Building Discipline for Better Practice

One of the phrases I most hated when I was in secondary school was “Use your time wisely.” It seemed like teachers and guidance counselors and principals and parents had all been to the same workshop and decided the best way to help their children get school work done was to reiterate this phrase, over and over. In truth, and what so many of us kids couldn’t then understand, is it’s just good advice!

Even so, using your time wisely is not as easy as it seems. It requires discipline. And while some people perhaps are just born with the gift of discipline, most of us will have to work hard to develop that elusive skill. Discipline is all about habit, and developing habits—especially replacing older bad habits with new, good habits—requires time and hard work.

Building good guitar habits

When we sit down to practice on the guitar, long, built-up habits can take over and we go on auto-pilot, noodling away or simply playing through songs we’re learning instead of taking a problem-solving approach and working to improve areas that are lacking or need restructuring. Our brains create powerful neural pathways that transmit information across nerve cells when we do certain actions over and over and on a regular basis. When you go to grab that bag of chips (instead of the broccoli and carrots—or vice versa!) your brain is firing up that neural pathway, that habit. To create new habits in our practice (as much as in the way we eat or all kinds of other aspects of our lives) we have to create new neural pathways, redirecting that neural data to a different destination. Luckily our brains are wonderful organs and they are changing all the time, but it will still take time and indeed a bit of rewiring.

If you lack or struggle with discipline one thing you’ll find pretty quickly is that the new habit you’re trying to create just feels . . . off. It’s just easier and just feels right to do the thing our brains have already learned to do. When we first start playing guitar, for instance, the muscles in our fingers and hands and arms are being asked to do completely new things. They’ve been trained to turn door handles, pick things up, brush our teeth, pick the lint out of our belly-buttons—not play scales and arpeggios! So at first your fingers will have a mind of their own—that’s because they kind of do: the way you have been using those muscles for your whole life has been tied to particular neural pathways. Now you’re asking them to do something new. Suddenly getting your hands to play the guitar is like asking someone to pat their head, rub their belly, and stand on one foot all at the same time—if they haven’t practiced those combined actions it will be very difficult to coordinate them at first.

And this is the basic answer to our question about discipline: discipline, creating new habits that enable us to use our time wisely, will take practice just as much as playing scales, arpeggios, and breaking up songs and pieces we’re learning into bite-sized chunks. So how can you begin to develop and practice discipline, now?

Tacking action and building discipline

The first thing to do is to face that “off” feeling of the new habit you’re developing—in this case bringing discipline, organization, and structure into your practice—and just go with it. It’s not going to feel comfortable at first when you start down this path, but it’s essential that you push through that initial discomfort and just do it. But there are other things we can do to help us ease into discipline. First off, clear away any distractions you have. If your tendency is to answer the phone or check social media or your email when you’re practicing, then turn off your phone and your computer. If you’re responsible for others, see if someone can help take over for a bit so you have the free time to focus on your practice. If you like to noodle with new songs or pieces, then put the music or tab for those away until it’s time to work on them (put them in your guitar case and off your music stand). Remove anything that gets in the way of focusing on the task at hand.

Secondly, inserting structure into your practice will go a long way to making your practice sessions more disciplined. Before you play write down a brief schedule for that practice session: 15 minutes on warm-up, 30 minutes on technique and specific technical problems, 15 minutes on a few bars from the song or piece you’re learning (just as an example of a one-hour practice session). Better yet, write out a weekly practice schedule that you can keep on your music stand or on the wall next to where you practice (some place where it’s visible to you). More importantly, keep time during your practice sessions. If you’ve set only fifteen minutes for warm-up, you’ll be less likely to just slip into noodling or playing songs if you have a timer beeping at you when your warm-up is over. So set a timer on your phone or watch and stick to it as best you can.

Finally, keep a journal where you can write goals for yourself and digest how past practice sessions have gone and where you can improve in the next one. Setting small-term and longer-term goals can be a great way to stay motivated and give you a reason for the structure in your practice. But don’t overshoot your goals and undermine your discipline either: keep your goals manageable and reward yourself when you achieve them. Your longer-term goals can stay on the horizon, but they should never overwhelm the simpler, smaller tasks of the day-to-day. If you know what you’re working toward you’ll have the necessary motivation to stay on task.

Discipline is not an easy thing and it won’t happen suddenly over night. It takes time, hard work, perseverance, and even a bit of discomfort. But the rewards and benefits are so great it’s totally worth it. So give your brain a new destination and your fingers new tasks: build up your discipline for a better, healthier practice time.

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