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Your Brain is Rotten

Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it) January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally…

Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it)

January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally sort everything out. For me, the main focus of my January life-purge is my practice routine – or, more accurately, the distinct lack thereof.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to really make the most of the time that I spend at the instrument; I had a lightbulb moment when listening to a podcast and the interviewee said something along these lines (I can’t find the episode in question to be able to provide a verbatim quote, but still…):

“Things like maths or foreign languages are like apps that we ‘install’ in order to increase our knowledge or improve our skill set in a given area. Most people spend all of their time and effort on installing or upgrading their apps instead of attending to their operating system, which is how they run their brains.”

Jackpot. How can I expect to get the greatest possible benefit from practising when my brain is perpetually distracted? Why have I been focusing on upgrading my mental ‘apps’ when my operating system is full of bugs?

If you also feel perpetually overwhelmed, or that your attention is fragmented, if you struggle to concentrate, or are always ‘busy’ but never seem to get anything done, then this is for you:

The Myth of Multitasking

We’ve been led to believe that the only way to cope with the relentless demands of modern life is to do lots of things at the same time, and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has allowed us to be able to chip away at our never-ending to-do lists regardless of where we are or what the time is.

Over time, the ability to be permanently connected has gradually morphed into a necessity. Many of us have become habitualised to permanent digital stimulation to the point where one device is not enough; we browse multiple internet tabs while watching TV, we can’t make it through a film or a concert without checking our phone – the hyperconnected life has left us incapable of being alone with nothing but our own thoughts for company.

Here’s the inconvenient neurological truth: multitasking is bad for you. Whilst it provides the illusion that you’re being efficient and productive, the fact of the matter is that you’re actually just doing two (or more) things badly at the same time.

The crux of the problem is that the very region of our brain that we depend on to keep us on task is easily distracted by novelty; the prefrontal cortex is where all the action is – this part of the brain governs ‘higher order’ behaviours, including:

  • Delayed gratification
  • Impulse control
  • Long term planning and goal setting
  • Maintaining socially acceptable behaviour

The neurons in this part of the brain are sensitive to dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward; when you’re about to complete a task your brain gives you a hit of dopamine which acts as a precursor to reaching your goal and is designed to keep you on track – a biochemical motivator, if you will. The problem is that the brain can’t distinguish between the relative sizes or values of the tasks that you might be performing, so every time you send or receive an email, text, tweet or other digital notification your ancient brain senses that you’ve achieved something significant and rewards you accordingly. This leads to what scientists term a dopamine feedback loop, in which we’re constantly trapped in the cycle of pursuing low-level tasks to feed our sense of productivity.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind offers a comprehensive insight into the numerous perils of multitasking and the damage it has on your brain’s capacity to focus. His view on multitasking can be summed up as follows:

“Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system”

Attentional switching comes at a high neurological cost – constantly chopping and changing between tasks burns up oxygen and glucose, increases the production of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and reinforces the dopamine addiction feedback loop in the prefrontal cortex.

Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford, had this to say on the matter:

“It turns out that multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organised; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

By contrast, scientific research has shown that sticking to one thing at a time (‘uni-tasking’) has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s; older adults who participated in training sessions to develop their attentional control began to display brain patterns similar to those of younger adults after just 5 hours.

It’s not just the scientific community that are alerting us to the dangers of technology; some of the most vocal critics of the hyperconnected lifestyle are those who helped to create it. Recently, a couple of former Facebook employees have publicly spoken out on the deleterious effects of the social media platform:

ex-VP of ‘user growth’ at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya said that:

“The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem… this is a global problem.”

Sean Parker, ex-facebook president, said the thought process behind building the social media giant was:

“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Parker also confirms that the site’s creators understood the impact that they would have on users’ psychology:

“…we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

Add to this the news that two of Apple’s major investors are pressing the company to do something about smartphone addiction among young people and we’re starting to get an idea of the extent of the problem. But what can we do about it?

