Building the Practice Habit: 6 Science-Supported Steps to Great Musicianship


Image courtesy of Flickr user Nosha

“Good habits are worth being fanatical about.”
―John Irving

Research shows that developing a skill is nothing like cramming for an exam. Creative ability, like physical strength, is something that develops slowly, almost unconsciously over time, given the right stimulus.

Because of this, the most fundamental determinant of how great your musicianship will become lies in consistent, focused practice. Evidence suggests that this is a more important ingredient than innate ability, specific practice tactics, or perhaps anything else.

This is true whether your goal in music is expressiveness or virtuosity, great song-craft or irresistible groove. It is true whether you play a traditional instrument like guitar, piano or drums, or if you work with machines like samplers, mixers or DAWs. And it holds not only for music, but for almost every creative pursuit. Ultimately, it’s neither what nor whom you “know” that makes you great at what you do. It’s how often you do it.

Of course, even armed with “knowledge” of how important practice is, few aspiring musicians and other creatives do it nearly as much as they’d like. For most of us, the obstacle lies not in the ability to practice well, but in actually doing it consistently enough to really improve.

Developing the Practice Habit

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Learning to practice consistently doesn’t have to be half as hard as we make it on ourselves.

For many of us, unless we find ourselves beneath the crush of an imminent deadline, actually getting started can feel like a willful decision that requires sacrifice and mind games. Under these conditions, it’s easier just to put off those things we say are among the most important to us.

For the truly accomplished or prolific, though, things are a little different. Practice becomes- by necessity- a habit, one that is only slightly less automatic than the brushing of teeth and about as fraught with doubt.

As the saying goes, most of the time, “getting started is the hardest part”.

So, in order for practice to become sustainable and enjoyable, that part—the getting started—must be made increasingly automatic. If getting started is to become effortless, it must not be a decision of will at all. It must instead become part of a routine.

I know, I know: The idea of creating routines of habit can seem pretty toxic to young free-wheeling music-y types — “Hey maaaaan, habits are for the maaaaaan, maaaaaan.”

But whether we like it or not, it turns out that we human beings are creatures of habit, and that we only really have two choices when it comes to routine: We can either try to pick good ones, or we can neglect to, and wind up with an inadvertent routine filled with dozens of lousy habits that we never consciously chose.

The Scientific Method for Making Effective Practice Second Nature

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”
—William James


Django Reinhardt spent years practicing along to recordings and at the feet of older players. When his hand was mangled in a fire, he practiced until he could play just as well with only two fingers.

William James- a writer, philosopher and physician considered to be one of the fathers of modern psychology- wrote back in 1890 that if only the young could “realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.”

In his brief 1890 work, Habit, James laid out observations on forming new and lasting behaviors that have held up better to the scrutiny of modern science than almost anything out of Jung or Freud:

“Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way;” He wrote. “Make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.”

Since the time of William James, there has been tremendous scientific study into habit formation. We now know more than we ever have about why some succeed and why some fail at everything from losing weight to learning an instrument. And it turns out James was mostly right. But we’ve also come to discover that people remain more plastic throughout their lives than James once thought.

It may well be more difficult to teach an old human new tricks, but it’s far from impossible. Given reasonable musical exposure at a younger age, there is ample evidence of people who have made dramatic improvements as musicians or artists—even late in life—when they have finally adopted a more uncompromising practice routine.

1) Commit in Writing.

Find Your Reasons and Create a Plan.

If you want to practice more, admit it to yourself, and write your new goal down.

Human beings strive to be internally consistent—we want our deeds to match our words. This is something that we can use to our advantage. Unsurprisingly, studies show that when people write down their plans and goals, they become far more likely to follow through on them.

This does not even have to be a particularly ornate or effortful exercise either. Just open up an email draft or text document, grab a Post-It note or a piece of paper. It doesn’t even have to be permanent. Experiments have shown that simply writing down an opinion, belief or goal on an Etch A Sketch or dry-erase board has a marked effect on increasing follow-through.

Writing down your goal works. So do it. We’ll still be here when you get back.

2) Start Small.

Success Begets Success.

A common mistake in starting a new habit is to go all-in with excessive effort, wearing yourself out before you even get off the ground.

Gym regulars are used to seeing this kind of thing around January 1st each year: A whole slew of newcomers will crowd the facilities, punishing themselves with an unsustainable level of effort for a week or two, never to return.

This is one regard in which musicians and artists are no different from the gym rats. If you decide to go straight to practicing 2 hours a day, 7 days a week, out of guilt over your negligent practice habits, you are almost certain to fail.

When consistency is the problem, it is far better to commit to practicing for just 5 minutes a day and succeed at it, and then slowly add to the habit.

Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University, a leading expert on the science of habit formation, stresses the importance of starting small in his practical theory course “Tiny Habits.”

To make a habit like practice stick, he says, you must make it small enough for it to be unfailingly consistent from the very beginning. Floss just one tooth, he suggests, do just two pushups, walk for three minutes, drink just one glass of water each day, write a single paragraph, or perhaps, practice just one measure of music for 5 or 10 minutes.

The goal at this point is not volume. The goal is to make the habit automatic. So start by setting yourself up to succeed by giving yourself goals that are easy to meet.

Many professionals will also give themselves a day off from the habit. If 7 days a week proves too difficult, it is far better to schedule in one day off a week than to try and commit to a schedule that you cannot maintain.

