If there is one thing I attribute to my success as a musician it would by my ability to build new habits. I’ve been able to pick up multiple instruments in a short period of time because I understand the process of habit building.
I’m going to break down the crucial aspects of habit building and show you how you can apply it directly to learning an instrument.
Don’t be discouraged if you fail a few times before you make it. It can take years before you build the experience needed to conjure new habits at will. The good news is you will be able to apply it to every area of your life.
Learning a new instrument will be the same process is developing a gym routine, changing your eating habits, or studying for your next exam. Use your experience with your instrument as a spring board for any aspect of your life you wish to change.
Let’s get started.
1. The Jerry Seinfeld (or don’t break the chain)
As a developing comic Jerry Seinfeld had problems writing every day. Unfortunately, he realized the only way to write good jokes was to write consistently.
His solution was pretty simple: hang a full year calendar directly in his living room for everyone to see.
Every day he wrote he would take a big red marker and cross off the day. Eventually, after a week he’d have a long chain of X’s.
This visual progress not only felt good but the idea of having a blank spaces was enough to leverage him into writing every day. He’d have to explain any blank spaces to any guests – in a sense airing his dirty laundry.
The principle with learning an instrument will be the same. If you’re able to at least touch your instrument once a day (even for a short period of time) this will build the momentum needed to launch you into the habit of playing your instrument.
Have you been failing at keeping to a schedule? Go out right now and buy a full year calendar. Hang it where everyone can see it. Start marking off every day you sit down and play your instrument. Start the chain and let the momentum carry you. You’ll have a habit you can’t shake in no time.
2. The Willpower Muscle
There is a region in your brain right next to your temple called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). It’s directly involved in every decision you make. Think of your ACC as something like a bank account. Wake up in the morning and have to choose your outfit? That’ll cost you $10. Choosing your route to work? $5. By the time you’ve returned from work your bank account is running low. Chances are pretty good that you’ll find a way to skip a mentally strenuous practice session.
This has become known as decision fatigue. Successful leaders have understood this and have taken steps to remove as many unnecessary decisions as possible. Think Barak Obama and his blue and grey suits, Steve Jobs and his black turtle neck, and Mark Zuckerburg and his grey t-shirts.
I’ve always looked at willpower as a muscle. Something to developed and improve. The amount of willpower required to complete a difficult task only decreases over time.
The first step to improving your willpower is awareness. If you happen to skip a day of the Seinfeld method it’s not because you’re not suited to be a musician, it’s more likely you’ve depleted your bank account enough that you don’t have the cash on hand to buy a practice session.
So what can we do?
The good news is you can build your ACC muscle and start the day out with a few more dollars in the bank. Here’s how we’re going to do it:
- Start with the minimal investment necessary (15-minute easy practice sessions for example)
- Gradually increase the session length over time
- Build momentum using the Seinfeld method until 1-hour practice sessions cost almost nothing
When you’ve hit the stage where it costs almost nothing to complete a 1-hour practice session is where you’ll see your talents skyrocket.
It’s also important that to note that your brain runs on glucose. Any flexing of the willpower muscle is going to require a good shot of simple sugars. This subject would require an entire post to cover, but try eating 6 small meals per day. Alternatively, you can run your brain on ketones (rocket fuel for the brain) – this is going to require a complete diet overhaul. Interested? Check it out!
3. Start Really Small
It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to jump straight into 1-hour+ practice sessions right away.
It costs far less to create micro practice sessions. Therefore, it’s much more likely that you’ll sit down when you know you’ll only be playing for 15 minutes and then you’re free to relax.
This is the 3rd principle we’re going to use. It’s called creating mirco habits.
This concept has also been called activation energy. The idea is to lower the activation energy for the habits you want to create, and raise them for habits you want to stop.
For example, if you want to learn guitar but always find yourself watching T.V. place your guitar right next to your couch and the T.V. remote hidden away in a room upstairs.
You must sit down and touch your instrument every day you plan to. No exceptions - even if it’s just for 5 minutes.
Once you start building in the behaviour the cost of sitting down will become less and less each day. This is when you can start increasing the length and difficulty of the practice session.
4. Pick Your Friends
There is an interesting study that shows your chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if you have one friend who becomes obese in a 32 year time interval.
This gives a little more credit to the maxim: “you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”
This isn’t absolutely crucial, but your life is going to be a lot easier if you have a few friends who practice their instruments regularly. Immersing yourself in the culture of music is only going to have a positive result on your goals of learning an instrument.
If you don’t have any musician friends close by hop onto the Audio Mastered Facebook page and introduce yourself! We’re here to support!
If there is one thing we know about habits is they are varied and complex. The strategies listed above are some of the few that I’ve had success with.
Your best bet will be to have a framework understanding of habits and experiment on developing your own methods. Each habit will yield easily to analysis whereas others will take years to develop.
Here’s an example framework from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit:
- Identify the routine
- Experiment with reward
- Isolate the cue
- Have a plan
The good news is - the habit of music is actually a relatively easy habit to implement.
Learning an instrument should be fun after all! The difficult part is grinding through the initial learning curve.
If you keep pushing you’ll break through the initial slog and things will get easier. This is the reason I was able to pick up multiple instruments. I knew that the first few months would be gruelling, but things only get easier.
What is your experience with building a habit of music? What has worked for you? Leave some suggestions in the comment section below!
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