It’s About Time: when, for how long, and how often

June 8th, 2021

When developing skills, how you train is just as important as what you practice.

And often overlooked is timing, especially

  • for how long you should practice “in one shot”,
  • what kind of a “break” should you take between training “sessions”,
  • when is the best time to train during the day

Fortunately, the latest neuroscience research can answer these questions [Pink 2018].  And although the following can be applied to most any kind of practicing, we’ll be thinking about developing skills in an optimal way as part of simulator-based training.

About the Optimal Duration of a Practice Session

Attention is the “gateway” to neuro-plasticity, i.e. you need to focus in order to “induce” changes in the brain. And when developing skills, focus creates “muscle memory”.  (Neuroscientists hate this term because, as we all know, memory is in your brain, not your muscles.)

Sadly, if you don’t focus for “long enough”, nothing will happen. In other words, attention just “opens the door”, but sufficient duration is key.  And the research tells us that you’ll need at least 20-25 minutes, but no more than about an hour [Ericsson and Pool 2016]. And that’s why the duration of a typical simulator-based training session for airplane pilots, or heavy equipment operators, is about an hour.

Still, when you’re just starting out, you probably won’t be able to focus for that long but luckily, other neuroscience research tells us that as you continue to train, you’ll be able to increase the length of your concentration period [Peretz 2018].

About Restoring “Cognitive Vigilance” between Practice Sessions

Of course, training to develop a new skill will require many hours (and days, and weeks, etc.) so that means working hard, taking a break, and then coming back to things, over and over again.

And studies show that “restorative” breaks are key to regaining “cognitive vigilance” [Gino 2016]. Practically, as little as five minutes can help, especially if you can move about, i.e. if you can get up from where you’ve been sitting to walk around; this works even better if you can wander outdoors [Bergouignan 2016].

About the Optimal Time-of-day for Practicing

Studies show that most people can concentrate best in the morning [Drust 2005]. On the other hand, the same studies also show that most people demonstrate better psycho-motor performance (hand-eye coordination, faster reaction times, etc.) in the afternoon [Drust 2005].

In other words, the research tells us that you should be training in the morning and in the afternoon, because for most people, each time-of-day offers advantages and disadvantages.

The Bottom Line

To develop a new skill, how you train is just as important as what you practice, and here’s what the latest neuroscience research tells us:

  • you’ll need to focus for at least 20-25 minutes
  • as you train, you can improve your powers of concentration, in order to increase that duration to about one hour
  • after that, you’ll need a “restorative break” of at least five minutes, to regain “cognitive vigilance”
  • most any time of day will do, because although most people concentrate better in the morning, they demonstrate better psycho-motor performance in the afternoon

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[Bergouignan 2016] Bergouignan, A. et al, “Effect of Frequent Interruptions of Prolonged Sitting on Self-Perceived Levels of Energy, Mood, Food Cravings, and Cognitive Function”, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity”, Vol. 13, 2016.

[Drust 2005] Drust, B., “Circadian Rhythms in Sports Performance: An Update,” Chronobiology International 22, no. 1, 2005.

[Ericsson and Pool 2016] Ericsson, A., Pool, R., PEAK: secrets from the new science of expertise, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

[Gino 2016] Gino, F., “Don’t Make Important Decisions Late in the Day”, Harvard Business Review, February 23, 2016.

[Peretz 2018) Peretz, I., Apprendre la musique : nouvelles des neurosciences, Odile Jacobs, 2018.

[Pink 2018] Pink, D., WHEN: the scientific secrets of perfect timing, Riverhead Books, 2018.