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Tips for Creating a Practice Habit

If you're like most people, you brush your teeth every single day. It isn't something you have to think about doing, but something you do automatically. Brushing your teeth is a habit, an acquired behavior that you've practiced every day for so long the task seems innate. You're probably pretty good at brushing your teeth too. You've no doubt added floss and mouthwash to the routine over the years because that's the thing about habits: they help you get really good at what you do.

Simple but profound, the concept of incremental progress is at work all around you. Think about it. If you exercise on a consistent basis, those workouts add up to make you stronger. If you write a page a day, you have a novel-length book in the space of a year. If you bank a portion of every paycheck, you end up with a nice little nest egg come retirement.

The same principle applies to learning to play guitar. Developing the habit of regular practice on your instrument is the most important factor in how you will improve as a guitarist over time. As with any good habit (the bad ones are easy to acquire), building the initial momentum is the hardest part, so here are a few tips to help get the ball rolling:

The 21-Day Myth. Most people believe that habits are formed by completing a task for 21 straight days. Behavioral psychologists, however, disagree. A habit is formed by an effort repeated over time. It takes discipline, courage and hard work on a daily basis. They say it takes a minimum of 21 days and more like 2 to 8 months on average for a habit to stick, depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. So buckle in and get comfy.

Define your goals. The first thing you need to do when setting out to make practice a habit and not a chore is to decide on a goal. Do you want to learn a new song by week's end? Nail that F barre chord once and for all? Get familiar with the notes above the fifth fret? When you charge headlong into a new habit without clearly defining your goals, you may end up goofing around aimlessly on your instrument. Your resolve will begin to weaken and it'll be very difficult to stay consistent. Get clear on where you're heading before hitting the fretboard.

Set your quotas. Say your desire is to play "Stairway to Heaven" in its entirety. The best way to approach this goal would be to break the task down into manageable pieces, or quotas—the minimum amount of work that you must get done every single day to make your goal a reality. For instance, begin learning the intro to "Stairway." You may even want to break the intro down into bars and learn a few at a time until you can play them fluently. Master each section before moving on to the next. Decide what has to happen every practice session to ultimately get you to your guitar goals.

Set a regular practice time and defend it. If you know that you can carve out a space for practice at 7:30 every morning, practice at 7:30 every morning. Even if it's just fifteen minutes, set a regular time and stick to it. If someone asks you to join them for a morning run or a cup of joe at the corner coffee shop, you can certainly agree to do so—after your scheduled practice! Honoring your commitment is key to making it second nature. At some point, it will feel stranger not to practice than to practice, like it feels weird for most of us to skip a day brushing our teeth.

Make practice less burdensome. Take a close look at your practice routine. Examine the moments leading up to it. See what might be causing any internal struggle of whether to practice or blow it off. Is your guitar packed in its case and sitting in the back of an overstuffed closet? If so, you might want to keep it out on a stand where it's easily accessible. Is your living situation such that you have to search for a quiet space every time you sit to practice? Then try to designate an area as your practice zone for your set time and let family members and roommates know so they can respect it. Sometimes the smallest inconveniences are enough for us to skip practice altogether. Identify where exactly getting started falls apart for you, and try to create shortcuts so that the uncomfortable moment that comes right before you grab your guitar is diminished.

All work and no play. If you find you're less than enthused about getting your butt in that chair to practice, you might want to begin your session with something fun instead of always jumping right in to playing scales and finger exercises. Try starting out by warming up on a favorite song, or play along with a recording if that works for you. Ideally, some initial noodling around will lead you into technical development. Then perhaps you can close your session the same way you began it as a sort of reward for showing up. It's always good to leave a practice on a high note (no pun intended) so you'll be more inclined to come back and do it again the next day. In the early stages of establishing a practice habit, what you practice may have to take a back seat to the fact that you are practicing.

Think in terms of weeks, not days. Rather than practice arpeggios in all twelve keys every day, practice three or four a day instead. Then a different three or four the next day. In three or four days, you will have covered them all. This will relieve some tedium and give you more time to practice the things that inspire you.

Vary how you spend your practice time. There are many things to learn about music besides simple technique: developing a sense of timing, memorizing songs, understanding theory, creating tone, interpretation, listening to others, improvisation, and so on. You need it all so don't just practice the more tedious aspects of playing guitar. Divide your practice up into different categories: repertoire, technique, sight-reading, etc. Practice from different categories. Make every session interesting, fun and relevant.

Get others involved. If you can schedule a weekly jam session with friends or family, a performance, or something where you will have to play with or for other people, you'll be far more motivated to stick to your practice.

Breaking the chain. Minor setbacks in progress lead to frustration that can be lethal to a habit. They give us an excuse to skip our practice session. When those moments present themselves, and they surely will, focus on the total days you've kept to your habit rather than the fact that you broke the chain of days. If you mess up every now and then and miss a practice session, all hope isn't lost. Just practice the next day. And the next and the next. Building a habit is not an all-or-nothing process.

Don't beat yourself up. Lastly, falling off the wagon is common when you're trying to set a positive habit, but being too hard on yourself for having done so is counterproductive. Don't let the fact that you slipped up for a day or so, or that you'd rather have a double root canal than practice that day make you feel bad. Feeling bad is a surefire way to avoid doing something.

Most people want their practice habit to be as easy as brushing their teeth, but you probably can't remember a time when brushing your teeth wasn't a habit. You've been doing it too long. However, there was that time when you first had to be taught to brush every day and then reminded every day to brush. You eventually got it down though. Getting good at playing guitar requires the same practice. There's simply no other route to success. It requires doing things that others won't or can't do, and doing them daily. Create the habit that will help you become the guitarist you want to be.

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