Habits – Why They Should Matter to the Musician.

As I was looking over my reading lists from the past few years, I realized that I’ve read an unusual amount of books about habits. And though their titles and premises may all seem very different, I was startled to look back and realize that all of them relate to the phrase “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” (Annie Dillard) So much of our days is built around not choices, but habits. As we fly through each day on the wings of habits, we spend much less energy thinking about what actually is driving our lives.

And this is a good thing! Habits allow us to use our brainpower towards the things that really matter and need our attention. But ensuring that our habits work for us and not against is also important. Bad habits have undesired outcomes . Good habits are the things we all went, but often seem out of reach.

Each book below gives a framework for thinking through your habits in order to make sure you are encouraging the habits that are helpful and not destructive to your overall health and well-being. They come from different perspectives and focus on different areas of life – business, personal habits, faith/spiritual habits, household habits, technology habits, etc. I have found each one to be helpful, and I encourage you to dive into the habit world if you haven’t already. You may just learn a thing or two about yourself, others, and your piano studio 🙂 Be sure to scroll all the way through and check out my mental process in reading through a habit book I hope to apply to my musicianship.

The Power of Habit

How do habits influence our lives? Charles Duhigg talks through the implications of habits in our everyday lives, and how that drives big business and our economy. Does this apply to you? Yes! Businesses know how habits work and use it to draw you in … it’s important that you are aware of the habits that shape your experience in the everyday world 🙂

Atomic Habits

Small, everyday changes are what make the biggest impact on our lives. James Clear gives the guidelines for what has helped him succeed – not overnight, but as he committed to years of consistency in the small things. Check out the list at the bottom of the blog for how I specifically relate his four rules of habits to piano practice 🙂

Digital Minimalism

How do our technology habits influence our lives – for better and for worse? Cal Newport presents his case for curating our technology use and putting our technology habits to work for us instead of letting these habits rule our lives.

Unwinding Anxiety

Habits? Yes. Judson Brewer takes an in-depth look at his research and experience and how habits intertwine with anxiety. And whether or not you live with anxiety, I can assure you there are others around you that do!

The Common Rule

Justin Whitmel Earley is a lawyer, author, and speaker. One day he found himself in law school seemingly having a mental breakdown. What did he begin to realize? That his daily habits had been built without much thought, and it was changing his life in harrowing ways. He set about creating structures in his life to build healthy and sustainable habits. Before he knew it, he had friends and then strangers asking for his ideas and solutions, and he shares them with us here.

Habits of the Household

My favorite by the same author as The Common Rule, Earley talks about the power of habits in creating strong and healthy family rhythms. Not your typical parenting book – and it comes along with sound wisdom for those who are parents and for those who aren’t.

You Are What You Love

And it turns out what we love has a lot to do with habits. Who new? Are we focusing on developing good habits or letting the destructive ones take hold of our everyday?

Our habits matter, and I’ve found helpful information and encouragement in each of the books above. Besides seeking to be the healthiest teacher I can be for my students, I also choose to read these books with my studio and my student’s habits in mind.

How? Take a look at my thought process in the notes below from Atomic Habits 🙂

1st Law: Make it Obvious

  • What are your current habits? Write down when and how you practice and make yourself aware of them.
  • Decide ahead of time when you plan to reinforce the habit. Making a date with your piano means you will be more likely to follow through with practice.
  • The idea of Habit Stacking – “After I ______ , I will practice piano.”
  • Designing our environment is important. Make cues obvious and visible. Is the piano in a bright, inviting, inhabited space? Does it need moved to erase bad past cues for behavior during practice?

2nd Law: Make it Attractive

  • Pair the behavior you need with another behavior you want. After I practice piano, I can go outside to play. After I practice piano I can play through songs I’ve learned in the past.
  • We pick up habits from those around us. Creating a musical home environment is important. Even if mom and dad aren’t musical, there are lots of ways music can be integrated into everyday home life!

3rd Law: Make it Easy

  • To build a habit you need to practice it. Eat dinner, head to the piano to practice – over and over.
  • Removing distractions helps. Put your phone away, make sure no one is watching TV, put the piano in a well-lit enjoyable room.
  • “The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can’t learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details.” Focus on sitting down at the bench and playing. Once you’ve gotten in the habit of actually making it to the bench, then real practice can happen.

4th Law: Make it Satisfying

  • The brain prioritizes right now, but our habits have effects on the future. Often what is easiest and most convenient today does not lead to good long-term results. Choosing to practice today likely won’t have much effect on your musicianship today, but means you’ll be a better musician in a year.
  • Reinforcement – ties your habit to an immediate reward. Instead of ending practice on the piece you’re learning, pull out an old piece you enjoy to finish the practice session.
  • Visual measures can help. After I practice, I will write it down in my practice journal or cross off the day on a calendar.
  • If you get off track follow the most important rule: Never miss twice! Missing one day of piano practice never ruined anyone. But letting yourself miss another day because of yesterday’s miss sends you down a spiral that will not lead to becoming a better musician.

I’d love to hear which of these books/authors have had an impact on your life and teaching! Have you gained other insights that I don’t mention here?


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