THE FLUTE NERD blog

Routine creates focus: how to be more productive in your flute practice

By setting aside a consistent time each day to practice flute, you can train your brain to enter a focused state of learning faster and get so much more out of your practice time

routine creates focus flute practice tips

While there are loads of studies about how habits and routines can be beneficial to our moods and mental health, there’s also evidence that they can improve our focus so we get more out of our ‘learning time’ (practice times, in the case of our flute playing). In my own flute journey, I’ve found that when I’ve been good about setting a regular practice time, at the same time everyday, not only did it help me stay committed to my practice, but I found I was so much more productive.

Because I’m an ever-curious person, I wanted to know more about why this was the case. Why do routines help us focus more and become more productive? So, in this blog, I’ll present a few of the fascinating ideas I found and we’ll dive into the science of routine in the hopes that you’ll be able to use some of these concepts in your own flute practice to boost your own focus!

Routine vs habit

First, let’s have a quick look at the difference between routines and habits.

According to author Nir Eyal, a habit the “impulse to do a behaviour with little or no conscious thought.” Think about brushing your teeth when you wake up. It’s something you do almost on autopilot, triggered by the act of getting out of bed.

On the other hand, routines are defined as regular actions or behaviours which are performed at a specific time each day or at regular intervals. Often routines are a collection of habits. For example ‘getting out of bed’ can be a routine that includes the habits of brushing your teeth, going for a run, showering, having two cups of coffee, etc.

Ness Labs explains that the “main difference between habits and routines is how much aware and intentional you are… routines require deliberate practice.” Routines are not as automatic as habits and often need intention to keep them going. They can, however, be used to help encourage our brains to go into that automatic habit mode. (Popular advice says that to change your habits, you must change your routines.)

Routine vs habit in our flute practice

I find this super interesting to think about in my own practice, because I used to consider that finding time to practice should be something I do automatically, like brushing my teeth. In other words, a habit. But over all these years I’ve played flute, I’ve never felt an automatic response to pick up my instrument.

But given these differences between habits and routine, perhaps it helps to think of the act of initiating practicing not as a habit but as a routine. It is the more intentional aspect of other smaller habits (tone exercises, scales, etc).

By establishing that regular time every day to do my practice, I was creating that routine. And while it never felt automatic to start practicing, once I had put myself together and played my first note, my brain had been conditioned to go into that more automatic mode that made hitting all the appropriate exercises feel so much easier.

Of course, by ‘automatic mode’ I don’t mean I played through exercises on autopilot, only that it felt only natural to play them. The routine of that regular practice time helped me create a sense of comfort around the exercises. It would feel odd to me to skip straight from my tone exercises into my etudes—I had created the habit of playing scales after my tone exercises. Effective practice means we need to play each of those exercises with intention, but I felt I was no longer wasting will power, telling myself “I must play my scales!”

This idea of creating repetition in creative practice is common among writers. Julie Cameron’s ‘morning pages’ is a common device used by writers and Japanese author Haruki Murakami has stated that he sticks to a strict writing routine (writing for 5-6 hours starting at 4am). “The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he once said, “it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Limited willpower

I recently came across the work of social psychologist Roy Baumeister (introduced in Johann Hari’s fascinating book Stolen Focus, which I highly recommend). Baumeister suggests that we have a finite supply of willpower each day and this supply gets zapped throughout the day by a bazillion (not his technical term) decisions we’re faced with: What should I eat? What should I watch? How should I respond to this person? Etc. This creates what he calls ‘decision fatigue’.

There are some studies that say the average person is faced with up to 35,000 choices per day—no wonder we get fatigued!!

By scheduling in routines and habits, you’re able to reduce that decision fatigue. For example, by eating the same breakfast every day, you’re no longer using any of your processing power on deciding whether it should be eggs or cereal.

I realised I was taking advantage of this concept in my own practice. By automatically scheduling my practice at the same time every day, I was eliminating the need to make the decision about whether I would practice or not. Supposedly, this was freeing up the mental energy that went into that decision making, which I could then direct towards my actual practice.

Helps avoid ‘switching’

I used to pride myself on my ability to multitask. I was sure I was genuinely juggling all those activities and jobs at the same time. Well, apparently that’s not the case. According to cognitive neuroscientist Earl K Miller, what we’re doing when we think we’re multitasking is switching very quickly between tasks.

While that doesn’t so seem like such a bad thing non the surface, it means that we’re constantly using up brain processing power in just the act of switching. The late computer scientist and psychologist Gerald Weinberg claimed that we potentially use up to 20% of your brain power on the act of context switching between two different tasks.

I could certainly feel this effect when I wasn’t great about setting aside a specific time of day to practice. I’d usually find myself snatching practice time between other tasks, and I often felt it was hard to concentrate on practicing as I would find my brain returning to those other jobs (like writing an email response in my head between scales).

But by setting aside my specific time to practice, I was encouraging myself to focus on the single task at hand—practicing flute—and eliminating a lot of the potential for switching.

As a side note, I have since become strict about setting my phone on airplane mode while practicing to avoid notifications, which are designed to grab attention and prompt that context switching. (I would simply turn my phone off during my practice sessions, but I regularly use various apps in my practice, like a tuner, metronome and TomPlay.)

Find other habit cues if needed

James Clear, author of The Habit Loop, explains that there are five types ‘cues’ that we can use to trigger habits. One of those is time, which we’ve discussed here: finding a regular time of day to create the habit.

However, there are always going to be flute players who just won’t be able to find a regular time every day for practicing—shift workers or new parents to name a few. So I want to stress that while this method has worked well for me, it may not work for everyone. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still take advantage of the benefits of habit cueing.

Try experimenting with other of the cues that Clear highlights (location, preceding event, emotional state, other people). The concept behind them is the same and should hopefully be just as beneficial to your practice. But ultimately, you have find what works best you!

How you can use routine to increase your practice focus

I had a lot of fun diving into all this research and it helped me figure out a lot of things about my practice and why certain things work better than others. I highly recommend checking out a few of the books and academics I’ve mentioned to learn more, but here’s a quick summary of some of the things you can do to help your own practice:

  1. Try to find a regular time of day that can be your designated practice time and try your best to stick to that schedule, creating that sense of routine.
  2. If possible, trying using the same order of exercises to cycle through when you practice to help eliminate ‘decision fatigue’
  3. Reduce distractions and keep phone off or on airplane mode to avoid potential for ‘context switching’
  4. Experiment with other habit cues to see if there’s a trigger that suits your personality, schedule and lifestyle better!

Happy practicing flute friends!

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Alexandra Petropoulos

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