The When/Then Intention

I am always curious about what produces good practice habits. Even when lots of good progress has been made, sometimes students slip backward in their consistency.

What’s the formula for practice follow-through?

What’s the formula for practice follow-through?

Getting beyond the vague

Recently I came across the following true story:

Two groups of recovering addicts in a treatment center were asked to prepare their employment history, to be completed sometime that day. The first group were told nothing else. They went through the day and (perhaps not surprisingly) did not complete the assignment. The second group was given additional instruction: to write a statement of intention following the form If/When/Then... “If/When lunch is done and there is space at the table, then I will start my employment history.” A majority of this group followed through and wrote down their employment history, completing the assignment that same day.*

When I read this, I was struck by the fact that we are all like this. It could have been a study of anyone! How often have you had a thought to do something important (say, while you were in the car) and then never actually followed through?

I also had the thought, This is like practicing. When we say to ourselves “I will practice sometime this week” it isn’t specific enough to produce action. Our brains aren’t built to follow through on that sort of vague intention.

The formula for change

Using a When/Then formula gets around this vagueness problem. It goes something like this: “When I get up at 7:00 a.m., and take an hour to eat breakfast, get dressed, brush my teeth, and pack my backpack for school, then I have twenty minutes to practice from 8:00 a.m. to 8:20 a.m.” That kind of statement has the granularity to produce action.

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I used this formula with my stepson who is also my student, and it produced the kind of practice habit in him that resulted in the good technique and enjoyment of playing he has now. He can be lazy, forgetful and unfocused. But telling him to stop being lazy, to pay attention and to focus more, only makes him mad. What works better is to give him the positive action (practice at a certain time) AND a positive self-talk statement to help him get there in his own brain.

Parents, here it is adjusted slightly for you as the practice partner: “When [child’s name] gets home from school/sports/activities, then I will let them have a 20 minute break with a snack and immediately get them into the practice room. I promise to do this even if I am tired.” OR “When we clear plates from dinner, then we will go into the practice room together for 10 minutes, even if we are tired.”

Setting your own When/Then intention, regardless of the obstacles and difficulties of your own day (including your own tiredness), is critical to your child’s success.

This makes successful practicing not just about “getting things done” but about effective self-talk. It is better to focus on teaching a child supportive self-talk, than to get a set of tasks done. If you have to skip Twinkle or Mozart Concerto practice for a day, so be it. Sitting down to talk about this When/Then intention is worth any temporary delay in progress on the music.

Playing the long game

The When/Then plan is playing the long game. It aims to establish a habit of mind. It reminds me of the old saying “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Perhaps there is something even more valuable than how to fish: how to talk to yourself about fishing. You might know how to fish, or how to move a bow on a violin. But you must be able to talk yourself through to the discipline of doing it, consistently, day after day, if you want to do it to “feed yourself”. Children do not have this self-talk mastered. We must help them learn to do it.

I believe that Suzuki’s “Beautiful Tone, Beautiful Heart” is also about how gently, how rigorously, how winsomely we talk to ourselves. You can stop during the day and ask yourself, How is my self-talk tone? How is my child’s? Changing self-talk changes behavior.

And again, for your own priorities, if you have to eliminate an activity of your own for a day, so that you can actually write a statement of intention for yourself, you will reap dividends far into the future.

The When/Then Contract

I have put together a simple tool for you to use with your child: The When/Then Contract. Very simply, it asks you to fill in the blank “When _______________ Then _________________” with specific events and actions. The more granular, the better. At the bottom is a place to sign your name. Teachers can hand this out to encourage practicing during the summer months. Parents, print out multiple copies and use one for yourself!

Why not sit down right now and start a When/Then intention statement for an action you know needs doing? Be sure to involve your child. When you do, they will show you the same kind of follow through as was produced in the study.

If you encourage the When/Then Intention, the rest of the practice discipline you are hoping to see will manifest itself more easily.

*Paraphrased from Pre-suasion by Robert Cialdini (2016: Simon & Schuster)