them on your mind, focus comes easily. You’ll learn faster and enjoy practice more.
Also, if you don’t have something you think you can be truly passionate about right now, the instructions in this chapter will help you to flesh it out.
Here’s how to develop a better reason why.
Start by listing the activities you already do on a piece of paper.
List all the things you do on a regular basis that you enjoy.
These could be work activities such as writing, accounting, meetings, home activities such as cleaning and watching TV, and hobbies such as sports and games.
You can also write down an activity you want to start practicing more often.
For each of these activities, ask yourself these questions:
What do I like about the Process of these activities? These are your Process Rewards.
What are the ultimate goals I’m going after when I perform these activities? These are your Ultimate Rewards.
Say you enjoy playing golf. The things you might enjoy about the process might be the feeling of swinging the club, the enjoyment of being outside on a beautiful course, the satisfaction of knowing you hit a clean shot etc.
Also list of the ultimate rewards might be things like impressing your friends, winning a club championship etc…
(These ultimate rewards are important because they guide your practice routines… but when it comes time to practice, they are irrelevant. You’ll see why soon.)
You can use this list of basic psychological human needs to give you a better idea of what you get from each activity. This list is adapted from Murray’s Psychogenic Needs, so many may apply to you, but most will not apply:
Need – Definition
1 Abasement – To surrender and submit to others, accept blame and punishment. To enjoy pain and misfortune.
2 Achievement – To accomplish difficult tasks, overcoming obstacles and becoming expert.
3 Affiliation – To be close and loyal to another person, pleasing them and winning their friendship and attention.
4 Aggression – To forcefully overcome an opponent, controlling, taking revenge or punishing them.
5 Autonomy – To break free from constraints, resisting coercion and dominating authority. To be irresponsible and independent. Freedom.
6 Counteraction – To make up for failure by trying again, seeking pridefully to overcome obstacles.
7 Defendance – To defend oneself against attack or blame, hiding any failure of the self.
8 Deference – To admire a superior person, praising them and yielding to them and following their rules.
9 Dominance – To control one’s environment, controlling other people through command or subtle persuasion.
10 Exhibition – To impress others through one’s actions and words, even if these are shocking.
11 Harm avoidance – To escape or avoid pain, injury and death.
12 Infavoidance – To avoid being humiliated or embarrassed.
13 Nurturance – To help the helpless, feeding them and keeping them from danger.
14 Order – To make things clean, neat and tidy.
15 Play – To have fun, laugh and relax, enjoying oneself.
16 Rejection – To separate oneself from a negatively viewed object or person, excluding or abandoning it.
17 Sentience – To seek out and enjoy sensual experiences.
18 Sex – To form relationships that lead to sexual intercourse.
19 Succourance – To have one’s needs satisfied by someone or something. Includes being loved, nursed, helped, forgiven and consoled. Also something that adds convenience, or peace of mind.
20 Understanding – To be curious, ask questions and find answers.
Use this list to make two different lists: the Process Rewards, and the Ultimate Rewards.
After you’ve identified the most fulfilling characteristics of the activities you do, you can take some time to identify other activities that might be even more fulfilling to you.
Identifying New Activities To Practice
The easiest way I’ve learned to identify activities that are potentially fulfilling is to use the principles of ‘Flow’.
Flow is a classic psychology book written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi after his famous experiments into ‘optimal experience’. In a decades-long study, he identified the attributes that typically make activities fulfilling, and found that people who gave more of their days over to these ‘flow’ activities were happier in life than people who experienced less of these activities.
Here are the 9 attributes of ‘flow’ activities:
- Challenge-skill balance (not too hard, but still challenging enough so that you’re constantly gaining skill throughout your lifetime)
- Merging of action and awareness
- Clarity of goals (intention for each practice session)
- Immediate and unambiguous feedback (you know when you’re doing well, and when you screw up right away)
- Concentration on the task at hand
- Paradox of control (letting go of control, surrendering to the activity)
- Transformation of time (sense of time is lost or warped)
- Loss of self-consciousness
- Autotelic experience (performing the activity for it’s own sake, and no other purpose e.g.. Performing the activity for the feeling of the activity as opposed to monetary gain)
Using this list, try to identify new activities that fulfill your most important values (which you learned in the last section), as well as the attributes of flow (or as many attributes as possible).
Keep in mind that some activities are only Flow activities when you approach them in the right way. Writing, for example, can be a nightmare to some people, because they approach it with indecision and self-doubt.
But for many writers, including myself, writing is pure pleasure because we are focused on the process of writing and improvement. Our goals are clear, we write with tight focus and we ‘lose ourselves’ in the process.
These are the attributes of Flow at work.
So ask yourself:
How can you make your practice sessions better conform to Flow?
You might need to alter the way you practice in a drastic way.
I never used to enjoy writing, by the way. In fact, when I was deciding on what to take at university, a big factor in my decision to go into biochemistry was that it didn’t require much essay writing. Now, I write a few books every month. Go figure.
To enjoy writing, I had to change the way I worked and the fundamental mindset I brought to the empty page. The two major changes I made were
- Working in focused blocks of uninterrupted time, Peter Drucker style.
- Not caring about the quality of my first draft, and never editing during the first draft. Not even to correct spelling mistakes. This allows me to get all my ideas down in a non-judgemental way. I trust the first edit to make the text pretty.
The point is you may need to make specific changes to the way you work that depend on the activity itself.
I firmly believe that the number one difference between those who excel at a certain activity and those who fall behind is the mindset they bring and the way they perform it on a daily basis.
In the coming chapters, you’ll learn specific techniques that will encourage a ‘healthy practice mindset’.
Personal Values And Ethics – Are Your Practicing What You Want To Practice?
If you something in mind to practice, it’s important to make sure it’s really what you want to do. It’s often hard to tell.
Unfortunately, many people get stuck in the trap of doing something just because they were told to do it by somebody else, or because their friends do it, or because their family does it. This has happened to me a few times in the past, without realizing it.
I didn’t have my own goals, so I inherited them from others. I even went to university to study science… But never used my degree.
After years of study, it turned out that it wasn’t what I wanted out of life. So I couldn’t bring myself to do it any more.
It would have been better if I could have identified what was really important for me, before going off to school.
You have a chance to do that right now, so try to be as sure as you can with the information you have. Of course, there’s always a chance that you won’t know 100% until you make a choice and start working at it.
But if you don’t go, you’ll never know.
Create A Plan Of Attack & Eliminate Indecision
Next, you need to create a plan of attack for your practice. You need to know all the of the new skills you’ll need to learn, and you need to know the order to learn them in.
Then you can prioritize what is most important and urgent so you can focus your energy on one skill at a time.
