The Power of Repetition over Duration: Shorter Daily Practice vs. Longer Weekly Practice

Jan 17
7 min read

What’s the fastest way to learn a new mental health skill—or any skill for that matter? In this post we explore an intriguing aspect of learning - the power of repetition over duration. While it may not be immediately obvious, shorter daily practice is generally more effective than longer, less frequent sessions. Let’s get into the science of learning, including the role of our adaptive brains and the surprising importance of rest. 

Understanding the Learning Process

It would be amazing if we could learn something on our very first try—sadly, that doesn’t happen very often in life. Typically there’s a learning curve for any new skill which roughly predicts how long it will take to gain competency with a new skill. Some skills come quickly, others take a long time—but whatever you’re trying to learn, repetition is key. You might remember those childhood days when your teacher asked you to practice math problems over and over, or the countless scales you played while learning an instrument. This is all due to the magic of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to our brain's astounding ability to modify and adapt by creating fresh connections between brain cells. As we repeatedly practice a task, these connections become robust, resulting in improved performance.

An often-overlooked aspect of learning is rest. A groundbreaking 2021 study highlighted that short, regular breaks play a crucial role in boosting performance in a new task. Why? Because during these rest intervals, our brain 'replays' the learned activity at a lightning-fast pace, effectively solidifying the learning. So next time you take a break, remember it's not just time off, it's memory reinforcement! 

Advantages of Shorter Daily Practice vs. Longer Weekly Practice

Imagine daily practice as the routine you follow to nurture something that matters to you. In this context, shorter sessions carried out more frequently are more beneficial than longer, less regular ones. The benefits are myriad: enhanced consistency, superior retention, prompt error correction, and improved adaptability.

How exactly does this work?

1.      Improved Consistency: Shorter practice sessions are like bite-sized learning chunks. They're easier to fit into your schedule, leading to better consistency. Even on busy days, a quick practice session is achievable. Consistency like this form’s habits, and habits turn skills into second nature. Let's take music as an example: regular short practices will result in a more consistent improvement than one long weekly session.

 2.      Better Retention and Reinforcement: Research indicates that spreading our study sessions over time—referred to as the "spacing effect"—increases our learning efficiency. This method not only boosts memory and comprehension but is especially effective in solidifying new concepts, skills, and fostering healthy mental well-being. 

3.     Increased Ability to Identify and Correct Errors: Shorter sessions provide intense and focused practice, making it simpler to spot and correct errors swiftly. Think of a basketball utilizing small sessions to efficiently refine techniques, thereby avoiding the onset of improper habits.

4. Greater Adaptability: Shorter practice sessions offer more flexibility, fitting into various parts of your day. This flexibility helps balance energy levels, concentration, and motivation, which tend to fluctuate throughout the day. Additionally, adaptability can reduce the sense of strain and discomfort during daily practice.

Applications and Implications

You don't need to be a psychologist to leverage these strategies. Research indicates that shorter, more frequent practice sessions yield better results. For example, weightlifters who split their workouts into two shorter sessions daily over five weeks became stronger than those doing longer sessions. These individuals could maintain higher intensity and recover more rapidly with two sessions instead of one extended session.

Is your time limited? Opt for shorter daily practices. Not only are they more effective, but they also fit seamlessly into busy schedules, offering a practical and enjoyable solution.

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Striking a Balance Between Repetition and Duration

Achieving the balance between repetition and session duration is essential for skill mastery. This is a personalized approach for every person. Incremental repetition can extend retention by solidifying neural pathways tied to a skill or subject. On the other hand, longer session durations can heighten skill acquisition through intensified, focused engagement. The ideal balance hinges on the skill's difficulty, individual learning preferences, cognitive capacity, and external factors like hunger or fatigue.

So, how should one navigate this balance? For difficult tasks, break practice into concise, frequent sessions. For simpler tasks, utilize longer, irregular sessions. Regular feedback and varied learning environments strengthen long-term retention.

Conclusion

Leveraging frequent, concise practice sessions is key to effective learning. They not only foster consistency and adaptability but also fit seamlessly into tight schedules. However, learning strategies should be individualized, considering the nature of the skill, personal learning preferences, and cognitive abilities. By prioritizing repetition, integrating brief practices, and valuing rest, you can transform your learning experience. As you progress, remember: Quality often trumps quantity. Prioritize intelligent practice over prolonged efforts. Stay persistent!

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