6 Ways to Fix Your Rotten Brain

1.Learn to Concentrate

The most effective method of rewiring your brain and improving your ability to concentrate is by developing a regular meditation practice. If you’re turned off by the religious or ‘new age’ connotations that tend to get lumped in with the typical depictions of meditation then fear not – apps like Headspace offer a totally secular route into improving your ability to focus. I’d also recommend Sam Harris’ excellent, no-nonsense book Waking Up, which focuses on how to cultivate secular spirituality. My own experience with meditation is that it offers a subtle, yet powerful technique for coping with everything that life throws my way. I stumbled into the practice of insight meditation (often referred to as ‘vipassana’ meditation a decade ago and have found it to have numerous benefits, including (but not limited to):

  • improved concentration
  • better sleep
  • increased recovery time after workouts
  • a more consistent emotional state
  • increased sensory awareness
  • effective management of symptoms of depression/anxiety

Numerous high-functioning individuals swear by a dailly meditation in some form or other – bestselling author, lifehacker and meta-learning guru Tim Ferriss has interviewed almost 300 top performers across a range of fields and estimates that around 80% engage in some sort of regular mindfulness practice – this includes distinctly non ‘floaty’ individuals like super-producer Rick Rubin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock has been meditating since the early 1970s (at the suggestion of bass great Buster Williams) and the late sax legend Michael Brecker was also a practitioner.

2.Reconfigure your devices to reduce distraction

The most obvious cure for being constantly interrupted by digital distractions is to delete the offending apps from your device; if this is unthinkable then there are still several steps that you can take to reduce the damaging effect they have on your productivity:

  • stop your email automatically checking itself every 5 minutes (more on inbox management later)
  • turn off notifications from social apps that alert you to every single like, comment or retweet
  • put email and social media apps on the 2nd or 3rd ‘page’ of your device and bury them in folders

A more comprehensive guide to optimising your phone by former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris can be found here

3.Start and Finish the day away from screens

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? If the first thing that your eyes see is your newsfeed or your inbox, then you run the risk of burning through all of your attentional energy before the day has even started; your brain has a limited capacity for processing new information and maxing out your mental bandwidth first thing can lead to lack of focus and diminished impulse control. In short, starting your day with screen time can impair your ability to make decisions and sabotage your creative endeavours later in the day.

If you enforce a morning ‘buffer zone’ in which you don’t look at your phone for the first hour of the day, then you’re giving your brain the chance to wake up naturally, without the barrage of data offered by the internet. Doing the same thing with the last hour of your day prior to going to sleep allows you to wind down without the stimulation of technology, resulting in an improved ability to get to sleep.

One of the easy traps to fall into is checking email every few minutes – whenever you have to wait more than 5 seconds for anything, out comes the phone and habit pulls us straight into our inbox. One way around this is to allocate specific blocks of time for checking and responding to email (this can be applied to social apps as well). I find that I’m happiest and most productive when I check my email twice a day – at roughly midday and 4pm – when I stick to it, this policy results in precisely zero people getting upset because I haven’t attended to their email; if something is truly urgent, they will call me. I can get a few hours of quality work done in the morning before dealing with my inbox, then the second check allows me to process any responses that might have come in before the end of the working day.

4.Use Social Media as an Output

Most people use platforms like Facebook primarily as an information input – they scroll through the endless treadmill of other people’s status updates, processing huge mounts of data, most of it useless. But how about using social media solely as an output? If your business or creative endeavours demand that you have to interact using social media then there are steps that you can take to ensure that the technology is working for you and not the other way around:

  • use post scheduling software like Hootsuite or If This Then That to ‘batch’ updates for specific times; this allows you to get all of your daily/weekly/monthly updates done in one dedicated block of time, rather than multiple fragments of several minutes each. This prohibits the spontaneity that social media is predicated on, but it’s amazing how many users give followers the illusion of a ‘real time’ feed through carefully planned, well-timed updates.
  • Use browser plugins like Leechblock to limit the time that you can spend per day on social media and other websites.

If you want to really increase your productivity and improve your mental health, then it’s very easy to kill your news feed. This is what I see when I log into Facebook:

Kill facebook news feed

 

Isn’t that great? No hairloss ads, no people celebrating that they’ve gone to the gym today, no temptation to stalk people that I went to school with.