If you have 10 goals and you try to accomplish all of them at the same time, you’ll be spreading yourself too thin, and you won’t be able to make much progress on any of them.
Multitasking incurs what psychologists call a ‘switching penalty’ whenever you switch between activities. It’s the time it takes to stop thinking about the first activity and re-focus on a new one. This wastes a surprising amount of time and focus that could be used to make progress.
When you focus on one goal at a time you can get many goals done more quickly.
Here’s how to structure you practice plan so you can improve as fast as possible.
1. Lay out a complete plan for practice first.
Start by writing down the milestones you’ll need to meet to go from where you are now, to where you want to be.
There’s often 4-6 milestones you’ll need to reach your ultimate goal.
This provides a direction for your practice.
If you want to learn to be a session guitarist, for example, you can start by learning everything a session guitarist needs to know and how well he needs to know it.
You can do a simple Google search for this, such as: “what does a rock session guitarist need to know?”
And you’ll find a list of skills such as:
2. Decide on the best activities to learn first
To avoid indecision when it comes time to practice, I weigh all my options based on the information at hand, and prove to myself, beyond a shadow of doubt, that I am taking the right course of action right now.
This allows me to work with 100% focus towards the activity that has the most potential.
After creating a milestones chart, there should be one or two things that you could possibly learn first on the journey toward your goal.
The next step is simply to choose one and break it down into the smallest possible pieces.
When it comes to learning guitar, the most basic thing you can learn first is the notes of the fretboard or the basic open chords.
So you choose one: say you want to learn the chords first.
Then, you break it down into the D, G and C chords.
Keep it as simple as possible.
3. Decide to sacrifice everything else until you learn the first thing.
If there are a few things that you could learn first, it’s important to make a firm decision to focus on one at a time so you don’t get distracted.
Focus on one at a time if you want to learn in the fastest, least frustrating way possible. Eliminate the burden of indecision for yourself.
And don’t worry, this decision is not forever. Every week you will re-evaluate and make new decisions with new information at hand. (Weekly planning only takes 10 minutes every week and it’s vitally important). I’ll show you exactly how to do that in the scheduling section.
It’s okay to change your mind, but it’s not OK to change your mind every few minutes or hours, or work continually distracted by ‘shiny objects’.
Trying to work without conviction and focus is a waste of time and energy.
Part 2: Learn To Love Practice
I’m sure you’ll agree that the hardest part of any practice routine is staying consistent on a day-to-day basis and staying motivated.
When people fall behind on their progress, they usually believe the problem lies with poor self-discipline or willpower. I thought this as well, for most of my life.
But the truth is that self-discipline and willpower can’t keep you consistent on a weekly basis. Nobody has strong enough self-discipline for that. Nobody.
Two other, more important factors are at work.
When you encounter somebody who appears to have good self-discipline, you have not found somebody with the ability to force themselves to do something they don’t like to do – you have found somebody who has excellent Habits and the ability to Love Practice.
In this section, you’ll learn the shift in perspective to enjoy any practice routine you commit to, and how to build daily habits so that you no longer have to debate with yourself to practice. Instead, it will just seem ‘automatic’.
Learning To Love Practice
The love of practice itself is probably the biggest factor when it comes to long-term success at any activity. After all, it’s easy to practice when there’s nothing else you’d rather do.
The best example that always comes to my mind when I think of the love of practice is Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the 1977 documentary about the 1975 Mr. Olympia and Mr Universe weight lifting competitions, Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger explains how much he loves weight lifting by a comparison.
He explains how the most satisfying feeling he gets at the gym is what body builders call ‘the pump’. It when you train a muscle and blood rushes in, and there’s a feeling of pressure like your skin is going to pop. He explains that, to him, the feeling of the pump is as good as having sex with a woman. And he explains how satisfying it is to be able to have this feeling whenever and wherever he’s practicing at the gym, at home, and at competitions.
Now, this is not what most people who train with weights think about at the gym. Most of the people I know who go to the gym are instead focused on how much their weigh or how much they can lift.
What if Arnold wasn’t any more gifted or skilled than the other competitors, but he had simply learned to love his weight lifting practice more than anybody else?
And what if instead of focusing on getting better all the time and worrying about your current level of skill, the real secret to success is learning to love the practice more than anybody else?
As I’m sure you could imagine, that would have many benefits. You’d enjoy the time you spend at practice instead of worrying, you’d look forward to your next practice routine, and as a result you’d probably get much better end results (indirectly).
What if there was a way to cultivate the love of practice? As it turns out, there is.
Though it’s not a new idea, I first learned a method to cultivate the love of practice from the story of Thomas Sterner. When he was learning to play golf, he had a similar experience to Schwarzenegger.
He noticed that his golf classmates were always worried about the state of their swing, they did nothing but worry during practice sessions, and when they couldn’t bring themselves to practice consistently, they had extra anxiety that they were falling behind because they weren’t practicing!
Sterner had a drastically different mindset about about practice, and therefore a drastically different experience. He looked at practice as a diversion. He felt like he needed it after work.
He felt that practice was a place where he didn’t have to think about anything else. He didn’t have to be anywhere else but the present moment when he was at practice.
Why the drastic difference in mindset?
Sterner attributes the difference in his mindset to 2 core principles.
His classmates were missing the proper mechanics of practice. This is essentially knowing the dynamics of practice – the dynamics of learning, as a human being. When you know this, you know what to expect during practice. When you know how practice works, you can have patience with yourself, as well as peace of mind, and practice becomes stress-free and efficient. Without knowing what to expect during practice and how to overcome practice obstacles, you become frustrated at the slightest setback and you begin to associate practice with anxiety.
His classmates were focusing on their ultimate goals during practice, instead of the practice itself. Things like winning a golf tournament or going to the Masters. Though you need ultimate goals to steer your practice in the right direction, it is dangerous to keep them on your mind during practice. When you do, you can’t help but judge yourself constantly, and wonder why you haven’t achieved your goals yet. This is de-motivating and it causes you to lose focus. You start thinking, ‘maybe I should be doing something I’m good at…’ Or ‘maybe ‘I’m just not cut out for this if I haven’t accomplished my goals already…’. This line of thinking is damaging to your enjoyment of the practice as well as your long-term goals.
The alternative is that the goal is practice itself. When the primary goal is simply the practice, you allow yourself to focus on the present moment and to enjoy the process of learning.
So, how do we learn the dynamics of practice, and how do we learn to love practice? These two things are intertwined, and there are a number of steps you can take to achieve both of them.
As it turns out, it’s simply a matter of where your attention is focused during practice sessions. There are 8 keys that will help you focus your attention to the right place.
