Guest post: 5 ways to practice smarter when you don’t have much time to practice

avatar3Laura’s note: this is part of a series of guest posts I’m running over the next few weeks.

by Leanne Sowul

Many of us have passions to which we’d like to devote more time. For some, it’s training for a marathon; for others, learning a musical instrument, cooking, or doing yoga. The time we spend practicing these passions is important; doing things we love to do ignites our fires and helps us feel energized for the things we have to do. We also tend to love something more when we’re really good at it.

But how do we get better at a passion or hobby when we don’t have much time to devote to it?

“Practice makes perfect,” you say. “If I commit to doing a little every day, eventually I’ll get better.” But that isn’t necessarily true. Focused practice time can make you better, but unfocused practice will not make perfect. In fact, it can actually make you worse. As a music teacher, I’ve found that most students, even the most dedicated ones, don’t know how to practice effectively. Often, they spend their allotted time running through easy, familiar tunes, instead of delving into the more challenging new music that I assign them. If you want to get better at something, you can’t simply practice what you know. But practicing what you don’t know can be daunting. Here’s what I tell my students when they come to me without a practice plan in place:

1. Start with a warm-up. Prepare your body and brain for the activity to come. Many hobbies have obvious warm-ups, such as musicians playing scales or painters preparing their canvases. Anything will do as long as it gets you into a positive mental and physical state. Walking, stretching, clearing your mind, and setting up your workspace are all quick and effective warm-up routines.

2. Set a daily goal or intention. Before you begin your practice, know what you want to accomplish. If you only have twenty minutes, that’s fine. Just be realistic about what you can do in that time frame. (Spoiler alert: it’s going to be more than you think.) If you’re not sure what to do in a day, start with your big-picture goals (Train for a race? Write a novel?) and break it down from there.

3. Go back to basics. Ask yourself: What are the building blocks of your passion? Is there a way you can focus your attention on one particular skill or movement? If your hobby is mostly physical, such as swimming, you can slow down your stroke to a level where you can execute it precisely, then gradually increase your speed. If your passion leans toward the mental arena, such as writing or puzzles, bring mindfulness to each part of your thought process with creative exercises.

4. Drill, baby, drill. If you really want to improve at something fast, figure out what area needs the most work, and then put yourself on repeat. Play the same phrase over and over, smoothing out wrong notes. Do your tennis serve fifty times in a row. Make ten rows of the same tricky stitch. At the end, as long as you focused on ridding yourself of errors, you will have improved.

5. Be more like your betters. The best way to improve at something is to find people who are better at it than you, and emulate them. Run with a faster partner. Watch a great chef on television. Read books by great writers. Devote a portion of your practice time every day to observing your role models and letting them influence you.

At the end of your practice, take a moment to assess. Did you meet your goal? Did you exceed it? How can you adjust the process for tomorrow? Focusing on the “how” instead of the “how much” of practicing requires more planning, but it’s worth the effort. High-quality practice time can make the difference between simply doing something you love, and doing it well.

Leanne Sowul is a writer, teacher and musician from the Hudson Valley, NY. She blogs about writing, reading and the love of words at Words From The Sowul. Contact her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow her on Twitter @sowulwords.

Laura’s note: What in life do you practice? As I gear back up with running, Leanne’s post has helped me realize I should set an intention for each run, even if it’s just “get out of the house!”

6 thoughts on “Guest post: 5 ways to practice smarter when you don’t have much time to practice

  1. Fantastic and useful post–thanks for sharing! I spent the month of January sketching every day. Most days I spent at least 15 minutes, and some days I spent more time. I did improve, but I would have made more progress if I’d used these suggestions. I’ll take them forward into my next challenges.

    1. I’m glad you found the tips helpful, Kathy! “Practice with intention” really does make a big difference in how much you can accomplish. It makes doing what you love even more invigorating. Best of luck!

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