I’ve been thinking a lot about habits lately, particularly the way so much of my life seems to be dictated by them. Biographically, the last few years are marked by intense change in my life. What I’ve come to appreciate in this season of self-analysis is that I am a sort of prisoner of habit, good and bad. Habit permeates me, and like water for a thirsty plant, it can nourish or destroy.
I believe becoming a better bass player can be distilled down to two primary activities: effective practicing, and playing with other people. One thing that I believe is vastly overrated as a prerequisite for musical achievement is “talent,” by which I mean some native aptitude woven into a player’s genetic code. Of course, there are those that seem to benefit from especially fleet fingers, voluminous musical memory, or unusually acute hearing, but if you could somehow gather up all the great musicians of the world and test for these qualities, I don’t think you’d find them to be especially well represented among them. To me, the “talent” relevant to a musician’s ability is a talent for building productive habits and starving destructive ones before they take root. Thus, good musicians have developed habits in support of those two pillars of musical growth: They are in the habit of practicing effectively, and they’re in the habit of finding opportunities to apply their music with others.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a pretty good bass player despite my habits, not because of them. I do play the instrument almost every day, but I am not always motivated to make good progress. Instead, I am habituated to periods of intense focus followed by aimless stretches when I feel like I’ve plateaued. It’s not that I don’t know how to get better — it’s that I’m guided by the invisible hand of habit. In the same way, getting out and making the scene can sometimes require extraordinary willpower. By nature, I’m an introvert, and this introversion easily leads to a habit of avoiding the kind of intense social interaction that is the basis of getting out and participating in my local music scene.
In an effort to fix this stuff, I’ve been researching the science of habit making and breaking. There is a ton of scholarship on the subject. First, there appears to be consensus among experts that willpower is a remarkably weak and unreliable resource. If a person is always zigging but for some compelling reason suddenly wants to zag, they can harness their willpower and probably manage to zag — once or twice. The problem is that the reservoir of willpower is easily depleted, and soon enough, they’ll be zigging again. They’ve allocated their precious willpower to the wrong thing. Rather than trying to achieve a temporary fix, they should have used that willpower to develop a new habit.
Habits form when a person engages in a behavior in the presence of consistent stimuli. Our environment is constantly cueing us, and we have many automatic responses to these cues. Whereas the mental energy required to exert willpower is substantial, our automated responses to cues flow easily and subconsciously. Research on habit creation instructs us not to focus on changing our behavior, but rather on changing the cues in our environment. Instead of focusing on developing a habit for practicing, allocate your precious willpower toward developing a routine for starting to practice. Instead of trying to force a new behavior, you’re trying to alter the cue that leads to the new behavior you want to make habitual. For the cue, use something that’s already occurring regularly in your daily life, like getting home from work. Use your willpower to create a small routine that occurs each time you arrive home from work. For example, once you get home, immediately wash your hands, make a cup of tea, gather your practice materials, tune your bass, and sit down in a consistent part of the house you reserve for practice. Soon, the environmental cue (getting home from work) initiates a habitual behavior that puts you in a ready state for practicing. Rather than reinventing the wheel each evening, or guilt-tripping yourself and expending your willpower, you’ve trained yourself to go into autopilot, making it much more likely that you’ll actually sit down and practice. Finally, research suggests that a small reward can make a substantial impact on the sustainability of a new habit. Perhaps you finish this new routine with an indulgent treat or a half-hour of aimless YouTube watching. Coming up with the reward is the fun part — be creative.
This is a big and important topic, perhaps the most important one in life when it comes to achieving your goals. We’ll explore social habits further in an upcoming column.
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About Jonathan Herrera: Jonathan is a graduate of the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Music Academy and the former Senior Editor of Bass Player Magazine. His playing credits include: Cathedrals, MoeTar, Zigaboo Modeliste, Stanley Jordan, Brain, Oz Noy, Garaj Mahal, Miguel Migs, Cyrus Chestnut, Cathy Richardson, Michael Lee Firkins, Jon Fishman, Kai Eckhardt, Matthew Charles Heulitt, Dynamic, Rick Musallum, Levy's Love Lounge, and many more. In addition to Jonathan's extensive performing experience, he's a sought-after clinician and teacher. He's a former Artist-In-Residence at LAMA, is a current faculty member of the Los Angeles College of Music, and has taught clinics and lectured at Stanford University, Musician's Institute, Crossroads, Bass Player LIVE!, and the Jazz School.