How To Practice When You’re Busy!

What to do when you want to practice guitar but you never quite get there.

Let me guess… you’re busy? You have a job. You might have kids. You might have a long commute to work. You might always have homework. Whatever it is, I bet you have a reason why it’s hard to practice regularly. Well, let’s see if we can sort this issue out so you can move forward.

I just seem to run out of time…

I’ve taught a lot of people over the years and adults in particular are often the ones who struggle to practice regularly. This has always seemed strange to me as generally, they seem to be more disciplined and organised than teenagers and younger. However, adults seem to put off things that don’t feel like an instant step forward. So, sitting down to practice something and not being good at it from the beginning can be hard. This coupled with the fact that you might have 20 other things that need doing and, if you can easily see the result when you’ve done them, makes it even harder! I hear you. I suspect this tension is what makes practice difficult for the average “grown up”.

But without practice there is no gain

Yep, it’s true. I know you know this. The internal dialogue might go something like this…

“But I wont get better without practicing so I need to practice. But I never practice. So I’ll never get better. So I am going to quit. I was crazy to think I could do this as a grown up. I missed the chance at school and now I’ll never be able to play the instrument. I’m a failure. I quit.”

Sound familiar? Do you need a tissue?

Take Control

I’m sorry to put you through that depressing little scenario. But now that we’re being real with ourselves we can make some choices. Your first and easiest choice is to quit. Although, in the long term you may regret that and you probably know that. Or the other choice: you continue on! Now, let’s actually implement some changes so you not only enjoy practice but also feel less guilty about it and make progress. Here are 4 simple steps that could change it all for you.

Step 1: Schedule it

Obvious but often overlooked. Do you actually have a pre-planned time for when you will practice? If not, anything more pressing will always jump in and before you know it the day is over. Here are some tips for scheduling.

  • Write out the 7 days of the week and where you can put your practice time. You’re looking for a 20 minute window, 5 days a week at the very least. Once you’ve found them, set up reminders and put them on the calendar. I’m serious! Actually write this down!
  • Try pairing practice with another habit you already have and do regularly, like brushing your teeth or having your morning coffee. It’s much easier this way because you’re riding the wave of a pre-established habit.
  • If you have a spouse or house mate, make sure they know your practice time too, so they can give you the space to do it. They might even be willing to hold you accountable if you asked them.

Step 2: Define it

This is a very important step. What are you going to practice? What are you trying to achieve? If you’re getting lessons, it’s likely that your teacher will have set you specific things to practice for the week. There’s a good chance that your teacher has a big picture in mind when giving you things to practice. If you feel like you’ve been set something to do but your not sure why, you should ask. Knowing why you’re doing something makes it more relevant to you. If you’re teaching yourself you’ll need to take a step back and think about what it is exactly you’re trying to achieve. What’s the end game? You can break that down to small goals that are manageable and “practice-able”.

Let’s define practice. Practice is repeating an action to gain a specific skill. Practice has been successful when you can perform the skill with minimal effort. Does this change your view of practice? Did you think practice is just “playing” the guitar and the songs you know and love? That’s not really practice. It is still very valuable to do that and really that’s why you might be playing guitar in the first place. But the nature of practice is more focused and deliberate than that. So to sum up step 2; practice needs to be defined.

  • What are you going to practice?
  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • Is there a big picture?
  • When you practice are you repeating an action to gain a specific skill?

Step 3: Do it

And now we arrive at a rather crucial stage in the whole process: DO IT!!!
That scheduled time is here, you’re sitting down with your instrument at the music stand and what you need to practice is in front of you. Go!
Here’s a few tips to get the most out of this.

  • Avoid distractions. Put your phone on silent, tell the rest of the house your busy, lock the door, whatever you need to do just make sure your time to practice is actually used to practice, not put out fires.
  • Time it. Perhaps you struggle to maintain focus. Set time constraints on every item you will be practicing and stick to them.
  • Loop Practice. This is the act of taking a section of music you might be struggling with and playing it slowly, and repeating it many times before gradually speeding it up again and putting it back into the context of the music. This is a step I often see students skip. For me, this is critical.
  • Savour it! Seriously, enjoy the journey of improvement. Don’t begrudge it. Listen to the tone of the guitar, watch your fingers learn the movements, see yourself getting better and better. Some people find it helpful to play in front of a mirror. This is because it can help with visualisation, seeing yourself doing the thing you hoped you would be able to do.

Step 4: Track it

Ok, this last step can help you build momentum. Track your practice. It could be as simple as ticking it off a list or keeping a practice journal. The benefit of this is you get a practice history, which means as you look back over it you can see progress, and when we see progress we often want to keep going. Here’s what your practice journal could include:

  • The Goal. A sentence or two on what the desired outcome is.
  • The Date.
  • Categories. For example was it a song, or a scale, or a technique, or theory? What heading could you put each section of your practice under? A well rounded musician would try to work on many different aspects of music within a practice session to get the most out of it and grow evenly, musically speaking…
  • Specifics: What exactly did you practice?
  • Time: How long did you do each task for?

Onward!

Well, there’s some food for thought regarding practice. I guess my goal in writing this post is that you would feel less negative and vague about practice and instead, take control of the situation so you can enjoy the wonderful journey of learning an instrument. The Journey of improvement is one of the funnest parts of the process so why not enjoy it. I still do, and I’ve been doing it for over 20 years!

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