Habit and routine are extremely powerful tools in learning a new skill or improving an existing one, and nowhere is this truer than when learning music. Having a reliable routine that is well-designed, focused on your goals, and most importantly that you enjoy doing, can lead to rapid results.
Learning new habits, however, can be more difficult than it appears. A lot of articles and motivational speakers repeat the claim that the “magic” time period for building new habits is 21 days, but in truth, there is no basis to that claim. In fact, research shows learning a new habit is different for everyone, and that we all have our own ways of working and learning.
For that reason, no guide can ever tell you exactly how to build new habits, because doing this is an inherently personal thing. However, let me take you through a few of the things that work for me.
1) Set Goals
Perhaps the most important element in building new habits is to know exactly what you want to achieve. You might have given yourself targets in the past for learning music – practicing for an hour a day, for instance – but unless this is leading somewhere, it’s likely to fall by the wayside after a relatively short period of time.
Your goals should as specific as possible, of course. One thing that works for me is to visualize the point I want to get to in as much detail as I can – even the room where you will be playing in 5 years time, or the feeling after you nail that piece. And don’t be afraid of dreaming big, either – research shows that being ambitious with your goals can really help in motivating you to form good habits.
2) Routine and Novelty
Building habits, for me, revolves around the interplay between routine and novelty. Both are very powerful tools for building good habits for learning music, and both can reinforce each other.
First, routine. Practicing at a particular time of the day, day in and day out might seem hard at first, but after even a few weeks you quickly forget you are doing it. When building a routine, one thing that works very well is chaining together activities – so if you already have an activity that you do every day, such as going for a run, attach practicing music to the end of it. This really works for me, and I’m glad to see that it is also backed up by the research shows.
The flip-side of routine is novelty. Establishing a routine that works is great, but even the best of us will get bored if we are doing the same thing every day. At these times, mix up your music practice by playing a style you haven’t tried before, or ask your friends for inspiration.
One thing that really helps for me, though it sounds stupid, is to occasionally buy new equipment. A new practice amplifier will, of course, be fun to play through, and help with your motivation. But even something as small as a new plectrum, a new chair, a new music-stand, whatever, will have you itching to use it. If you need a few ideas for what to buy, check out this list of top 50+ gifts for guitarists.
3) Start Small
A mistake that many people make when trying to build new habits for learning music is to give themselves too much to do. The most important thing, when you are starting, is to nail down the time of day that you are going to practice. Don’t say you are going to wake up 2 hours early to get 2 hours practice in every day – at the beginning, work out where you have 10 minutes, and do that for a few weeks. If you make the goal small enough, I guarantee that you can achieve it!
Of course, you won’t stop at just 10 minutes, because ultimately you enjoy playing your instrument. Getting over those first 2 seconds, where you take your instrument out of the case, is often the most difficult thing when building new habits. If you haven’t practiced for a while, giving yourself a super-short target for practice is a good way of re-igniting your passion for your instrument.
4) Understand Your Fears
A lot of research about building new habits is focused on why people don’t exercise enough, and it’s really illuminating to read some of this in the context of learning music. A huge problem for a lot of people when it comes to doing regular exercise is that, at the beginning, they are embarrassed by how unfit they are. Accordingly, they don’t want to go to the gym, because they are scared of being judged by people who have been working out for years.
I think the same thing applies to learning music. Especially when you first pick up an instrument, the fear is that your friends or partner will think you are bad, because you are. There is not much I can say to you to get rid of this fear – we all have it – but I think that recognizing it is an incredibly important part of building good habits. Everybody – and I mean everybody – is bad at the beginning, so be humble and make a joke of your current incompetence!
5) Don’t Give Yourself a Hard Time
Building good habits is hard, and you are going to fail to meet your targets, probably more often than you reach them. If you’ve had a bad day, and miss your practice, don’t lose hope. This is a critical moment, where studies show that blaming yourself is counter-productive. Focus on what you have achieved, rather than how short you have fallen.
And also, remember that tomorrow is a new day, and you have another chance to succeed. If you’re not meeting your targets, reduce them until you are, and then go from there. The boost in motivation you will get from achieving a daily or weekly target, no matter how small, will allow you to slowly build up your practice until you are really making progress. Keep heart, and don’t blame yourself.