How to Practice Singing Part IV: Creating a Practice Habit that Sticks! hero

How to Practice Singing Part IV: Creating a Practice Habit that Sticks!

Posted Saturday, April 6th 2024 by Zac Bradford
In part IV of the "How To Practice Singing" series, I discuss practical ways of creating practice habits for singing that promote consistency by applying the four laws for behavior change to our work.

You can view part I of the series here, where I compared two different practicing styles: Striving vs Contentment. You can view part II of the series here, where we discuss how you can practice with intention. You can view part III of the series here, where we explore the nature of identity-based habits.

Four Laws for Behavior Change: Law 1 - Make it Obvious! 

In the previous article of this practice series, we used James Clear's best-selling book, Atomic Habits as a framework to explore Identity-Based Habits and their application in developing a sustainable singing practice routine. For the next article, we will continue to reference Clear's work as well as BJ Fogg's (author of Tiny Habits) research to discuss the application of the first of the Four Laws of Behavior Change: Make it Obvious. This will help us create a singing practice routine that is more effective and long-lasting.

Four Laws of Behavior Change: A Brief Overview 

We will be discussing the Four Laws of Behavior Change in upcoming articles. Therefore, it is important to define each of these four laws and provide additional context for the first law in this current article.

The Four Laws of Behavior Change are: Make it OBVIOUS, make it ATTRACTIVE, make it EASY, and make it SATISFYING. 

How to Create a Good Habit

The 1st law (Cue)
Make it obvious.
The 2nd law (Craving)
Make it attractive.
The 3rd law (Response)
Make it easy.
The 4th law (Reward)
Make it satisfying.

To summarize this framework, Clear states: "The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us." (Clear, n.d.)

First Law: Make it Obvious

In our busy lives, there are so many things competing for our attention and our time i.e. social media, work emails piling up, and chores around the house to be done. If we as singers are to succeed in developing new and lasting singing practice habits, we benefit from being strategic about developing a systematic approach. 

As James Clear states: "Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress." (Atomic Habits)

Developing well-crafted systems can help minimize unhelpful distractions (e.g. excess social media use) while integrating our new singing practice habit into our lifestyle with other existing and necessary habits (cooking dinner, brushing our teeth, etc). 

In creating such a system, it is essential to make this new habit obvious by way of creating cues or prompts that let you know it is time to take action and start your practice. 

To do this there are four steps that we are going to outline that will enhance your ability to create cues that make practice obvious in your life: 

  1. Become aware of your existing habits.
  2. Be intentional about when and where you intend to practice your singing (Implementation Intention) 
  3. Take advantage of using other existing habits to cue your singing practice (Habit Stacking) 
  4. Create an environment that prompts and encourages you to practice. 

Note: *As mentioned in Clear's quote in the introduction: “The cue is about noticing the reward.” (Clear, p.) This suggests that in addition to being a reminder to practice, cues are also a reminder of the reward/s received from completing the task. The reward component will be talked about at length in our future article (the Fourth Law: The Reward) but is worth keeping in mind when discussing all previous laws in the development of this system.

Become aware of existing habits

Before developing a new habit and integrating it into your lifestyle, you benefit greatly from knowing what habits you already have. A great place to start is by writing down your current habits so that you can see what time is accounted for by both the necessary tasks, unnecessary tasks, and unused time. James Clear has created a Habits Scorecard that I would recommend using. Alternatively, you can create your own using a journal, note on your phone, or use an Excel spreadsheet (Clear, p.62). Here is a brief example of what a single morning routine may look like: 

Monday 

5:30 am: Wake up 

6:00 am Go for a run

6:50 am: Eat breakfast. 

7:10 am: Brush teeth/Shower/Get dressed

8:00 am: Leave the house and commute to work 

Etc. 

This can be done for every day of the week and can be adjusted by month or season. It may feel tedious at first, but once the template is created it becomes a lot easier to adapt from month to month, season to season year to year, etc. It is also helpful to see where there may be potential “free “ time in your existing schedule. Additionally, it may help you to identify time that is being used by another habit that you would like to discard or reduce in place of your new singing practice habit (i.e. watching 90 minutes of Television instead of 3 hours). You can go into some detail in analyzing these existing habits and naming them effective, less effective, and neutral habits, which can help to do a more in-depth evaluation of your overall daily routines and habits. (Clear, p.65)

Quick Tip: I have found it particularly helpful to use the “App Activity” feature on my iPhone to track how much time I am spending on social media, email, and other applications. This can make the tracking less tedious and more accurate. 

Implementation Intentions

Growing up, my Dad would often say to my brothers and I: "If you aim for nothing, you’ll hit it every time". Wise words that I wish I would have listened to earlier in life, and applied to developing habits like singing practice, songwriting, physical exercise etc. 

James Clear suggests using an Implementation Intention (Clear, p.70) as a way of being specific about when/where you plan to implement your habit. His formula is as follows: 

Implementation Intention Formula:

“I will [STATE BEHAVIOR] at [TIME ] in [LOCATION].

Applied to a singing practice routine this may look like this: 

“I will [PRACTICE SINGING], [MONDAY, WEDNESDAY & FRIDAY, at 8 AM], in my LIVING ROOM.

