Have you ever been really anxious to practice but just couldn’t seem to get yourself to pick up your instrument? It happens to the best of us. One of the hardest things about practicing consistently is simply getting started. Unfortunately for many people it doesn’t seem to get easier over the years. In fact, I know many professional musicians who have either completely stopped practicing regularly or had to take extended breaks at some point due to other life obligations. This was especially common during the early days of this pandemic when there were no upcoming concerts or other deadlines. No matter what kind of musician you are – whether you’re a complete beginner, someone who’s not yet used to practicing on a daily basis, or a seasoned professional who is working on regaining that momentum, let’s work on making it just a little easier to get started.
Here are 5 tactics that help with habit formation along with some examples of how to apply them in practice. These ideas are all taken from the bestseller Atomic Habits by James Clear. To watch a video version of this, just scroll down.
1) Two-minute rule
When a habit is still in its early stages of development, first pick an activity that’s super easy to do and will take 2 minutes or less of your time. For example, instead of setting an ambitious goal to “practice for 30 minutes everyday” change it to something like “take the instrument out of its case and tune everyday” ..and that’s it. Checking off something that small on a habit tracking chart can be enough to make practicing just a little easier to get off the ground. At this stage, don’t worry about whether you actually get any practicing done; just focus on getting that instrument out day in and day out. There’s a saying that 80% of success is just showing up. Naturally, the 2-minute action will turn into something larger. Taking the instrument out every day and tuning it will turn into playing a scale every day. And then maybe playing a scale everyday can turn into playing 1 phrase of music, etc.
2) Remove Frictions
Another way to make it easier to get started, is by removing frictions. These are things that can stop you in your attempts. One thing that makes practicing more difficult to start is the fact that we need time to set up the space. For this reason, I always encourage folks to set up their practice space in advance if they can. This means, take the music off your shelf the night before and put it on your music stand. If you’re reading music from an ipad or other tablet, charge the device the night before and have the music files ready in your app. If it works for your situation, have instrument already in the practice space and maybe even leave the case unzipped overnight. Some people even choose to leave the instrument out of its case, if it’s safe. The pencil and metronome should already be nearby. If it’s not possible to prepare the practice space the night before (for example, if you practice at your music school’s practice room), you can remove some of that mental friction by taking out the music beforehand and singing or conducting the first phrase while you’re on your way to the practice room. This activity can also pass for a “2-minute rule” habit.
3) Habit Stacking
Habit stacking consists of multiple actions. Usually they are simple but very specific. These are actions that are planned to do one after another, in which one event triggers the next. Here’s an example: “After lunch at 1pm I’ll take out my music. With music in hand, I’ll go to the practice space. After I walk into the practice space, I’ll take my instrument out. After the instrument is out, I’ll rosin my bow and tune. After I finish tuning, I’ll play a scale.” Habit stacking not only creates a small chain of events, but sets a clear intent for the time and location by being very specific in the instructions. This creates very clear cues to implement the actions.
4) Prime Your Environment
While it’s pretty obvious that it’s preferable to find a quiet space, I totally get that for many people this is something that’s not always possible. There is only so much within our control, and that’s exactly what we need to focus on. Here are some ways you can optimize your environment.
It’s tough to begin practicing if your instrument is in a difficult place to reach, or if the music stand is empty and you can’t remember where any of the music is on your shelf. Looking for your music takes up extra time and can create other distractions. Make it easier to start by preparing the night before. In addition to that, also make your practice plan the night before and take out all the necessary things that you plan to use. Maybe this includes a recording device and a journal.
This is why I created the practice template PDF, which you can download for free on this site and print as many times as you wish (or fill out digitally…although handwriting is proven to be more helpful in retention of information). The template is 2-fold: in the front, write down your intentions for the following day. On the back, make a self reflection after practicing and jot down some notes that will help you plan for the following day. Put the next day’s plan on the music stand so it’s easy to pick things up where you left off. And thus the process recycles day in and day out.
Another idea is to create a playlist of the pieces you are working on. Press play and listen to some of it while setting up. This can prime you to study the score a little before practicing, which will help prepare you mentally. Because the music, practice plan, and pencil are already on the music stand nearby, it will be so much easier to get started and jot down ideas as you go.
An important way to prime your environment is to turn off those notifications. I don’t even want to think about how many hours I’ve wasted thanks to all the distractions from modern technology. Imagine this: you’re feeling great, you got the music in your head, you know exactly how you want to play that first note, and your bow’s almost on the string, you breathe.. and… PING! That can ruin an entire session before it even starts.
5) Visual Cues
You can leave obvious cues for yourself. For example, let’s say you decide to build a habit of playing long tones for 5 minutes every morning… and nothing more than that. When you go to bed, put a post-it note on your phone screen that says “long tones for 5 min” and once you wake up, you can’t take the post-it off the screen until you’ve completed the task. Visual cues are helpful in combination with the “2-minute rule” as reminders.
If you forget to do a habit, don’t beat yourself up, but hop back on immediately, or as soon as it’s safe to do so. If you choose to reward yourself after completing a habit for the day, be sure that the reward is in line with your identity-based intention and personal values.