So far, we’ve looked at what goes into shaping behavior at a high-level and then zoomed into the ability/motivation threshold in order to maximize your chances of success. Further, you’ve identified your self-limiting beliefs and key motivators, and know how to use environment design and cognitive leverage not only to get more—and continual—practice in, but also to get the most out of your time, however much you put in.
This, alone, will take you far: habit trumps both knowledge and skill, as merely to have either—or both—does not of itself ensure they’re being developed. A strong habit that leads you through a sequence of drills that have been meticulously designed and tested for ease and minimal time commitment will lead to ongoing development of both.
Continual development of core musicianship is more than most guitar players ever aspire to, but we want to hit it right out of the park. In order to make sure that your habit remains steady and meaningful in the long run—and ultimate success—we will look at the principles of self-determination, investment, and infinite variability: how you use your knowledge and skill ties back into your core motivators and, at the end of the day, is what will determine how far you go.
99% play, 1% work
According to Edward L. Deci, Professor at the University of Rochester and proponent of the self-determination theory, “There are different kinds of motivation, and the kind of motivation is probably more important even than the amount of motivation in predicting the quality of behavior and the psychological well-being of the people who are involved in it.”
He goes on to distinguish between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation, stating that “when we experience a sense of autonomy, we feel excited, engaged, and interested in what we’re doing. When the basic need for autonomy is undermined, for example with rewards, threats of punishment, and so on, it has negative psychological consequences.”
The main reason people give up on teachers, methods, books, and even the guitar—eventually—is that they sign up to play but it ends up looking a whole lot more like hard, painful work. As soon as it is demanded that we devote hours upon hours to painful study and practice every day, we all get the sudden urge to flee, and then maybe kill someone. Coercion and constraint to personal choice, whether actually from without or internalized, have a way of doing that to you.
According to modern behavioral science, this rejection is perfectly normal. After all, this work entails nothing but following pre-determined exercises and methods, tracks laid by others. J.W. Brehm, researcher at Yale and Duke, called this reactance: the rejection we feel when our autonomy is undermined.
Sadly, the issue only gets worse with the habitual work-work-work approach to the guitar: most such schools focus
excessively exclusively on technique, leaving a huge gap where understanding of the fretboard should be. This leads not only to massive confusion, but to severe limitation of your creative scope. In a pith, they’re hateful crap. Cheer along if you agree with me.
Ever so kindly, teachers and peers—whether real or internalized—then proceed to harangue, along the lines of the dubious but biting moral stance best characterized by this: “Well, haven’t you got the will power to get on with it?” It’s for your good, you’re told. The usual carrot-and-stick method to ensure compliance to guitar teaching isn’t only painful, it’s actually harmful.
Any guitar pedagogy that is designed for success must factor reactance in, from the ground up. The Fretboard Addicts approach to playing guitar is to make work brief, painless and effortless to the extent possible: it’s different from any other approach I know in the very basic sense that it is designed to let the
student Addict actually play guitar. Not only is it designed to free up time for creativity by reducing work-time to the barest minimum, it’s designed to empower creative freedom through knowledge and skill: this combination is uniquely powerful.
Having nixed reactance, and now that the vast majority of your guitar-time is devoted to creativity (the ultimate freedom experience, I would posit), having redeployed the energy previously squandered on confusion, and armed with real understanding, Fretboard Addicts experience deep and lasting transformation of their personal relationship to the guitar and to music.
“Habits are built upon, like the layers of a pearl.” —Nir Eyal
Now that we’ve established that you actually want to do this, the next step is to set yourself up for long-term success through the principle of investment. In his book Hooked: How to build habit forming products, Nir Eyal shows how Silicon Valley companies create mind-bogglingly effective data-guzzling mind traps (or “products”). Sarcasm aside, if you’re hooked on Facebook or Twitter you know just how effective these tactics are. But what if you could use some of these same principles for something other than feeding into your N.S.A. profile and good old fashioned procrastination? What if you could use this approach to maximize your chances of success as a guitar player?
Fretboard Addicts uses B.J. Fogg’s (Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab) Tiny Habits structure as a lattice on which to cement long lasting habits with ease: a simple trigger is set, followed by a straight-forward and brief action—the drill—and a simple celebration to reward oneself during the first week or two. It’s as simple as it is effective.
As soon as the first true reward kicks in, though—joyful effortless playing—the Fretboard Addict is likelier than ever to complete more and more weekly cycles, adding more and more layers of sedimentation onto his “pearl.” The habit becomes stronger and stronger, and the mastery of our budding fretboard ninja grows in leaps and bounds. This maximizes success rate defined as
student Fretboard Addict taking up the complex behavior of adding to his integrated practical/theory knowledge of the fretboard week after week with great—and growing—ease. With time, greater and greater satisfactions kick in, adding momentum to his continual upward spiral of growth and development.
The Hooked Model
According to Eyal, however, for a habit to really take hold, four things are needed: a trigger, an action, a reward and investment:
Investment, Eyal says, is what closes the loop and is the key to ensure the longevity of a habit. The principle of investment is built into Fretboard Addicts right from the get go, striking a delicate balance between the effortful—pre-requisite of investment—and the effortless—pre-requisite of adoption.
