Thoreau Was Right

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.

Henry David Thoreau

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

It seems that directions written simply can have a profound effect on how we feel about the task to be done. This feeling translates into motivation; or not. No big surprise there, really. What is surprising however, is that apparently something as simple as font choice has an impact on our motivation and belief system. Norbert Schwarz and Hyunjin Song, two psychologists at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, wanted to see if they could affect the motivation of 20-year old college students to exercise. They split the students into two groups and gave each printed directions. One was printed in simple Arial font, the other in a font that imitated Japanese calligraphy which was difficult to read. After reading, the psychologists tested each group by asking a series of questions dealing with how they felt about their exercise plan: how long it would take; whether it flowed or was boring; whether the student would make exercise a routine; etc. What do you think they found?

Turns out that the students who read the directions written with the simple font were much more open to exercising and thought the regime would take less time and be more fluid and easy and were willing to make exercise a regular part of the day.

Now, it’s not a good idea to take a finding in a psychologist-created lab environment and apply what they found to something like music practice or learning in general, but I’m going to do it anyway. What could it hurt? When I read this study I thought about trying to explain Intentional Practice and was critical about how I’d approached the topic so far. Namely, I think I’m over-complicating things. Maybe I should change the font while I’m at it….

But seriously, this is probably why all the “Nose-Picking for Dummies” and “Idiot’s Guide to Jelly Donuts” books are so popular. We like our information and our instructions as simple as possible. Duh. We know intuitively that a simple approach has a deep effect on our motivation and understanding. So, I’ve decided to strive to make this blog, and the book, more simple, more conversational and will try to emphasize how simple many of these practice techniques are.

So please forgive me (all 3 of you) for any unnecessary complication I may have introduced in earlier posts. I’m a PhD student after all, and complexity (sometimes needless complexity) is part of my daily diet. The academic world often praises the obtuse and difficult to understand, as though inscrutable writing is somehow more intelligent or desirable than something written simply. Sometimes it is, but usually it’s not.

Song, H. & Schwarz, N. (2008). If it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do: Processing fluency affects effort prediction and motivation. Psychological Science, 19(10), pp. 986-988.

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