Two On Practice

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It might seem odd to step back and take a fresh look at the merits of something so incontestably beneficial as practice, but a couple of things I ran across recently make me want to do just that.

First, I ran across a trick comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to overcome mental inertia on days he did not feel like writing jokes:

[Seinfeld] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. "After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."

"Don't break the chain," he said again for emphasis.
The technique strikes me as akin to the tactic of breaking large tasks up into smaller, achievable steps, or of finding "next actions" as productivity guru David Allen repeatedly advises, except that here, a short-term goal is grafted onto an ongoing chore, and serves the same motivating role as a next action or a small sub-goal.

Making the chain grow -- or if you find some other way to make performing a practice session into a game, otherwise "scoring" or "winning" -- is an immediately achievable goal that is relatively easily reached. Rather than simply missing some practice session that would not, alone make or break his slim chance of having a rewarding comedic career, Seinfeld would break the chain now if he failed to write. This is a rather clever way to make a tendency called hyperbolic discounting work to one's own advantage.

The second productivity hack relates to overcoming a tendency to not have presence of mind in certain stressful situations. Carolyn Hax, advising a woman who found being stared at in public to be unnerving, says the following:
Ask yourself, now, what you can realistically hope to do in these situations, then prepare the words, gestures and/or actions. Say your plans out loud in the shower (seriously); repeat them to your friends by telling them the restaurant story and spelling out what you wish you had done. Even when practicing feels stupid, use repetition to teach your brain where the path is. In time, you'll be able to find it no matter how rattled you get.
I did something similar long ago to overcome a childhood fear of medium-sized to large dogs. Looking back, it seems that the automatized beginnings of a rational course of action give the mind a sort of anchor, and this, in turn, enables increasingly longer periods of freedom from the paralysis caused by overwhelming emotion. That freedom permits one to think and, therefore, better deal with the upsetting situation successfully -- which will build confidence and result in more calmness the next time. I don't recall how long it took me to overcome that fear, but there eventually came a day when I walked past a pretty large dog and remembered how scared I used to be of such encounters, regardless of whether the dog seemed friendly or not.

Both techniques involve establishing beneficial habits by overcoming emotional hurdles to performing small actions whose real benefits will accrue only over time, and after multiple repetitions. Practice may make perfect, in terms of skill, but it also creates good habits, and without those, all the talent or skill on earth can come to naught.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

I've been using a method similar to this to help me stick with my diet. I'm up to 3 months now, and if I go off it, I'll lose my momentum. So I treat it as if "breaking the chain" means going back to step one--like I took that wall calendar and every time I broke the chain, I'd erase all the X's.

It's working thus far--and the "temptation" to break it has pretty much vanished.

Gus Van Horn said...

I'm glad I don't need to diet! If I needed to do something like that, I'd use such just such a technique.

Nic said...

you should check out . The guy who designed based it off of Seinfeld's method. It is a great way to visualize your chain besides the old fashioned calendar.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for mentioning that site.

Although my use of open source software has caused me to develop the habit of searching the web before asking other people whenever I have a computer-related question, I have not, oddly enough, developed the habit of looking for implementations of ideas like this.

Not that I'll need this strategy to remember to do this in the future, but I otherwise might not have heard of that site.