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A guitar

[This is a guest post by Beeminder superfan — and self-quantifier — Jake Jenkins who tells us the story of how Beeminder made all his dreams come true. Well, one particular dream, which will have come true in another year or so of hard work.]

When I was 9 years old I went to a beach party. As the sun set and the bonfire was lit a guy broke out his guitar and started playing familiar songs. People gathered close to the fire, but closer to him, and broke into song as the music moved them. At that moment I realized that I wanted to learn how to play guitar.

It’s now 22 years later and I am finally on track to achieve that dream. Over the last 3 months I have practiced 50 hours on my steel string acoustic guitar. This has been the most challenging goal I have ever set for myself and I have had to draw on all my experience, knowledge, and discipline to make progress. But that wasn’t enough and it wasn’t until I discovered Beeminder that my progress really accelerated.

You Don’t Need More Stuff

I received the guitar as a gift from my wife on my 31st birthday. It is one of the best gifts she has ever given me because it signaled to me that she supported my growth and it inspired me to start learning. Along with the guitar she also gave me a case, tuner, picks, and instructional DVD.

Of course, I started practicing immediately and I watched the DVD and I tried to play chords and make some music. I realized very quickly how hard it was to create chords. I couldn’t even figure out how I was supposed to hold the guitar in my lap. It felt so foreign.

I thought that the problem was that I needed a guitar strap, so I hopped online and spent an hour researching and subsequently buying a strap. Then I went on to buy 4 music books, a music stand, a metronome, a capo and another box of picks.

“This is a trick the brain pulls to protect you from failing at something new or challenging.”

I actually thought that I needed more stuff and I researched buying an electric guitar, an amp, more picks, different strings, additional books, lessons, a better acoustic. My steel string acoustic was so hard to play that I actually thought that maybe it was the guitar’s fault… I thought I had already learned this lesson but I fell right into the trap. This is a trick the brain pulls to protect you from failing at something new or challenging. It provides excuses that allow you to justify why you aren’t doing something.

People often use the excuse, “I need more stuff” for why they aren’t achieving their goal. The truth is that you probably have everything you need to get started.

You Do Need a SMART Goal

I know goal setting is kind of dorky and apparently the new hip thing is to not set goals while in fact you are setting goals. If you read Zen Habits then you know what I am talking about.

I have had some experience with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic, Time-based) goals and I have found them surprisingly powerful. [UPDATE: Read more on Beeminder and SMART goals.] I had not taken the time to really outline what I was trying to accomplish every time I picked up the guitar.

How long does it take to get good enough to play around the campfire and entertain your friends? I turned to Google and found 2 years of consistent practice was often tossed out as a normal amount of time to go from Beginner to Good Enough.

So: practice 30 minutes every day for two years and I should be good enough to play guitar and impress my friends.

People often use the excuse, “there is no way I will ever be an expert” for why they aren’t working toward their goal. The truth is that you don’t need to be an expert, you just need to be Good Enough.

You Don’t Need More Time

Now, I already knew that if I was going to learn I would need to find a window of time to practice on a regular basis. This is one of the most challenging and overlooked parts of changing any habit. We are all busy.

I thought about practicing in the morning before my wife and baby were awake, but I quickly realized that the guitar is way too loud and that I would wake them up. Besides, I wasn’t really in the mood to play in the morning. I thought about adding it after everyone went to bed, but the issue of noise came up again.

I realized that I was going to have to squeeze it in during the prime hours of After Work and Before Bedtime. Since I cook dinner and do dishes while my wife watches the baby and does bathtime I realized that this was when I was going to have to carve out some time for myself.

I tried to figure out ways to be more efficient while I was cooking dinner. I started washing dishes as I cooked and I focused on keeping the work space clean to reduce the amount of cleanup afterwards. All of a sudden I was wrapping up the kitchen just as they were heading off to bath.

Now I had a solid 30 minutes of time to practice guitar. Since I had worked so hard in the kitchen to create this time I was a little extra motivated to hop right into practicing.

People often use the excuse, “there is not enough time” for why they aren’t learning a new skill. The truth is that you have to create time for the things you want to do.

You Do Have To Keep Trying

I started practicing and I started to make some headway. It was intermittent though.

