The practice of practising

I’ve always had a bit of a downer on the word ‘practice/se’. It’s not just because I need to remember to check and recheck for the correct spelling; it’s the negative connotations of the word itself. But then I had a revelation – all thanks to Downward-facing Dog.


‘Practice makes perfect’ – a phrase guaranteed to dampen the ardour of many a budding musician, and one that was drummed into me from an early age (almost literally, sitting in ‘second flutes’ in front of the percussion section at school orchestra practice).

Whether it was times tables or handwriting in infant school, baking a cake or knitting a scarf to win a badge at Brownies, or the compulsory music practice times at senior school and later at university: the practice of practising has been a constant theme and (more significantly) source of guilt, for most of my life.

We were told, by those who have the time and the research funding to count such things, that it takes 10,000 hours of practising to become proficient in a skill such as piano playing. That theory, first put forward by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, but popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, has now been strongly refuted – notably by Ericsson himself.

But that isn’t going to stop teachers of all sorts from encouraging their students ‘to practise’. The problem is, the semantics of the p-word and the cultural baggage that accompanies its frequent use often have the opposite of the intended effect on the browbeaten recipient. The more my son’s piano teacher tried to instil in him the importance of practising, the more son dug in his heels and refused to open the instrument’s lid. (Music’s loss was my bank balance’s gain.)

Practise your spellings

My problem with the word runs deep: at school I developed a grade A line in self-deluding excuses for not knuckling down to practise my instruments; and now in the office, working primarily on materials for architects and other construction practitioners, I’m always on the lookout for the word, thanks to the noun/verb spelling differences that prevail in British English.

The architect’s practice of practising in a practice with other architects means that the spelling of this word is a constant on my in-editor checklist, especially because Word’s wriggly red/green spelling/grammar worms ignore these words by default, as does PerfectIt [ditto: licenc/se and several other spelling pairs].

The problem also crops up frequently for editorial folk who work on medical materials (where the rise of the Practice Nurse and Practice Manager roles has added potential for more literals). And for colleagues who work in either sector but mix and match their client base between UK and US English users, the –se BritEng verb form must be a constant irritation. Small wonder that while researching this article I found a couple of websites offering English learners the ‘advice’ [yes, another confusable] that US English spellings are so pervasive these days they might as well just opt for the –ce spelling for both the noun and verb forms.

My gripe is not that I need to remember to check and recheck the spelling of practise (v); that’s all part of my job. What I want to do is shake off the tyranny of the p-word – in my own mind, and perhaps in yours too – so that it no longer conjures up the miserable grind of striving towards perfection, but instead emphasises the noun’s second meaning:

The customary or expected procedure or way of doing something. (COED)

Daily practices

Although I’ve been turning up for weekly yoga classes for many years, I didn’t think there was any connection between yoga and (freelance) editorial work. But one day, while in downward-facing dog, the penny finally dropped. It’s surprising what turning yourself upside down can do!

My yoga teacher (fantastic and inspirational) often tells us that yoga isn’t a competitive activity; that it’s ‘your own yoga practice’, by which she means ‘the yoga you do’ rather than ‘the yoga everyone else is doing’ or  ‘a list of yoga poses set as “homework”’.

‘Practice’ as custom or habit is a much more powerful concept than ‘practice’ as a list of tasks to be ticked off. Instead of making a timetable and slotting in various tedious chores to be avoided or procrastinated into oblivion, make them just another part of your day – like brushing your teeth or walking the dog.

Practice:  the things that you do; not things that you try to avoid. (MRT, 2016)

What’s really interesting is that there’s growing evidence from neuroscience to back up this brain-training trick. As Teal Burrell explains in ‘Force of habit’ (New Scientist, 16 January 2016), there are thought to be two competing systems in the brain: a goal-oriented system, and a habit-forming system. The brain needs to categorise some behaviours as habits so that it has sufficient capacity to concentrate on the more complex non-routine tasks. Although the article focuses on scientists’ understanding of ways to ditch bad habits, it suggests that developing positive habits (i.e. practices) helps to free up brainpower for other things.

Meanwhile in a recent discussion on Radio 4’s Start the Week Jo Marchant and Jane McGonigal underlined the brain’s capacity to control health, the power of brain ‘flow’ – the state of unfettered concentration (i.e. every editor’s dream state) – and a whole lot more.

Editorial vinyasa

When it comes to shaking off my phobia of practising, it’s early days. So far my new-style ‘custom-and-practice’ has enabled me to keep on top of my email in-box, file my paperwork instead of ignoring the heap, and squeeze in some online CPD in a few quiet work days. Less fretting about admin and tasks not yet done has definitely helped me to concentrate fully on the editing task in hand.

Next step: break the habit of drinking coffee and shouting at the Today presenters for breakfast, and start the new practice of a few rounds of Sun Salutation. Who’s with me?