Learning Guitar with Micro Goals

“You can’t learn something faster than you can learn it. ”

“Still Life with Guitar” by Juan Gris. 1920 Oil on Canvas Residing at Saint Louis Art Museum. Courtesy of Widimedia Commons.

Students often tell me that they are practicing every day but don’t seem to be getting anywhere. My advice: define “anywhere”.

The solution to the problem of not getting anywhere is to define exactly what the where is. What are you are trying to accomplish?

There is power in creating what are called “micro goals”.

A micro goal can be anything, as long as it is very small and easily achievable. A brush stroke.

You say “how do I know how to create a micro goal?

Well, when you sit down to practice, simply say out loud (writing these down is even better) what it is that you want to accomplish. If you are a beginner, this is not “I want to learn how to play Song X. That’s the macro goal. A micro goal is, “I will learn how to play the first chord in song X”.

Regardless of your current ability level, you choose a task that you think you can master in just a few minutes, then you set out to accomplish that thing, and only that thing. Boom. Next you put the guitar down and go celebrate the awesome feeling of accomplishment.

Success breeds success.

This is the magic of setting tiny, achievable goals. You are rewarded with the satisfaction of measurable progress, no matter how small the intervals.

This is how you begin and this is how you continue. This is the key to learning guitar (or anything else for that matter).

If the song you are working on has four chords, make memorizing each chord your first goal. Dedicate an entire day or even a week if needed to just to memorizing the chords and switching between them. Why not? Set yourself up to succeed. There is no hurry. You’re not trying to play the song just yet, you can’t until you learn the chords anyway.

First the bricks, then the building.

You next goal might be to strum those chords four times each in the order of the song without stopping your strum. You don’t have to be in perfect time yet. That’s the next goal. Let it take a day, a week or a month to perfect something.

You can’t learn something faster than you can learn it.

Just set the bar low, so you can jump right over it. Move the bar when you want to challenge yourself. If you are reading music or tablature and keep messing up the same spot, turn the  notes that are giving you trouble into a micro goal.

Maybe it’s moving from one string to another that is giving you a hard time. Just practice those two notes and the picking transition from string to string. Narrow focus on this for maybe five or ten minutes. It’s a very small goal so it won’t take long and soon you will have it. Just play that one tiny part over and over until you get it. It might just be three or four notes.

You will be tempted to move on to something else. Don’t. When you think you have it, do it three more times. Stay with those three or four notes until they are natural to you. Now, instead of being the part you fear, it becomes your favorite part because you worked so hard to nail it.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish in five or ten short minutes when you set a micro goal.

You’ll be surprised how fast obstacles disappear once you focus on them very closely and state a series of micro goals to fix it.

What matters is that your learning experience is fun and rewarding and that you can see progress, no matter how small. Discouragement leads to quitting, and the only reason for discouragement is not seeing progress because the goal (if you have even bothered to consciously define one) is too large in scope – usually way to large.

I set micro goals to achieve this post. First I decided to post something (it’s been way too long) and second I wanted to share the concept of micro-goals to help you feel more encouraged.

So when you begin to practice, start by asking yourself, “What are my micro goals going to be for this session?”.

This approach is also described by many teachers as “deliberate practice”.

Only you can decide what these goals should be, but you will instantly know them the minute you begin to practice. They pop up instantly the moment you find yourself saying to yourself,  “I can’t___” . (Fill in the blank). What follows that unfortunate phrase is almost always the micro goal itself, clothed in fear, staring you right in the face and telling you exactly what it is you should be practicing. It’s really telling you what you soon CAN do. Listen to yourself, you are the best teacher you will ever have.

Now, I will go celebrate two micro goals: getting back to this blog, and planting the seeds of deliberate practice and micro goaling into your guitar mind.

Happy New Year!


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