This coming Thursday I will be attending my first Quantified Self Meetup and have signed up to give a Show & Tell talk. This is the part of the program where people describe projects or self-experiments they have done. In order to give some structure and continuity to the talks the QS moderators have provided the three prime questions on which every talk should be built.
Seeing as how I just volunteered to give a talk in 4 days and I don’t know what I am going to say or present, my wife had the fantastic idea that I use my blog post to flush out my ideas for the presentation. Without further delay, here are my thoughts on the three prime questions.
1. What did you do?
I am teaching myself how to play Guitar. As of today I have practiced 13,054 minutes or 217 hours.
I have been teaching myself using a couple different books and here is my progress on each:
Hal Leonard Complete Edition: Contains books 1,2 and 3
pg 39 of 133 (29% complete)
Hal Leonard Music Theory
pg 23 of 92 (25% complete)
pg 15 of 109 (14% complete)
When I first started learning I turned to Google. “How long does it take to learn how to play guitar?” I asked. I found a number of different threads with guitarists of various skill levels chiming in. They all had a similar response, “You can make some quick progress but it will take a lifetime to master it.” Basically so vague that it was almost useless.
I had already realized that in ~400 hours I was able to reach a level of proficiency in Kitesurfing, Rock-Climbing and Downhill Skiing which I call Good Enough. While I realize that the time it took me to learn these sports might not be correlated with learning a musical instrument I figured it was a good starting point.
While every person’s mileage may vary I do feel that I am at least documenting a real example upon which future guitarists can reference and build. They can see my progress over time. They can see how bad I was in the beginning and how far I have come. If more people follow in my footsteps and start documenting their progress over time we would be able to better answer the question, “How many hours of deliberate practice will it take a person with no musical experience to reach a specific skill level?”
2. How did you do it?
I wish I could say I just picked up the guitar and started teaching myself but it was much more difficult than that. Even though learning how to play guitar is a dream of mine I have struggled to find the motivation to practice on a regular basis. Learning a musical instrument as an adult has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. For me, I found setting a SMART goal, measuring my practice time, using a commitment contract, practicing deliberately, and recording myself regularly provided the motivation I needed.
Setting a SMART Goal
My goal is to practice guitar deliberately 35 minutes per day and to have a cumulative total of 400 hours after two years.
Measuring My Practice Time
This little timer is the base of my self-tracking system. Using a timer keeps me from cheating or losing focus. When the timer is on I am practicing. If I get distracted I stop it and don’t restart it until I am sitting with my instrument again. Sometimes I sit down and practice for 35 minutes straight and other times I practice 5 minutes at a time until I reach my daily goal.
Using a Commitment Contract
I log my daily practice times and notes about my practice session into Beeminder. Beeminder notifies me each morning how close I am to failing my goal and how much time I need to practice that day to stay on track. I spend most days right on the cusp of failing my goal. Sometimes I get a day or two ahead but I almost always tap into this during the work week.
Every time I sit down to practice I try to push myself to the next level. If I am playing a song I already know then I try to play it at a better rhythm and with better tone than previous sessions. If I am working on a scale or a lick I try to play it at a faster speed than the last time I practiced it. If I am playing something physically demanding I try to play it for longer than I did the previous session. I try to avoid slipping into the bad habit of “noodling” or playing pieces that I know well and are easy to play but don’t force me to grow and learn.
Recording Myself Regularly
Every 50 hours I have recorded myself playing for an entire practice session and then have edited it down to a 4 minute video. These videos help remind me of how much progress I have made. How far I have come. I still feel like such an amateur and sometimes it feels like I have barely made any progress. When I watch these videos it reminds me that I have come so far. I may still be a beginner, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have made a lot of progress.
3. What did you learn?
Self-Tracking is a Powerful Motivator
Measuring and tracking all of my practice sessions over time has proven to be a huge motivator. I love looking at me Beeminder graph and seeing the long straight line which reflects hundreds of practice sessions. Sometimes I just look at my graph and it provides me with the motivation to keep going.
Self-Tracking isn’t Always Enough
When I started learning guitar I was tracking and graphing it myself but I didn’t stick with it. In this situation my present self was having a hard time delivering on the dreams of my future self. When I first learned about Beeminder I was somewhat skeptical but now I am a full-blown convert. There is no doubt in my mind that I would not have made this much progress without Beeminder. The addition of money on the line and public display of my progress has helped keep me going.
Videos Make the Progress More Tangible
Recording videos have proved to a powerful tool for recognizing and reminding myself how much progress I have made. Every time I have sat down to record a video I wonder to myself if I am going to even see any progress. Happily I have progressed each time but if I didn’t have the videos to prove it I think it would be easy to miss it or have doubts about the progress I have made.