I can still keep track of notifications, manage this site’s page (you’ve already given the page a like, right?) and pretend to remember birthdays without getting sucked into the whirlpool of useless status updates. The real benefit – aside from not expending time and energy processing superfluous data – is the positive impact of not being perpetually bombarded by the artificial awesomeness of the lives of others; seeing the carefully edited highlights of those in your networks without having insight into their failures can create a distorted sense of reality in which everybody is doing better than you, which can fuel feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.

The obvious criticism of this approach is that it’s cynical, manipulative, insincere and means that you miss out on important events in your friends’ lives; my argument is that you still participate fully in the relationships that matter most to you by seeing your friends and family IN REAL LIFE. Rather than attempting to maintain superficial, surface-level interactions with 1000 people it might be more worthwhile expending the same cumulative amount of time and energy on cultivating deeper relationships with 50 or 100 people that you genuinely care about. Scientists have actually quantified the maximum number of social relationships that any one person can effectively maintain – it’s known as Dunbar’s number (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar) and is 150, surprisingly small in comparison to the number of ‘friends’ that many of us have on social platforms.

5.Screen Sabbaths/Digital Sabbaticals

The idea of a screen sabbath is to take one day a week on which you abstain from social media usage and email checking (you can still use your phone for texts, calls and modern-day necessities like Uber); the effect of this is that you gradually come to realise that the world doesn’t fall apart if you miss one day of your digital life, which can help to reduce time spent on devices during the other days of the week.

A ‘digital sabbatical’ is a longer timeframe, typically ranging from 3 days to one week, where you go totally ‘off grid’ and get away from all forms of technology – set up emergency contacts and an email autoresponder so you’re not paranoid that something is happening while you’re unplugged.

6.Use The Brain’s Dopamine Addiction To Your Advantage

We can actually harness the prefrontal cortex’s dopamine-seeking tendencies to our advantage and effectively play it at its own game – for the last 6 months, I’ve been using an app called Forest to keep me away from my phone and get more work done. The app rewards the user for spending a set amount of time away from their phone, and plants a tree as a reward for focused time – if you use your phone at all during the allotted time, then your tree dies:

forest productivity app

 

Now, this sounds ridiculously childish, but you can’t argue with biochemistry – I’ve found that planting a digital forest has been the single most effective trick in monitoring and increasing the amount of time I spend practising or doing other important things (like making content for this site). Because I’m slightly competitive, I find myself going to great lengths to try to beat my previous day’s score – playing a game doesn’t make it feel like work, and I get my digital dopamine fix from doing something useful.

These measures might seem extreme to some people, but to quote Mark Twain:

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

So there we are – I’m still trying (and ofter failing) to confront my internet addiction and break away from screens, but I’m doing my best to make sure that 2018 is the year that I finally get of the hamster wheel and spend more hours in the real world doing things that matter to me. If you’re interested in reclaiming your brain, then I’ve found the following resources to be extremely valuable:

Book/Resource List

Deep Work by Cal Newport (the best productivity book I’ve ever read by a long way)
The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
How Multitasking Is Affecting the Way You Think Clifford Nass
How To Meditate by Sam Harris
Two guided meditations by Sam Harris
Mindfulness meditations by Tara Brach (a little more ‘out there’, but be patient…)
Forest App
Headspace App
Leechblock
Hootsuite
If This Then That
Kill Facebook News Feed Plugin for Firefox|for Chrome (If you’re still using Safari or Internet Explorer, then have a quiet word with yourself).

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7 Steps To Better Practice

We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’…

We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’ or ‘I’ll get better at bass’ have already started to let things slip. This post deals with how to make the most of your practice time and create a routine that is both effective and sustainable.

The bulk of the information in this post is concerned with the why and how of practising rather than the what – everyone has different things that need attention so I’m reluctant to give advice on the content of your practice schedule.

