Like anything in life worth our time (and guitar is certainly is worth it), practicing the guitar will all boil down to effective time management. Here are some tips to help you find more time and progress further...
Many of us are leading busier lives than ever, with work and family commitments being our most time consuming priorities. Finding time to practice guitar is becoming increasingly difficult as hobbies and recreational pursuits get pushed down the "to do" list.
This article is not about promoting a big change of your lifestyle, rather, I'm going to assume that the only thing you're discontent with is the amount of time you have to practice the guitar. I'll assume you want to become a better player and you feel the only way you'd have more time to practice is if the days were a couple of hours longer. Fortunately changing the amount of time in our day can be done in a few interesting ways through good /smart planning systems.
STUDY TIME / FREE TIME / SMART TIME:
It's time for a simple change in perspective on what constitutes "enough practice" and "free time." You could spend 3 hours per day practicing and still make dismal progress, or you could spend just half an hour per day (e.g. before bed, or even early in the morning) and make phenomenal progress. How? By practicing smarter!
Smart practice is about planning your time based around specific playing goals and prioritizing what you practice to give you the shortest possible route to fulfilling those goals. Without this, it doesn't matter how much time you find to practice, it will never be enough.
Laser like focus your practice time based on key personal goals and you'll need far less time to attain that satisfying sense of accomplishment. The truth is that you could be wasting as much as 50% of your practice time. I strongly recommend you start planning what little practice time you have with a smarter, more focused approach, and start this right now.
Many guitarists are under the illusion that the more hours/minutes they clock up in each practice session, the better. Well, this may only be true if those sessions are regular. But most of us don't have several hours per day.
In reality, the number of hours you practice in one sitting is not so important. It's far more effective to practice 30 minutes every day than 4 hours at the weekend and nothing in between.
I know what you may be thinking: "I don't even have time for 30 minutes per day!" - I'll come to that. The point here is that regular practice will help internalize what you learn much faster than sparse practice, no matter how long those sparse sessions are.
Things like muscle memory can only develop properly with persistent and repetitive motion and pressure. Leaving practice for the time-rich weekends is like taking two steps forwards and one back. Similarly, the brain also benefits from frequent repetition of exercises such as memorizing the fret-board, finger positions, scale patterns etc.
Think back to when you were preparing for your exams, it was far better to study over the course of two weeks before the exam, than cram everything into the few nights before.
Why? So your brain has a chance to process and organize the information it's being fed. Small chunks of information are easiest for the brain to process and internalize. So the first thing to understand is that short and regular bursts of solid practice will develop your skills faster than long but infrequent sessions.
FINDING THE "FREE" TIME:
There may be more free time available during a typical day than you initially realize, especially once you get home from work or wherever it is you've been. Everyone's life is different, but if you don't spend much time at home then a travel guitar might prove a good investment. They are lightweight, portable and can be taken on planes, walks and make the perfect hotel room companion.
If you're a 9-5'er, your free time will predominantly be in the evenings... Perhaps it's not your turn to cook dinner tonight - pick up the guitar. Perhaps the significant other is putting the kids to bed - pick up the guitar. The significant other may be watching one of those crappy TV shows you hate or s/he's on the laptop, reading or soaking in the bath - pick up the guitar (in another room of course, whether it's the bedroom or bathroom, it does not matter where).
If you're a single parent and your responsibilities are not shared, the most obvious time for a short practice is after the kids are in bed and before they wake... Get into the habit of rising a mere 20 minutes earlier in the morning and going to bed a mere 20 minutes later at night - that's an extra 40 minutes practice per day. Do not underestimate how this accumulated practice can speed up your progress.
To put it into perspective, that's over 240 hours of extra practice per year if you can stick to it. Use an unplugged electric guitar (or with a headphone amp) during those quieter times. There is still so much that can be done before you work on things like volume and tone. It sounds silly, but ask yourself if are you absolutely certain that you can't find a quiet place in your office to practice guitar at lunch? Sure you can, because even if your work-life and physically playing the guitar at work - just won't mix, there can be other alternatives.
For example, lunch time at the office is precious time for reading up on theory - how notes and intervals work, scales, fret-board memorization and getting new ideas together for your practice sessions. You could also read up on how software works, how to make better home recordings, gear operation and so much more.
BE PREPARED FOR PRACTICE:
Whenever you find yourself in a period of free time whereby whipping out a guitar would be wholly impractical, then could you use that time to prepare for your practice periods?
Give yourself small goals based on specific skills you want to learn. If you have access to the internet, bookmark (or email to yourself) some good resources, whether that's videos, charts or text based lessons. Spend your practice time playing, not searching for what to play. Make sure you reflect upon each day of practice honestly and openly.
Have you identified any weaknesses? What do you need to work on? Do you need more information on something? Always be thinking about your next session, whether it's for gathering information or physically picking up the guitar. The easiest and most effective way to plan your practice is to use a good practice schedule. That way, each session will be personalized and specific to your goals and current progress. Having a practice schedule will also save you a lot of time allowing more time for your fingers on the fret-board.
BALANCING YOUR PRACTICE:
I'm guessing when a lot of people say "I don't have time to practice", they are reserving part of their time for reading, surfing the net, watching TV etc. While it would be presumptuous of me to suggest you ditch all these in favor of guitar practice, the idea of compromising a little in favor of more time with the guitar needs to be put out there.
If you like to watch a couple of hours of TV in the evening, try and cut it to one hour and give your guitar the other. Record shows to help you switch off the TV. If you like to surf the net, make more of your surfing around guitar to inspire you to pick it up there and then. Make guitar a part of your relaxation ritual and your half hour per day will soon turn into an hour, two hours... perhaps it will keep you up late.
You can worry about the effects of that when it happens! Have your guitar nearby and in sight so you're reminded of the wonders that are waiting to be discovered by plucking the strings and investigating the fret-board. If the weather's nice, I like to take the guitar outside and practice there. Different settings can spark new ideas.
You'll also find, (especially when you're engaged in practice), guitar takes your mind off things just as well, if not better than the more passive forms of relaxation. This is because your thoughts are completely occupied with negotiating the strings and fret-board. There's no space for your mind to wander back to the stresses and worries of everyday life. That's why I find guitar one of the most truly relaxing yet productive pursuits - you can sit down, rest your bones, and forget about this mad world, but at the same time, the creative and problem-solving parts of your brain are firing on all cylinders.
If you're truly passionate about guitar, you shouldn't have much trouble making time for it. That's a statement almost too obvious to make. Your passion for guitar will inevitably grow with your skills and you'll miraculously find more and more time to practice, just as you would with any other pursuit that you were impassioned about.
Don't frustrate yourself by thinking you're "not practicing enough" right now. What is "enough" anyway? Creeping progress is still progress, and progress is what truly matters. If you can find just half an hour per day (and don't worry if you miss a day or two now and then) to practice meaningfully and efficiently, based on your goals as a player, in a years time you will be surprised at just how far you've come.
Just keep it regular and keep it focused, and never be afraid to take your guitar with you to some unusual places.
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