You know your music practice is important, but week after week goes by and you keep falling short of your goals. You might practice a few times a week, but not consistently. Maybe you practice every day, but never feel like you make progress. What if practicing became a daily habit like brushing your teeth or eating dinner? These 10 strategies will help you turn a daily chore into a habit you even look forward to.
1. Set up Triggers.
If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to create a daily habit, you know how difficult it can be to remember to do something new – something that interrupts your normal daily routine. That’s where triggers come in. By using something that you do on a daily basis as a reminder, you’ll be more likely to follow through with your new goal (http://examinedexistence.com/using-triggers-to-create-new-habits/).
Think of your typical day. What are some things your day wouldn’t be complete without? Maybe it’s something as simple as eating breakfast, lunch, and supper. Find something that you do at roughly the same time every day and tie your practice goal to that activity. For example, you can set the goal to practice 30 minutes every evening after you finish eating supper.
2. Create a Sacred Space.
It’s important that you remove any friction that might make it difficult to meet your practice goals. When it’s time to practice, you don’t want to waste 15 minutes setting up your instrument, hunting for a pencil and your metronome, and flipping through your sheet music. Also, during your practice when you’re “in the zone,” you don’t want to be distracted by the TV, vacuum cleaner, or your sister’s Skype date with her boyfriend.
Find a place in your home where there are minimal distractions. Set up your instrument and any materials you may need during your practice. Make sure your space is well-lit if you’ll be reading from sheet music. You may also want to set up a mirror and comfortable chair. At the end of your practice session, setup your music for your next practice. (For more great ideas, read “How to Create the Perfect Practice Environment” by Jazz Advice.)
3. Plan ahead.
Decide ahead of time what you will work on in your next practice session and write it down. That will allow you to get to work immediately when it’s time to practice and reduce choice paralysis that might keep you from practicing at all.
Also, it’s important to visualize potential obstacles and plan around them. If you know you have something coming up, such as a holiday or vacation, that will take you away from your daily routine and interrupt your practice streak, make a plan for when and how you will resume your daily practices. Also, build your practice time into your plan for the day (especially if you won’t be able to practice at your regular time) and find a time that works for you. That will make it easier to follow through with your goals.
When you have a plan, you will be much more likely to meet your goals. Planning ahead allows you to make your decisions ahead of time while you have enough mental energy to make good choices. That will keep you from falling into the all too familiar trap of “I don’t feel like it!”
4. Create a Task List.
Once you’ve planned out what you will practice for the day, write out a list of each piece, technique, and/or activity you will focus on and how much of your allotted practice time you plan to spend on each. Then, as you get done with a task during your practice, mark it off the list. This will give you a sense of accomplishment that will carry you through your task list and through your practice time (https://www.toodledo.com/info/whyuse.php).
Another benefit of creating a Task List for each practice is that it helps you shift your focus away from the amount of overall time you’re spending practicing and onto setting and meeting specific, SMART goals. As howtopractice.com puts it: “The advantage of having tasks and goals is that at the end of every session instead of saying ‘I did four hours practice’ you can instead list all of the tasks that you achieved.”
5. Space out your practice time.
It is harder to think about practicing a whole hour than it is to think about practicing for 15 minutes 4 times a day. Plus, the longer you practice without a break, the harder it is to remain focused. By breaking your practice time into manageable chunks and spacing out each task with breaks, you will be able to remain focused and do deep work. The key to spacing out your practice time effectively, though, is to focus on a specific objective during each chunk of practice time.
6. Avoid mindless repetition.
While repetition is an important part of the learning process, mindless repetition is simply not effective. According to Christine Carter, “repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information… Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged.” Also, mindless repetition commits what you’re learning to your working memory, which quickly fades, rather than to your long-term memory. That means that each day you are basically starting back at square 1, rather than building on what you learned the previous day.
The way to overcome this is through interleaved practicing. First, space out your repetition so that you are waiting to repeat something until you are on the verge of forgetting it, rather than repeating it immediately. Then, break apart a piece into larger themes and then the themes into smaller chunks that you can easily learn in a couple of minutes. Finally, alternate practicing these manageable chunks of the piece in a random order and practicing the piece as a whole. (http://pianopracticeassistant.com/interleaved-practice/)
7. Get Feedback.
Few things impede progress like lack of feedback. If you’re always wondering whether you’re doing it right, you’ll never achieve your full potential. Plus, lack of timely and helpful feedback can decrease your motivation to keep practicing. While you most likely spend most of your music lesson receiving feedback on your overall progress from your instructor, it is also important that you receive feedback on HOW you’re practicing. This can prove problematic, though, as most practice occurs in isolation.
