We like to think that we are in control of our lives and our decisions. But, if you think about it, all of our surroundings have been designed.
You’ve likely heard about the tactics supermarkets employ that encourage you to buy more, such as putting junk food at the very end of the store, so by the time you get there you're more likely to reach for some unplanned chocolates out of pure fatigue and overwhelm. Expensive items are placed strategically at eye-level where they are easy to grab, and cheaper items are in less accessible places down the bottom. Or the classic example of putting brightly-colored sweets at the checkout where children can harass their parents to buy them as they wait in line for the cashier.
It’s not just supermarkets that use these tactics, they are all around us. All public spaces, and even our own homes have design elements that influences us, even when we don’t consciously realize.
What does this have to do with practice? Well... everything! The thing is, we are actually have less control over our decisions than we think, and our brains are hard-wired to want to take the most obvious, convenient and easy option. It’s quite possible that you have never given any thought to the place where you practice music, and there could be elements present that either encourage or hinder your ability to practice.
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour”. - James Clear
The concept of intentionally designing our space goes two ways, in the direction of aligning us with constructive habits towards our goals, and removing destructive habits that prevent us from reaching our full potential. In short, the place in which you practice has quite an influence on the quality of your practice, and consequently, your progress as a musician.
Scientists believe that up to about half of our brains’ resources are used on our vision, our most dominant sense. So naturally, when we are talking about our environment, and in this case, our practice space, it makes sense that visual cues are very important. In short, a shift in what we can see causes a shift in how we behave.
Cues are all around us. Chances are if someone smiles at you, you will automatically smile back. You see a red light, you stop. You see your shoelace untied, you tie it up. Cues are anything that trigger us to action.
The good news is that it is completely within your control to design a practice space for yourself that gears you up for success.
If you are someone who practices at home, chances are that there are some things creating resistance to your practice schedule. It doesn’t matter if you are super messy or super tidy. Maybe you are the stereotypical artist who lives in a chaotic environment with stuff everywhere, resulting in a lot of visual noise that can distract you from positive visual cues. But on the other side of this, if you’re a person who is very tidy and you have everything nicely stored away, it can become very easy to ignore your visual cues entirely, exactly like that saying “out of sight, out of mind”.
Either side of the equation isn’t perfect, but the key here is intention. You can strategically and intentionally place visual cues, or triggers, into your environment to increase the amount of times your attention is drawn towards practicing.
Examples of positive practice cues
- Easy access to your keyboard
Have your keyboard, if you use one, in a convenient place. Ensure it's in a part of your dwelling that's private and where you can focus. If you like, you can pretty-up this area in your personal style with pictures, flowers or nick-knacks, so you really enjoy visiting this area.
- Leave your music in a spot where you see it regularly
Imagine you need to leave a set of keys and a note for someone in your home. Where would you put it? On the dining table perhaps? The sideboard right by the door? This could be the perfect home for your sheet music. It's difficult to forget to practice when your music is in your face every time you pass to use the kitchen or bathroom! If you're worried leaving your music out is going to look cluttered, get creative and turn it into a display. Stylish book-ends are a great way of achieving this, especially if you use classic, old-school scores.
Alternatively, leaving your music on the piano all ready to go is another great option.
- Habit trackers or practice calendar
I love a good habit tracker and to-do list! Once you've established the habits and systems around your life and music (check out my YouTube channel for lots of videos about this), you can tick off your work on a habit tracker, in your journal or calendar. Seeing your progress visually represented is very motivating (and ticking things off is soooo satisfying!). Having this in plain view will get you even looking forward to your practice session.
Strategically removing cues
It’s important to address the opposite side of this coin too. Think about what your biggest distractions are when it comes to practice; what breaks your focus? What do you use as procrastination?
It’s much easier to avoid temptation than to constantly resist it, because no matter how good you are at it, self-control is always just a short-term strategy. Make it easier for yourself and just get rid of your distractions entirely.
For most people, this is their phone. In my experience, signing out of your social media accounts, or even better, deleting these apps from your phone is a game-changer, not just for music practice, but for life in general. You could use a time blocker app so you can’t access your phone for a certain duration, get a friend to change your password, or the simplest option, leave your phone in a different room.
If you find yourself wanting to play Xbox instead of practicing, you can unplug it after each use, and put it in a cupboard. The same can apply to your TV; unplug it at the wall and sign out of your Netflix account the next time you are finished watching.
When you design your environment like this and make distractions quite hard and annoying to access, you will really surprise yourself with how much work you can actually get done.
Context and association
Whilst we’ve established the objects in our space play a huge role in our behaviour, we need to also look at our relationship with these objects. Visual cues mean different things to different people. A computer to some may mean time to work and answer emails, and to others it may mean it's time to play World of Warcraft.
The larger picture to visual cues is the context of location. For example, chances are that when you go into a library, with the combination of visual cues in the environment and your experience with them, you automatically know that you need to keep your voice down. We condition ourselves to the needs of different environments through context. And this conditioning is something that is fluid, we can change it.
A really great example of this is anything relating to sleep hygiene. It’s common knowledge that for the best quality sleep, you should reserve your bed for sleep and sex. If you make a habit of watching TV, scrolling on your phone or doing work on your laptop in bed, you run the risk of associating your bed with those activities, which makes it harder to relax and go to sleep.
If you always do a certain activity in a certain location, you will automatically associate being in that space with doing that action. A practice space intentionally designed with singing in mind + practicing there regularly = the habit of practice starts to become easier and easier until it's practically automatic.
You don't need a whole designated music room for this to be effective. Re-arranging your space into specific zones can make all the difference. Design each area with specific activities in mind and try to avoid conflicting cues.
In my own studio workspace, I have a "YouTube corner" where I film, a "singing corner" where I record pieces and do my practice, and then my desk where I teach online, edit videos and any other tech-related stuff. It's a tiny room, but a corner per task is all that is necessary. I have my microphone, lighting and backgrounds set up permanently to make my tasks as easy and convenient as possible. All I need to do is swivel the equipment around to face whichever corner I'm working in.
Similarly, there is one corner in my bedroom which is my meditation corner, and that’s all I do there. Even just sitting there out of association makes me feel relaxed. It's quite Pavlovian.
This approach also helps with work-life balance. Before I intentionally designed my space, I would work anywhere, oftentimes on my dining table or the sofa. Soon, I found it would roll around to 9 or 10pm and I’d still be working. It made it exceptionally hard to wind down before bed, eat mindfully and presently without being distracted by work, and to have a healthy separation between work and rest time. Perhaps the freelancers among you will recognize this narrative!
The thought of redesigning your space may seem like a lot, but I promise it's not! These are really small, easy changes. Start with one or two adjustments and see how you go! It's likely you will find new ways to adjust and optimize your space over time as you discover what works, and what doesn't, for you personally.
This post was inspired by a concept in James Clear's book, Atomic Habits.
Singing for Self-Care