I practiced every day for a week, and then it was every other day, then I let a couple days go by, and then a couple weeks, and then a couple months went by. Even though I had bought all the stuff, clearly defined the goal, and carved out time in my busy day I failed at making guitar practice a daily habit.

I know I am not alone in this area. Garages and storage sheds all across the country are filled with the debris of failed goals like mine. I could have packed all my guitar stuff up and buried it in a closet so that it would stop quietly mocking me but I knew that I wasn’t done with the guitar. I just needed to tweak my formula a little bit.

I thought deeply about why this was happening. I really wanted to learn how to play the guitar. It had been a life-long dream of my mine and yet I couldn’t consistently sit down and practice guitar.

“I had all kinds of reasons why tonight was not the best night to practice and why tomorrow would be better.”

What I was doing was letting myself off the hook each night. I was too tired, I had chores to do, I didn’t want to annoy my wife, etc. I had all kinds of reasons why tonight was not the best night to practice and why tomorrow would be better. Besides, tomorrow I could do a double session and catch up, right? Never mind the fact that I could barely squeeze in one practice session a night. How was I going to fit in two?

My system went out the window as my present self failed to hold up his part of the bargain. Sit down and practice 30 minutes a day. Present self didn’t have to be a good guitar player. That responsibility falls on future self. Present self just had to show up every night to play. And yet he consistently failed.

People often use the excuse, “I tried that once and failed” as a reason to stop trying. The truth is that you learn something about yourself every time you fail.

You Do Need To Make A Commitment

Luckily for me I discovered Beeminder.

I took the data I had so far and uploaded it into a Beeminder graph. One thing I love and hate about graphs is that they don’t lie or pull punches. Now that I was looking at my graph I saw how many days had gone by between practice sessions. I had estimated that I was already at about 20 hours of practice but now realized that I had grossly overestimated and that it was more like 8 hours.

I set the rate on my Beeminder graph at 30 minutes a day and the Yellow Brick Road was laid out for me. Shit, that line was steep. Luckily they give you a week head start on any goal so I had time to ramp up and get ready. I hadn’t put any money on the line yet. I just saw that line and knew I didn’t want to drop below it.

Jake's yellow brick road to musical mastery

I started practicing on a more regular basis and entering my data into Beeminder. I loved entering new data and watching my graph update instantly.

I quickly realized that Beeminder allowed you some flexibility in achieving your goals that I had never considered. Before, if I had been really engaged and practiced for 60 minutes straight on Saturday, I would have counted that as one practice session and would have felt like I needed to practice again on Sunday to meet my goal.

With Beeminder I could now visually see that by having an extra long practice session I had created a whole extra day of safety buffer. That means I can skip a practice that week or have shorter practices on a number of days.

I find that it is harder to find time on weekdays and often can only play for 20 minutes. So that means I am 50 minutes behind my goal by the end of the work week. Since I have built up a buffer I am able to draw on that and still stay above the yellow brick road. On the weekends I can practice for longer and rebuild my safety buffer.

Beeminder triggers all of these thoughts just by graphing my data AND providing the yellow brick road to keep me on track.

People often use the excuse, “I am not disciplined enough” as a reason for avoiding goals. The truth is that you just haven’t found the right way to hold yourself accountable.

You Don’t Need A Lot Of Discipline

Whenever I tell people about the progress I’ve made towards my dream of learning guitar they often say “you must have so much discipline. I could never do that.”

They couldn’t be more wrong about me or themselves.

I am a classic Akratic who struggles to take a multi-vitamin in the morning, floss every day, or eat healthy on a regular basis. I struggle with all of these goals because they are actions I Want to complete, not actions I Need to complete.

I am also a person who procrastinates all the time. I pack in a rush before a flight and I complete projects by pulling all-nighters. I put off writing thank you notes until the guilt is overwhelming and I let my clothes pile up on the dresser until the mess is unbearable.

These things eventually get done because they Need to be completed.

So, how do you turn something you Want to do into something you Need to do?

Try making a commitment. To yourself, to a friend, to Beeminder, or to StickK. Pick one and try it. If you fail at first then try a different technique or raise the stakes. Keep tweaking the commitment until you start making progress towards your goal.

You will know you are on the right path when someone says to you, “you must have so much discipline.”