Guitar Practice: How to Beat Procrastination and Drudgery
Last Updated: Nov 18, 2019
If you’ve been playing guitar for at least a few years, then you’ve undoubtedly had times where you’ve procrastinated rather than practiced. Now, I’m not talking about putting off guitar to do legitimate tasks like laundry, housework, feeding the kids, etc. I’m talking about doing crap like Facebook, video games, television, etc. when, deep down inside, you’d really rather be playing guitar.
Another thing you may have encountered is what I’ll call “drudgery.” In other words, you kinda dread the idea of practicing or, when you do practice, you just aren’t getting much enjoyment out of it. Maybe you’ve fallen into some kind of rut or “hit a plateau” that makes guitar practice feel like a boring grind.
I know that these are issues because 1) they happen to me too and 2) I get questions about them all the time. I struggle with procrastination nearly every day, and the feeling that practice is drudgery sneaks up on me at least a couple times a year. These are common issues for all guitarists.
So if you thought you were alone, you’re not.
I’m going to tell you what techniques I use to deal with these two demons. I can’t guarantee these will work for you, but in talking with other guitarists I’ve discovered that they use the same (or similar) techniques to overcome procrastination and drudgery.
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Dealing With Procrastination
Isn’t it bizarre and ironic that, even though we love playing guitar, we sometimes don’t do it because we either consciously or unconsciously procrastinate?
Bedtime rolls around and you realize you didn’t even touch your guitar that day because you wasted time watching TV, messed around on Facebook, or played video games instead. You feel guilty, and promise yourself that you’ll practice tomorrow. However, tomorrow comes and the same thing happens again. It happens to me too, all the time. So, here are some things I do to combat procrastination…
Stop trying to boost your motivation (to practice)
Trying to increase your motivation or “psych yourself up” to play guitar is, at best, hit-or-miss. As anyone in the exercise industry (especially designers of exercise-related software apps and wearables) will attest, trying to reliably and predictably boost motivation is nearly impossible. Motivation is a mysterious, slippery thing, and its ups and downs don’t always make sense. I used to try to boost my motivation by watching guitar videos on YouTube. Sometimes it worked, but most times I just ended up watching videos instead of practicing.
I like to say: “Don’t motivate; facilitate.” In other words, rather than doing things to try and motivate yourself to play guitar, focus instead on making practice really, really easy. Like, stupid easy.
How do you do that? Read on…
Make practicing guitar really, really easy
If your guitar is under the bed, in the closet, or simply inside the case, you’re less likely to play it than if it’s out, accessible, and ready to rock. Every little bit of extra physical effort you have to exert–even something as simple as having to plug the guitar cable in–is just one more piece of friction that increases the likelihood that you’ll procrastinate instead of practicing.
Essentially, you have to make playing guitar physically easier than procrastinating.
So, if possible, have your guitar out on a stand in a spot where you can easily grab it at any time. Have a guitar pick wedged in the strings, your music books (or whatever you’re working on) right there and open, etc. Make guitar so easy and accessible that you basically have to TRY not to grab it and strum a few chords every time you walk by. If it’s an electric guitar, leave the cable plugged in and have your amp volume already set where you’ll need it. All you should have to do is pick up your guitar, flick on the amp, and play.
One last tip: when you finish playing each day, get your guitar and gear prepped and ready for your next practice session. Wipe the strings, tune the guitar, and make sure your amp volume is where it needs to be. That way, all you have to do next time is grab your guitar and start practicing.
Create an inviting, inspiring practice space
To the greatest extent possible, create a practice space that feels really good to you–one that inspires you and draws you to the guitar. For me, this means having a dedicated practice space that is very clean, organized, and ergonomic. After years of chaos and messiness, I was finally able to buy a studio desk (pictured below) that neatly holds all my rack gear. Everything’s finally ergonomic and within reach, and I have plenty of room for sheet music, a midi controller, computer, etc. Not to mention, the desk just looks really cool!
It’s now a space that calls to me, and pulls me toward the activity of practicing:
Now, I understand that not everyone has the cash or the space for such a desk, but you get the idea: create a space that pulls you toward the guitar and inspires you. Designate a corner of your apartment for a music stand, amp, chair, and your guitar. Hang a picture or two of some of your guitar idols in that corner. Maybe you prefer a darker room lit only by candlelight or purple-colored LED’s. Do whatever inspires you.
Make your procrastination activities less convenient
I alluded to this one earlier…
The main reason we procrastinate is because those other activities are simply easier than playing guitar. Just grab your phone and with a simple tap of your thumb you can launch Facebook. Tap, flick, scroll… easy. No other physical or mental effort is needed, and before you know it you’ve wasted 30+ minutes doing nothing of real value.