The 8 Keys To Love Practice
1. The first step is simply to give up your attachment to the ultimate goal you want.
Speaking from personal experience, this will not be easy. You’ll continue to judge yourself against your idea of the ‘ideal’ skill level you’d like to have. But with a bit of conscious effort you’ll be able to do it.
Instead of focusing on your end goal, focus on what you enjoy about the process of the activity. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger loves the process of ‘the pump’.
In the first step, I asked you to separate the Process Rewards and Ultimate Rewards of your practice. The Process Rewards are the things you should focus on during the practice. You can enjoy these things about the practice itself.
The Ultimate Rewards are things that steer the planning stage of your practice. They can be very motivating and useful because they force you to aim higher than you normally would, but they should be forgotten during the practice itself.
To let go of Ultimate Rewards, focus on the Process Rewards.
2. While you’re practicing, make the process the goal. Let go of results. Focus only on your intent and process for the practice session.
What can you enjoy about the process of your practice?
Once you start to focus on the Process Rewards during practice, there’s no longer any pressure to be better than you already are. There’s only love of the practice.
Give in to what you are doing in the moment. Stop judging yourself and pressuring yourself.
As you practice, try to discover more things you can love about the process. What sensations are particularly fulfilling about the movements and thoughts you experience while you practice?
When we were children, we had no concept of an end goal. We merely absorbed information from our environment out of necessity. This is the most enjoyable way to learn, and the fastest way to learn.
As adults, we can learn as fast as children once again if we let go of worry and judgement, and use the knowledge we’ve gained to learn faster, instead of allowing it to trap us.
3. Connecting the process with instant gratification. Give yourself extra reasons to love the process.
In addition to focusing on the process and enjoying the sensations of practice as fully as possible, you can also introduce artificial rewards into the process.
One way to do this is to incorporate food-based rewards. Say you complete 4 focused work periods during each of your practice sessions. When you complete one work period, you might reward yourself with a square of dark chocolate.
Or maybe you can make yourself a delicious fruit & protein smoothie to reward yourself after a hard workout.
Or maybe your ritual could be a cold beer at the end of a long day.
Don’t just do this every once and a while. Plan it as part of the ritual, and do it every time to create positive associations with practice.
4. Always have an intention with each practice session.
Set a goal for each session. Keep in mind that this goal must be under your direct control.
When you’re practicing basketball shots, for example, a bad choice for a goal would be trying to make as many free throws as you can in 30 seconds. Eventually, you’ll reach a ceiling, and you won’t be able to progress any further. Then you’ll start comparing yourself to other players who have played the same game, or you’ll have an off-day where you can’t seem to make many shots. That’s very demotivating. You’re setting yourself up for failure.
There are too many variables that go into the ability to make a free throw. Your current skill is not something you can control at your practice sessions.
A good example for a practice intention is a plan for the exercises you’re going to do. You can’t control how many shots you can make in 30 seconds, but you can control the exercises you perform as well as the focus you perform them with.
Break down the skill that you’re trying to learn into the smallest possible bits. (Keep in mind I don’t play basketball and I’m just providing this as an example.)
The free throw might be broken down into 3 main movements: grip position on the ball (hand position & control), arm movement and body movement.
You can potentially set up a practice sessions to perfect each of these movements. If you break down each movement carefully, you’ll be able to see some kind of small improvement during each practice session.
You can also aim to make a certain amount of free throws in one day.
As you become more advanced and you start to know your free throw percentage, you can also set ‘volume goals’. You could set a goal that you want to make 100 free throws in one day. Just be sure you can make your goal before the day is over, but otherwise don’t worry about how long it takes you. It could take you an hour, or it could take you three, but you’ll improve with each throw you make.
5. Become comfortable with the Plateau.
Though it can be exciting to make big leaps in skill, the truth is that most of the time, progress will not be noticeable. Or you’ll even be sliding backward. This is called the ‘plateau’.
It’s where you continue to practice, but you can’t seem to make improvement. It happens to everybody who is trying to learn a new skill.
The reason it happens is because when we’re trying to get to the next milestone toward mastery of a skill, there are usually several sub-skills that are required before you can make the progression.
When it comes to the basketball example, all 3 sub-skills of the free throw – hand grip, arm movement and body movement – all must be up to par before you’re able to increase your free-throw percentage. You need to learn all 3 to a higher skill level before you can make a better free-throw… Therefore, it will appear that you are making no progress before all 3 are improved!
So how do you continue with your practice routine if you’re not sure you’re making progress?
Well, if you have taken professional advice and your practice routine makes sense, then you can stick to it and be confident that results will come once your skill level improves for each of the sub-skills.
A level of interest and faith in your own practice routine is required if you want to get better at anything. The Reason Why and the plan you create are important for this reason, and that’s why I spent so much time showing you how to get them right.
Once you have your plan, simply break down the sub-skills and practice them one by one so you can see improvement on a micro-level.
However, the plateau can also be a sign that something needs to change in your routine. If you no longer see improvement for a long time, it could mean that you’re missing a component that you should be practicing. For example, if you were to work on your hand grip and arm movement but neglect your body movement, you might not be able to make any progress.
The plateau is common in strength training. There are several kinds of plateaus but a common one occurs when you can’t seem to increase the amount of weight you can lift for a particular exercise. It can mean that your body has adapted to the exercise and your muscles are under-stimulated with the weight you’re trying to lift.
At the same time, it’s impossible to lift more because the surrounding muscles are not strong enough to support the weight. So you need to find another exercise to strengthen the same muscle set in a different way, so the supporting muscles can be strengthened and you can overcome the plateau. The solution is to regularly rotate exercises for strengthening the same muscle groups.
In this case, you can think of every muscle as a separate ‘skill’ you’re building, in order to push more weight.
In order to make progress consistently and be comfortable with the plateau, you must
- Create a good plan you can have faith in (the help of a professional is necessary for many types of practice and could shave years off the learning curve)
- Have a solid Reason Why,
- Simply know that the plateau is a natural part of the learning curve.
- Instead of focusing on your current level of progress, focus on the enjoyment of the activity itself and the process of practice.
7. Remind yourself what will make you feel satisfied at the end of the day
My routine for prioritizing at the start of the day and getting into ‘work mode’ has changed a lot over the past few years. Right now, there are two ideas that I focus on that consistently get me to work and allow me to practice without much resistance.
There could be useful to you if you’re trying to motivate yourself to do things that are difficult.
Here are the two ideas:
1. What could I do today that will make me feel satisfied at the end of today (even if I have to go through pain or if I have to sacrifice pleasure)?
