How To Use New Habits on Old Skills

How To Use New Habits on Old Skills

Like all good American children in the ‘90s, I learned to play guitar. I got a guitar at around 6, and watched my father to learn until I managed to get a chord book myself (yep, I used a book…the ‘90s though).

Most children starting out that young play amazingly, but I can assure you this wasn’t me: I was just OK.  Playing rhythm guitar made me feel at home. I had no high minded ideals about being a guitar legend, I simply enjoyed writing and playing the music. I played in a small band with some friends and my future wife, improving in the standard flood and famine style that besets most with a particular hobby spanning several years.

Flood and Famine

During the flood periods, my playing ability would jump up a level, and soon plateau into a famine period. These flood periods were common occurrences when I was a young twenty-something with my waking life dedicated to playing, but once real life got too busy there were no more floods, even when I played several days a week. Eventually my available play time dwindled to no more than an hour every week or two, with most of that time piddling around on old tunes with nothing new to speak of.

This inability to play as often as I used to was an obvious reason for plateaus and roadblocks in my development, but soon I realized it didn’t have to be. Fast forward to college, a couple of kids, and my first developer gig later. I had just landed an internship while going to school, and was putting in the hard hours at work and class. You know the ones I’m talking about. Everything was code, or centered around code in some way so I began to entertain myself with imagining everyday objects and activities as their object-oriented data structures (what can I say, busy minds need entertainment sometimes).

Imagineering At Work

During one of these imagineering exploits, I was thinking of some basic chorded rhythm progression when out of nowhere a structure of layered options for each chord seemed to lay in front of my fingers (mentally speaking). For the first time, I could separate individual notes within chords at will, and construct them in timed layers however I wanted. My playing came alive — I hadn’t mastered any new hard skills or focused on any new technique of playing, yet nearly every time I picked up my instrument I was able to write something new and far more complicated than I was ever accustomed to playing.

Had I discovered that an object-oriented structure could be applied to basic musical composition as an effective way to mentally map potential chord/scale modifications? Hell no, it’s actually a terrible method only to be used in jest!

New Habit of Focus

What I was experiencing was a round of highly effective focus techniques applied to a portion of my skill sets that I had never applied it to before. Not that my previous thousands of hours playing felt unfocused, but compared to the specificity required to program anything of use they would appear almost nonsensical.

Re-approaching my old skill of playing the guitar with a new habit of focusing on the individual constructs of each piece enabled me to first build a sound in concept and then implement it, just as if it were a data structure with pieces being modified and arranged to fit perfectly together. With the ability to explore the rough physical shape of the conceptual goal mentally beforehand, I was able to play for 2-3 minutes and explore more musical territory than I previously would have in hours of play.


Instead of focusing on the flood times, or playing only when I “felt” like it, this new focus gave me renewed energy for playing and deconstructing how the music was built. I wasn’t only practicing what other people created; I’m learning and rebuilding it from the ground up.

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