Effective Use of Time When Practicing
By Hans Jørgen Jensen
Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,”  was first coined by the famous British historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955. The term describes a tendency we are all likely to have succumbed to at some point in our daily life and practice.
Understanding Parkinson’s Law and avoiding its pitfalls
According to Parkinson’s Law, the things in life that need to get done expand in perceived importance and complexity in direct proportion to the time spent to complete them. For example, if you give someone 8 hours to complete a 2-hour project, it will take them 8 hours to get it done.
Understanding this concept and avoiding its pitfalls can be applied with great success to numerous projects and concepts, including practicing a musical instrument.
Personal experience as a young teacher
At the beginning of my teaching career, I was totally shocked to see what my students would accomplish when they had a deadline such as an upcoming recital, competition, or audition. Given a looming deadline, they could accomplish much more in a couple of weeks than in the previous 4 months. After those edifying experiences I started to encourage all my students to break their long-term goals into smaller goals with specific deadlines.
With too much time, we often get lost in the details
We often wait until the last second to finish a task if we are given too much time to complete it. Additionally, with too much time, that task often expands in several directions and loses its focus. As a deadline approaches, we can suddenly become super focused and productive and miraculously finish the job. This all-too-common procrastination-fueled behavior can be improved.
Practice techniques inspired by Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s Law can serve as an inspiration for developing better practice skills and for using time in a very effective and efficient manner
1. Set time limits
When setting time limits, try to be as realistic and objective as possible. Break bigger goals into smaller ones and evaluate how much time is needed for each goal.
Focus on the important task of accomplishing your goals and keep the time in mind or place a clock or timer somewhere in your field of view.
If using your phone for tracking time, set the phone on do not disturb mode when working, or you will be tempted to respond to messages or other notifications. If you are worried about missing a call from a particular person, know that most phones allow you to filter calls from all but a select few phone numbers while in focus mode.
2. Stay organized
Use a notebook or practice planner to write down your goals and keep a record of your actions and improvements. By doing this you will be able to evaluate your progress and adjust your goals accordingly. Additionally, when this becomes a habit your self-awareness will grow and you will be able to set much more realistic goals in the future.
3. Be specific
Make a list of all the hard passages in your repertory. Visualize how your practicing will change as you get better at playing each passage. Cross off each passage after you have practiced it the necessary way.
4. Know what ‘done’ means and have a clear concept of the whole work
It is often very hard to know when a final goal has been reached. If the audition or concert is in a few days, the goal should be to make the performance as good as possible even if everything is not perfect. If the performance is in 3 weeks, make sure to set up specific timelines for the smaller goals and include a few practice performances one and two weeks before the final performance. Recording practice performances is one of the best ways to evaluate your own playing and helps you identify all the details that can be improved.
5. Answer to someone - find a practice pal
When I was a student in Denmark it helped me to have a fellow student as a practice partner. We would meet once a week and write down our practice goals for the week. The goals were very specific and included how much time we would practice each day along with specific technical and musical goals for each of the works that we would practice. Knowing that we had to be accountable to each other was extremely inspiring to both of us. Having another person that I respected to be accountable to helped me stay focused in my daily work. For me it also added a competitive element because I wanted to do at least as well as my practice partner and in moments when I did not want to practice or had a hard time staying focused, it spurred me on to remember that I had to be accountable to my practice partner in a few days.
6. Eliminate wasting time
It is so easy to waste time when practicing. If using your phone to check time, record yourself practicing, or access a metronome app, set it on do not disturb mode. When taking a break, stick to the time limit you initially set and do not stay in the hallway for a long time talking to your friends. Socialize after you have finished your practicing.
Understanding the potential pitfalls of Parkinson’s Law will help you set more effective goals and eliminate time wasting. It is important when practicing to make sure that the results are always in line with what you and your teacher want. Don’t try to be so efficient with controlling time that the quality of the practicing goes down. The goal of using this method should be geared towards reaching a higher level of playing by practicing smarter and better. Happy and efficient practicing!