Now, guitar on the other hand. If you’re like most, you’ve usually gotta stand up, walk across the room, open the guitar case, plug in the guitar, tune it up, yadda yadda. It’s way more work than launching Facebook and checking your feed.
The same can be said of whatever your procrastination activity is–whether video games, television, or something else. It usually takes less effort to engage in those activities, and we humans will often gravitate toward an easier task than a harder one, including tasks that are mentally easier.
So, the trick here is to make your procrastination activities less convenient. For example, if you’re like me and Facebook is your issue, then log completely out of the app whenever you’re done. That way, you have to enter your password every time. Simple concept, but you’d be surprised how effective this can be. That tiny bit of extra necessary effort can be just enough to make you think twice. Or, you could take it one step further and also delete the app from your phone when you’re done:
Now, whenever you want to use Facebook you’ll have to go to the app store, download and install the app, then log in. Sheesh. It’d be easier to just grab your guitar, which is already all set up and ready to go, and practice for a bit.
Use this example to think of ways you can make your particular procrastination activities less convenient. What little things can you do to make them just a tad more difficult than playing guitar? If it’s television, try unplugging the power cable, or unplugging the Roku, AppleTV, etc. If it’s video games, try unplugging your game controllers and putting them in a drawer.
Use reverse-psychology on yourself
Instead of telling yourself you’re going to “set down and practice for 2 hours” and attaching all these lofty expectations to the activity, tell yourself “I’m just gonna strum a few chords, then I’m done.” If it’s one of those days where you don’t feel like you want to practice, then tell yourself you’re “just going to mess around for 2 minutes, and that’s it.” Then, proceed to do exactly that–with every intention of stopping after only 2 minutes.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used this technique, only to find myself 1-2 hours later… lost in musical bliss. Oh sure, sometimes it does only turn out to be 2 minutes–there are days when I’m just not feelin’ it. However, most times it ends up unexpectedly stretching to an hour or more.
Take tiny actions in the direction of guitar practice
As with anything, the biggest barrier to getting started is… well… getting started. Sometimes, taking 1 or 2 very small actions toward doing something you’ve been putting off is all that’s needed to open the floodgates and bust through procrastination.
This could be an action as small and simple as grabbing your guitar pick and rolling it around in your fingers. This is exactly why I’ve always got a guitar pick in one of my pockets: If I can just get a guitar pick in my fingers, even if I’m away from my guitar at the time, it’s very likely that I’ll follow through and set down to practice at some point.
For you, maybe just setting down in whatever chair you usually use when you practice will do the trick. I use this one too. If I can just plant my butt on my deliciously comfy Pork Pie drum throne in front of my studio desk, it’s highly likely that my next action will be to reach to my left and grab my guitar. Then, it just snowballs from there.
Essentially, your doing the guitarist equivalent to what people do when they need to write a paper (or a blog post): they force themselves to get at least 1 word on the page. A writer knows that those first few words are the hardest, but once they’re on the page it’s highly likely that they’ll get into the groove and keep writing.
Dealing With Drudgery
Let’s face it, as much as we (normally) love playing guitar, sometimes practice just feels like a grind. There will always be days like this, and there are a few things that I do to to combat this feeling.
Find little ways to make practice a pleasurable experience
If the thought of practice itself bums you out, find ways to make the overall activity pleasurable:
- Fix a favorite drink or snack to enjoy while you practice
- Find a pleasurable location somewhere outdoors
- Reward yourself afterward with something else that you enjoy
- “Set the mood” with interesting lights, candles, incense, etc.
I love gourmet coffee (my favorite is Portland Roasting’s Dark Sumatra). So, if I’m practicing in the morning I’ll always have a hot cup (or three) of coffee or espresso. I don’t drink alcohol much, but when I do my favorite thing is Belgian ales. So if it’s an evening practice I’ll sometimes have one of my favorite ales to sip on during practice.
Back when I was in music school, I would often practice outside somewhere on campus (with coffee). I carried that habit with me later in life too, and still enjoy practicing outdoors if the weather is good and I can find a spot that gives me enough privacy.
Little perks like this can at least make the time enjoyable, even if the actual music or techniques you’re working on aren’t.
Try shorter practice sessions
Rather than thinking you have to set for 3+ hours, consider cutting it back to only 1-2 hours. Since you’ll have less time, focus more intensely on fewer things. Instead of trying to practice everything under the sun in one big 3-4 hour session, practice only 1 or 2 concepts in a 1 hour (or less) session. In fact, by practicing for a shorter duration, you may find that you want to practice more. The net result is that you might find yourself practicing more consistently on a daily basis. It’s better to practice every day for an hour (or less) than to practice for 3+ hours only a couple times a week at sporadic intervals.
