It was the year 2014. I was in Year 12, my first year as a Sixth Form student, and for years, I’d thought about how cool it would be to be able to play the guitar. Not really because I wanted to actually learn how to play it – don’t be silly – just because I thought it would be cool.
Surprise, surprise, that was also the year that I learned how expensive guitars can be for a boy with a paper round and no wealthy benefactors in sight. I needed an affordable alternative. It was at this point that my mind did a real life replay and flashed back to one year prior (stay with me), when How I met Your Mother was in its final season. It was my favourite show at the time, and one of the episodes featured this iconic sequence:
Rewind by a year (stay with me, I promise that it’s related), and How I Met Your Mother, my favourite show at the time, was starting to wrap up. One of the episodes featured this iconic sequence:
It was this point that I became absolutely and dreadfully desperate to play this song. With that in mind, I made a purchase: a brand new ukulele, in my favourite colour at the time (a deep forest green for those curious). I thought it was so nifty that I even attempted to teach myself with a cheap Kindle book.
Alas, that was not enough. Despite my best efforts, I found the strumming to be too tricky. My fingers kept getting caught up and all intertwined among the strings. I debated purchasing a pick to make my life a little easier, but realised that it would make fingerpicking (who knew what that was?) way more difficult. Plus, the books didn’t exactly make the whole process that easy – or fun, for that matter. It was a case of read, practice, repeat. For six full years, the books and uke sat in the bedroom of my family home, unused and unloved, unable to make music.
Six years. By Christmas 2020, that all changed.
I’ve now been practicing and playing the ukulele nearly every single day for the past seven months. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Make learning a game
That Kindle ebook? It’s been left alone this time. Instead, I sought sanctity in an app called Yousician. It offers various premium levels, but the freemium edition has been more than enough for me. This gives users ten minutes of practice a day, which means that I’m not feeling obligated to play for an hour to get my money’s worth. It’s just enough to learn something new, but little enough to leave me yearning for more. Best of all, this fits perfectly in with the principles behind picking habits and mastering productivity in James Clear’s Atomic Habits, which I’ve summarised so that you don’t have to.
The app offers various fun, free songs to play, with the more popular, well-known ones hidden behind pay walls. Regardless of how much you spend, the app’s core features won’t change: it breaks down finger positioning for each note and how to fingerpick – all while the song plays on in the background. Best of all, you get a score at the end, which works to spur on users to try again and best their past attempts.
Turning learning into a game – or gamifying learning – is a great method for encouraging to pick up positive new habits. Being limited to just ten minutes of practice per day, too, if brief enough to make you actively want to carry on improving. The specific guidance for each song is also really positive feedback that only works to continue spurring me on.
Perfect practice makes perfection
Ten minute of practice per day. That’s it. I can get home from work and click onto guided practice if I want to give songs I’ve already attempted a go, or ask for a lesson to continue learning new skills, like new chords or techniques, such as sliding between notes or playing faster.
But still, it’s only ten minutes – and by doing that every day, I’ve seen huge improvements. I feel a lot more confident when playing and am able to hit the notes just that little bit better every time. You see, it’s far better that we keep up our habits over long periods of time, and practice in small bursts, rather than doing plenty all at once.
I’ve carried this mindset over into other habits, too, for instance while rejoining the gym. There were times when I really could just not be bothered to go after a long day of teaching
I carried that mindset over into other habits. I recently rejoined the gym, not long after they officially reopened, and honestly could not be bothered to go after a long day of teaching. But I had this thought while sat, simply scrolling through social media on the sofa, of ‘what am I doing?‘ This was my time, and I was wasting it. A really good behaviour management technique is to give students the false perception of choice – you can either make the choice to now work really hard or it will be a warning, and there will be further consequences. What is it going to be? – but it’s a good mindset to adopt for yourself as well.
I was making the choice to waste time on social media. Was this the choice that I really wanted to make?
And with that, I went to the gym. I convinced myself that it would only be for ten minutes, again adopting one of James Clear’s talking points, and ended up doing a 20 minute bike ride. Making these small changes to our lives is how we hit our goals, not by convincing ourselves that it must be all or nothing. Get into the habit of adopting small habits and you’ll be feeling like the person you want to be in no time.
Keep your habits frequent but brief, rather than heavy and occasional. You’ll feel so much better from it, will have more opportunities to hone your skills, and your habits will be much longer-lasting. And you might make some music in the process.