I’ve been playing the trumpet since 1998, through high school, college, and a graduate degree in music.
Until today, I’d never gone a whole year without skipping a day of practice. I didn’t think I’d learn much from this yearlong experiment, but I was wrong. Here are three things I’ve taken away from a year of “no exceptions” daily trumpet practice.
Consistency Breeds Consistency
Both musicians and athletes have to deal with a frustrating fact of physiology:
Your body doesn’t feel the same every day.
There are good days and bad days, and serious musicians are constantly trying to create more good days and reduce bad days. In the past, I’d done this by taking a day off after a heavy day of playing (or when I just didn’t get around to practicing that day, honestly). This strategy produced a wide range of results. I often felt great after a day off, but I also experienced extremely bad days where nothing seemed to work.
During the past year, I forced myself to play for at least a couple of minutes, even when my lips felt extremely tired from the day before. The result seemed to be more day-to-day consistency in how my lips felt. I still had bad days, but I had fewer. I had far fewer extremely bad days. I noticed this increase in consistency after only a couple months of “no exceptions” daily practice.
Accountability Trumps Willpower
I’ve written about accountability many times, and I believe it’s a vastly under-utilized tool.
On my Now page (which lists what I’ve been up to in the last month), I state that I’m currently
Practicing trumpet every day, no exceptions (last missed day was 12/23/15)
Over the last twelve months, I was frequently tempted to take a day off (especially if it was late evening and I hadn’t played yet). Honestly, what usually stopped me was knowing I’d have to update my Now page with a new “last missed day.” My strongest motivator was avoiding public embarrassment, and trust me: that’s a handy thing to know about yourself.
The thought of publicly admitting defeat was too unpleasant, and it was always easier to pull the horn out of its case and play for at least a few minutes.
Surprisingly, Musts Are Easier Than Shoulds
For each person, every desirable activity falls into one of two categories: must or should.
Brushing your teeth is probably a must for you. It requires little willpower or effort. You do not engage in lengthy battles with yourself about whether you will brush your teeth each morning (hopefully). It’s non-negotiable.
Shoulds, on the other hand, require a decision. Every time.
Each decision we make saps a tiny bit of our willpower and inches us closer to decision fatigue, a state where our ability to make quality decisions is significantly reduced. I’m always trying to reduce the number of unimportant low-level decisions I make, and until I made trumpet practice a must, I didn’t realize how much effort I’d spent bargaining with myself each day:
“I [can’t/don’t want to] practice today because of [fairly lame reason]. Is this a good enough excuse?”
A year ago, I started asking myself this instead:
“I am practicing today. What do I need to do to make that happen?” This question is much easier to answer.
Making something a must frees us from the tyranny of deciding.
You may not be a musician, but it doesn’t matter. These lessons can be applied to any activity. Is there something you’d like to do on a daily basis? Reading, writing, exercising? If you can think of something, consider committing publicly to doing it for a month (or six months, or a year). You may find that it’s easier (and more rewarding) than you thought.