Clear states: "Being specific about what you want and how you will achieve it helps you to say no to things that derail progress, distract your attention, and pull you off the course." (Clear, p.72) 

Or to use my Dad's saying, you are creating targets to aim for, which provides clarity as to a plan of action, and some metrics to measure success or progress. I generally suggest that students add a minimal [DURATION] as a metric to this formula, i.e. “I will [PRACTICE SINGING], [MONDAY, WEDNESDAY & FRIDAY, at 8 AM], for [10 MINUTES] in my [LIVING ROOM].

Clears 2-minute rule can apply here, and will be discussed in an upcoming article on the Third Law of Behaviour Change: Make it Easy! (Clear, p.162)

Habit Stacking

A useful habit-forming technique that Clear learned from BJ Fogg is Habit Stacking (Clear, p.72). This involves adding a new habit to an existing routine. To do this, you need to identify your current habits and determine where the new habit can fit into your routine. BJ Fogg, who originated this concept refers to it as the Tiny Habits Recipe and created a wonderful free resource for applying this: The Tiny Habits Recipe Card. Fogg includes a final step in this process which is the Celebration component, which he describes as “Something you do to create a positive feeling inside yourself”. In the context of singing practice, this celebration could be something that involves singing e.g. after practicing my technical exercises and set repertoire, I am going to sing a song that I heard on the radio last. It could be something music/singing related e.g. After my singing practice I am going to listen to a new album. Or perhaps something unrelated, e.g. After singing practice I am going to watch an episode of my favorite show on Netflix. (Tiny Habits, n.d.)

When trying to establish a singing habit, there are several factors to consider. Firstly, you need to identify when you have available time in your day for singing. Secondly, you need to determine when and where you have the most energy, focus, and motivation to be productive and consistent. This may depend on whether you function better in the morning or evening, and when you have a comfortable space to sing without disturbing others. 

By finding the intersection of your available time and optimal conditions for singing, you are more likely to practice consistently. These factors will be discussed in more detail in the article on the Third Law: Make it Easy! Finally, it is important to create an environment that supports your new habit by providing visible cues.

Environment Matters

Allocating a space

"Every habit should have a home. You need an environment that is stable and predictable, new habits thrive with this." (Clear, p)

In an ideal situation, every singer would have a music studio with great acoustics, instruments, recording equipment, and soundproofing. However, not all singers have that luxury. It's easier to establish a habit of practicing when you have a dedicated space, whether it's in your home, school, or a rented studio or hall. 

Simply walking in a dedicated practice environment can serve as a cue and provide consistency, simplifying one of the key variables. Many people practice in a space in their homes, such as their basement, office, or bedroom that offers privacy from housemates or family members. It's essential to choose a space that you feel comfortable in, a space that is less likely to distract you and has cues to keep you focused and engaged in singing. These factors are crucial in selecting and designing a space in which you'll want to practice.

Environmental Cues

"If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make it a big part of your environment. The most persistent behaviors usually have multiple cues… By sprinkling triggers throughout your surroundings you increase the odds that you’ll think about your habit throughout the day. Make sure that the best choice is the obvious one." (Clear, p.86)

It's important to have reminders to practice and make sure your practice space is prepared, especially if it's a shared space. Consider having multiple objects like a music stand, practice journal, and pen set up the night before to create a visible cue. If you have a space dedicated to practice, set up a piano, guitar, microphone, sheet music stand, water bottle, and mirror. If you practice outside of your home, prepare a practice bag with portable items such as a water bottle, sheet music, practice journal, microphone, and straw to make any space feel like your practice space. Also place your bag somewhere visible, like by your front door or on the kitchen table. 

Other Cues

A helpful cue for establishing a new habit is to set a reminder on your digital calendar or clock or use a habit-tracking app with reminder features. Using the completion of your previous habit as a trigger is also effective. For example, finishing your yoga practice and rolling up your yoga mat could be the cue to move to your practice space and begin singing practice.

Removing Distractions

When you start a habit of practicing something, you may face certain environmental factors that can help or hinder your progress. For instance, if you practice singing in your office with your laptop and phone nearby, you might be tempted to check your emails or respond to texts instead of practicing. To avoid such distractions and keep your focus on singing, it's important to close your laptop or move it away from your practice space and put your phone in "Do Not Disturb" mode. I've personally experienced this and have learned to be intentional about creating a distraction-free environment for my singing practice.

Conclusion

"The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us." (Clear, n.d.)

The first step in developing a consistent practice habit that sticks is to make it obvious or to use Clear's quote above to notice the reward. There are four steps you can take to make your singing practice more obvious or to start noticing the reward. First, become aware of your existing habits. Second, be intentional about when and where you plan to practice your singing by using Implementation Intention. Third, take advantage of using other existing habits to cue your singing practice by using Habit Stacking. Fourth, create an environment that prompts and encourages you to practice.

As you work through these steps and create cues that make your emerging or existing practice habit more obvious it is then easier to take the next step, making your singing practice more attractive. Our next article in the series will focus on the second law of the Four Laws of Behavior Change: Make it attractive. 

References

Zac Bradford

Director of NYVC Australia/Voice Teacher Associate

Zac Bradford is the Director of NYVC Australia. His clients have reached the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, have been featured in Hollywood films, TV shows, have worked as backing singers for AAA touring artists, and are performing on Broadway, Off-Broadway, 1st US Tours, internationally, and more. His clients also perform in famous live music venues including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Blue Note, Rockwood Music Hall and The Bitter End.

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