Of course, if you practice for a shorter duration, then naturally…
Don’t try to cram too much into one practice session
I split up my guitar practice the way bodybuilders split up their workout routines. They work certain muscle groups one day, other muscle groups the next day, cardio on another day, and so on.
Instead of trying to cram a million different topics into a single practice session, I only practice 2 – 3 major concepts per session–and sometimes only 1 concept if I’m really digging into a particular topic or trying to learn a new song. I usually only have about 1 solid hour to practice each day. The demands of my adult life simply don’t allow me to practice any more than that. So, I set down and focus very intensely on only a couple concepts in one practice session.
The way I “fit everything in” is by practicing 2-3 concepts on Monday, 2-3 other concepts on Tuesday, and so on with concepts being repeated at certain intervals. Perhaps I’ll write a detailed blog post on my practice method/routine sometime, as I get a lot of questions from people about how to structure their guitar practice. I can’t say mine is necessarily correct, but it’s worked well for me over the years.
Try a rut-buster
If I get into some kind of serious rut or feel I’ve hit some kind of guitar plateau, I’ll seek out a teacher and take a few in-person or Skype lessons. I’ve also done a couple year-long memberships on JamPlay.com, and even purchased a few online courses on specific techniques and topics. For example, I’m strictly a metal guitarist, but recently purchased a $25 Jazz Fusion course that’s given me months of material to practice and a ton of new ideas.
These occasional rut-busters have been invaluable to me over the years, and have served to inspire me and break me out of whatever funk I’ve fallen into. I’ve heard from many beginners who’ve had great success with apps like Yousician or gamified learning platforms like Rocksmith. Give ’em a try and see if they work for you, then let me know down in the comments at the end of this post.
“But Bobby,” you say, “why pay when there’s a ton of guitar stuff on the Internet for free?”
Oh sure, I use free stuff too, but I’ve been playing guitar long enough that I know how to cherry-pick the good stuff and ignore the other 95% that’s crap. The topic of “free stuff on the Internet” is an interesting one because there’s an unexpected downside to having so much free content at your fingertips.
The Internet can be an amazing resource for free information, but only if you know what’s quality, what’s crap, and how to consume only what you need when you need it. Otherwise, you’ll quickly find yourself feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, or suffering from a serious inferiority complex. Being exposed to everything all at once can cause analysis paralysis, where you have so much information that you end up doing nothing or making no progress.
For some people, seeing an 8-year-old who can already shred like Paul Gilbert is incredibly discouraging. I’ve seen budding guitarists actually quit playing guitar after seeing one too many of these child virtuosos.
So, instead of flooding your brain with all the free crap the Internet has to offer, consider purchasing something that’s actually structured and paced, or seeking out some type of personalized instruction (in-person or via Skype), at least while you’re new to guitar.
Take a break
What!? Isn’t this the exact opposite of everything I’ve been saying up to this point?
The reality is, sometimes you genuinely should take a break. Every now and then, it’s healthy to NOT play guitar for a day or two if you just don’t feel like it. Don’t feel guilty, go see a movie, hang out with friends, play some video games or just watch television.
I skip days here and there, but my general rule is that I never go more than 2 consecutive days without practicing. Over the years, I’ve discovered that if I skip more than 2 days in a row my technique genuinely suffers and I start sliding backwards. So, I’ll sometimes skip practicing on a weekend, but when Monday roles around I’m back at it.
I once took an 11-year break, which I definitely do NOT recommend, but that’s a story for another day.
Have you ever struggled with procrastination or found that guitar practice feels like a grind? I’d love to know, so tell me in the comments section down below.
Of course, your interest in any kind of activity can fade over time and it can turn into routine. But it is so important to find power in yourself to start practice and stop procrastinating. Now I’m practicing playing the guitar and, of course, I face a lot of difficulties, including avoiding practicing and it prevents me from achieving my set goal. I’m so glad that I came across your article because your methods are helping me decide this problem. To tell the truth, it is the first time that I have heard that instead of motivating yourself you need to make your practice simple. It is a truly effective and unique tip at the same time. Also, I’m so impressed by the method to create inspiring space for your lessons because a suitable needful atmosphere certainly motivates me to start performing my tasks and it sets me up for a workflow.
I’m actually a saxophonist. Wind players have very few strategies for “facilitating” practice. Our work ethic is old school and simpleminded: however hard you work equals how badly you want to play well, and there’s no room for psychology.
After 40+ years of playing, I’ve found that the most difficult things aren’t necessarily the most complicated. They’re the things you can’t help yourself with – typically neuro-muscular inabilities that can’t be solved by any amount of thinking or analysis. You just have to keep faithfully screwing them up and trusting that one day you won’t. And no one but you can help you get thru that.
