Build a Practice Habit in 5 Minutes a Day

December 31, 2019
December 31, 2019 Barbie Wong

When I meet someone new, the topic of what I do for a living is often met with surprise or delight. “You teach music? Wow, that’s interesting. Tell me more.” It’s actually quite nice. I love music and I enjoy talking to people about it. What intrigues me, however, is how often I hear this:

“I wish I could learn to play an instrument but I just don’t have time.”

Time. That’s what prevents us from doing a myriad of things–exercising, eating healthier, spending time with loved ones, and playing an instrument. So what do I say to that? My response is always the same:

“Do you have five minutes a day you can spare?”

“Yes, I have five minutes a day.”

“Then you can learn to play an instrument.”

I tell them the same thing I tell the parents of new students: Just focus on five minutes a day. Make music five minutes a day, but it must be every day.

"Cultivating a Practice Habit"

When starting to learn an instrument, the most important thing to do is establish a practice habit. Before we delve into how to create a habit of playing your instrument, it is vital to understand why this is so important. UCLA researcher Wendy Wood recently wrote a book called Good Habits, Bad Habits that delves deeply into this topic. She found that, contrary to what most people think, we actually have two “brains” that control our actions. The conscious brain is what we tend to think of when we think about what controls our actions. The automatic brain, however, also controls many of our actions. We just don’t notice this automatic or habit mind but it saves us energy. If we only operated using our conscious mind, we would be exhausted after half the day. The automatic brain helps us drive to the store or brush our teeth without expending much energy and that leaves the rest of our mind available for more difficult or important tasks. In fact, we use this habit mind about 43% of the time. I love  this idea because it means that our notions about willpower are mostly wrong. When you tried to learn the guitar years ago and it did not work, it wasn’t because you lacked willpower. You just did not develop a habit of picking up your guitar. You needed to first develop the habit of playing your instrument every day and thus engage your automatic mind. If you have a busy work schedule or too many demands, adding more things on your plate can feel like too much. But if you only add one thing and do that one thing every day for the next two months, it will eventually become automatic and you will find that picking up that guitar becomes quite easy. Now, we are ready for the steps to cultivating a practice habit.

Step 1: Play your instrument EVERY DAY for five minutes

Everyone has five minutes. Just begin with that. If you need to, set an alarm on your phone to sound at the same time every day. It is easiest to establish a habit by practicing at the same time and same place every day. Or if you already have a habit of doing something every day, you can attach this to that habit. For instance, if you brush your teeth every day after breakfast, you can play your instrument right after you brush your teeth. Then, brushing your teeth becomes a cue for your music-making. You could even write a note and put it next to your toothbrush. Then, every day after you brush, you will automatically go to your instrument and play for five minutes. Once your five minutes of playing is up, you can decide to stop or continue. Your goal is to reach five minutes. Once that is done, you have succeeded.

I actually learned this method when I moved to San Francisco many years ago. I was a thin-as-a-rail kid growing up and filled out during my college years. By the time I moved to San Francisco, I was much heavier than I felt comfortable with and exercised sporadically. The apartment I moved in to happened to be across the street from a gym, so I joined that gym and began to go. Because I did not particularly like exercising, I made myself a promise to only go to the gym for 10 minutes. If I wanted to stay longer, I could. But if I wanted to leave after 10 minutes, I was free to go. No fuss, no guilt. Within a few months, I began to go to the gym more and more often, and eventually developed a habit of going to the gym. Within a year, I lost 15 pounds and felt healthier and stronger than ever. I have applied this method to developing other habits, including helping my own children and the students in my music studio cultivate the habit of practicing their instruments on a consistent basis. It really works.

Another reason why my gym habit worked so well is because the environment was favorable. I only had to spend one minute to travel to my gym. It was easy for me to get there and I could work out for only 10 minutes and not feel pressure to work out longer because the travel time was so short.

Importance of Environment

One of the most famous experiments on self-control, known to most as the marshmallow experiment, actually demonstrates the importance of environment. Preschool children in the study were given a marshmallow and told that if they waited 15 minutes before eating it, they would be given two marshmallows. Those who could wait were seen as possessing more self-control than those who ate the marshmallow. The ability to delay gratification as a preschooler meant a greater ability to resist temptations and better self-control, and this translated into educational and financial benefits later in life. However, there is a part of this experiment that has not been as widely discussed. During some of the experiments, the children did not see the marshmallow. During other experiments, they saw the marshmallows. Those who saw the marshmallows were able to resist it for about six minutes. Those who did not see the marshmallows resisted for about 10 minutes. This demonstrates the importance of environment. What you are exposed to can influence your willpower. And as you will see next, there are ways to create an environment that supports a habit like learning to play an instrument.

Step 2: Get rid of distractions

Developing a practice habit is like sending a rocket to space. You want to get rid of as much friction as possible while adding as massive power. This step focuses on minimizing friction so that the ascent to space is graceful and easy. Getting rid of distractions makes it easier for you to focus on practicing. Turn off your phone and ask people around you to not disturb you during your practice session. Better yet, find a quiet, secluded space to practice. Again, make sure that the time you choose to make music is optimal. Find a time when your conscious brain is energetic so that your automatic brain does not take over. Make sure that you are not hungry or overly tired. Do what you can to reduce any friction to making music.

Step 3: Make it easy

Now it’s time to add massive power. One way to achieve this is to make it easy to get to your instrument. Take your your instrument out of its case and put it in plain sight. If you can find an instrument hanger, install one on your wall so that you can easily pick up your instrument. I have nine instruments hung up or easily accessible in my music studio, which allows me to grab an instrument and play it at a moment’s notice. If you can see your instrument, then you are constantly reminded of it, and that will help you establish this habit.

Step 4: Aim for pleasure

Another part of adding massive fuel to your practice habit is to make sure that you feel satisfaction at the end of the practice session. Is there a song you really like to play? If so, make sure to play it during your session. Is there a song you really want to learn? If so, figure out what incremental steps you need to take to learn that song. Even a small bit of progress–and that can even include learning just one note–is important as long as you progress every day. Your improvement will help with the dopamine release that fuels your enjoyment. “The brain, like the body, changes most quickly in that sweet spot where it is pushed outside–but not too far outside–its comfort zone,” remarked Anders Ericsson, researcher of expert skill development and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Aiming for pleasure means that you practice songs that are enjoyable as well as those that stretch your capabilities in order to find that “sweet spot” for maximum enjoyment and steady improvement.

If you take these steps and do it every day for at least two months, you will acquire the habit of making music. If you are a parent and want your child to make music, you can set up their environment to be conducive to making making music. Eventually, their automatic minds will develop the habit of making music and practicing will become much easier and successful. Remember, you just need to take these four steps and keep at it. My favorite quote on music practicing comes from Shinichi Suzuki. He knew the power of daily practice when he said, “Practice only on the days you eat.”

Best of luck to you and let me know how it goes!


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