“But how did you become that good?!” Is a question that the majority of us have probably asked someone who impressed us in a certain art form or sport. Chances are that regardless of the nature of the said art form, the answer was “Well with blood, sweat, and tears!:”.

I do apologise for stating the obvious but it doesn’t matter what it is we’re doing, if we want to be good at it we need to practice, a lot. There aren’t any shortcuts, knowledge pills, or Matrix style direct-brain uploads. Even the most talented amongst us partake in rigorous practice as often as possible.

Now the real question is, how on earth do we keep ourselves motivated to carry on practicing? How do we maintain a productive routine that enthuses us to carry on improving our skills? How do we overcome obstacles in our learning, and fight the urge of giving up? There are many answers to these questions, but they all boil down to one very important trait, discipline.

So what is discipline exactly? There are various definitions depending on context, but the one that fits our narrative best here is the following one drawn from the Collins English Dictionary:

“Discipline is the quality of being able to behave and work in a controlled way which involves obeying particular rules or standards.”

So it seems that in order to obtain this trait, we firstly need to create for ourselves a set of rules of some kind, something to follow and I don’t just mean a schedule.

Every art form, sport or skill comes with its own set of challenges and demands and above all, subdivisions. When you’re studying guitar, you don’t just study guitar, you study picking, fretting, hand positioning, music theory, arpeggios, scales, chord progressions, intervals and much more. You can’t possibly study and practice all these complicated subject matters at once, you’ll get overwhelmed and consider giving up. If you have friends who frequent gyms often or do so yourself, you’ll probably be aware that you don’t train everything at once. You focus on specific body parts, or give yourself certain performance goals, i.e. improving your heart rate.

“If you try and do everything at once without specific achievable goals, you won’t see results”

Doing everything at once will not get you results. You’ll get demotivated, cry out that “it doesn’t make any difference”, lose your discipline and stop going to the gym.

Spinning too many plates is not the way nor is doing something for too long. Ever been in the following scenario? You picked up your instrument and played for long hours yet, by the end of your session, you felt none the wiser or that you’ve stagnated on a specific level? If yes then we can take some advice from our aforementioned gym buddies and apply it to our discipline for an hour maximum, nothing else! There’s no point in me practicing anything else or for a much longer period of time because I know my attention span will drop and instead of focused playing, I’ll be doing aimless noodling.

Don’t underestimate the importance of knowing when to stop. It ties in with a more overall self awareness that is needed in order to achieve any longevity in our discipline. To take you back once again to those fitness enthusiasts (I’m going to have to credit them if I carry on like this), have you ever noticed that they have preferred working out times? They don’t do that just for planning convenience but because they’ve studied their performance throughout the day and have spotted when they’re at their best. We need to take advantage of these peak moments and plan around them, there’s no point in practicing when we’re tired, emotionally spent or generally feeling unwell.

This understanding of oneself is crucial and doesn’t just stop there, it continues further with the application of a metacognitive way of thinking. It’s like saying “thinking about thinking”. This form of critical thinking helps us achieve transparency with our learning and progress. Ever been in a situation before where you’ve been practicing something for a very long time, but you’re actually incapable of  telling if you’ve progressed much on the topic? This is where this metacognitive way of thinking comes in handy. You need to set some tools that will help you monitor your progress. Our gym buddies (damn it, I’ve done it again) give themselves weight goals, if they don’t hit them, they reassess their workouts and diets, do adaptations and get back at it.

For you the musician you can achieve this by recording yourself, listening back to the files and critically analyse what you’ve done well and what could be improved. Maybe you haven’t been doing an exercise properly, or maybe you’ve been doing the wrong one. Don’t only criticise your weaknesses, assess your strengths too and try to understand why you have them. We’re always in such a hurry to put ourselves down and rarely look into what’s actually good about us. A disciplined practitioner balances all these out.

So there we have it everyone, obtaining and maintaining discipline in our practice routines isn’t a walk in the park, but it also isn’t this otherworldly mutant skill that only the residents of Planet Talent have. We just need to start thinking in both a macro and micro level regarding ourselves and our practicing subject.

Remember, there is no harm in asking your peers or somebody more experienced than you to give you some advice! You can only achieve so much by browsing the internet and learning by yourself.