Art, Personal, Writing

600 Days: How to do something consistently.

I remember in the early 2000s, feeling constantly annoyed at blog posts claiming they had the answer to life, the universe, and everything — they had changed something small in their life and that was it. That was the thing they needed to change.

Usually it turned out they’d changed that thing a day or two before writing the post. I don’t know if 600 days is enough to make my thoughts wise, but at least they were hard-earned.

Today marks 600 days since I first picked up a guitar. Every day since, I have practiced playing that guitar. 

I don’t know if I’ve ever done one creative activity every single day for this long, but here are a few lessons I’ve learned about how to make it possible.

Make it work for you. 

I can’t keep something up every day unless it’s contributing something back to me. If it’s just me giving energy to something, I’ll quit. So I’ve devised some principles that guide what I practice and why:

I don’t want to be a guitarist; I want to have fun.

This isn’t a big part of my creative dream for the future. But I do really like music, both playing it and listening to it, and I find it really restorative.

I’ve tried a lot of things in this journey.  I started with a steel-string acoustic, which I used to play pop songs. Then I got an electric gifted to me (more pop songs). Then I started tackling classical music.  Lately I’ve been trying to sing while I play these pop songs.  There’s been ukuleles and renaissance music and a loop pedal.

Knowing where you’re at on a given day can help you craft the practice to be something you actually need that day. Not just checking a dreary box. Not something you have to give more of yourself to, but something that gives back to you. Something that makes you feel more human and more alive after, right there in that moment.

This is also why I haven’t hired a teacher.

People will tell you that you’ll do better with a structured practice plan, that a steady diet of technical exercises will make you a better guitarist, and they are absolutely and unfortunately correct. I have looked at these practice plans, and when I can be bothered to try them out, my playing does get better.

But see back to principle #1: I don’t want to be a good guitarist. I want to have fun playing guitar.

Some days I do actually want to just do some very boring technical exercises. I want to get lost in the details of the sound and the mechanics of exactly where and when I need to put a finger on a string. Other days, I want to belt out tragic 90s songs on loop for an hour and a half. 

I think with many things we want to get better at, we are pushing toward a future state. With guitar, I’m always just doing what suits me, right now, today.

Accept the slumps.

That said, there are absolutely slumps.  I’ll get into a piece or a style for weeks at a time, obsessively playing that one classical tune or trying out videos from one particular service or another. And then, it stops being interesting. I’m sure there’s a whole body of work out there on why that would be.

There will be days at a time when you’re wondering to yourself: Have I lost all my interest in this thing? Where you’ll desperately wish that you could just be back in that flow you had last week.

Accept these times. Make practice a little shorter, and try not to dwell on it.  Some day soon, you’ll pick up your guitar and your fingers will find a new sound, or you’ll try a piece you haven’t looked at in months, and the next thing you know, you’ll be up too late working on it.

Keep it simple.

I have only purchased acoustic guitars. I was gifted with an electric guitar and amp, which is awesome. But the rest of my life has a slick sheen of digital polish on it, I do not want that in my guitar playing. I want my mistakes and the feeling of vibrations under my (now very calloused) fingertips. The idea of setting up a DAW makes me shudder.

I don’t sit at my computer when I play, and that helps too. A new environment in these pandemic times is worth a lot.

Don’t feel bad about it.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how much time I spend playing guitar, when the thing I tell myself I really want to do as a creative person is write.  Why don’t I do that this much? Should I stop playing guitar so I can write more? OH NO FIRE UP THE AGONY MACHINEEEEEEE

It’s more symbiotic than that. It doesn’t scratch the same itch, and guitar gives my brain a rest. Lets it wander in a field, cozy up to some noises, and just think differently than it does when I’m writing. I play a lot right before bed, and writing at that time is unlikely to produce much. Guitar cuts into my reading or sleeping time more than my writing time, if I’m honest. Might need to set some timers to protect the sovereignty of bedtime. Might help if I could figure out a way to let writing be more laissez faire in these ways, though. Something to work toward, I guess.

There’s something amazing about awakening a long dormant skill (playing jazz trombone) and transferring it to this new world. About finding a creative and joyful way to pass the time.  

I don’t know if I’ll stop, or more accurately, I don’t know when I’ll stop.  I used to set targets: two months. 100 days. a year. 500 days.  Now it just feels like part of my life, a part that I would miss if I didn’t do it. I may not read as much as I could, but I scroll a lot less.  Seems like a win to me.