Want to get better at something? Do less of it!

Today’s zeitgeist emphasizes the importance of constant growth. Whether it’s skills, hobbies, or health, we’re encouraged to set goals and pursue them vigorously. While this idea is harmless (and actually helpful and motivating) in and of itself, we also live in a culture of immediate gratification, and constantly striving to improve can become daunting when we’re not seeing the results we want right away. So how do we keep striving without becoming discouraged in our pursuits? The basic principle is: whatever you’re trying to get better at, do less of it.

Now, what this actually means is practice for less time, but more often. For example, instead of spending 2 hours with your guitar on Monday and Thursday, give yourself 15 minutes per day, six days a week. This model has shown steadier results in personal growth, and here’s why:

1. It forms the habit.

By investing time in your practice more often, you become used to doing it, and less prone to forgetting and neglecting it. As your mind becomes accustomed to turning its attention towards practising, studying, experimenting, whatever the case may be, we start to automatically remind ourselves to do so. Not only this, but if dedicating time to your improvement has become something that you dread, this will lessen the more often you practice. Once you grow accustomed to regular practice, you’ll stop seeing it as something gruelling and shift your perspective so it’s just part of your routine. You may even come to find those fifteen to twenty minutes make you feel more accomplished!

2. We learn best when we can focus

Our minds crave novelty, which makes extended periods of focus somewhat difficult. Most people are able to commit all of their attention to a task for about twenty minutes, and then the mind begins to wander. Nevertheless, they power through, forcing their attention back to the task at hand. It’s counter-productive because forcing focus just wears us out, like a muscle being overworked. When the mind starts to wander, the best thing to do is to move on to a new task. This stops you from developing a boredom complex around what you’re trying to build, and makes it so the time you do spend practicing is as fruitful as it can be. Take advantage of focus while it’s at its prime, and then move on. You can always come back to it later, and practicing this way could even allow you to do so several times a day, albeit for shorter periods.

3. Practice doesn’t make perfect unless the practice is perfect.

We’ve already noted that shorter commitments create better focus. One of the advantages of this is we become more aware of how well we’re doing as we do it. In that period of naturally strong focus, we’re making clearer observations of what’s going well, what we understand, and what still needs improvement. By practising perfectly, we are learning excellence. Overworking and allowing our focus to dissipate usually leads to scattered, inconsistent execution, which becomes the habit we learn. It’s better to have fifteen minutes of solid, well-executed practice than one hour of mediocre practice.

However you’re trying to improve yourself, whatever you love doing, do it every day. But do it less, and see how vastly the quality of your practice changes.