5 Ways To Make The Most Of Limited Practice Time

Any Time is Better Than No Time

Prioritize some time – any time – to practice on a consistent basis and stick to it. For me the goal was 15 minutes a day, every day. Given family, work and other responsibilities, that was totally feasible and sustainable. I keep a spreadsheet of practice time, and since I’ve started this method and goal, I’ve averaged closer to 30 minutes a day, and around 6 days a week. I found that once I sat down to practice I could often squeeze in an extra 5 or 10 minutes. Skill acquisition = frequency x duration x intensity. You can’t always get a lot of duration, but you can control frequency and intensity. I practice more now with “no free time” than I did when I had all the time in the world.

I made a lot of lifestyle choices as well – that meant less TV, movies and video games. Almost none. When I *do* partake in those things, it’s great, I enjoy it and have fun. They aren’t something I do day-to-day, though. That every day use of very limited free time is for music.

If you want a copy of my practice spreadsheet (template) to get you started, just reach out via my Contact page. I’ll happily email you a blank 2019 version.

What’s Your Mindset Going in?

Think “what am I going to learn today?” instead of “how much time do I have to practice today?” You’d be surprised what you can learn in even 5 minutes. Go over that tricky measure and get it just a bit smoother. Run over that song you haven’t played in 2 months to refresh your memory. Practice reading a random song out of the Real Book.

When I first started the “15 minutes a day” thing I got obsessed with how much time I was logging in my spreadsheet. To my detriment, I looked at the clock and the calendar. I drifted into occasionally “mindlessly” noodling in order to get my 15 minutes. Any time with hands on fretboard is well-spent, but there’s a huge range in how much you grow over a given period. After a few years I started thinking more about what I was going to focus on learning in any given practice session, regardless of the time. It’s been much more productive. That doesn’t mean I slack off, I still put in my daily practice, but I get more out of it. I also feel better about it, because on those days when I only get 5-10 minutes it’s okay. I learned. That’s the point, anyways.

Time Off Is Okay, Too

Be okay with taking some time off. One year I practiced 7 months straight without missing a single day. Then I had to take a month off due to wrist pains and problems, and I got more than a little burned out. You have to find the balance of being dedicated and working through it, but also knowing your body and your mind. Don’t be lazy, but if you really need to step away for a little bit that might be the best thing. Ultimately, whether you practice 300 or 320 days out of the year won’t be a deciding factor in your development. What’s your commitment, what’s your routine, your habit. Is it frequent, consistent, focused practice? If so, then don’t fear time off. However, if you find yourself only practicing 3 days a week because you don’t “feel like it” then that’s a separate problem, addressed below. You have to want it, and you have to work.

Carlos Santana was once asked about what to practice and how to get inspired to write good songs. His answer, paraphrased, was “go live life.”

“Mechanical” Practice

Not feeling creative or inspired to pick up the instrument? You can still become a better player. Use your time to work on mechanical things: reading, metronome practice, learning new songs, maybe doing a lesson from a magazine. Once you sit down to do it, you can learn. I often go into modes of “mechanical” practice when I’m not particularly “feeling it” … and it pays off! Those hours of practice still count. This goes hand in hand with the “X minutes/day” routine – even if you’re not feeling inspired you can still make progress. After a few minutes of metronome work I often found myself starting to focus more, paying closer attention, and getting more out of the practice session than I hoped going in.

I would always say mindful practice is superior to “mindless” practice, but some of these mechanical types of things use a different part of your brain, or exercise more of your physical body than your mind. That’s okay, you’re still moving yourself forward as a player.

Set Goals

It’s been helpful to me to keep track of yearly goals. I’ve been playing long enough that I know the steps to get there. I don’t need weekly or monthly goals, but having those yearly goals helps a lot when I sit down and I’m just not sure what I should work on. I look over them and think about what will get me closer to achieving them.

Throughout the year I certainly change things around. Some goals fade away, some new ones are added. That’s fine, the point is to have something to work towards.

I do have some long-term goals as well. Those are more inspirational and aspirational, although some of my yearly goals get me closer. Those are more a matter of “can I put in enough practice at the right things to get there?”

Recommended Reading

These are some books that have inspired my practice mindset. I highly recommend checking them out.

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