We have met the enemy and he is us – Pogo We all want to get better and we always will. There’s never a point where a musician thinks, “Well, I think I’m good enough now. Guess that’s it.”
What’s stopping us? What’s holding us back from becoming the player we wish to be? The only thing standing in our way is our self. Learn to recognize and combat these enemies of progress and you’ll be well on your way toward steady improvement.
Laziness is the number one enemy of progress. Why practice when you could plop down on the couch, flip on your 36 inch hd flat screen, and scarf down some Doritos? The mind and body seek comfort and all too often it can be very easy to succumb to this natural urge.
Combat laziness by:
Committing to daily minimums
Set a daily minimum for your daily practice time, ear training session, or anything else you’re working on. Make a commitment to yourself to meet your daily minimum for a given task everyday. Only commit to what you can truly achieve. If you can only commit to twenty minutes a day of practice, set that as your daily minimum.
Meet it everyday. If one day you’re feeling great and you have extra time, you’ll just want to continue because it feels so good to practice. Other days when you’re not so into it, meet your daily minimum and then call it quits.
Our habits make up so much of who we are and how we spend our time. Integrating a new habit goes hand-in-hand with commitment to daily minimums. Once you’ve created a daily minimum, the way you commit to it is by making this new task a habit. It’s like brushing your teeth. You just do it.
I remember when I went off of my parent’s health insurance and my dentist told me that I better start flossing because my new dental insurance wasn’t nearly as good as my parents’ plan. There’s no difference between learning to floss every day and practicing everyday, or doing ear training every day, or drawing everyday…or spending time doing anything you want to improve at…everyday.
If you can learn to floss daily, then you’re fully capable of integrating new habits into your life. That being said, it’s not surprising how few people actually floss every day.
Cultivating an enjoyable outlook toward what you’re doing
As I said before, the mind and body constantly seek comfort. So, if playing your instrument is enjoyable and you derive positive emotions from it, then your mind and body will want to spend time doing it. Rather than, or addition to, craving the couch, the flat screen, and the bag of Doritos, you’ll long to play your instrument.
The first step toward transitioning towards this positive outlook, is to simply plant the idea in your mind that playing is fun and not work. The next step is to simply enjoy yourself when you play and realize that the more you play the more you’ll improve, and the more you’ll enjoy playing.
Sometimes we’ll get a glimpse of what we need to do to get to the next level. Maybe you read something on this site (I hope so) that made a light bulb go off in your head, and you thought to yourself…oh…I need to do that to get where I want to go. But then some time elapses and in that time we justify why we shouldn’t do that thing we discovered, or why we don’t need to. We’ll then come up with a thousand justifications of why it won’t work and then we hop right back on the same path that we’ve been on for years.
Combat justification by:
Using the power of immediacy
When that revelation hits us, there’s an energy that takes hold of us. I’m sure you’ve felt it countless times. You suddenly get this AHA moment and everything is clear. You know what you need to do. You feel excited and energetic, almost superhuman. This energy lasts for a few hours or maybe even the entire day, but when the next day comes, it’s gone.
The key is to use this energy, this excitement, before that day of time elapses and before your mind has time to talk yourself out of doing what ever it is you know you need to do. If for instance, you were reading the 6 Disastrous mistakes you’re making in learning to improvise and you realize…Man, I need to learn a tune straight off the record. Run to the practice room, grab a recording of a tune you love, throw it in Transcribe, and go to town because within a few hours of your realization, you’ll have thoughts like, “Why do I need to learn a tune off the recording when I have the chart right here?” or, “My teacher never tells me to do that, so I probably don’t need to.”
Deep down, we all know when we’re making excuses to ourselves. Use the power of immediacy to intercept these excuses before they manifest.
Sticking to a plan
One of the most common ways justification is used is after someone has started a plan toward some larger goal. For example, suppose I decide to learn one tune in all keys for the following month. I start down that direction and everything is going great. I’m working hard and getting closer everyday to accomplishing my goal, but then thirty percent in, I casually and suddenly decide, maybe this isn’t helping me. I then drop the project and move on to another project, only to bring that next one to partial completion as well, before moving on to yet another. It’s a viscous cycle.
You’re mind may constantly create justifications and steer you away from completing your goals. Ignore these justifications and stick to your plan. Give your goals and projects enough time before evaluating which direction you should take with them. Sometimes things take more time than you initially planned. That’s okay. Be patient and thorough. Aim for depth and stick to a plan.
Why do you want to improve? Is it to show off? Is it to be better than others? Or is it because you simply love getting better? Any reason is valid. You may truly want to get better because you want to impress others. That’s okay. But, when your motivations are in sync with doing things because they alone make you happy with no external factors involved, you’ll progress much more readily.
Combat poor motivations by:
Developing a sense of wonder and curiosity
If you’re truly in awe of something and that’s your motivation for trying to figure it out, you won’t be distracted by trying to impress others or putting up a front. You’ll just be genuinely interested in pursuing how the stuff you’re so curious about is put together. Great scientists are often described as curious characters. This curiosity fuels them to discover what’s happening on a deeper level.
Learning from others
Rather than seeing others as competition or being jealous of their abilities, you can instead choose to learn from them. Of course nothing’s wrong with a little old fashioned competition, but there’s so much you can learn from all the people around you, especially if you’re in an environment like a music school. Don’t be shy. Everyone’s got their own ideas and outlooks that could be enlightening to you. Share some of your knowledge and absorb all you can.
Doing things for the right reasons
No one can tell you what’s right for you, but you know. Do things for what you deem the right reasons and your true motivations will continue to propel you forward.
Continually combating the enemies of progress
These enemies. They never die. They lie dormant waiting to awake at any moment. They’ll always be there, but now you’ll have some effective tactics to combat them and not let them stifle your progress.
The next time you start to feel lazy, ask yourself if you’ve set yourself any daily minimums or if you’ve transformed these minimums into habits. Or the next time you begin to utter an excuse in the form of a justification, stop and think. Why I am justifying this? Am I talking myself out of what I know I need to do to get to the next level? Use the power of immediacy and stick to a plan to halt justification in its tracks.
And if your working hard to achieve your goals, but something doesn’t feel right, question your motivations. Are you working on something you’re in awe of, something you’re genuinely curious about, something that makes you wonder? Make sure to learn from others and ditch any jealous or ill-willed motivations. Do things for the rights reasons and most importantly, remember why you play.