I used to sing and play guitar in this band. We had rehearsal every week, followed by a show. On the way to rehearsal, I would stop by Starbucks and get a coffee. Then I’d go to rehearsal. Inevitably, my voice would get dried out and I’d wish I would’ve brought water instead. Sometimes, I would be so dried out that I had trouble singing during the show. I did this for years.
It seems like a small thing, but it was having a negative impact on my music. So why did I keep repeating such a dumb thing for so long?
Simple answer: Because of habit.
Charles Duhigg wrote The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business to address this. He wanted to know how habits work and, more importantly, how we can change them. I picked up the book just by chance, but it turned out to be very interesting and very insightful.
The Habit Loop
The gist of the book is that our brain automatically drives the majority of our behavior through habits. Habits are repetitive patterns that we don’t consciously make decisions about. A habit can be understood by breaking it down into “the habit loop”.
The Habit Loop consists of 3 parts:
- The “cue” – the event that triggers our habit.
- The “routine” – the habit itself.
- The “reward” – what we get at the end of the routine.
For example, my cue in the above story was driving to rehearsal and feeling anxious about the show. My routine was to drive through Starbucks and buy a coffee. My reward was to have something to distract myself as I headed into a long (and often stressful) evening.
Duhigg contends that we can’t change the “cue” or “reward” part of the habit loop. We can only change the “routine”. So I couldn’t change the anxious drive to rehearsal (unless I quit the gig). And I couldn’t change my desire for some sort of distraction as I headed into a long, stressful evening. But I could have changed the routine. I could have done a dozen other things instead. I probably should have just stopped and bought a big bottle of water every week to get me through all the singing.
Change the Routine
And this is Duhigg’s practical ‘takeaway’: you can experiment with changing the routine. You can try a few different routines and find one that gives you the ‘reward’ that your brain is automatically looking for, but without the negative effects of your old ‘routine’.
Guitar playing is about building the right habits. Our technical ability, how we perform, practice time, band rehearsal… a lot of this is habitual. Song writing can definitely fall into habits. Solos can begin to all sound the same. Even how we set up our gear and instrument can become thoughtlessly habitual. Improving our habits is a key to improving every part of our musicianship.
So here’s one simple question that will make any musician better:
What habits are holding you back?
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