The Connection Between Deep Work and Musical Practice

I recently took a last-minute trip to Florida hoping to elope from the cold and rainy weather that has befallen Atlanta. Due to my last-minute decision, I was budget traveling and had a considerable amount of free time on my hands. Shuffling through various podcasts, I came across a selection by Hidden Brain titled, You 2.0: Deep Work.

The premise of the podcast: multitasking hinders productivity. Each ping of your Instagram account, email, text message, or phone call detrimentally takes you off-task. Performing checks to your inbox every 5-10 minutes can make you feel as if you are effectively single-tasking. But these quick checks that switch your context, even briefly, can have massive cognitive drawbacks.

Professor Sophie Leroy has conducted research on the theory of attention residue. In a nutshell, participants in a study performed cognitively demanding work--meaning solving difficult puzzles or mathematical equations. They were then taken off-task with a random picture or note and asked to continue where they left off with the original problem. The findings? Performance significantly dropped after participants were taken off-task.

If you are a high performing individual, you can most likely attest to attention residue in one form or the other: constantly checking email, looking at the TV while creating content, attempting to write a press-release while checking Instagram. So how can you achieve true productivity?

I grew up on the notion that multitasking was a coveted ability needed to achieve the title of "uber-savvy professional." Every job interview I've gone through I've seen this skill listed on the docket. However, when I think about the concept of deep work and how it applies to all makes sense.

I was always taught to be deliberate when practicing: set aside 45-minutes to an hour, hunker down, and focus on the task at hand. I always try to find a quiet space without any other distractions. Conveniently with the violin, you don't have a free hand. With bow in one hand and violin in the other, doing anything else becomes nearly impossible. I practice the violin in a systematic manner. First I start with scales, then move to sixths, thirds, and arpeggios. finally, I move to the piece or pieces of music I am working on. I laser in on a section that I have trouble with and play it over and over until it is perfect (or at least better than when I started).

Throughout this process, I normally do not look at my phone, check email, do the get the point. I am completely focused on the one task at hand. Granted, when you are playing a musical instrument you are already multitasking. You are focused on your breathing, hand position, stance, moving the bow, moving your fingers into place ever so slightly before the bow stroke, thinking about the tone of the piece. There is a lot that goes into practicing the Violin. However, setting distractions aside is paramount to using your practice time productively.

The next time you have an important task to focus on, whether it be a musical instrument or building a slide deck for a client, I encourage you to embody the philosophy of deep work. Try putting all distractions aside and truly focusing on the task at hand.