If you’ve studied music for any considerable length of time, you’re familiar with the guilt that comes from missing a day of practice. You understand that consistent daily practice brings the best results. You want to get better, but you just haven’t made practice a habit, or maybe you have, but for whatever reason that habit broke down for a day.
If you have to force yourself to practice everyday, you’re doing it wrong. Actually practicing should be just as simple as brushing your teeth. If you’re doing it right, there will be times when you end up in the practice room without even realizing you went there. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
This is possible by understanding habits. We only have so much willpower throughout our day. If you have to will yourself to practice everyday, there will be many days you just don’t.
In order to be a successful musician you must understand what habits are, and how to create them. You’ll then be ready to learn an instrument, and learn it well.
What are Habits
Habits are actions you take without thinking, that you do consistently. They’re usually very hard to stop.
Our brains are like onions with many layers. The outermost layers are the most evolved. These layers are responsible for higher functions like language and thought.
When you look deep in our brains you’ll find the basal ganglia shown to the right. The basal ganglia is one of the most primitive parts of our brains, and it can be found in every species of vertebrates. The basal ganglia is responsible for developing and repeating habits.
Everyone has habits. Some examples may be brushing your teeth, taking a shower, starting your car, anything that you can do without thinking is normally habitual. One personal example is taking off my shoes. Typically I don’t take time to untie my shoes when I take them off. I use one foot to push against the heal of my other shoe while I lift my foot out. I don’t think about it. I just do it. But interestingly the heal of one of my shoes is much more worn out than the heal of the other.
If you asked me which foot I use to take off the shoe I wouldn’t know. But somehow every time I use the same foot. Why? Because it’s a habit.
Why Do We Have Habits?
It’s simple. There are many different things you must do every day, our brains have evolved in a way that allows us to do these tasks automatically. You can think or do other things while your habit is running. It’s kind of like auto pilot for your body, or running of a computer program. Many studies have shown that willpower is limited. There are only so many things that you can will yourself to do throughout your day, eventually your willpower runs out and you decide not to practice, or maybe you decide to eat that amazing ice cream in the fridge. If you leave it up to your willpower, you will undoubtedly fail. Habits also make it so we don’t need to remember how to do common tasks like walk or drive a car.
Habits vs Memory
In 1993 a man by the name of Eugene Pauly would change the way that science thinks about habits. He became sick with a disease that damaged his brain. This prevented him from forming new memories. He could function, walk, talk, and do everything he used to be able to do, but he forgot his wife and children. He would watch the same episode on the History Channel every day. It was new to him every time.
Researchers would ask him to draw a map of his home (a home they moved to after his disability), he couldn’t even draw a rudimentary map showing where the bathroom, kitchen, or living room were. However he could get up, get food from the refrigerator, go to the bathroom, shower, and wash his hands.
His wife would take care of him the best she could including a daily walk around the block.
His doctors explained to his wife to make sure he never left the house by himself. If he did, he would never find his way back. One day while she was getting dressed, her husband was watching the TV like he usually did. For whatever reason though, this time when she came back the front door was open and he was gone.
She panicked running around the neighborhood. She knocked on doors asking if anyone had seen her husband.
Finally she came back home and called the police. When she entered the living room there was her husband sitting and watching the same episode as always. What happened? He went on his walk. By himself.
Scientists then began to study his behavior through the coming years. They found that although he had no ability to form memories, he could form new habits. Habits and memory are found in separate parts of the brain, and they work very differently.
When Habits Stop Working
Throughout the years researchers continued studying Eugene’s experience with learning new habits. They learned a lot more about how they work. In one case, they noticed that whenever there were obstacles through his normal walk around the block, like a fallen tree branch or construction, something interesting happened. For a person without a this disability they would easily be able to walk around the obstruction. For Eugene however, as soon as something broke him out of his original habit, he no longer knew where he was. He couldn’t finish his walk. Habits are fragile that way.
Does this sound like something that has ever happened in a musical setting? Have you ever “memorized” a piece, but someone in the audience coughed, or you started worrying about an upcoming section only to have a terrible memory slip? If this has ever happened to you, you probably “memorized” the music using primarily muscle memory. Muscle memory is very similar in function to developing a habit. If you’re interested, I’ve already talked about this extensively here.
How to Create New Habits – The Habit Loop
Researchers have found that habits are created in a three step process often termed the habit loop.
A cue is something that triggers you to do your habit. Perhaps every time you go to the bathroom you wash your hands. The cue would be going to the bathroom. Whenever you walk in your house you take off your shoes. The cue would be walking in your house. Understanding what your cues are for everything you do will help you to understand how to form new habits.