2. What can I focus on right now that will allow me to enjoy practice more?
The first idea is a goal & mindset for the planning stage of your day, and the second is a useful mindset for each moment.
When you keep these two ideas on your mind, it leads to:
- Healthier activities (suspending immediate gratification in pursuit of long-term goals)
- More satisfaction / reward from activities that are good for you
- Better ideas for creating a fulfilling day
- Being comfortable with ‘the grind’ toward success.
At the start of the day I ask myself these questions and I figure out what I can fit into this day so that I feel like I’ve had an exciting, fulfilling day. For me, it usually turns out to be a day with lots of exercise, work, and time with people I love.
When I feel totally ‘spent’ at the end of the day, that’s when I know I’ve done my best work. When I still feel like I have lots of energy at the end of the day, I know I could have spent my day better.
When it comes to writing, I make sure that I focus on what will give me continual motivation and satisfaction. I focus on my level of focus during 6-12 writing periods of 30 minutes each and my word count.
Focus and word count is under my control each day. Writing for 6-12 work periods is also under my control.
And the more I’ve changed my perspective on work to concentrating on my ‘focus time’, the less minor frustrations matter if something goes wrong. As a result, I have a better experience at work, the quality of my work has gone up, and the quantity has gone up. And I’m more comfortable with grinding toward success. I don’t worry about the pleasure I could be missing out on.
The truth is focus is really the only thing I can control during each work period.
If I pay attention to focus, then I can look back on the day and say ‘I did the best I could with the information I had’, and I can be satisfied with my work every day.
8. Remain in the moment. Look out for worries of the future or past and judgment about your current ability.
A great way to do this is by using what Sterner called Do, Observe, Correct (DOC) to remain objective about the process of practice.
While talking to a coach for the U.S. Olympic archery team, he learned that the biggest problem the US competitors had was they focused too much on their scores. At that time, Asian teams dominated the sport. As it turns out, there was a drastic difference in mindset between the US and Asian competitors. The Asian teams tended to focus more on the process of improvement. Sterner noted, “For them, the desired goal was a natural result of prioritizing the proper technique of drawing the bow.” Emotion and judgement was suspended until after the practice. The results, and current skill level was ignored for the moment in favor of focus on improvement.
As a result of this approach, they enjoyed the process of improvement more than competitors, and improved faster. Try it for yourself.
Those 8 steps should go a long way to allowing you the freedom to enjoy the process of learning, instead of obsessing about end goals.
Just keep in mind that your mindset might not change overnight. You’ll still find yourself focusing on the end goal sometimes. That’s what you’ve been taught to focus on for your entire life, after all. It’s not an easy habit to break.
But with time, patience, a worthy activity (that you have solid reasons to practice), and the change in mindset I’ve just shown you, you’ll start to let go of the pressure and anxiety surrounding practice, and you’ll give yourself over to the moment.
It’s inevitable when you start practicing like this and you stick to this sort of perspective.
The Simple Dynamics of Practice
It’s common to hear ‘practice makes perfect’, but it’s more accurate that ‘practice makes permanent’.
Practice doesn’t always make you better. If you’re practicing without focus or without correct form, you risk installing bad habits that hurt your performance. You perform like you practice, so it’s important to get it right from the start.
Luckily, it’s easy to figure out what you need to practice and whether or not you’re practicing correctly just by doing a bit of research (or getting expert help) and paying close attention to what you’re doing.
The best way to do that is to practice in a way that forces you to stay in the process of practice, rather than practicing in a way that constantly tests your current ability and forces you to judge yourself.
Also, it’s important to practice in a way where it’s easy to have good form. For example – practicing your golf swing. As a beginner, going through the whole swing may be unmanageable. There are too many subtle body movements that need to be perfected in order to obtain a consistent swing. To practice as perfectly as possible, you need to start small and slow… practice only the first few inches of your backswing to start… make that perfect. That will be more manageable. Then, move on to the next part and make that perfect… and on and on.
There are 3 Keys that guide the dynamics of practice. Take these into your practice sessions with you, and you’ll have more successful and satisfying practice sessions from now on.
1. Constant Focus.
Focus is the first and most important component of practice. All of your results come from your ability to focus. And the more you focus during each practice session, the faster results will come.
Luckily, focus can be managed and improved over time. The more often you put yourself into a zone of focus, the easier it will become.
If you have trouble with focus, it’s helpful to look at it from the opposite perspective – removing all distractions. Set up your practice space so there are minimal distractions. Turn off your phone, and tell yourself any problems on your mind can wait until later. Decide what you’ll need to sacrifice in pursuit of your goals, and you’ll experience less mental noise during your practice.
2. Break each skill down relentlessly, into tiny chunks that almost insult your intelligence.
The second key is to keep each section of practice really tiny. Break your practice session down into almost insultingly-small chunks that are small and short. Again, if the section you choose turns out to be unmanageable, break it into a smaller piece. If you’re practicing a golf swing, start with just your backswing. Make it exactly how you need it to be, then move on afterward.
Slow down the activity so that you can work at a pace that allows you to keep absolute focus on the activity. You should be able to observe every detail of what you’re doing. If something goes by too fast, or there’s too much information to get good feedback, you’re probably practicing too quickly or the component you’re practicing is too big.
You may surprise yourself that by purposefully going slowly, you actually make more progress, improve faster, and get things done faster. Try it for yourself when you’re practicing an activity, or even when you’re cleaning the house, doing the dishes, or doing a task at work.
It works because we’re usually so focused on the end result, we lose focus and attention to important details that could improve the way we do an activity. We get into the habit of performing an activity in a certain way – a way that works ‘well enough’. Then we do it automatically, without thinking of the process or how we can improve. This is a natural habit that saves energy.
But when you slow down and focus on the process, I guarantee you’ll start to notice ways you can do it better and more efficiently right away.
More importantly, you’ll also enjoy the activity more. Something about focusing attention is very satisfying. You’re no longer just going through the motions, but living in the moment.
And all it takes is breaking down your activities into smaller chunks, and slowing down so that you can truly pay attention to what you’re doing.
3. Use Problem-Solving To Escape Frustration
When you run into problems, it is important not to get frustrated and judge yourself. It’s easy to make that mistake, but it takes you out of the moment, and stops you from improving.
A better alternative is to jump straight into the problem-solving model by going through these 6 simple steps:
Focus Using the 6-Step Problem-Solving Model
- Define the problem (What result did i just get?)
- What’s causing the problem?
- Hypothesize solutions to the problem.
- Test possible solutions to the problem.
- Use the best solution.
- Make sure you’re implementing the new solution correctly. Is it working consistently? If it is not working consistently, that means you must break down the problem into smaller problems. Then go back to step 3 & hypothesize possible solutions to each smaller problem.
