The Secret Behind Focused Practicing

 By Hans Jørgen Jensen


Dopamine neurons and synapse.  

Have you experienced this when practicing?

Your practice session is going well, and you are feeling great--but then suddenly your focus starts to wane you became more and more frustrated. You now feel defeated and want to quit practicing. 

What happened?

Although there are several reasons this can occur, the most likely explanation is dopamine withdrawal from your brain.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is one of the over 100 neurotransmitters in the human brain. Although frequently referred to as the “pleasure molecule” it is more accurately called the “motivation molecule” and it has the power to boost your drive, focus and motivation. It is tied together with the experience of novelty, and the unpredictability of results.

How does Dopamine help?

When dopamine is present, we keep better track of what we are trying to accomplish, and the learning process moves forward with more ease. Dopamine helps information get passed from one neuron to the next and is vital when trying to learn new things. Therefore, to have an effective and enjoyable practice session we must make sure that we have enough dopamine available in the brain.

How to create more dopamine?

What is particularly exciting is that we can influence the production and availability of dopamine in the brain by how we think. Discovering new things and being excited about an activity creates more dopamine. Similarly, having success with something results in a positive feeling and a consequent rise in dopamine levels.

Bringing novelty into practicing and making it more fun helps create more dopamine

Since repeating the same thing over and over the same way is not particularly exciting or effective, it is important to bring in an element of novelty into practice sessions. When experiencing new and unusual things time seems to flow very quickly and productivity improves. To sustain this feeling of flow, look for new and creative way to solve old or new problems. The more difficult the problem you are encountering is, the more creative you should try to be to solve the problem.

Setting clear goals and finishing and crossing them off from a list creates more dopamine

When finishing a specific task in a successful way dopamine is released and a powerful and positive emotion is experienced. Having a clear goal of what you want to accomplish in the practice session and making it a challenge will help add an element of excitement to your practice session. Break the problems into smaller tasks and write them down on a list.  As you accomplish the goals cross them off the list. 

What causes dopamine levels to drop?

When getting frustrated or bored, dopamine levels tend to drop which causes difficulties with solving even the simplest of problems. Similarly, when failing with a task, we start feeling bad and dopamine levels also go down.

Stop what you are doing when getting frustrated

When you start getting frustrated and you have a feeling of being stuck, stop what you are doing, analyse what is going on in your mind and ask yourself what you are frustrated about?

If the answer is: I want to be able to play the piece now and I am sick of not being able to do it. I have practiced this passage now for over two weeks and it should work by now! 

Solution: Stop the negative thinking because the more you hang on to that feeling the worse you will feel and the less productive you will be. Having negative and counterproductive thoughts causes a strong dopamine withdrawal from your brain.

So, what can you do?  You have thousands of possibilities!

Change your thoughts

By changing your thought process into something positive and constructive you will immediately start feeling better and dopamine will start flowing again. As an example, when feeling restless and impatient reflect upon the following quote: 

“Genius is eternal patience.” – Michelangelo

Being patient is one of the most important aspects of practicing to master

Here are six tips for becoming more patient.

  1. Be realistic in your expectations about what you are trying to accomplish in the moment and give yourself enough time to do it.
  2. When getting frustrated or getting that familiar feeling of nervous energy, ask yourself what you are agitated about. It is very often due to trying to go too fast too soon. Decide on a clear strategy for accomplishing your goal and remind yourself to stay patient and calm.
  3. Take a break. Stop practicing and just sit very quietly for several minutes doing and thinking nothing with your eyes closed. It can be difficult to do but will allow you to center and calm your mind while promoting a feeling of relaxation.
  4. Understand that setbacks are an essential part of getting better.
  5. Tell yourself that good things take time. When people get impatient it is very often because they want immediate results. However, many valuable endeavours take time, and it is important to let time and focused effort work their magic.
  6. Remind yourself that you can’t always control everything that happens in your life. However, you can control how you react to it.

Although any of these tips can help you, it is also important to work on developing the ability to step out of your own mind to talk and guide yourself into a positive mindset in moments of low focus and engagement.

When passing through a moment of impatience, ask yourself:

  1. Can I do this right now? If the answer is yes- just do it!
  2. Can I learn this right now? If the answer is yes- decide how many steps it will take to learn it.
  3. If the answer is no- ask how much time is needed in order to develop this skill and what part of this should be done right now.

Sometimes problems can be conquered in one moment by changing the intensity level of your concentration and other times it is necessary to develop a particular skill over a few days or weeks.  Once you have decided on the right strategy it becomes much easier to be patient. Happy focused practicing!