The routine is the actual action you take, or the habit itself. It always takes place after the cue. Sitting in your car may be the cue. The routine would be putting your keys in the car, putting the car in drive, putting your seat belt on, adjusting your mirrors/seat, putting the gas pedal down and driving. Routines don’t have to always be so step intensive. Anything that you do habitually is the routine.
Often with routines you won’t even have memory of doing it. I’m sure you’ve driven home from work only to find out you don’t remember anything past getting in the car. Somehow you just ended up at home. You were driven by habit. Habit to stop at red lights. Habit to go at green. Habit to turn on the right streets. We are creatures of habit.
With the car example, the reward would be as simple as getting to where you want to go.
If the cue and the routine exist, but the reward is missing, the reward turns into a craving.
One common example of this is toothpaste. In the early 1900’s a toothpaste called Pepsodent was extremely popular. The marketers of the toothpaste used habit forming techniques to sell the product.
In addition to intentional habit forming marketing they stumbled on something else unintentionally that created a habit out of brushing teeth. Some ingredients that were in Pepsodent unintentionally created a craving and reward. They used citric acid in their formula. Citric acid is an irritant and it creates that tingling sensation in your mouth after you brush.
Originally it was used to help with shelf life. Upon asking customers though, they often heard that if they didn’t brush their teeth they would miss the “clean” sensation that they always get. The customer would have a craving for the reward of “clean teeth.” That tingling sensation does absolutely nothing for your teeth. It’s still used today however because it helps you develop that habit of brushing your teeth, which then helps companies sell more toothpaste.
Practice as a Habit
I know that was a lot to read so far, so we really need to get down to the nitty gritty here. Why is this important for musicians? There are a lot of things you can apply this information to, and I bet you already have some in mind.
But let’s talk about the one that is the subject of this article. Practice.
When do you practice? When you have time? If you’re practicing at different times every day, you’re hurting yourself. You have to put forth effort and willpower to choose to practice.
Let’s make it a habit instead.
Decide on a Cue
The time of day is not important, it’s the cue that is really important. What will your cue be? Time of day may be that cue, but it doesn’t have to be. Are you going to practice in multiple sessions every day? Then you need multiple cues. Cues can be just about anything. They can be visual, like just looking at your instrument. They can be a time of day, an emotion, or a sequence of thoughts or actions.
You may want decide to practice after brushing your teeth in the morning. The cue would be brushing your teeth. Perhaps you could practice after one of your classes. Anything can serve as a cue.
The important thing is that you are consistent. You must always practice after receiving this cue. It has to be a cue that will happen daily, so you will actually practice daily.
The routine seems like the easiest part. Just practice. You can make this even more effective however, when you begin to establish layered habits within your practice routine.
How do you practice? What do you practice first? What do you practice second? Practicing one section can be a cue for the next section.
Planning out your practice time can improve the time that you spend practicing, but it can also begin to create habits that you do automatically without thinking. Practice itself should always be a mental exercise, but deciding what to practice, or how long to practice, should be habitual.
Just the fact that you practiced and feel accomplished can be your reward. Like everything else you can go one step further. Using a checklist for your planned out practice session, or even just a checklist to show that you practiced for that day, can serve as a powerful reward.
There are many other rewards you can use, be creative. Realize though that it’s something you need to do every time after you practice. Treating yourself to chocolate cake may be a good reward, but it may not be the most healthy one. In order to be effective you’ll have to do it every day, possibly multiple times a day.
Be Aware of Pre-existing Habits
The secret to changing existing habits, is to keep the cue and the reward the same, but just change the routine. You’ve now learned that even emotions can serve as a cue. Maybe normally you practice, but when you’re feeling anxiety or sadness those emotions serve as a cue for a different habit. Your practice habit is then disrupted for this “sadness” habit. You may not know what those cues and routines are off the top of your head. You do them automatically. The next time you skip practice for something else, try to figure out what cued it. Whatever that something else was that you ended up doing instead of practicing was your routine for that habit.
Finally what was your reward for not practicing? Relaxation? Food? Socializing?
Once you realize what habits you have, you can break them by replacing the routine with something else. When you get a cue that normally would prevent you from practicing replace it with practice. Or at first perhaps just replace it with listening to music. Listening to music can then serve as a cue to practice.
Now that you have a foundation for what habits are and how they are formed, you can make better informed decisions not only about your practice, but about the rest of your life. Learning to be a great musician takes consistency. Being consistent without habit is difficult, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
What do you think? Do you have any other techniques that have helped you in building up your practice habit? Let us know in the comments.
If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, I highly recommend the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. Much of the research provided in this article is from that book. Read it!