The next time you run into a problem, go through these steps. It’s hard to remember the steps at first, but soon enough it becomes second nature.
And for some activities, the Problem-Solving model can be used nearly the entire time. Archery, for example, is a constant Do-Observe-Correct cycle. It’s almost always about problem solving. Writing, on the other hand, is more about focus and constantly breaking your thoughts down into smaller chunks.
The Power Of Habits
The next step is to turn your practice routines into Habit, so that you don’t have to fight yourself to start practice.
The power of habit is built-in to the human brain. The general theory behind why we form habits, on an evolutionary level, is that the more we repeat an activity, the more likely it is that it is helping us to stay alive & healthy. Therefore, automating these tasks & removing debate from the equation saves energy and provides us with a task that is probably helpful.
A Duke University study in 2006 found that up to 40% of all the activities we perform each day are habitual. That is, they are not due to conscious decisions. We simply do them because that’s what we normally do.
Unfortunately, this evolutionary mechanism does not discriminate between good habits and bad habits. The more we repeat something, the more likely we are to do it in the future, whether it is good or bad.
But by paying attention to your habits, you can make sure that you’re constantly replacing bad habits with good habits, and automating the activities that are truly fulfilling and profitable.
Practice can be one of the the most enjoyable things in life when we finally allow ourselves to be immersed in the activity. So here’s how you can you turn your practice routine into habit?
The most effective way to form a habit is to schedule practice sessions in advance, schedule supporting habits, use accountability to make sure you stay on track, and record and review your progress (I’ll go through these points one by one).
After you do that, the only thing left is to remember to have patience. This is common advice, but when forming habits it is a very important point to drive home. You need to have patience to allow the power of habit to start working. More about that in a moment.
To start, you need a method to schedule and iterate your habits. The simplest method I’ve found to shape new habits is the PARR method of forming habits developed by Martin Grunburg.
PARR stands are Plan, Act, Record and Review. Here’s how to apply the PARR method to turn your practice sessions into habits.
Start by planning your practice session out in detail. Consult coaches and books to get an idea of what you need to practice, and then break every component skill down. After you know what you’ll practice, simply schedule the time you’re going to invest in your new activity. Plan out your practice sessions for a typical week.
Your day is probably already filled with activities, and it might be hard to fit in a new practice routine. If you constantly run out of time to practice during the day, specify what you’re going to sacrifice. Maybe an hour of watching TV could be time spent practicing.
The next step is simply to do the activity when you intended to do it. (By the way, getting into the habit of ‘doing what you intend’ is another important habit to develop. The more you plan something and then execute it at the correct time, the more you’ll be able to do that in the future, and the less you’ll procrastinate. If you plan practice sessions and then skip them, you’re more likely to put off other important things in the future, as well. Just something to keep in mind).
Record what you did during the practice session. What did you improve? Did you spend the practice session struggling?
What was your level of focus, on a scale of 1-10? Were you focused on breaking down the activity and practicing effectively, or were you distracted, or frustrated with yourself?
Review + Iterate
There are 2 types of review. In-Practice Review, and After Practice Review. During practice, there is the Do-Observe-Correct type of review, where you problem-solve your form. Then there is the second type of review, which comes after practice.
During this After Practice review period, go over what you recorded for each of your sessions during the past week. What patterns do you notice?
The most important factors you should analyze was your level of focus during each practice session and your level of enjoyment. Ask yourself what might be causing any problems, and try to experiment with solutions.
For example, maybe your practice session is scheduled for 3pm, and your energy is very low and you can’t focus. You think the problem might be that at 3pm your energy level dips, right after lunch. So you try to solve the problem by moving your practice session to 5pm, and taking a 20 minute nap at 3pm instead.
You can also assess what other types of accountability you can introduce or things that might make it easier to start your practice routine every day, such as preparing any gear you need beforehand so it’s easy to access.
Schedule Supporting Habits
The next step is to schedule supporting habits. These are smaller habits that support your practice routine.
Is there something in my lifestyle that gets in the way of my practice routine?
Is there some way I can take care of this barrier at a time before my routine?
What do others typically do to prepare for this type of practice?
Examples of supporting habits:
- An ‘onramp’ ritual to your practice routine, such as lighting candles and performing breathing exercises before meditation, playing a particular song you like before practicing piano, or a set of certain stretches and warm up exercises before working out.
- Mixing a batch of protein smoothie every morning so you can have a drink before and after you workout with no extra effort.
- Getting your running shoes and clothes ready at the front door every night so it’s easy to go for a run in the morning
- Arranging your workspace in a certain way every night so you don’t have to worry about it when you start work in the morning.
Supporting habits are things that can be done surrounding your practice routine that will make it easier to start and continue your routine. Of course, each supporting habit will depend on your lifestyle and the practice routine you want to support, so you’ll have to develop your own.
Rituals are especially important because they can get you into the right mindset for practice. They are popular among professional athletes for a good reason.
Accountability is an important factor when first creating habits because it’s easy to lose motivation for practice in the beginning. It’s natural for everybody to experience setbacks. Having some kind of accountability in place to keep you on track will help to make sure you stick to your practice routine throughout those times of low motivation so that you maintain your practice habit, instead of falling out of the habit.
Here are some quick tips to implement accountability into your practice. Use as many as possible so you have more reasons to continue with your practice routine.
- Post your progress to social media or a message board in your house where everybody can see.
- Tell all your friends and family about your new practice routine commitment.
- Send somebody you respect a weekly email about your progress.
- Ask a friend to call and email you about your practice routine to make sure you’re staying on track. Give your friend permission to publicly embarrass you if you miss a few practice routines.
- Bet money that you’ll stay on track. You can use the online app Beeminder.com, which charges you if you don’t stick to the goals you set.
- Use a Habit-forming app to keep track of when you performed your full routine and when you didn’t. (HabitRPG.com and HabitBull (Android & Apple App) are great apps I’ve used in the past).
- Hire a personal coach to keep you on track.
If you use these accountability options, you’ll be less likely to stop practicing in the beginning. Of course, if you apply the principles of good practice, you should learn to love the process of practice. At that point, external accountability won’t be required anymore. Eventually you’ll be able to rely on intrinsic motivation toward the practice itself. In the beginning, however, accountability is helpful.
Patience & Trusting The Power Of Habit
Even if you fail to stick to your habit during the first few weeks, just know that if you try again the next day, you’ll be more likely to want to practice the day after that. And if you don’t practice at all one day, you’ll be less likely to practice the next day. Not more likely. There are no days in your life that exist in isolation – each one affects the next.
