Ah, the fresh smell of a new year! Have you made your new year’s resolutions? Have you … already dropped your new year’s resolutions?

For many of us, “practice piano more” is on that list of habits we’d like to keep this year. But can we beat the odds and actually do it? No doubt, habits are hard to form. And yet, habit formation is a way to achieve goals with less willpower over time. That’s because the longer we keep a habit, the more automatic it becomes, and the less energy, mental capacity, and chocolate-chip cookie bribes it requires.

So, let’s talk about how to build a better practicing habit this year. I’m going to suggest one simple piece of advice. Ready?

Do less.

I’m serious. Set the bar so low that you can practically trip over it. For example, resolve to go over to the piano and sit down at the bench every day. Resolve to play for 5, 10, 15 minutes a day, whatever feels completely doable. Resolve to run through a fun piece every day instead of hacking at that monster you’re supposed to be learning. Hell, print out a picture of your favorite composer, the one that makes you happy to be a pianist, tape it to your bathroom mirror, and resolve to say hello every morning “Guten morgen, Johannes!”.

Did you see the sneaky caveat in all of those examples? The habit has to be so achievable that you can feasibly do it every (normal) day (or every 6 out of 7 days, as I prefer).

But does setting such low-strung goals work? And can you become a concert pianist / get into grad school / be the second coming of Leon Fleisher with this approach?

Yes. In fact, you may get there sooner. Let me show you the math.

No, this is not drawn out to any mathematical scale. Yes, do check out the work of James Clear for more on the idea of continuous improvement.


What this graph argues is that if you do even a little bit every day for a year, your gains will be exponential because of the cumulative, compounding effect of time. However, every day you don’t practice, you lose the skills you’ve already built.

The “every day” approach may seem obvious until we consider reasons why people can’t do it: burnout from taking on too much at once. Paralysis from overwhelming goals. Fear of failure. All of those things prevent us from keeping a productive and sustainable habit that fits our lives. So we miss a day, or days. Then we cram when motivation strikes or when we have a deadline, trying to become 38 times better all at once instead of over the course of a year, which doesn’t work. By contrast, giving yourself permission to do a manageable amount every day can help you avoid these pitfalls.

The key to building habits then, is consistency. It really does get easier. I remember David Dubal saying that every day he didn’t practice made him feel icky, like he hadn’t brushed his teeth. That’s when you know you’ve got the habit: when its absence, rather than presence, in your life is notable. Most of us (I hope) don’t need to goad ourselves into brushing our teeth every day, but we’ll probably feel it if we skip it.

Try the 1% approach this year and see if you can’t see exponential progress. Most likely, when you sit down at the piano bench every morning to drink your coffee, you’ll end up playing a little. When you noodle through some chords, you might want to open up a score. Do less, more frequently, and see how long you can keep up that streak this year.

For a fun motivational tool, print out tonebase’s 2021 practice chart and check off every day you trip over your low bar. Get those checkmarks any way you can! On the other side of habit are your goals, and you can totally reach them, a little bit at a time.

Aim low. Do it every day. See you December 31st, 2021.

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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