A brief disclaimer: all of this is based on my personal experience of what works best for me and my practice routine. This is not the only way to do things, but I’ve had positive feedback from many students regarding the concepts outlined in this post. I’m always open to alternative strategies, so if there’s something that works for you but isn’t covered here then leave a comment to let me know…

In keeping with the New Year theme of the post, I’ve organised things along the lines of a meal (my main non-musical obsession is food). Think of this as a new musical diet plan for 2014.

APPETISERS 

1. Practising vs. Playing

The first step is making the distinction between practising and playing. 

Practising allows you to hone in around on the areas of music (note that I didn’t say ‘bass playing’) that are currently outside of your comfort zone. These could involve instrumental technique, application of harmonic/melodic ideas, sight reading, ear training or knowledge of music theory.

Playing covers situations where you’re in your comfort zone, often playing material that you can already play well. This includes gigs/rehearsals/jamming/noodling, all of which are enjoyable but aren’t stretching your playing and therefore won’t result in significant improvement.

In order to maximise your musical development, you need to strike the balance between practising and playing. If all you do is practise, then you deny yourself the opportunity to apply all of the things that you’ve been working on in a ‘real world’ scenario. On the other hand, if all you do is play then you run the risk of getting stuck in a rut and never evolving as a musician.

I use playing situations (gigs/rehearsals etc) as a measure of how well my practice schedule is working. We’re all the best player in the world in the safety of our own practice rooms, but in a performance environment things feel very different. I find that recording gigs and later critiquing my performance is one of the most effective (and painful) strategies for establishing which concepts have worked their way into my playing and which still need work.

2.Reality Checks

Getting a second opinion on your playing is hugely important for your musical development. I find it difficult to be entirely objective about my playing (particularly while I’m in the act of performing) so I make an effort to seek constructive criticism from people who I respect musically.

More often than not these ‘critical friends’ are other musicians that I’m on a gig with, but I also try and take lessons whenever I can. Having a mentor who gives me a brutally honest assessment of my playing inspires me to put more hours of practice time in, informs the content of my practice time and helps to keep my ego in check.

Some people find it odd that I still continue to take lessons even though I make my living through gigging and teaching (“…I thought you knew how to play bass?!”) but I feel that continuing to study music with someone more knowledgeable than myself is the only way to ensure that I keep growing as a musician. Michael Brecker continued to have a coach long into his career and Mike Stern studied with the same teacher for almost 30 years. If it’s good enough for them then it’s good enough for me (important note – I am in NO WAY comparing myself to either Brecker or Stern…)

3.Goal Setting

Make a list of all the things that you’d like to change about your playing. Focus on 2 or 3 areas in particular and write a set of related goals that are measurable. Once you’ve established what you’re aiming for you can then choose (or create) appropriate exercises that will help bring you closer to your goals.

It’s also wise to ask yourself why you’re practising certain things – how will what you’re about to work on bring you closer to your goals? If you can’t directly trace how a particular exercise will improve a specific area of your playing then cut it out of your practice regime.

THE MAIN COURSE

4.’Chunking’

My preference is to divide my practice time into small ‘chunks’ rather than working on anything for a protracted length of time. I find that 15-20 minutes of focused practice interspersed with short (2-3 minute) breaks produces the best results. I started this approach after going to a masterclass with Todd Johnson in which he suggested using a similar approach. Almost immediately found that I seemed to be getting more practice done in less time than previously and that I retained more information on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s say you have 3 areas that you need to work on (e.g. ear training, reading and repertoire) and you have about an hour a day of practice time. A sample ‘chunking’ routine would look like this:

-15 mins on Topic A

-3 min break

-15 mins on Topic B

-3 min break

-15 mins on Topic C

-3 min break

At this point you still might have time for another chunk, so go back and spend more time on the topic that you feel weakest on.

-15 mins on Topic B

A small note on breaks – be disciplined and use a timer! 3 minutes easily become 5 minutes which easily become 10 minutes which easily become…

Having more than an hour to practice allows for more opportunities to revisit topics multiple times over the course of a practice session without losing focus or suffering information overload.