After a vacation, your mind wanders because it’s been taken out of the habit. It’s gotten used to laziness and pursuit of immediate pleasure.
If you don’t feel like practicing, or if you run out of time for practice one day, simply put in a short 5-10 minute practice routine. That’s enough to keep building your habit and to prevent backslide. After you do that, schedule a full routine for the next day.
If you completely fall out of your habit for a few days, or if you go on vacation and get out of the habit, simply start to build up slowly again. Start with a 5-15 minute routine. Stay comfortable. Then the day after, build back up to 30 minutes, 1 hr, 2 hrs, gradually. Don’t judge yourself or become disappointed. Have patience with yourself and slowly re-focus your attention.
How Long Does It Take To Develop A Habit?
You might be asking how long it’s going to take before your practice session feels ‘automatic’. Unfortunately, there’s no certain answer. Studies have shown that habits take anywhere from 21-250+ days to form. It appears that it depends on the person, and the habit (and the structure of the study).
The only thing you need to keep in mind is that the first week is the hardest. If you can make it past the first few weeks and are still practicing consistently, you’ll be able to take the habit as far as you like. And the more times you repeat an activity, the more likely you’ll want to repeat it in the future.
If you are struggling to form your habits keep these 2 things in mind:
1. Make sure you have the right mindset for practice so that it’s enjoyable, and break down practice so you feel constant progress
2. Remember it will only get easier. If you fail, simply start small, and build your habit up again. Judgement doesn’t help.
Part 3: The Self-Discipline Toolbox
Over the past few years I’ve developed what I call a self-discipline ‘skill toolbox’ that consistently helps me to overcome obstacles to practice and to ‘get in the right mood’ to keep practicing. I learned them from various sources. Maybe you’ll recognize some of them, and maybe some will be completely new to you.
They are small techniques and mindset shifts that can help to keep you on track with your practice, no matter what life throws in your way.
Each of these 8 skills has been very helpful to me, so in this section, I’m going to briefly outline them so they can help you as well.
1. Overcome Fear
Maybe there are fears holding you back in your practice routine:
“What if they don’t like me anymore if I can’t perform?”
“What if I embarrass myself in front of everybody?”
“What if it turns out I can’t improve at this skill?”
“What if I don’t do well during the performance, or during the test?”
“What if I fail and all of this was a waste of time?”
Fear is a common part of everybody’s experience. If you use fears to motivate you to action and clear thinking, then fear can be a good thing. But for most people, fears can be paralyzing because they cause distracted thinking.
You see, our fear system is outdated. We react too strongly to things that aren’t very important. For example, embarrassment used to be a big deal when we lived in tribes. If your tiny tribe didn’t like you, you had very little chance of reproducing. But today we live in cities, so there are always millions of new people to meet.
So how can you stop fears from freezing you so that you can move ahead with your practice?
The simple way to keep progressing despite fear is to re-frame what the fear means to you.
You can’t control whether or not you have a fear in the moment. But you can teach yourself a new way to react to a fear, and if you’re successful, the fear is less likely to be paralyzing next time.
Now, somebody might have told you to ‘face your fears’ if you want to get rid of them. Facing your fears works by re-framing your fears – once you confront them and see that they’re irrational, you look at the situation in a different way. The problem with this method is that it can also backfire.
If somebody confronts their fear of swimming by jumping into a deep lake, but can’t swim well and needs to be rescued, they’ll probably decide that their fear was justified and no re-framing will take place. If you face your fear of public speaking by making a speech and you freeze, that will only reinforce the fear as well.
There’s a better way to overcome fears and that’s to visualize facing them. That way, you control the situation in your mind, but you’re still giving yourself the experience of re-framing (your fear is all in your mind, anyway).
Visualize a situation where you might be afraid, such as a fear of performing on piano in front of an audience. You’ll need to make it as real as possible. Try to imagine every detail of the experience.
Visualize yourself coming coming out onto the stage and imagine how scared you are. But advance anyway. Imagine a silent crowd. Start playing something you know, and focus on what you’re playing. Show yourself that it isn’t such a big deal and that you are confident in your ability.
When you do this, you’re deciding how you’re going to react when you get into the real situation:
When I have fear X, I’ll instead focus on Y.
The effectiveness depends on how well you visualize it, so make sure that it’s as real as possible.
Keep in mind that it will take time to fix any fear. You may need to repeat this process several times and continually expose yourself to your fear more and more. It won’t happen overnight, but by applying yourself to the problem, you can make your fears work in your favor.
2. Kaizen Method to Forming Habits
This method is helpful when you’re just starting a new practice, or you’re been away from your practice routine for a while and you need to start up again.
Kaizen is a process of consistent, tiny improvements that results in massive changes over time. When you make small changes, you can quickly find out if they work or not with little or no risk (as opposed to making big, risky changes).
Toyota used a system of Kaizen within it’s company to revolutionize and dominate the automotive industry.
And you can use this same concept to form habits. It allows you to incrementally improve your habits without the risk of burn out.
Here’s how to do it:
Say you’re starting to learn how to play the violin. It’s going to take a lot of practice to get to a level where you can play your first song, and because of that, most of the first practice sessions are not going to be easy. You probably won’t be able to jump in and start playing 3 hrs of violin every day. If you force yourself to practice for hours every day, you’ll probably learn to hate it and you won’t continue.
So you can use the Kaizen method to form a new practice routine and make sure that you continue over the long term.
Start by getting your instrument ready for a practice routine and figuring out what you need to practice. (You may want to establish a ‘ritual’ before every practice routine that is exactly the same every time, by the way).
Then set a timer for 5 minutes. You only need to practice for 5 minutes to start. That’s easy to do, right? After the 5 minutes are up, you can continue for as long as you like, or you can put everything away again, even if it takes longer than the practice session itself.
At this point, you’re conditioning yourself to start the activity successfully. Having reached your goal, let yourself feel good about it. The next day, do the same thing. Go longer only if you feel like going longer. 5 minutes per day is all it takes. Eventually, you’ll start noticing that you want to keep going longer consistently. After 3 or 4 days in a row going longer than 5 minutes, you can increase the 5 minute minimum to 10 or 20 minutes.
You can even use Kaizen with even smaller improvements in extreme situations. Say you want to start a new workout routine, but you can’t even get yourself to the gym.
You can start the first day by packing your gym bag and heading out to the car. But you can go back in the house if you don’t feel like going to the gym. The next day, you can drive to the gym, but if you don’t feel like going in, you don’t have to. The next day, you can start doing your first exercise, but you don’t have to do more than 1 set.
I know this sounds ridiculous. But in some cases, it’s necessary. I totally understand how procrastination and fear can hold you back from what you should be doing.
