Note: this one is more for musicians. To be clear, what I am saying is what works for me, and is not a personal judgment on anyone else's practice habits or whatever. I hope I don't come across as egotistical either, that is the last of my intentions, after snake-charming and bat-wrangling. Okay, that joke was unnecessarily cheesy.
I consider myself a pretty good musician. There, I said it. I have an ego, I'm biased, and I'm also kind of an asshole. It's one of the few things in my life I'm proud of, it's something that makes me at least think I'm not the lowest shit walking around.
But it's not like I practice eight hours a day. In fact, I can't. Not even for brass player reasons (ow, my lips hurt) or head reasons (ow, my head hurts.) It's just I reach a saturation point where I realize that the next 45 minutes of practice will yield fractional results to the past 45 minutes.
I try to live by the 80-20 rule. It's applicable to most any life situation. 80 percent of humanitarian work are done by 20 percent of people, 80% of wealth is held by 20 percent of people, 80 percent of blog posts are done by 20 percent of bloggers. On a graph, it's like a really steep slope starting off, that trails off to infinity. On an individual level, however, it goes more like the first 20 percent of your work, yields the first 80 percent of results.
What does that mean? It means that the most important 20 minutes of practice are the first. It means the most productive part of study is at the very beginning.
So I don't go into practice with the mindset "I will practice for the next X amount of time", I go in thinking "I will practice X until I have reached my saturation point." The saturation point is where the next portion of your practice session does not reflect the same amount of progress as the previous. At that point, you either change what your practicing (stop practicing pentatonics and start practicing scales, concentrate on technical studies, practice more conceptually, etc.) or, if you've repeated this process with multiple subjects, put down the horn and walk away.
I don't feel good when I practice for 8 hours. I feel good when I feel like I learned something I didn't know already. I know enough people that put in long hours and have weak results to realize that more time is not always the solution, but the nature of that time you already spend. I think people realize when they've hit that saturation point, when the practice they are putting in is inconsequential or even detrimental. But the urge is to push on. There is a general consensus among people that all we need to do is try harder, and we can get what we want. But that's not how the world works, trying hard does not make you a success, it's the results that often come with hard work that do. But sometimes the hard work is either unnecessary or unhelpful.
I feel like we all keep pushing harder into a brick wall, thinking it will break. The door is fifteen feet away, but were so enthralled by our "effort" and the good it can do that we ignore the door, we grind away instead of reassessing the wall, and how we could get passed with less toil.
Always reassess, always reassess, always reassess. Do nothing by rote. Is this helpful? If not, stop it. If it is, put more time in on that.
I also tend to put in a lot of "off the horn" practice, just time considering the concepts in my head. I remember first working on Cherokee in twelve keys; before I went to sleep each night I'd force myself to run the chords in my head. It was difficult and slow at first, obviously. Even after you consider the chords in terms of numerals (Imaj/ % / V-7/ V7-IV/ IV maj etc.) you have to be able to instantaneously translate that into a key. So it's often better to spend time in your head practicing these little exercises than wasting precious practice time. Then, on the horn it just becomes integration from the head to the horn, rather than learning it in the head and transferring it to the horn.
Yes, it makes me a pretty awkward person. If you know me well, you've probably seen me doze off into la-la land in the middle of a social event. It's likely that I'm, at that moment, practicing a tune in twelve keys, or a pattern, or scales, or arpeggios. Or anything. Or not even practicing, I might be thinking about some other concept that I happen to find intriguing. Or I might be dwelling in a moment, looking for clues to the present.
And this is where I break off from practice and into just thought in general. I don't understand how people "turn off" their heads. I think every second spent with an empty mind is wasted, because so much of the world need only be thought about to be fixed. Ideas are necessary for human growth, not pressing harder into the brick wall.
So just...think. Please.