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When I upgraded to a new phone few years ago, every Sunday morning it started popping up with a weekly usage report, detailing the apps I'd spent the most time on. I quickly saw I was spending way too much time on social media! Granted, I was touring a lot and needing to promote concert dates, but I knew that I was also doing my fair share of mindless scrolling to kill time between activities and appointments. If I didn't set some limits and prioritize my time differently I was at risk of looking back over my life and seeing it flash by as one big Facebook or Instragram scroll. Not good. I needed to swap it out for some better habits.

While violin practice and exercise were thankfully already habits for me, meditation was something I'd seen the benefit of, but could never seem to make stick for more than a week. I'd get busy, miss a few days, and sometimes sheepishly realize it weeks later, often in a moment when life had become so hectic I needed it as an excuse to take a deep breath and get grounded again. I could only imagine how much more peacefully and effectively I might be able to move through life if I could cultivate a daily practice of getting centered and clear, even if only for a few minutes.

So I made it a rule that I couldn't check social media until I meditated for at least 10 minutes. Since checking it was often one of the first things I was doing every day, I had to be disciplined and organize my day in a new way from the start. My rule had to be non-negotiable. If I allowed myself to check one post or quickly see if I got any messages it was over. Magically, attaching meditation to something that was already a strong habit, something that I was unconsciously compelled to do every single day, created an instant meditation habit!

Language learning was another habit I wanted to build. I dreamed of being able to carry on basic conversations on tours in France and Germany, and introduce the concert pieces in the native tongue. But again, I'd struggled for years to fit the time for it into my day. So I decided that at least 10 minutes on Duolingo would also have to happen before checking social media.

Et Voila! I'm now approaching my 1800th day of consecutive meditation practice and am nearing a 1000 day language learning streak, simply by piggybacking on my social media habit. Perhaps even better though, after about a month of filling my time with these activities before social media, I found my interest in social media begin to wane. I was feeling filled up in new, more rewarding ways. I turned off all the notifications and now I sometimes go a few weeks before having the thought that I should check my social media. While it is important to keep up on community and it's a means of connection that doesn't seem to be going away, I am so grateful to no longer be controlled by social media's addictive algorithms, or feel the need to be validated with "likes."

Although anecdotal, science has also shown (see Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans by Peter M. Gollwitzer) that combining practice with something you're going to remember to do every day - eat dinner, check your texts or email, brush your teeth etc., sets up a cue that will allow your goal to actually become a habit. Additionally, rather than set an abstract goal, like "I'm going to meditate every day," I also set a time frame - at least 10 minutes. Some days I might have time for an hour, but like I stress with my private students, we're striving for quality over quantity. We have to find the regularity before it makes any sense to worry about how much time would be ideal. And in this way I also don't beat myself up about the days I only have 10 minutes. I just focus on being present for and making the most of the time I can set aside.

There have been a few wide eyes when I've suggested this approach in my lessons studio. While the idea of practicing violin or not getting any dinner sounds like harsh punishment, the intention here is not to punish, but to simply leverage an existing habit to help build a new one. For a child, parents might need to give a few reminders along the way ("dinner will be ready in 20 minutes so your practice time is running out!"), with a backup plan of turning that day's practice into a "concert" for the family before everyone gets to eat. The goal is to make practice a part of life, not a drudgery.

However, building a habit, even an enjoyable one, does take discipline. So set a timeframe that is reasonable and record your progress, such as keeping track of your "streak" of practice days, or your achievements in learning a new piece or technique. And while we'd hope that the reward of sounding better and expressing ourselves with more nuance and color might be enough to make it all worthwhile, finding incentives beyond our music making can also help, especially in the early stages. Consider rewards that inspire more practice, like a new music book of the student's choice or attending a symphony concert after X many days of straight practice. We might also consider inspiring a friend, spouse, or sibling to join us in our quest to create a new habit. The social support, expectation, and even some friendly competition, can really help us though days when we might slip.

I do admit that I've cheated on my rule a few times, most notably when we were evacuated in August 2020 due to a forest fire sweeping through our neighborhood. Our local social media group was the primary means of getting timely information from the front lines. Understandably anxious, in the initial days of the fire I checked that page first thing, but then was able to back up and still do my meditation and language studies. We need to be firm with ourselves in the early stages of building a habit, but allow for flexibility in the flow of our days so we can keep our habit, yet not feel rigidly beholden and beat ourselves up if we have to alter plans on occasion.

If you've had a hard time sticking to a daily practice habit, make it a rule that X amount of practice has to happen before something else you do habitually. You might also think about it like that habitual activity can't happen until X amount of practicing has happened at some point that day. Pretty quickly, practicing starts happening! And along the way it's possible that, like me, you might inadvertently let go of your original habit. As long as it's not hygiene or homework, some habits might be better off broken. Let me know how it goes!

Happy Practicing!

Please email Laurel at laurel@laurelthomsen.com if you have a violin, viola, fiddle, music biz, or practice related question you’d like answered in the blog or on a podcast, have a story or insight to share, or if you’d like to inquire about violin, viola, or fiddle lessons with Laurel, in-person or via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.

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Laurel Thomsen

Violin, Viola, Vocals
Performance, Instruction, Recording

Based in Santa Cruz, California

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Photography by Michelle Magdalena

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