The Practice Problem: How to Play Guitar When You’re Busy, Distracted or Overwhelmed

It’s the oldest phrase in the book: ‘Practice makes perfect’ – and as much as we tend to ignore it when it’s first said to us, it is mostly true. However, ‘practice’ is a wide-reaching umbrella term, and if you’re not doing it in the right way, you’ll find that you aren’t really progressing with your guitar at all – it could even be hindering you.

The problem is, everyone has a different idea of what practice is. For some, it might be 10 minutes of noodling along to a jam track, for others, it could involve a rigorous 2 hour routine of scales, arpeggios and transcribing songs. Neither is technically ‘wrong’, but practice is about finding a strong balance between the technical stuff that will reinforce the foundations of your playing, and actually playing things that you find fun – that’s the most important thing.

So, in this blog, we wanted to give you an idea of why your practice routine might not be working (if you can call it a routine at all…), how you can find solutions to making it more habitual and how it can work for you personally – no one guitarist is the same.

The Practice Procrastination Problem

Procrastination is an issue that plagues many guitarists. It’s an issue that plagues many people in general, but it’s not the same as being lazy. It’s a crafty beast and can assume many forms: feeling overwhelmed, distracted, planning but not playing guitar…

Here are a few typical kinds of procrastinator:

  • The Watcher: ‘I’m definitely going to practise. Right after this episode…’
  • The Cleaner: ‘Before I can start practising, I need to clean my desk, change my strings and organise my books.’
  • The Sidetracker: ‘Well, I haven’t finished this song, but this other song is way cooler! I wonder if there’s a tutorial…’
  • The Perfectionist: ‘My practice routine isn’t quite right yet, so I can’t possibly start.’
  • The Internet Researcher: ‘This hilarious cat video is an important part of knowing what to practise’

Some of these sound familiar? Don’t worry, you’re not alone and a lot of it is down to the modern world we live in – it’s pretty distracting and there is often an infinite world of shiny exciting stuff just a few clicks away. You just have to adjust your mindset.

We’re Wired to Procrastinate

Unfortunately for our productivity, our brains are wired to seek instant gratification instead of long term goals – it’s easier. This is called ‘temporal discounting’ and it’s something we have evolved to do. Think about it: How many times have you added a guitar video on YouTube to your ‘watch later’ list, rather than actually doing some proper practice?

Before you lose all hope, know that there are ways you can counteract this. I’ve learnt a lot about habit psychology over the past few years. Here are my best tips for staying motivated when you’re busy, distracted, or overwhelmed.

can you learn guitar on youtube?

Step 1: Setting Goals

The best way to keep motivated with your practice regime is to set yourself some goals so you know where you’re heading. This also helps with measuring your progress.

Write down a list of all the goal ideas you have for playing guitar. Perhaps at this stage of your learning, this might be playing a whole song from start to finish, or to begin writing your own music.

Now you might have come up with quite a few, so go through them and start crossing them out until you have just one or two goals that you can focus on. You can ‘procrastinate’ on the rest and save them for later.

Keep those one or two goals pinned up somewhere visible in your practice space so everytime you go to pick up your guitar, you know what you’re working towards and instead of mindless practice, you’re more likely to work on something that will move you closer to achieving that goal. You might even find it helpful to put a date on that goal if you feel like you really want to push yourself to focus, but try to be realistic. Set yourself too tight a deadline and you’ll only feel disappointed when you haven’t got there by that date.

Go Through My Goal Setting Worksheet

(you’ll find this inside the course in the first module)

This is a written exercise that will help you clarify your goal even further, and remind you of why you’re even picking up the guitar in the first place. The more specific your goal is, the better.

Step 2: Break It Up into Bite-Size Milestones

Even one of these goals can seem pretty big and daunting, especially as a beginner. Learning that whole song isn’t always as easy as it seems and can often drag on for a while. When the goal seems far away, you’ll probably feel less inclined to take the first steps, so, there are two ways you can create quick wins and gain that sense that you’re making ground with your guitar playing.

