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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Consistency, Winning Races, Zen, and Seinfeld Calendars

It's a cliche for teachers to emphasize it to their students: practice a bit every day. Fifteen minutes a day is better than two hours once a week. Slow and steady wins the race.  Consistency. 

Despite this, it wasn't until I started keeping track of and analyzing my own practice habits that this idea really hit home for me.  Of course I had already fully accepted the idea that if I wanted to get better, I'd have to spend lots of time practising.  (Perhaps you've heard of the 10 000 hour rule?) In order to motivate myself to practice more, I started keeping a spreadsheet of how many minutes I practiced each day.  This was a useful exercise, both motivationally, and in helping me understand my own habits.  The most glaring thing was that if I completely missed a day, it was very likely that this would start a streak - I would miss several days, in one case an entire month!  If you add to that the advantage of allowing your mind to absorb information gradually over several days, rather than in one intense session, it became obvious that focusing on practising at least little bit everyday was the best use of my energy.  Consistency was the key to increasing both my total practice time and effectiveness.

Soon afterwards, I became a cliche myself and started emphasizing consistent practice with my own students.  My new strategy for getting them to practice was to ask them to just take their instrument out of its case and play one note, everyday. If they wanted to do more, they were welcome to, but that was all that was required. I hoped that if I could instill in them this simple habit, they would begin to actually practice on their own.  I even went so far as to read a passage from "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", one of my favourite books, to one thirteen-year-old student:
If you lose the spirit of repetition it will become quite difficult, but it is not difficult if you are full of strength and vitality.
Several months later, I heard about  what has come to be called the "Seinfeld Calendar".  According to legend, the key to Seinfeld's success is that he has a giant wall calendar, and if he spends some time working on material, he marks an X on that day with a big red marker.  The idea is to get a chain going, and then "Don't break the chain."

I was smitten.  I enthusiastically set up not one, but four "Seinfeld calendars" - for practising bass, for composing, for exercising, and for meditating.  There are even more things I would love to have calendars for - practicing guitar, ear training, listening to music with full attention, promotion, reading a novel, etc.  However, I rightly guessed that just these four things would already be a lot for me.

My Seinfeld Calendars worked smashingly; for about two months I hardly missed a day on any of the four things.  Composing was a tricky one - it was hard to be creative when I felt I wasn't in the mood.  But I still found it encouraging, because at least I was dealing with "Oh my God, why can't I write anything?" rather than "Oh my God, I haven't even sat down to compose in weeks!"  I feel that with thoughtful, consistent effort, I'm working through the issues that come up; without my calendars, I might not even be getting to the issues. I set the bar pretty low - if I did even a little bit, I got my X. Eventually I decided to make the system more complicated - a black X if I did even a little bit, a blue X if I did a certain amount - for example, 45 minutes of practising or 20 minutes of meditation.  And a unicorn sticker if I got blue X's in all four things.  I was very into getting my X's.

Then one day, trouble came to my productivity paradise.  I was feeling very stressed - despite working hard everyday, it seemed my to-do list had been growing all week.  I was up late trying to get my "X" for composing, and not getting anywhere.  Finally I decided to give myself a break.  Forget about the "X" for a day.  I immediately felt so much better that I knew it was the right decision.  I took the next day off too.

I felt better, but unfortunately it also meant the start of a streak of not composing/exercising/ practising/meditating! And I chose those things because doing them keeps my life working the way I want it to work.  So, now I've realized the pros (increased productivity) and the cons (increaseed pressure) of the whole Seinfeld Calendar thing, and I've made an informed decision to get back on it. I'm loving it all over again. Also, in writing this blog entry, I've realized how self-obsessed the whole thing is. What a journey. I need to get out more.  Maybe I should make a calendar for that too?

P.S. If you want to try a Seinfeld Calendar of your own, but are low on wall space, this guy made a PDF that fits a whole year on one 8.5x11 sheet.

P.P.S. What is your trick for being productive? Would you give the Seinfeld Calendar a try? Leave a comment!

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  1. The writing process is very, very similar - I laughed as I tell my students the exact same thing, down to the minute, that 15 mins every day is better than two hours on the weekend. And then, do I take my own advice? Good lord. Too bad I can't suggest they just take out their computers & hold them as this, as you know, can lead to hours upon hours of on-line loitering! But, I could suggest the same thing with an actual pen & notebook. Hmm. I'm going to use that. A writing quote I love is from Isak Dineson: "I write a little every day, without hope, without despair." I like the "little" part, as well the "without hope, without despair" part. Seems fitting here. Anyway. I don't have any tricks. Just the little bit every day bit, which you seem to have figured out. And rewards, though I need a whole lot more than a sticker!

  2. @lucy: Or you could suggest that they write at least one sentence, or 10 words or something everyday? Or maybe just one word - just open the notebook, or turn on the computer, and write at least one word. I like that idea some how. Maybe I should tell my students to play one note? That's a beautiful quote! You writers sure have a way with words. I'll add it to my quote wall. (One wall in my bedroom is entirely covered in post-it notes with quotes on them.)

    Are you saying there are more alluring things than unicorn stickers out there??? What could they be?!?