With money, doing nothing is easy but leads nowhere; investing too large a percentage of one’s monthly income is a burden. Small but continual automated investments lead to great results with minimal effort*. In that same spirit of automated investment, Fretboard Addicts puts the required cognition/time equation well below the reactance threshold while enabling steady growth and development.
As with compound interest, the compounding effect of cognitive leverage and time leverage is the secret sauce of on-going, sustained growth, and of surprisingly early
returns results in terms of understanding and practical skill: waiting to invest is a costly mistake.
Let your investment grow on you
“Labor is love.” —Nir Eyal
The more weekly loops and entire habit modules you complete, the more you will value your time investment, minimal though it is, and the likelier you’ll be to keep going. The more you put in, the more you’ll care, so the likelier you’ll be to put even more in.
Through sedimentation of practical knowledge, the
student Fretboard Addict’s ability to play, improvise and write music grows and grows. At the same time, each weekly drill builds upon the previous one and sets the ground for the next: each pass through the loop makes more and more complex drills available, leading deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.
As you progress through the different series of drills, you’ll think of yourself more and more as a capable guitar player: once this becomes the story you tell, you’ll naturally want to remain consistent with your new self-image. Moreover, positive self-image feeds fresh motivation right back into the loop: once you start, you won’t want to stop. You’ll just want to go all the way.
Starting with a minute a day, especially when you factor cognitive leverage in, is the perfect way to get the ball rolling effortlessly. Soon, you’ll find yourself dedicating more and more to your personal music projects, enjoying yourself more and more while at it, and creating more and more value for yourself and for others: creative output, personal and professional relationships, money… whatever you personally value in music.
Balancing the known and the unknown
Of course it’s tongue-in-cheek when I call my students Fretboard Addicts, but there’s more to it than that. By tapping into the built-in reward mechanisms deep in our ancient brain, we can not just hack around resistance to in depth study of something as complex as the guitar fretboard: this potentially stressful and frustrating undertaking actually becomes meaningful and truly joyful.
Anticipation of what’s next is a key factor that ensures the
student Fretboard Addict keeps going, and going, and going. It truly is addicting! Once you’re addicted, you need no external motivators, “positive thinking” or discipline to keep on keeping on. It just becomes part of who you are.
Testers consistently reported a growing hunger and curiosity about the next and the next and the next drill: the built-in variability of the drills as they get more and more intricate create natural engagement. Without this, there would soon be fatigue, and honestly, boredom of the worst fucking kind. Curiosity works hand in glove with investment, which sets the ground for the coming drill, in driving the
student Addict through the loop one more time: the unknown is fascinating.
At the same time, though, the drills are kept as consistent as possible at all times in order to take advantage of the power of habit: it is a delicate balancing act. This is to say that each week, there is just enough new material to keep it interesting and that the material is similar enough to last week’s to make it easy to do. Without this balance, the
student Fretboard Addict would either be confused, or his attention would soon scatter out of sheer boredom.
Moreover, and to quote Eyal yet again, “our brain is a prediction machine which wants to connect cause and effect. We’re a pattern generating machine… because we conserve energy when we know what’s going to happen: we don’t have to keep thinking every time.”
Fretboard Addicts is designed to satisfy that need by making the underlying logic of the fretboard patently clear, while making the process of getting there a game of continual discovery of the unknown, one step at a time. Energy freed from the stress of total confusion can then be funneled into the greatest unknown of all, musical creativity, where you never know what you’re going to get.
As B.F. Skinner, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University discovered, predictable rewards soon fade, while variable rewards remain consistently engaging. The natural rewards of music making are always variable: there’s no predicting when you’ll write that awesome song, or what it will sound like; there’s no knowing who will like what you play, or how much, or if they’ll tell you; if you’re in it to make a living, there’s no knowing which song or piece or performance will be a hit…
- We say play guitar, not “work guitar” for a reason: follow external structures to the minimum extent possible needed for your personal goals (so choose wisely) and then focus on creativity.
- Start investing today. Invest smart by “automating” your investing through habit and compounding it’s effects through cognitive leverage and time leverage.
- Make the knowable—the fretboard—completely known to satisfy your brain’s built in desire for control. At the same time, embrace the unknown in creativity and the fruit it bears. This is maximum musical enjoyment in the moment.
Now go to the comments section: do you have a story about a teacher, method or approach you hated? Tell us about it in all its juicy detail! Also, what’s the simplest way you can start investing in your musical growth, today?
*Huge thanks to Ramit Sethi, whose blog I will teach you to be rich, scammy-ass title notwithstanding, taught me heaps about behavioral change and introduced me to the work of B.J. Fogg. Huge thanks are also in order for Mr. Tim Ferriss, whose use of the Minimum Effective Dose principle as described in The 4-Hour Body was a huge inspiration to find more effective, and efficient ways to practice the cognitive and physical skills of guitar playing. These dudes rock and you should go read their stuff… all of it.