Milestone goals:

Daunting goals should be broken into small steps

By breaking your end goal into bite-size chunks, it automatically becomes a lot more achievable. For example, when it comes to learning a whole song, you might break this up into milestones such as: Learning the intro and verses, then playing the intro and verses at full speed with a metronome, then learning the chorus or the solo…

By approaching your goals in this way, the feeling of accomplishment as you complete each milestone will help keep you motivated towards your bigger goal.

The good news is, in Guitar for Busy Beginners, I’ve broken down the milestones for you. There’s even a step-by-step song learning process you can follow, so you know you’re doing things in the right order. Hitting that “complete & continue” button feels really good.

Process goals:

Alternatively, you can focus on the process itself. For example, writers will often set a word count goal, and a time-based goal. For example, ‘I will stop after 1000 words or five hours, whichever comes first’. 

For a guitarist, this might look more like this: ‘I will stop after I can play the verse chord sequence smoothly at 90 beats per minute, or after 20 minutes, whichever comes first.’

Start with a short time-based goal that you can stick to every day.

Your Practice Environment

Some people might say “If you’re not motivated to practice, then you need to ask yourself if you really want to learn guitar”. I can see where they’re coming from. Learning guitar is supposed to be a fun hobby, right? But there’s another side to this. Sometimes, the more importance you place on something, the harder it is to start. Like procrastination by perfectionism or paralysis by analysis.

But aside from the procrastination problem, there’s a few other things you can do to help streamline your practice regime. For instance, where do you keep your guitar? Is it in its case? Under the bed? If so, get it out! It might seem obvious, but something as simple as keeping your guitar somewhere that you’re likely to pick it up will encourage you to practise more often.

Dedicating a space for your guitar practise is always a good idea too. It’s not always possible to have an entire room just for your guitar and all its gear (the dream), but even if you can’t do that, perhaps you can allocate a certain space within a room in your house, or a certain chair or desk where you know that when you sit there, it’s guitar time and you can be solely focused on playing.

Having your guitar on a stand doesn't just prevent it from falling over. If it's strategically placed, it will also make it more likely you'll pick it up and play.

Digital space

So we’ve spoken about the physical space around you, but there are also changes you can make to your digital environment. As we’ve said, the modern digital world is a distracting place and whilst there’s a lot to learn from it in terms of playing guitar, it’s often more of a hindrance than a help.

One easy thing you can do to avoid this kind of distraction is simply leave your phone or devices in another room, on ‘do not disturb’ whilst you’re practising – be in the moment and for the duration of your practice, be 100% dedicated and focused on the task at hand.

Be a Pro-Selector

For most people, they start playing guitar because they want to be able to play the songs of their favourite artists – it’s natural, you want to emulate your guitar heroes. But choosing the right song to learn is a key skill in learning the guitar and cementing your practice regime.

Obviously, if you pick something too hard (which you’ll quickly realise), you’re only going to knock your confidence, which in turn will put you off practising. Conversely, pick something too easy and you’ll find yourself getting bored very quickly. If you’re never finishing the songs you choose to learn, then this is a key indicator that you’re probably picking things which are too hard.

One of biggest tips I can give you here is to pick songs that you want to learn ALL of. I’ve spoken in previous blogs about the benefits of learning whole songs, because when you pick just a section of a song, you don’t learn it within its greater context. Not only this, but when you learn the whole song, you’ll gain a greater understanding of how they are put together and you’re more likely to encounter new techniques to learn along the way.

At the end of the day, choosing a song that is slightly too easy for you and learning to play it well is much better than picking something too hard and only being able to play parts of it – badly, too.

Fix Your Practice

To help you put this into action, I’ve created this flow diagram, so you can quickly see where you’re at with your practice, and what you can do next. If you’re feeling stuck, asking yourself these questions should put you back on track.

Fix your guitar Practice
Click to enlarge

Still at a Loss? Get Help

When you join Guitar for Busy Beginners, I’m here to help you with any problems you come across – whether external or internal (like a lack of motivation).

When it comes to procrastination, there’s no “one-size-fits-all”, and we all have different situations and personalities. Although I’m no psychology expert, I can definitely help with the musical side of practise, as well as sharing what I’ve learned through my own research in psychology. Sometimes what you really need is help from a real person. You can use the comments section inside the course, or email me directly. I’m always happy to answer your questions, or check pictures/videos to give you pointers.

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