New Years Resolutions have been around for four thousand years, all the way back to the ancient Babylonians. With all that history behind us, you would think we’d be better at them.
Luckily for us, the field of psychology has made major progress into understanding habits over the past two decades, and keeping your new year’s resolution has never been easier. Authors like James Clear, Gretchen Rubin, and Charles Duhigg have all brought useful models of positive habit-formation to the public.
They are, of course, especially useful for a practicing musician. Whether your resolution is to practice every day or something completely unrelated to music, here are some tips to help you build rock-solid habits.
Make it your identity
Every day, you make a choice whether to become a person who keeps their commitments or breaks them; you make a choice on whether to be a professional who shows up on time and puts in your best effort every day, or an amateur who only shows up when you feel motivated; you make a choice whether to be in charge of your schedule or to let others run your life.
These choices become the evidence that tells you who you are, day by day, vote by vote. Make it a landslide.
Set up a schedule
It doesn’t have to be rigid or formal, but you should know when you’re going to practice each day. “I will practice after my last class on weekdays and after lunch on weekends.” When you set a schedule in advance, you become more likely to follow through.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and if you don’t block out the time for music, your day will quickly fill up with activities that seem urgent but have little real importance. On that rare case
where something comes up that truly needs your attention during that time, you can easily reschedule your day to put your practice session somewhere else.
Create a craving
At the end of each practice session, write a couple ideas for what to practice the next day in your practice journal. Look ahead to other pieces of music you’d like to focus on after you master this one. Imagine the results you want to create. Come up with new ideas you could try. Create a sense of desire for your next practice session.
Make it easy
Put your music in order at the end of a practice session so you don’t have to look for it next time. Use a warm-up routine so you don’t have to think about how to start. Pre-plan in your practice journal so you know what to work on next. The idea is to reduce the friction so you can begin easily and keep moving.
Reward yourself for doing the work, not for the results
Real improvement requires deliberate practice, and that means occasional frustration. As you work at the edge of your abilities to stretch them, some days it will feel like you haven’t made any progress. Have faith that the results will come as long as you continue to do the work, and give yourself credit for showing up. This doesn’t mean you need a chocolate bar after every practice session; the simple emotional satisfaction of marking off the day in a calendar or practice journal is enough.
Build a chain
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld uses a big red magic marker to mark off days on a calendar. “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.”
Plan for obstacles
What might get in the way of your practice time, and how can you plan for that? When will you practice if your regular practice time doesn’t work? When you inevitably miss a day, will you beat yourself up and give up, or can you regroup and start a new practice chain? Obstacles will show up, that’s just part of life. Make a plan to deal with them now, so they don’t surprise you and derail your good habits.
Treat it as an experiment
Your first attempts at building a practice habit are likely to run into problems: you may find that your natural energy cycles dip during your scheduled practice time and it’s difficult to focus, or that building a chain feels stressful instead of satisfying. When that happens, it’s all too easy to blame ourselves and feel like we just don’t have what it takes. But building good habits is a practice of its own, and it will take time to discover what works for you.
Keep at it and you’ll eventually find a combination that works. Once you find it, keep refining it. Eventually, it will take on a momentum of its own, and it will become easier to practice than to skip a day.
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