How to Develop an Organized Practice Routine

A guitar on a bed with sheet musicBack in 2006 and 2007 I went through a period of intense practicing and musical growth on the guitar. Most serious musicians go through a similar ‘wood-shedding’ period like this at some point, where they hole up and put in consistent days with numerous hours of practicing. During my wood-shedding years, I managed to sustain almost 2 years of putting in anywhere from 4 to 8 hours of practice a day, 5 or 6 days a week.

Looking back at this time, I can see that it was very transformative for my guitar playing. I consolidated my knowledge of scales and arpeggios on the fretboard, gained a foothold on being able to solo competently over chord changes in jazz tunes, developed a good foundation of classical guitar technique, improved my sight reading significantly, and got a good foundation in ear training.

While the amount and frequency of my guitar practice were significant factors in this improvement, possibly the most significant factor was that the practice was extremely organized and focused. I suppose you could make an equation that goes something like this:

guitar improvement = (practice duration x frequency) x quality

If I had been unfocused and noodling around for 4 to 8 hours a day, my improvement wouldn’t have been nearly as good as it was. Instead, I set clear goals for myself, created a routine, and kept a record of what I was doing.

In this article, I’ll go through the ways that you can find a similar level of focus and organization in your practice that will maximize the return you get on your time spent practicing.

First Step: Assessment / Start a Practice Journal

The first thing that you need to do when developing your practice routine is think about a few things. When doing this, I find it helpful to write things down. It helps me visualize things while I plot a strategy on how to proceed. It will also be good to keep track of your practices as you go along, so pick up a journal of some sort and start off by writing some of these things down:

First, determine how much time you realistically have on a daily basis to put toward practicing. Try to be as honest with yourself as possible here. Then, think about the things you’d like to improve on with the guitar. It’s good to think with both a long and short term view. What is the natural next step from where you are now? Are there any goals further out that you want to work towards?

You’ll then need to reconcile your list of things to work on with the amount of time you have. Assume that the routine you build will be broken down in to segments of 10 to 20 minutes each, with each segment addressing a different thing you want to get better at. Pare the list of things to do down to a number that will fit in to your allotted time frame.

Second Step: Build Your Practice Routine

Now that you have a rough idea of your goals, things you need to work on, and the time you have to do it, start putting together a more detailed plan for your practice routine. Break your allotted time frame down into segments ranging from 10 to 20 minutes each, and figure out exactly what things you’ll work on during each segment.

You’ll also need to think about how you’re going to go about improving on the particular things you want to work on. That’s a pretty broad topic, but you could see another article I wrote about creating exercises. Come up with some specific exercises and practice approaches that will target the things you are trying to get better at in your guitar playing.

Also take into consideration the order in which the exercises will happen. A lot of times, the order won’t matter much, but in a few cases it might be good to have certain exercises back to back, or one in front of another.

Then, write out a detailed schedule for a routine in your journal. Plot out the exercises you’ll do and their duration, right down to the minute.

A good thing to keep in mind is that you don’t necessarily have to do the same routine every day. Sometimes, a good way to deal with having a lot of things you want to work on with limited time each day is to have an alternating routine. You could do Routine A on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while doing routine B on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Taking this approach means it’s very important that you get your practicing in every day. If you’re looking at a practice schedule that is closer to every other day, it would be better to stick with the same routine each time.

Then, Practice!

The next step is to, well, practice of course. Sit down and go to work at the routine you’ve scheduled.

Be strict with yourself on sticking to your allotted times for each activity, even if it means setting an alarm to go off. Once you get into working on something, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole and keep going with it past the amount of time you’ve designated. This could seem like a good thing in the moment, but it probably means you’ll have to skip something else later in the routine.

On any given segment of the routine, your goal should be to mostly do review and warmup and then finish with some sort of small, tangible improvement at the task. I usually shoot for something like 90% review and warmup, 10% of breaking new ground. If you’re learning scales, review ones you already know and then try to break into a new pattern or part of the neck. If working on a speed exercise, spend most of your time building your speed to where you left off in your last practice, then try to push it just a little further. Any skill or concept takes a lot of repetition to really stick and be useful in a playing situation, so review is always a worthwhile use of time.

At the end of each practice segment, make a quick note in your practice journal. Write down what you worked on, any thoughts or observations you might forget before the next practice, and any metronome speeds you were using.

Reassess and Repeat

Once a week (or more if you’re putting in a lot of hours of practice each day), it’s good to go back through the assessment stage and rebuild your practice routine. The exact schedule of your practice routine should be something that is constantly evolving.

Over the course of your practicing, you might have discovered that certain segments of your routine need to be longer or shorter. You might also discover that a certain exercise isn’t doing as good a job of getting you to improve on something, and therefore needs to be subbed out for something else. You might find that you actually have a different amount of time available to practice than you had originally forecast. By taking the time to reassess things regularly, you’ll be more likely to have a routine going that best suits your goals and time constraints.

Once your reassessment is done, write out a new detailed routine that you’ll follow for the next few days or week. This is a cycle that should repeat itself over and over again.

Finding Empowerment

Becoming organized like this can be incredibly empowering and motivating. Some things I’ve discovered when I’m on a roll with an organized practice routine are:

  • It makes practice time absolutely fly by. Even when I was spending 6 or 8 hours a day, it would go by so fast when broken up into small 10 to 20 minute pieces. Often, I felt like I was actually racing the clock to get a practice segment finished up in time.
  • It enables you to find more time for practicing. It’s often difficult to find large blocks of time available for guitar practice in a typical day. When you have your practice scheduled out in 10 to 20 minute blocks, you can fit those things in here and there throughout the course of a day. Suddenly, a small amount of time becomes something you can use to really get something done. With this in mind, it becomes much easier to find an extra hour or two in a busy day.
  • Tracking improvement is motivating. If you are keeping track of things in a practice journal, you’ll have tangible evidence of the improvement that your guitar practice is creating. Seeing that the time you are spending is actually producing results is incredibly motivating. No longer does practice feel like a futile, aimless waste of time.

This feeling of empowerment and motivation is perhaps the most important reason for developing an organized approach for practicing, even for guitarists without serious ambitions in music. We all want to know that the time we’re spending on practicing the guitar isn’t in vain. If you feel like you are drifting aimlessly in your guitar practice, and are suffering a lack of motivation as a result, try getting organized. You’d be surprised what it will do for you.

Photo credit: Marwa Morgan / CC BY-NC-ND

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