I am just relearning the guitar after many years of spotty commitment. I have been invited to play over a friends house. I have no idea how well he plays but I don’t really want to go for fear of embarrassing myself, I know from experience that the best way to improve is to play with other people but at 64 I am questioning why I am doing this after only three weeks of lessons,
As long as you’re up-front with your friend about your ability I don’t see any reason to be embarrassed… if it’s just you and him jamming privately. It’s still normal to have some nerves over something like this, but as long as you let him know that you’re essentially a beginner and/or very, very rusty, there’s no harm done.
Now, if this is going to be some kind of social gathering where there will be a lot of people, just politely decline and tell him why. Tell him you’ll be happy to come over at a later date to play in front of people–once you’ve got your chops back up. I decline stuff like this all the time. I’m just up-front with people and tell them that I’m way better at working on guitars than I am at playing them, and that playing in front of lots of people isn’t my thing.
I’m always happy to jam with someone one-on-one though, but I still give the same disclaimer. I like to set the bar low, so they don’t have high expectations of me. Takes a lot of pressure off.
As I’m still in the first few of years of learning, I find that I get frustrated often when working my way through a new piece. But when I give myself a couple of days practice on stuff I learnt a year ago it helps keep me invigorated. At least when I can appreciate the progress of what I can now easily achieve, it makes the current stumbling blocks easier to manage.
Loz, one technique I’ve used (and some guitar teachers use) is to use your smartphone’s camera and mic to record yourself when you’re beginning to learn something new. Just record a couple minutes–enough that you can see a good representation of your ability at that moment. Do this once a week for a few months, and be sure to save the movie files in order–in a way that you can tell the dates (I like to used the date as part of the file name). If every week is too often, then only do it every 2 weeks, or just once a month. Then, once you’ve gotten about a half-dozen of them saved up, watch them back-to-back, and you can really see your progress in a more objective/factual way. I’ll sometimes do this when I’m working on something like a particular scale exercise, a lick, or even an entire song.
I found the 1-hour practice sessions to be invaluable. Short enough that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel if I didn’t feel like practicing that day! I would always practice at least for one hour, but let myself go longer if I felt like it. I found that it usually took me about 30 minutes to really get warmed up and then I would typically go over the 1-hour threshold. Build the habit and you’ll improve by leaps and bounds!
Thanks for the great article!
Thanks for the comment Glen. That’s what I found as well. Many years ago, I had this misconception that there was no point in practicing if I couldn’t devote at least 2 hours to it. So, the result was I’d only practice 1-2 times per week, and some weeks I wouldn’t practice at all. Terrible, terrible way to go about things, and you’ll never improve (I didn’t). Then, I learned about the importance of consistency over duration, and started practicing for only 30 – 60 minutes… but practicing 5-7 days per week. I started seeing significant progress, so the method definitely works. This can be a big source of procrastination for people: they think there’s no point to practicing if they can’t devote a big chunk of time to it, and it’s absolutely not true. Of course, it’s great if you CAN set down for 2+ hours, but not required to make progress.
What keeps me practising every day is a list of songs that I want to be able to play on my acoustic guitar – I keep the list in the front of my music file and it gets added to regularly (thanks so much digital radio for reminding about songs that I’d forgotten about lol!) When I get stuck and can’t make myself practise I’ll sit and read through the list and it reminds me of when I started learning nearly three years ago (although I’m still waiting to play ANYTHING by the Kinks!) And it is so satisfying to be able to tick songs off my list 🙂
Kes, you bring up a good point–something I may add to this list that I’d forgotten about. I call it an “ideas” or “inspiration” file. I have a folder on my computer that is simply labeled “Guitar Practice” and that is where I collect and save stuff that I eventually want to practice. These can be videos, PDF’s, etc. that I’ve collected around the web (or lessons I’ve purchased). I even save the recordings of my Skype lessons in that folder–which I recorded using a desktop app that records Skype vids. Inside, I have sub-folders named by topic or technique (songs, technical exercises, sweep picking, blues licks, etc). Like you, I’ll sometimes just browse through those folders and inevitably find something that gets me in the mood to practice… or simply gives me ideas of what to practice (sometimes, I set down and actually am unsure what I want/need to practice).
I got the idea from John Petrucci’s video “Rock Discipline.” He talks about keeping a physical file folder, organized exactly as I described here. It’s an old video (released in 1995), from the days before computers were a common household item. Hence the reason John said he kept physical file folders 😀
“When all the learning and practicing what you learned, turns into more playing than learning, then, procrastination turns into finding time. Motivation, comes from the reward of accomplishment, accomplishment comes from practice.” “What?” MarkSD