Record your music practice sessions.
One way to address this is to regularly record your practice sessions and send them to your instructor. That gives you increased accountability and your instructor a peek into your practice habits. It’s unrealistic to think that your teacher will be able to review all of your recorded practices or even review them outside of your lesson. However, you could “spot check” a random practice from the week at the beginning of your lesson. And knowing that your teacher COULD watch back your practice sessions even if he or she doesn’t is likely to make you more focused and motivated during your practices (as shown by the Hawthorne Effect).
Having recorded footage of your practice sessions also gives you a chance to give yourself feedback in the way of self-reflection. By observing yourself in action, you can critically evaluate your performance. You can then use those observations to make adjustments to improve your performance, which you then re-evaluate.
8. Track your progress.
Tracking your progress is an important part of staying motivated. You should track your daily achievements and the amount of time you spend practicing. You should also keep track of your streaks (the number of days / weeks / months in a row that you meet your practice goals). Doing this will carry you through inevitable days when you don’t feel motivated to practice. This becomes your victory log, and each practice is a win!
9. Give yourself a reward.
By giving yourself a reward after successfully completing a day’s practice or a week or month-long streak, you’ll reinforce the new habit you are trying to create. You be less likely to dread the interruption of your daily practice/s might even begin to look forward to it. You can also build rewards into your breaks. This gives you a chance to clear your head before refocusing on a different task or objective.
Create a reward schedule.
Also, it’s a good idea to create a reward schedule. Set up small rewards for meeting your daily practice goals and larger, longer-range goals for meeting a week or month’s worth of goals. For example, you could reward yourself with an hour of TV after an hour of music practice. If you meet your practice goals for a week, you could reward yourself by going to see a movie. If you meet your practice goals for a month, you could reward yourself with a day trip to one of your favorite places.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that you shouldn’t punish yourself for not meeting your goals. That creates negative associations around your goals and can discourage you from meeting them in the future. Also, over-rewarding yourself can be counterproductive. It might be useful to try setting up a random reward scheme.
10. Don’t use past failures as an excuse.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of “all or nothing at all.” You miss your practice for a day so you feel like your week is ruined. You’ve broken your streak. You decide to give yourself a break and restart your practice streak next week. But that same narrative plays out over and over again, and your music practice never truly becomes a habit. This is something known as the “Fresh Start Effect.”
The key to overcoming this trap is to understand the following 2 key concepts: (1) Every effort, no matter how small, is progress. (2) Past failures do not predict future success. It’s easy to think that it’s a simple choice between meeting your ideal goals or doing nothing at all, but that simply isn’t true. A step to overcoming this misconception is to set attainable, realistic goals. Then you’re setting yourself up for success and avoiding crippling failure.
BONUS: Automate your habit creation.
Technology provides many tools that can help make the process of forming a habit easier. It can also enhance the time you spend practicing. Here are some ways you can use technology on your journey into habit-forming music practice:
- Triggers: Use an alarm to remind you to practice and block off time in your calendar. Make it a standing date with your instrument.
- Sacred Space: While you are practicing, minimize your distractions by setting your device/s to “Do Not Disturb” mode. Some of them even allow you to schedule a recurring schedule for Do Not Disturb.
- Plan Ahead: Use a note-taking app or Voice Memo to keep track of your plans.
- Create a Task List: Use your device’s built-in task list or a task manager such as Todoist or Carrot to keep track of your daily practice tasks and progress.
- Space out your practice time: Use a timer such as Pomodoro Timer to manage your practice sessions and breaks. That will free up your mind to focus on the task at hand.
- Avoid mindless repetition: Use a list randomizer such as https://www.random.org/lists/ to help you interleave your practice.
- Get Feedback: Try using Collabra to easily record your practices to the cloud and send them to your teacher for feedback. You can both leave real-time feedback on your practices through the time-stamped comment feature.
- Track your progress: Collabra also has features to help you track your progress. Every minute you record gets logged in a practice report that is visible to both you and your teacher. You will also be able to watch back practices from any point in your musical journey. When you’re feeling like you’re not making progress, you can see just how far you’ve come.
- Give yourself a reward: Use the Tip app to tip yourself for a job well-done. Each day you practice, reward yourself with a dollar or two. At the end of the month, use the money to buy something for yourself.
- Don’t use your past failures as an excuse: Use the Way of Life app to keep you on track and see your missed days.