I'm always looking for ways to procrastinate when it comes to practicing so over time I've searched and found ways to do the good work that I need to be doing. Quality practice is a habit that you can learn by following these 7 easy steps and then repeating them again, and again, and again. Enjoy!
1. Prioritize and Protect Your Practice Time. How skilled you are is directly related to how much quality practice you get in. Therefore, if you want to be good at what you do, set aside a realistic amount of time for you to practice your craft and then stick to practicing during that allotted time. One of the most common pitfalls for people trying to do this is they choose a large block of time they can't commit to and then they let other "to do" items creep into their designated practice time. Most common distractions that make me feel justified in not practicing are, emails, social media, list making, chores, errands, etc... None of the items on that list are inherently bad but they should be avoided during designated practice time.
2. Compartmentalize Skills to Practice. Make a list of areas you could improve and create unique goals for each specific skill set. Spending a short time in each "compartment” can help you keep from getting bored and keep you from neglecting more challenging areas you might otherwise gloss over. As your practice time increases your skill sets can become more granular and you can choose more and more detailed parts of your playing to focus on. Plus, smaller goals are easier to wrap your brain around and as you succeed your confidence will increase. For example, having the goal of playing guitar as well as Jimi Hendrix is a tall order and hard to measure progress. Saying I want to learn to sight read, or I want to learn my melodic minor, modes, diminished, and whole tone scales in and out, or I want to learn how to hear intervals, are all actionable and measurable goals. Knock enough of those small goals out and you will be a musician before you know it and you don’t even need to break a sweat or pull an all nighter.
3. Go slowly to go fast. Internalizing information should not be thought of as a race. If you make mistakes because you are going too fast your brain will look like a drunken ice skater trying to draw a line with his skates. If you go slowly you can cut to the core of the matter and your brain won't have to guess which "groove" in the ice to follow once you start going faster. Bonus tip: To test speed, move your metronome up to the point where you are just starting to make mistakes, then scale it back 10-20%.
4. Find a teacher/mentor. Finding someone that has already followed the steps you are trying to take will help you avoid pitfalls and work through challenging patches in your development. Just like an editor for a book offers experienced and educated feedback, a mentor or a teacher can offer you valuable perspective that you may not be aware of. Book Recommendation: Great tips on how to find a mentor in this book: Mastery by Robert Greene
5. Practice in the same place if you can. Practicing in the same location helps trigger your habit of practice. Just like experts say don't read in bed because then you will associate your bed with reading, you should associate a specific place with practice so when you go there that's what your brain will be trained to do. Once you are in that special practice place, you will see yourself "Get in the zone" and stay focused longer. Remember: Discipline is not about mental fortitude, it is about actively creating smart habits that go on autopilot to help you reach your goals.
6. Frequently reassess your strategy and goals. As you master certain skills and internalize certain habits it is important to reassess your routine and practice goals. To continue to advance your playing it will be necessary to continually add new goals and dimensions into your playing. It will still be important to review the material you have mastered but to keep the skills that you have already mastered will take much less time and work once you have them. This opens up your mind and energy for new and more complex habits. For example, If you practice quarter note hits at 60 bpm for all eternity you'll eventually hit a plateau and still be clueless when asked to play a funk groove. Therefore, set goals, test yourself for proficiency, and then periodically reassess, remove, tweak, or add goals to make sure you are getting the most out of your practice time.
7. Use a metronome. No matter what instrument you play, using a metronome is one of the biggest differences between amateur and pro musicians. There's a reason every (good) music teacher stresses the importance of practicing with a metronome. It improves your internal groove clock and it helps you keep track of your progress through measured increases in speed. If you use a metronome while practicing, once it comes time for the big show, you'll have the confidence to feel the groove, lean into it and play with it, because you'll know where the beat is supposed to be.
BONUS TIP 8: Most importantly, have fun! Music is not a race to the finish line, it's a way of life. Remember to breathe and relax as you are practicing. Celebrate the journey regularly.