How I Learned to Put Paralyzing Perfection Aside and Improve A Little Bit Each Day Instead
Recently, perfectionism and procrastination have come up in one way or another for myself, my colleagues, and my students, and it has encouraged me to take a look at my own patterns and find real solutions to break out perfectionist habits.
What is Perfectionist's Procrastination?
Have you ever thought about the immense amount of work standing between yourself and your ideal perfect self, and been paralyzed or discouraged from taking any action at all?
Here's what it sounds like for me:
I should really improve A, B, and C, but I'll tackle all that next time when I feel really ready and focused and have lots of time.
I'll wait until I can dedicate a full hour to tone exercises, then I'll finally work on those tapers I need to improve.
Perfectionist's Procrastination Latches onto ideas like these:
Waiting for Ideal Conditions
Waiting for "Enough" Time
Waiting to Sound Good
Waiting for More Energy
Ultimately, my mind creates an unrealistic to-do list in an effort to fix everything all at once, and when I think about the amount of work ahead of me, I tell myself: next time, next time, next time.
Perfectionist's Procrastination can be deeply rooted in fearing failure and mistakes.
For example, a more honest inner dialogue to the above example might sound more like this:
I could work on my tapers today, but I don't know what I'm doing. I know I'm bad at it, and I don't want to face my weakness.
In addition, the fear of not doing enough leads to fear of not being enough. And that's paralyzing.
Perfection-Oriented vs. Process-Oriented
For at least the past eight years, I've been organizing my practice sessions in the order of tone first, technique second, and repertoire after that, and attempting to do at least an hour of each thing.
However, I often spend most of my energy and focus on the initial stage, losing motivation before I've given the next stages any attention.
Why do I keep falling into this rut so often?
Perfection in the Practice Room
Perfection wants to finish everything immediately and achieve perfection now. Our faults can give us tunnel vision, and we can throw all our energy into one task, like tone work. While we're giving tone good attention and improving, we can burn out out entire supply of energy and focus, and we have nothing left for anything else.
And musicians need all the skills. Perfection knows this, too, and feels like a failure when giving up before moving on.
Perfection doesn't like to Let Go.
Process-oriented practice puts in the highly-focused practice that perfection loves, but it comes with permission to let go and move on to the next task.
The following two ideas led me to break out of perfectionist mindset and find breakthroughs in process-oriented practice in the past two weeks.
A. "Improve A Little Bit Each Day"
I recently raved about Dr. Terri Sanchez's Epic Flute Warm-Up, which ultimately led me to purchase her book, The Aspiring Flutist's Practice Companion.
In her book, the smallest phrase came up in the Epic Warm-Up 2.0, and it really struck me:
"Improve a little bit each day."
I've consistently been doing her Epic Warm-Up almost every day for three months because it's fun and manageable, only taking 15 minutes total to feel thoroughly warmed-up. And you know what? I've improved a little bit each day in those three months!
This was a huge lightbulb moment.
B. Set Yourself Up for Success To Prevent Early Practice Burnout
Now that I've given myself permission to improve a little bit each day, I've created room to realistically invite more tasks into my practice session without feeling overwhelmed.
My next goal involves organizing my tasks in a way that ensures I don't burn myself out too soon, as I was consistently doing before.
I came across a video on Facebook by Denise Tryon, Adjunct Horn Professor at the Peabody Conservatory, on practicing.
Essentially, she separates her day into three separate sessions, practicing in the morning, afternoon, and evening with ample time in between.
Right away, I realized that I could be improving a little bit, three times a day.
Lightbulb moment number two.
Tips for Beating Perfectionist's Procrastination + Improving a Little Bit Each Day:
After re-approaching my practice mindset based on the above ideas, I implemented a few more ideas to really help motivate me towards consistent, well-balanced, process-oriented practice experiences.
1. Get yourself excited for tomorrow's practice session tonight
Re-set your practice space: Tidy up and re-organize your materials, placing tomorrow's first to-dos on your stand so you're ready to go! (Or, place your materials in your bag in the order you're going to use them to make it easier on yourself once you arrive at your practice space.)
Listen to recordings, watch videos, or read words that inspire you.
Write down or e-mail yourself your schedule for tomorrow, which leads to the next tip!
2. Give yourself a completely reasonable to-do list
It is way too easy to prescribe yourself an 8-hour practice session, because your perfectionist self would love that, but I've never executed anything I've planned for myself when it's unreasonable and unattainable.
Set yourself up for success! If your to-do list allows you to easily complete every task, you'll feel accomplished and begin craving more rather than feeling burnt out.
3. Use a timer (And actually listen to it!)
Many times, I've put a timer on while practicing certain exercises, and have continued on long past the buzzer. When this happens, I usually end up feeling frustrated, exhausted, or both.
If your inclination to work past the buzzer comes from feeling antsy or incomplete, learn to give yourself a pat on the back for really focusing and putting good work in, and move on! It'll still be there tomorrow. And the next day. If you leave it feeling like there's more to continue on with, that may motivate you to pick back up and put more work in the next day!
In addition, you can now channel all that energy into the next practice task!
Try 3-minutes for one-measure chunks within a piece, 5-minutes for shorter exercises, and 10-minutes for longer ones as a starting point.
I've come to realize that I'd rather put in a highly focused 10-minutes-each on six aspects of my playing every day than one hour of work on only one area.
The best way to improve your weaknesses is by working at them daily. Put your timer on and put in the work!
Make the most of your minutes, and keep yourself feeling fresh and focused for each aspect of your practice session.
You don't need to "finish" everything. You don't need to solve every issue every time you practice. In order to be sustainable, there must be a point at which you let go and move on. If you feel like you're not done, you'll know right where you need to go tomorrow, and you'll still have energy left to focus on the next tasks on your list.
If you find it difficult to move on before achieving perfection or completion, just remember that there is no end to the possibilities of improvement.
Here's permission to put perfection aside and enjoy the process!
Finally, I came across this video the other day, and found it particularly fitting in the context of doing a little bit of work each day with a lot of focus and care. A few months later, the results are beautiful!