As a Creative Person™ I often really resent the idea of having to plan out my practice time— but let me tell you, it’s a game changer.
Here’s what happens when we don’t have a plan:
We waste a lot of time
We spend energy making decisions that could be used elsewhere
We miss the chance to make big picture connections in our work
We waste a lot of time because we’re usually not making deliberate choices about how long to work on something. And Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time that we give it. If you have an hour, what you’re working on will take an hour. If you give it less time, you have to figure out how to do it in less time— and you’ll learn to think more creatively.
Using up energy on decisions tends to impact our motivation and our overall enjoyment of practice without our really noticing it. Decision fatigue is real, people. Some estimates say we make up to 35,000 decisions per day— most of them unconscious. (A lot of decisions in the practice room are unconscious too.) Our brains only have so much energy, and making decisions uses up a lot of that energy and ends up decreasing our ability to focus and maintain our willpower. So if you head in to the practice room at the end of the day, you’re more likely to take some shortcuts with your decisions, because you’re already tired. Practice starts to feel like a hassle.
Finally, without a plan, we can miss a lot of overarching themes in our work, from how problems can be solved to how we want to approach certain expressive concepts. If we plan to tackle similar technique problems that happen in a few spots in our repertoire in one chunk, instead of working from top to tail as it comes, we might notice that we had three different ideas of how to solve them— even though the underlying issue is the same. Solve the underlying issue, solve three issues at once. Boom.
So what does planning out your practice session actually look like?
I usually recommend that people plan a few sessions at once, so that you’re already in that decision-making frame of mind. I’ll sit down at the beginning of the week, with my calendar, and start by deciding when I’ll practice, and for how long.
Making that structure helps to create clear boundaries between your work and your time off. We’re so expected to just practice for hours and hours and fill our free time with work, but as I said before, the work you have to do will expand to fill the time you give it and— more importantly— not putting limits around your practice time will eventually cause either injury or burnout. The statistics on both of those are scary. We can change this expectation. Quiet quitting, if you will. Block off time to rest, because our bodies are just as important to our music-making as our instruments are, if not more.
Another important thing to keep in mind when planning ahead of time is what your energy level is likely to be. If I have free time after rehearsal, I’m going to want to use that to rest, not practice. I’ll slot my practice time in later in the day. Sometimes, of course, it’s unavoidable that you’ll be tired— so keep that in mind when you’re planning what you will be working on.
Once I have that mapped out, I will look through my repertoire for the week and make note of things that I think, or already know, will be hard. I’ll make a rough estimate of how long I think it will take to learn those things, and decide how many of them I will need to work on each day. My orchestra plays different rep each week, so unless there’s a big solo I usually only spend 4-5 days practicing something until it’s done and we move on to something else. For longer term projects, like recitals, I’ll zoom out and make an overarching plan, but only do something detailed like this each week and check my progress against the longer term plan. There will be much more flexibility! Planning will look different for everyone, and it’s also important to note that these are guidelines. If I’m wrong about how much time I need for something, no big deal, I’ll adjust.
From there, I’ll make a few notes on how I’d like to work on things, and that will get more detailed once I dive in and start playing. After the first time through, I’ll update my plan to be a little more specific about strategy, because that kind of thinking comes more easily to me when I’m actually practicing, rather than planning.
As you go through the week, you will absolutely find times when you don’t want to do what you planned. That’s ok. Remember, the plan is a guideline. Make notes of what worked for you and what didn’t from day to day, and the more you learn about yourself, the more useful your planning will become.