It’s really just an extreme version of how any passion is cultivated. Most of the people who go to the gym consistently every day didn’t start out that way. They had positive experiences with lifting weights when they were younger, so they gradually became inclined to do it more and more.
Kaizen allows you to have continuous positive experiences with practice, because you’re never forcing yourself to do anything you don’t want to do. You’re merely encouraging yourself and teaching yourself. Your subconscious mind needs to be taught this way, because we evolved to preserve as much energy as possible, and it naturally doesn’t want to risk any energy it’s not in the habit of expending.
Try it for yourself. I think you’ll be surprised how well it can work.
3. Lengthen time between stimulus and response.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Victor Frankl
It’s easy to be reactionary habit when we experience aversive emotions:
- When practice is becoming boring and you’d rather watch TV.
- When you’re frustrated you can’t do something you thought you could do.
- When an opponent beats you.
- When you make a mistake and didn’t meet a goal you set.
You might respond rashly by:
- Binge-watching your favorite TV series again.
- Quitting and grabbing a beer instead of practicing.
- Allowing yourself to become stressed, frustrated and distracted.
- Giving up and finding something else to do.
But by having a little patience, and refocusing on your goal whenever something challenging comes, you can make better decisions, like these:
- Schedule time to watch TV later, and set a timer to practice for the next 15 minutes without interruptions.
- Taking a breath and breaking down the skill into tiny parts that are doable.
- Keeping your head, analyze what you did wrong and what your opponent did right (learn from your opponent), and decide what you’d do next time.
- Re-focusing on the goal and figuring out what the new next step is to achieving it.
I’d go so far to say that the time between an event and your response is the most critical time in your life. If you ignore this time and remain reactionary, you’ll make the same mistakes over and over. But if you take a moment to make the better decision, you slowly begin to correct your mistakes, one by one.
The only way to lengthen the time between stimulus and response is to remind yourself to do it every day. Visualize yourself relaxing and making a clear-headed decision during your practice routine, and you’ll remember to remain patient when the critical moment comes.
6. Accept Pain & Expect Mistakes (They are your friends in improvement)
From one of the most legendary coaches in the history of professional sports, John Wooden: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”
And in any accomplishment, there is always pain. You don’t see many marathon runners crossing the finish line with happy, relaxed faces, do you? Weight lifters don’t seem comfortable when they’re lifting heavy weights, do they? All accomplishments require some kind of payment.
Like the Arnold Schwarzenegger example, re-wiring your mind to accept some types of pain appears to be an important part of success.
In fact, pain and mistakes can become a metric of success. The more mistakes you recover from, the more likely you are to be successful.
Mistakes and obstacles are a gateway to improvement. The more often you overcome them, the more likely you are to be successful.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you TRY to make mistakes. Using the information you have, try to prevent them as much as possible. I’m only suggesting that mistakes are not a sign of weakness. The best way to progress is to proceed without fear, try to solve any mistakes you make enthusiastically, and remember not to make the same mistake twice.
And I’m not suggesting you go out and seek pain. If you want to accomplish anything, however, you need to become comfortable with the pain or sacrifice required to achieve it.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has re-wired his mind to accept, and even enjoy, the pain of what bodybuilders call ‘the pump’. And ‘the pump’ is a sign that you’re weight training correctly. You’ve broken down your muscles and blood is rushing in to repair and rebuild them. Most people who do not lift weights would find that the sweat and exertion involved to achieve the pump is very uncomfortable… And that’s is what makes them unsuccessful at weight lifting.
Never be afraid to run into obstacles in your practice. When you encounter an obstacle, that’s an opportunity to improve.
4. Reframe failures and mistakes as learning experiences and plan what you’ll do differently
Re-frame the mistakes you make as a learning experience, and always plan to do something differently next time. Figure out what you should have done in the situation and decide what you’ll do when you encounter the same problem next time.
If you get stressed out when you put a golf shot into the woods, re-frame that experience as a mistake you can learn from. Focus on how to made the shot, and the feeling of the shot, and imagine what you need to change.
This won’t be automatic right away, however. It may take a few games of golf, but eventually you’ll train your mind to treat each shot as a learning experience, instead of an event or a ‘test’ that judges your talent.
7. The Growth vs Fixed Mindset (& the ‘Talent’ Myth)
A common myth that stops people from practicing and going after their dreams is the myth of ‘talent’.
A young pianist sees others in his class who are at a much higher skill level than himself… So he loses confidence and decides that it isn’t the right instrument for him.
A room of golfers watch Tiger Woods on TV and decide that they could never have that kind of talent… So they decide to be content to be mediocre for the rest of their golf careers.
But the pianist didn’t know that the others in his class had already been playing for 2 years. And the room of golfers weren’t there to watch see the 3hr+ practice sessions Tiger put himself through every day.
Even one of the most famous examples of childhood ‘prodigy’, Mozart, was hiding something… Mozart’s father was an accomplished teacher and composer in his own right, and it’s estimated that he gave his son more than 10,000 hours of dedicated practice before he became a teenager. That’s about 3 hours per day for 10 straight years.
Talent is the ability to enter into a new skill with some level of aptitude before much practice. But the research indicates that the level of dedication and interest in a subject is more important in the long run. If you can put in more effort, you’ll pull out ahead, eventually.
That’s where the Fixed and Growth mindsets come in. They were first outlined in the research of Dr. Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
When you believe that talent is the source of somebody’s accomplishments, you’re operating under a Fixed mindset. That’s the belief that if somebody else’s skill is higher than your own, they must be more ‘gifted’, and there is no way you can become better through practice. People in the Fixed mindset tend to procrastinate more often, are indecisive, and rarely improve themselves. They have high expectations for their practice sessions, and when they can’t do something they thought they could do, they become frustrated and quit. In this case, the myth of talent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The growth mindset is the belief you can improve drastically with practice. It’s the belief that if you practice for 3-4 hours per day for the next 10 years with expert help, you could potentially become as ‘talented’ as Mozart. People in the growth mindset tend to procrastinate less because they know that the effort they put in is all that counts. They don’t have such high expectations for their practice sessions… They only seek to improve a little bit.
Now that you know the definitions, you can look out for them in your own thinking.
Whenever you feel demotivated by your current level of skill or you start to compare yourself to somebody else, simply remember that you haven’t seen their previous experience. Their skill level is just the tip of the iceberg.
Effort & focus are the only things you need to worry about when you get to practice, and they are the only things that will help you to improve.
8. How To Regulate Focus
When it comes to practice and performance there are two opposing problems. During practice, you need to keep motivated during long, relatively boring practice routines. During performance, you need to deal with high pressure and over simulation.