I’ve been using this method for 5 years or so and find that it allows me to do a relatively high volume of practice and not feel exhausted afterwards. The concept of alternating intensely focused periods of work with brief rest periods is well established amongst athletes and academics alike (see the ‘resources’ section below for literature on this subject).

5.ROTATING SCHEDULES

One issue that almost everyone that I talk to mentions is not having enough time to practice. One way to get around this is to have two (or more) practice routines that you cycle through on alternating days – an ‘A’ routine and a ‘B’ routine. Again, this is nothing new – athletes do this all the time.

Let’s imagine that you have the following areas to work on:

  • Sight reading
  • Arpeggios
  • Repertoire

Now let’s think about some of the possible variables for each of these areas:

i. Sight Reading

  • Rhythm reading (no pitch variation)
  • Pitch recognition (no rhythmic variation)
  • Combination reading (‘real’ music)
  • Reading in different clefs (treble/tenor/alto)

ii. Arpeggios

  • Different chord types (major/minor/augmented/diminished/suspended)
  • Transposition through all keys
  • Single string vs. multi-string (2-6 string, depending on your instrument)
  • Inversions

iii. Repertoire

  • Transcription of material to be learnt
  • Memorisation of new material
  • Revision of existing repertoire

If we combine the idea of rotating with some ‘chunks’ we begin to get an idea of what an alternating practice schedule looks like.

Here’s a sample ‘A’ routine:

-15 minutes on rhythm reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (#s), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes on learning new repertoire

The sample ‘B’ routine might look something like this:

-15 minutes on pitch reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (bs), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes revising existing repertoire

Splitting your practice routine in this way means that you can still make significant improvements to your playing without having to work on every element each day.

This is a very brief (and simplified) overview, but it should give you an idea of how to apply the concept to whatever you’re working on. It may seem really obvious, but I’m surprised at how many people who come to me for lessons complain of not having enough practice time because they’re trying to do everything every day.

6.TRACKING

This is one of the most crucial areas of any practice routine – and one that is often overlooked by many players. The act of keeping a record of what you practice helps to keep track of your progress over a given period of time and make adjustments if necessary.

I have two methods of logging my practice time: a practice diary and a checklist. These represent the micro and the macro aspects of practice. In the diary I keep a record of the exercises I do every day, together with notes on which keys/chord types/tempo ranges I’ve worked on:

This has largely replaced my short term memory...

I find this really useful on a purely practical basis, as my preference for ‘chunking’ means that I tend to be working on lots of different things and my short term memory is terrible.

The purpose of the checklist is for tracking progress towards longer term goals – mostly related to repertoire, transcriptions and technical exercises. I keep the checklist on a whiteboard that stays in my office as a visible reminder that I always have things to be working on…

DESSERT

7.MOTIVATION

One of the biggest sticking points that I’ve encountered when it comes to practising is maintaining motivation. When I’m busy with teaching and gigs and I get a few hours off, practising is not always the most appealing option. I have a number of strategies that I use to make sure that I keep pushing myself:

i. Visible Reminders

This is the first thing I see when i wake up. It helps set the tone for the day:

Bass wall hanger

Along with the Whiteboard Of Doom (see ‘tracking’), these are part of a series of things that I have around my house to remind me that there’s always work to be done.

Awkward confession time… I’m also one of those people that owns motivational crockery:

SmugCringeworthy, but surprisingly effective.

ii. Books

All of these have helped to shape my musical development in some way:

LibraryYes, there’s a cookbook in there. And yes, that is Arnie’s biography. Both have proved to be unusual sources of wisdom.

There are several books in particular that contain great advice on strategies for keeping to your resolutions (musical or otherwise); Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds and Switch by Chip & Dan Heath both include strategies for making resolutions stick, while Outliers and The Talent Code are both great for reminding yourself that great players are made, not born.

An area that I’d strongly recommend looking into (before you investigate anything else in this post) is time management-The Four Hour Work Week and No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs are good starting points (my mentor put me on to the second book after I complained that I didn’t have enough time to practice…).

So there you have it. Try some of these ideas and let me know if they work for you.

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