For better or worse, habits are powerful. You’d definitely want to build and acquire good ones, because bad ones are hard to get rid of and keep you stuck or worse, hold you down to a spiral-down pattern that you have a hard time getting out of. Addiction is such a devastating habit, for example.
On a more benign level, one of the habits I’m trying to grow out of is a habit of sloppiness in my guitar playing. Like many other aspiring guitar slingers influenced by rock guitarists of late 80’s, the blazing, flashy fast runs of what we the guitarists affectionately call “shredders” have left a lasting imprint on me. Ever since I picked up my first guitar at age 16, being able to play fast has been the very definition of what made a guitarist “good.”
But like many other disciplines, one does not become a shredder overnight. It requires thousands of hours of dedicated practice. Few start out playing fast and accurately either. You have to start out slow and build up your speed.
It is rather embarrassing for me to admit that after playing the guitar for 20+ years with shredding as the ideal and goal — it’s only in the last year or so that I am finally starting to display something that resembles a speedy guitar lick. What the heck was I doing all the years before that point?
Being stuck in a wrong habit.
You see, it’s one thing to have shredding as a goal, as a state where I should be. But it’s quite another to attempt to play at that speed before you develop appropriate proficiency. Worse yet, I made a habit of it — so my so-called “practice” sessions were filled with licks played too fast and actually not being properly executed. Sloppy would be a kind way to put it. It was a mess.
Of course in my mind I knew I had to practice slowly, and I did. But I didn’t dedicate myself to accuracy. I’d practice slowly for some time, and then when I think I get it down, I sped up, but these practice regimens were also frequently interrupted by the old habit of playing too fast — I’d stay slow for a few minutes, then when I start to feel confident, I’d give it a go at the tempo where I’d like to be at, and fail. Those failures discouraged me and soon I’d give up on practicing slowly, too.
I did realize that I had a wrong habit stuck in me, though, and the reason I am starting to get different result is because I changed them, my habits. Here’s my new approach. When I choose a tempo to practice at, I choose it at a tempo not where I can play mostly correctly. I would choose a tempo where I could play actually perfectly at will. Perfect is a debatable term, but flawless enough that I could record it and have it be the take on a recording.
When you play at such a tempo, you get a very different feeling from trying to go too fast. That feeling is one of control and confidence. You feel energized from the power of your command. I focus on that zone and try to fight off the temptation to get out of it. Every time I play a lick perfectly, I win. I practice at a tempo where I know that winning is the normal. Then I speed up just a little, enough to make my winning zone feel a bit vulnerable, but I can stay in it if I really put my mind to it. At a new tempo sometimes I may “lose” but I keep at it until “winning” becomes normal again.
Winning feels great, it energizes you and motivates you to keep going. That’s how you can turn your worst habits around. By setting a goal that’s so easy that you can win every time. Then when the batting average approaches 100%, then you expand that winning zone just a little bit so that you have to fight for it just a bit, to stay consistently in the winning zone.
For example, let’s say you want to build a habit of running regularly. Like any good habits, Resistance rears its ugly head and gets in your way. If you set a goal too lofty — like “I’m going to run every day for 5 miles” when you have never run regularly in your life — that’s a recipe for a loss. You may win the first few times, but it’s going to be difficult to stay in the winning zone long enough for it to be effortless and normal.
If you never built a habit of running, the starting point should be much lower. Set your goal on buying and then putting on your running shoes once a day instead. You win at the point of getting out the door. You can go longer, but resist the temptation to set the goal too high. Your win was cemented at the point of putting on the shoes and walking out the door. That’s all you need to do tomorrow. Easy, right? Stick to easy, and ingrain that habit of winning.
Habits are powerful, and they stick to you powerfully. But it’s golden if you build the right ones. If you want to transform bad ones into good ones, I highly recommend you approach it by setting up the pace or scope that makes winning the default mode. Once that becomes the norm, then enhancing and building upon it will be a lot easier.
You won’t have to struggle like I did for 20+ years, stuck in the slow lane. Choose the slow lane first, but focus on that sense of command, control and confidence. That’s the faster way to success.
(photo: Cheryl Empey)