A Scientific Strategy For Success On Guitar

Learning to play guitar is really about developing the habit of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice by definition is when you practice with an awareness of what you are practicing and why. This might seem obvious but far too often we do what I call ‘mindless practice’. This is where you practice while thinking about what you are going to cook for dinner or, when you practice while checking emails.

Not all goals are equal

For a long time I believed the odds of me achieving a certain goal depended on how much I really wanted it. I remember a time in my life when I really wanted to travel. I would work hard to save every dollar knowing it was getting me closer to my goal. The problem was my travel plans would almost always get pushed back due to unforeseen circumstances. Now there were other times I succeeded at something that wasn’t even a goal. A good example was work. Whether it was working for an employer or teaching guitar in my own business I rarely missed a day. In fact, over more than 30 years I can count on one hand the number of days I called in sick or turned up late.

Make practice a ‘must do’ rather than a ’should do’.

It appears that we are more likely to follow through on a goal that seem like an obligation oppose to just being a good thing to do. Tory Higgins, a psychology and business professor at Columbia University has explore this problem in depth over more than two decades. Higgins puts goals into two basic categories. 
  1. Promotional goals. These are goals we hope to achieve. In many cases our desire to achieve these goals are very high. For example you might have a very strong desire to play like a certain guitar player within a few years.
  2. Prevention goals. These are the goals we feel obligated to achieve. In other words we fear the consequences of not achieving them. For example you know you have to perform on stage in a month and you must practice a minimum of an hour a day to be ready.

The unexpected power of prevention 

Prevention goals have proven the better option. When you tell yourself that not achieving the goal means facing a negative consequence you are more likely to follow through. I rarely missed a day of work in the early days because I didn’t want to face the possible loss of income which I depended on at the time. When I was young and inexperienced I was more of a liability to my employer than an asset therefore I was easily replaced.  Over time though,  the threat of job loss became less likely because I had become a valuable asset. Calling in sick every now and again would not have jeopardised my position but by then, I had established the habit of being consistent and reliable around my work.

How to leverage ‘prevention’ to succeed on guitar

The reason prevention works Higgins suggests is because there is a feeling of accountability. I felt accountable to my employer so I turned up for work each day. You have to ask yourself who or what makes you accountable to practice guitar everyday. If you can’t answer this question you’ll likely fall short on the prevention strategy. This can be real (preferably) or imagined. Real might be committing to someone that you will practice everyday and having them dish out a penalty when you don’t. The penalty might be financial. Say $20 every time you don’t practice. For a parent with a child learning guitar the penalty might be no TV or Internet that day. 


Think carefully about what motivates you to practice guitar. If the motivation is based on a promotional strategy rather than a prevention strategy look at making a change. If you already have a prevention strategy look at stepping it up in some way. Its all about giving yourself the best chance of success. 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Guitar Graph says:

    The point of practicing your skill is to reach the level of professionalism. This blog taught us how to do good in practicing & it’s better to this seriously.

  2. Singer says:

    Love that Will Durant quote.
    And yes to accountability. If I need motivation then booking a gig is one way to do it. Some of us, however, are not at that level, so a good strategy might be to find and pick an open mic night and commit your self to doing 3 songs there in the next two weeks. It will give your practice a purpose, and purpose keeps you ready to overcome the setbacks when they arrive.

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