Although both problems have different causes, they have the same effect. They cause you to lose focus on what you should be focusing on.
During long, repetitive practice routines you might find yourself looking for distractions. During a performance, distractions are forcing themselves on you.
To stay focused, you need a balance between stimulation and relaxation. So how do you stay in the zone of focus during practice and performance?
In this section I’ll provide a list of techniques taken from athlete performance coaching which could help you to stay focused on what you should be paying attention to.
Techniques To Increase Stimulation During Boring Practice Routines
It’s often easy to look for distractions when you are bored of your routine, if you are frustrated and aren’t sure if you’re improving, or if you just don’t feel like practicing one day.
The ‘5 minute change-up’. At regular intervals during your practice routine, say every 15 or 30 minutes, take breaks from what you are doing to do something completely different. If your practice routine is sedentary, say practicing guitar, take a 5 minute break to do pushups, sit ups, or go for a quick run. This will help to keep your stimulation in the ‘zone of focus’. Don’t make the mistake of lying down to take a rest if your practice routine is sedentary. That might put you to sleep. If your practice routine is heavy exercise, you’ll want to do the opposite. Completely relax for 5 minutes. Lay down and stop thinking for 5 minutes. Set a timer if necessary, to make sure you get back up.
Play upbeat music during practice. Music helps us to keep moving and takes our mind off of pain. Songs with 120-140 beats per minute is optimal for endurance exercise, but you should experiment to see what works for you and your practice routine.
Go for a refreshing, rewarding drink during rest periods. Try cold water with lemon or cucumber if your practice routines are exercise-intensive. If your practice routines are sedentary, you might want to try a warm beverage. Again, the key is to maintain the correct level of stimulation so your focus is high.
Eat a healthy snack or high energy smoothie during break periods. If you forget to eat or drink during a practice routine, it’s easy to lose energy and focus. Forgetting to drink and eat is more common for sedentary activities because you’re not expecting to run out of energy, but it’s just as important.
Use the Parkinson Effect to maintain focus. The Parkinson Effect states that the time you give yourself to finish a particular activity usually takes up the entire period given. For example, if I want to write a 500 word article and I give myself 5 hours to do it, I’ll usually find a way to take the entire period.
I’ll do lots of research, I’ll spend time editing all my sentences to make them perfect, and spend lots of time thinking and twiddling my thumbs. If I only give myself 45 minutes to create a 500 word article (which is totally doable), I’ll do some quick, efficient research, I’ll create an outline and and I’ll write the draft with no editing. I’ll edit after I’m done and polish it up in the last 5 minutes.
Funny thing is, the article will probably have about the same quality, even though I took all day with the first one. For the second article, the urgency of the time limit forces me to focus and pay attention to the right things… I knew exactly what I needed to write… And my writing was probably more emotional, clean and effective (i.e. Better) due to better focus on my goal.
Of course, if I only gave myself 10 minutes for this article, the quality would be worse. There is always a limit where quality comes down. But the point is it’s often shorter than we think. To use the Parkinson Effect for more focused practice periods, set a goal for every practice period and time yourself. If you found you had lots of time left over, tighten up the limit next time to increase your focus.
When you’ve changed the limit a few times and you find a good ‘zone of focus’, you’ll know it. Try to stick with this goal each time you practice and you’ll have more focused and deliberate practice periods.
Gamification of the process. Lastly, a great idea is to turn your practice into a game whenever you can. Give your practice routine an ultimate goal where you can win. In basketball, you can practice making shots with a game like HORSE.
Or you can invent a game: maybe you where you advance by making as many shots in a row from further and further out, and you win by making a shot from half court. When you miss a shot, you start over. Constant advancement and point scoring keeps your mind off the struggle of the game. Reward yourself when you win at your game (with food, for example).
Techniques To Reduce Stimulation In High Pressure Situations:
The second challenge is to maintain focus during performance situations. The best way to maintain composure during performance is to practice well and be confident in your abilities, but these techniques will help if there is a lot of pressure and distractions to cope with.
Play relaxing music that doesn’t have words during practice. Classical, solo instrumental, smooth jazz works well. Another option is to play happy music, with or without words, just before a performance. A 2008 study found that basketball players who regularly ‘choked’ under high pressure conditions benefitted from playing happy music right before a performance or test because it took their mind off worries that could hurt their play.
Use noise cancelling headphones to filter out distracting background noise.
Use a pleasantly scented candle to relax before a test.
Regular meditation has been shown to reduce stress & worrying and improve focus. You can think of meditation as heavy weight training for your focus.
Tense your muscles completely for 15 seconds. A excellent technique taken from anxiety relief literature. Try to amplify the tension in all your muscles as much as you can (safely). Find muscles that are relaxed, and tense them. After the time is up, completely relax your muscles. Feel them melt, and feel the pressure and anxiety of the moment melt away as well. Apart from being a great technique to take your level of stimulation down during high-pressure situations, this is great technique for falling asleep and preventing anxiety attacks, as well.
8. Just Start – The Zeigarnik Effect
You might notice that starting is 95% of the challenge. After you start, it’s a lot easier to continue.
A professor named Bluma Zeigarnik described a psychological phenomenon that’s now known as the Zeigarnik effect: She observed that people are much more likely to remember tasks they started but did not finish and they would forget tasks that were completed. Waiters, for example, would remember orders while they still had to deliver them, but would forget immediately after they were delivered.
You can use this effect to your advantage by starting on a task for a very short period of time, as little as 5 or 10 minutes, setting a goal, and starting. If you didn’t finish the goal within 5 or 10 minutes you’re likely to want to continue without resistance, simply because it isn’t finished.
Time To Practice
If you start using this process but you fall out of the habit after a few weeks, that’s natural. If this information is new to you, there’s a lot to remember, so it’s easy to forget some of the important points. And when you do forget to do something important, your practice sessions can break down.
To fix this problem, all you have to do is skim through the book again and refresh your mind. One of the reasons I’m compressed this book into so few pages is so you can review it often and quickly. You can also take notes on things that are harder to remember, and re-read your own notes. The information is complex when you first start using it, but after repeated reading and usage it ‘becomes a part of you’.
I’m not perfect either. In fact, I frequently re-read my own books and my own notes to remind myself of the proper principles that have worked for me in the past. Especially when I start to learn a new activity. It’s useful to have notes on hand when you struggle to get into a new type of practice. It used to seem like a lot of trouble to read my own notes again, but after you get into the habit of reviewing your notes, you start to realize it’s worth it.
That brings us to the end of the short manual. All that’s left to do now is to get to work on your first practice session with a new perspective on practice, & Enjoy yourself!
If you liked this guide, remember to leave a comment below!