How to Train Chess on Bad Days: Tips From a Grandmaster

Today I have a ‘bad day’. I woke up at 4 AM after 3 hours of sleep, unable to sleep longer. After yesterday’s dry needling session, my whole upper body is in pain and my mind was racing.

Certainly what qualifies as a bad day for me. But not the end of the world either. Even on bad days, we are responsible for our own decisions. Good decisions likely lead to a decent day. Bad decisions only make everything worse.

The tricky thing is that on a bad day, it is easier to make bad decisions. Over the last couple of years, I learned to mitigate the damage of such bad days with three simple steps. I use those steps on bad days to get some work done, but also for gym workouts or Poker study sessions.

You can use them as well to get a good chess study session in, even on a bad day.

Health First

When I hit my head in 2017 I thought I didn’t need to rest or go to the doctor. That was the biggest mistake I ever made. I wasn’t ready to spend a week recovering in bed. Now I’m paying for it with serious health issues for 6+ years.

I promised myself I would never be that stupid again.

So the first question is:

Am I impacting my health by trying to do something productive today?

If my body needs rest, I shall rest.

Today I feel very tired, but my health is not impacted if I do 2-3 hours of work or go to the gym. I don’t have a concussion or flu, I just did not sleep well. So doing some work and Sport is the better solution than just lying in bed for a day. It might even help to fall asleep faster this evening.

Take care of your health, but don’t use it every time you only feel 99% fit as an excuse to binge-watch Netflix.

Step 2 On A Bad Day: Learn From It

The second step is asking myself if I could prevent such a day in the future. I both stayed up a little late watching football on TV and did not fully close some work-related things yesterday.

This led to me having a harder time getting in some REM & deep sleep. I then woke up needing to go to the toilet (drinking liquids too late in the evening!). As my mind was full of business-related thoughts, I could not fall asleep anymore. Now that I know what probably caused my sleepless night, I need to take action to avoid this in the future.

  • Write down plans & ideas for work, and do the hard things that stress me.
  • Follow the 3-2-1 rule in the evening → No food 3 hours before bedtime, no liquids 2 hours before bedtime, and no screens 1 hour before bedtime.

After checking my health and learning from yesterday’s mistake, I’m ready for a little productive work.

Step 3 On A Bad Day: Reduce The Scope, Stick to the Routine

This is a framework I learned from James Clear (check out his amazing book Atomic Habits). He does this with any habit that he wants to stick to. Instead of giving up totally on a bad or stressful day, he reduces the scope. Instead of a full 1-hour workout he just aims to do 15 minutes.

This keeps the habit alive and gives you a good feeling of completing something even on a bad day. I did the same today for my work (I understand I’m very privileged to be self-employed). I showed up at my office and am writing these lines. But I’m not going to do all the things I initially planned for today.

Those are my two key tasks:

  1. Tackle the things that were ruining my sleep time (at least come up with a plan!)
  2. Write down the rough draft for this article

That’s it!

Even though I only had 3 hours of sleep and felt horrible this morning, I still managed to do something productive this way. I originally scheduled another couple of hours of work for today. But now it is time to give my body some time to rest.

Reduce the scope, and stick to the routine!

The next time you have a stressful day and wonder what you should do with your planned chess study, follow this 3-step plan:

  1. Ask yourself if it is ok health-wise to do anything chess related (it is senseless to study chess with a high fever, strong headaches, or other sicknesses that make you unable to focus).
  2. Search for the cause of your bad day and think about ways to make this less likely to happen again.
  3. Reduce the scope of your training schedule but stick to the routine. 15 Minutes of tactics solving might be all that is in you for today. That is fine.

But do it with the best possible focus and then don’t feel bad about taking the rest of the day off. You showed up, even on a bad day, and gave your best for a reduced time. That’s all that matters. Tomorrow will be a better day!

I firmly believe that

anyone can improve their chess through the right mindset and training techniques.

I’m here to guide you on your journey to chess mastery.

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