As people, we are habitual creatures. Habits drive almost everything we do, often without us even knowing it. Good habits create automatic behaviour that benefits our lives, bad habits do the opposite. They can be broken down into three stages – the trigger, which prompts the habit to start, the behaviour, which is the routine we carry out and the reward, which is what we anticipate.
Take scrolling Instagram. The trigger could be boredom, the behaviour scrolling through your feed and the reward that little hit of dopamine when we find something we like. Studies show that if the rewards are variable, we display more and more compulsive behaviour. The fact you have to scroll through content that doesn’t interest you on Instagram only reinforces your habitual behaviour!
Getting rid of habits can be really hard and its often more effective to try and change or replace them, rather than stopping them entirely. For example, you might have built up a habit of reaching for a beer as soon as you get home after a busy days work. If you want to cut down your beer intake, you might find it more easy to replace the beer with a nice cup of tea, rather than trying to stop rewarding yourself for a hard days work entirely.
So what has this got to do with making music? Well, understanding our behaviour in this way can help us mould our habits into ones that are more productive and better at helping us achieve our ambitions. Making music can be a long, hard process, but by creating the right kind of habits we can help ensure our workflows are optimised.
We’re all different, but here are a few ideas about how you could replace some habits you might struggle with…
1. The endless tweaking habit
Do you sometimes find yourself getting sucked into a vortex of tweaking a sound over and over, until you finally lose context of what you were trying to do in the first place? We all know the rush of excitement we get when something clicks (the reward), but endlessly tweaking something in pursuit of this (the habit), combined with the limitless options of our DAW’s, can cause fatigue and eventually less creativity.
A good way to overcome this compulsive behaviour can be to ‘timebox’ how long you let yourself spend on something. If you’ve been tweaking a snare sound for more than 10 minutes and you haven’t even started with a melody, try and interrupt yourself, get a glass of water and come back to work on a different section. Essentially you are replacing the detrimental behaviour (too long tweaking the snare) with a new behaviour in pursuit of a new reward (starting the bassline, for example.) Understanding when behaviour becomes damaging is key so that you can change it before it causes problems.
2. The (un)creative routine
Do you often start out making music the same way? Whilst having a familiar setup can certainly speed things up, it can also be a cause of writers block. If you always start making music in exactly the same way, chances are your music will start to sound the same.
If you are are stuck for inspiration or want to take your music in a new direction, try constructing a new routine. Do you start by programming drums? Try creating a melody first instead. Do you typically get a chord sequence going first and build a melody over the top? Try throwing in a loop made by someone else and build your track around this instead.
3. The habits of the wandering nomad
Are you the type of person who ‘just starts’ and sees where your music takes you? No doubt, some of the best music has been written like this. But if you struggle to finish tracks, it might help to try and create some artificial constraints, or in other words ‘new habits’, in order to give your music direction and a solid framework in which to complete the track with.
Here are a few ideas..
- Before you start, get into the habit of sketching your song structure out on paper, then use this as a guide
- Give yourself a time limit to finish a ‘first pass’ of your entire track. Do the same again for the second pass and save the third pass for mixing.
- Use samples to quickly put together rough sections of your track, then come back and replace bits and create new elements as you see fit
4. Following the path of least resistance
There are aspects of making music we like less than others, but know will help us achieve our ambitions. Let’s face it, we often want the quickest and easiest solution but all to often, this isn’t the best. Take practicing an instrument – its not always fun, but we know it will improve our playing.
Creating entirely new habits can be difficult and it helps to be smart about how we do this. First of all, identify the habit you want to create. Want to get better at finger drumming? You’ll need to spend some time practicing. Want to understand how to mix your tracks better? You’ll need to spend some time studying.
All too often, when we try and create new habits, we set ourselves up for failure by trying to create a new habit that seemingly is too difficult and the reward is not clear. A good way to get around this is to start small and clearly define both your trigger and reward. So instead of saying to yourself ‘In January I’m, going to practice 3 hrs of finger drumming every day’, try starting smaller and saying ‘Next time I have some spare time, I’m going to practice a bit of finger drumming so that I can get better at performing live.’
Try and visualise that reward of playing live to a crowd and feeling the energy and you’ll feel much more compelled to get started. Each time you can increase the effort required just a little and also mix up the rewards, even by throwing in a coffee or the odd beer for yourself every now and then – remember, variable rewards are more effective at creating habits.
These are just some ideas about how you can hack your internal rewards system and create the kind of habits you want, instead of leaving it up to chance. For more reading check out B.J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg, it’s pretty fascinating stuff.
What habits, good and bad, do you have when making music?
Thanks for reading ❤
Dave from Noiiz