Whether you want to be able to get through more material or you want to save time so you can engage more with life outside the practice room, optimising your practice schedule is always a good idea.
Luckily for those of us who are already tight on time, practicing better rarely means putting in more hours, it is about how you use those hours - and moreover how you plan that time so that you function the best you possibly can when you put your mind to working. Our bodies and brains respond positively to consistency and schedule. In the same way that creating a consistent sleep pattern can help you fall asleep more easily and reduce sleep latency, creating a practice schedule that means you are playing at the same time every day, helps you to start engaging your brain in skill changing work earlier on in your practice sessions.
However, creating a practice schedule that you can stick to is not just about achieving more in less time, in a world where the brain is constantly trying to make sense of every event and every new piece of information, creating a rigid practice regimen can aid your mental health by creating logic in amongst the chaos of a life in the arts. Taking the time to take time for yourself is one of the most important things we can do in the modern era, and what better way than to manifest time with your instrument creating music, in a way that alleviates stress.
The first important step
The first important step to creating an effective practice routine is to determine how much time you want to dedicate to your practice schedule and how much time you have available to you.
Take a pen and a sheet of paper and write down your current schedule; the time you wake up in the morning, what time you pause for lunch, what time you eat dinner and what time you go to bed. Next fill in the time you have between those hours that are spent either working, commuting or busy with recurring tasks, ideally write a separate list for each day, unless you work 7 days a
week and maintain the exact same schedule.
Once these elements have been written out before you on your sheet of paper, cast your mind over the list and sketch out briefly the time that you have that you could spend working - be rigorous in this process. Free time and time that can be allocated to new tasks are two separate things so bear in mind that half an hour after dinner on Saturday has a very different character
than a half hour slot between work and lunch on a Wednesday.
Opt for moments when you believe you can run your practice on full brain capacity - after all, the point of optimising your work schedule is to work efficiently, not to needlessly tire yourself with hours at the instrument only getting more and more frustrated.
If you are a music student, or currently in a period of your life where practice is already a functioning part of your daily schedule, remove these hours from your timetable for this exercise to take a proper look at how much engaged brain time you have per week available to you.
Once this paper is complete, store it somewhere safely for a week.
The second step
During the week that this paper illustrating your available time is sitting in your cupboard or in amongst the front pages of your technique book, you will be completing the next step of self observation. In this step you will observe and record your activity throughout the week, for one full week.
Stamping the date and the time for a full seven days, check in hourly with which tasks you are indeed completing, at what time you really woke up or went to sleep, and at what time you are eating. In this part of the process it is also important that you make a note of how you are feeling at each of these points, do you have an excess of energy, just enough or not enough? Are you feeling happy, sad, apathetic? Are you hungry or tired?
Without judgement complete this piece of paper over seven days, and once this sheet has been filled in, retrieve your first piece of paper and lay them side by side for comparison.
Answer the following questions, filling a new timetable out as you move through them:
- In which hours am I energetic and do not have an activity to complete?
- In which hours am I tired or hungry which do not precede eating or sleeping?
- In which hours am I functioning at full brain capacity?
- In which hours am I not functioning at full brain capacity?
Cross examine the free and not free hours that you are energetic or working at full brain capacity. Are these hours at the same time each day? Is there a pattern?
Search for patterns in your energy levels, and try to allocate practice time accordingly. You should search for the moments to practice that you are feeling in the peak of a mood, not the trough of one. Remember that positive association is also important when it comes to getting the most out of your work. Happiness breeds creativity, and creativity fosters skill.
Building a schedule from scratch
Much like in the world of fitness, the best moment to create a schedule for practice is before you have ever had experience with one. Simply put, the less time you have put in practising inefficiently, the more likely you are to be able to optimise your time from the get go.
Remember that when creating a schedule for the first time, less is always more. You want to get as used as possible to getting work done in the minimum amount of time needed so that once you move into more choppy waters or more complicated technical territory you will not be losing time exerting energy without reaping any results.
At the very beginning of your practice journey, aim for ten minute bursts of work preceded by two minutes of warming up the body physically and followed by two minutes of warming down. Build this up to half hour bursts when needed, and only if you need them - you’ll thank me when you only have an hour to get your work done in the future!
Fine-tuning a pre existing schedule
Perhaps you have been practising for years, but are looking to make changes, do not fear - the best changes are made in full consciousness of your capabilities. Now that you have the experience of practising, the things that work for you and the things that don’t, you are in the optimal position to enhance your time spent.
Focus on smaller sets of practice within a larger time frame, for instance warming up for five minutes per 25 minute practice session, taking a 10 minute break between sessions and repeating this 5 times.
Ongoing principles - Observe, assess, & reassess
The most important part of optimising your schedule is that the optimisation process is an ongoing one. Take 5 minutes at the end of each day to look over the schedule you have completed, the schedule you wished to complete and work out how much space is between these two. Align yourself with not just your dreams but also the reality of your work, and try to understand what you can do to bring yourself ultimately more happiness through your capacity to enjoy the process.
As it says in the Bhagavad Gita:
Do not be concerned with the fruit of your action - just give attention to the action itself, the fruit will come of its own accord.