Remember: If your initial goal is to practice 4 hours a day, you have a very good chance of practicing zero. But, if the goal is to practice for 10 minutes a day, you have a very good chance of practicing more.

In the beginning, you’d even be wise to cut yourself off before you feel done. If you force yourself to stop practicing after 30 minutes or 1 hour, when you still have some juice left, you are more likely to be motivated and raring to go for your next session.

First build consistency. It is the most fundamental and necessary component. Once you’ve done that, you can build in volume, intensity and depth as you progress. If you approach it the other way around, you will not get far.

3) Find Your Triggers.

Know Your Cues.


Image courtesy of Flickr user jonisanowl

Have you ever found yourself waking up in the morning and checking your email before even getting out of bed?

Have you ever spent the better part of a weekend afternoon on Facebook? Have you found yourself venting on internet comments sections, or having an extra soda or beer when you know you don’t need one? How about biting your nails, watching too much TV, craving a cigarette after a meal, or eating ice cream when you know you “shouldn’t” be?

If you have ever caught yourself doing one of these things when it’s not what you consciously want to be doing, then you are most likely playing out a routine that has been etched deep into your brain through the power of repetition.

Evidence suggests that these kinds of automatic habits are almost impossible to “erase” completely. Fortunately, they can be replaced by better ones. We can effectively take the same powerful forces that make these kinds of habits take hold, and turn them to our advantage.

The key to replacing habits—or just adding new ones—is to start identifying your triggers and rewards for these habits.

All habits, good and bad, have their triggers. Finding the trigger for an existing habit is fairly easy. For example:

“After I turn off my alarm I check my email.” Or “After I get out of bed I boil water for coffee.”  Or “After I read an article that annoys me I spend too long in the comments section.” Or “At 3pm I go to the deli and get a soda.” Or “After I finish work, I change clothes and go for a run.”

To make a new habit stick, you must figure out what your trigger will be. You must decide when, in your existing routine, it will fall.

For practicing music, this might be after you wake up. It might be after you’ve made morning tea or taken an afternoon walk. It could be after lunch, after dinner, after brushing your teeth or reading the news or watching your favorite TV show.

Whatever you choose, for the practice habit to have any chance of taking hold, it is essential to decide where it will fit into your routine. You must identify a trigger, commit to it, and use it.

You can also use this same tactic to replace a bad habit: Keep the same trigger, replace the behavior that comes afterwards. As the new habit becomes more ingrained, and as the neural pathways associated with old one slowly fade, the good habit becomes even more automatic than the old. After a point, willpower is removed from the equation and the new habit simply takes over.

4) Reward Yourself.

Reinforce your new habit.

In addition to a trigger, each habit has a reward: “When I check Facebook I feel less bored.” “After I eat ice cream I feel satisfied.” “When I read internet comments sections I get to feel smugly superior to people I think are dumb.”

To break a bad habit, you not only have to know what the trigger is, but also what the reward is that goes with it. Then, you simply keep the trigger and the reward, and replace the behavior in between. The same goes for adding in a new habit like practice.

How will you reward yourself? You get to choose. These rewards can be surprisingly small and still be effective. Charles Darwin apparently, after a day of writing, would say aloud to himself in a satisfied voice “I’ve done a good day’s work.” Seems to have worked for him. (Pick up a copy of Origin Of Species some day and feel the weight of that one.)

Remember: Every habit needs reinforcement in order to stick. Every day that you practice, offer yourself some small reward. For a week’s worth, you can offer yourself a larger reward like a night out to see an especially good concert, a new musical toy, or a nice bottle of bourbon to savor. In your mind, link this reward directly to having done the practice.

5) Commit Publicly.

Have your friends and family hold you accountable.

Once you’ve gotten going, it can be very helpful to make your practice plan known to others.

This doesn’t necessarily mean blabbing about it at every cocktail party or writing about it on the interwebs. But it does mean telling at least one other person, who might be disappointed if you back out, and proud of you if you succeed. This can be a teacher, a friend, your bandmates, a significant other, or a community of peers.

Studies show that this tactic can dramatically increase follow-through. For some people, this kind of social accountability is an even greater motivator than writing the goal down. Put the two together, and you’ve really got something.

6) Track Your Success

“Don’t Break The Chain”

In order to keep up your new practice habit, you must continue to reinforce it. Track your progress in a journal or on a calendar.

In 2007 Brad Isaac wrote about a piece of advice given to him by prolific comedian Jerry Seinfeld:

He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

So track yourself.

That’s It. Stop Reading and Commit.

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
―Samuel Johnson

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tim Swinson

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tim Swinson

If you are able to cement a routine of consistent practice in music or any other craft, there is no question that you will improve.

It’s true that you may get even better and faster if you develop great strategies and tactics for deliberate practice. But no amount of fine-tuning matters unless you are devoting sufficient and consistent time to making better and better art.

It’s also fair to say that if you happen to be in an uncompetitive field, true mastery might not even be necessary to make a living. And if you’re in an especially competitive field, mastery of a single skill alone may not be sufficient for making a living.

Still, even if you never arrive where you planned, nothing is better than knowing that you’re heading in the right direction. The path to greatness may go in any number of directions. But no matter what, that path is turning thought into practice.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, educator and journalist.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, March 2014, Music: Making it, Listening to it.. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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