How to Stay Motivated When Learning Something New

practice / play

I learned to play guitar at 19. My dad taught me. I spent about a year practicing, learning new chords, understanding how to transpose music, building calluses on my fingertips. I stumbled through songs until I finally learned how to sing while playing (which was probably one of the most awkward learning experiences I’ve had in my life).

And after a year of making pretty consistent progress, I plateaued.

I’ve played off and on since then. And somehow have managed, amazingly, to not really improve. At all.

Because after that first year, every time I picked up the guitar I would do exactly what I already knew how to do. It was fun, easy, relaxing. And it was the one hobby I had where I felt zero pressure to ‘be’ a certain way or achieve a certain something. I just played however I felt and that was that. That was the entire point.

The flip side is that, objectively, I still sound pretty shitty! I’m okay with that, for the most part. Sort of.


Know your intention behind whatever you’re investing time and energy in.

Is it to give yourself a break and just enjoy being like a kid again?

Or is it to improve in some way for some specific purpose? What purpose? Why? What does it mean to you?

When you learn something new, there are two parts to your experience:
Practice and Play

Practice is outside your comfort zone. It feels uncomfortable. And also awkward and frustrating, if you’re anything like me. It’s not necessarily ‘fun’ – though can be, depending on your definition of the word. The thing you’re doing or making will be ‘bad’, if you’re doing it (the learning) right.

Practice thrives, usually, within some sort of structure. Time limits, specific settings, tracking outcomes. A manual or teacher or guide to sponge off of and challenge you.

Play is fun, 100%. There’s no other reason for play. It’s doing whatever the hell you wantmaking mistakes with no looking back, experimenting, being loose. It’s a break from your mind and the chatter of everything.


How to learn

This is where motivation comes in.

You can’t be in practice mode all of the time or you become too rigid and too perfectionistic and lose sight of the point of it all. The humanness of it, the magic, gets cut off if all you do is Practice.

When you bring Play into the equation, you give things time to percolate and simmer in your subconscious, melt into something new, something you, something Worth It.

Time + space + energy = serendipity. Magic.

If you have a good balance of Practice / Play, you’ll need to try less. You’ll feel more. Your practice will be more ‘you’ and your play will be deeper. This feedback loop creates motivation.


The ratio of Practice and Play is entirely up to you.

My cousin plays violin at a very high level. Her Practice to Play ratio is usually around 90% to 10%.

My photography comes in at about 50 / 50. I’m so clear on needing to keep a large part of it light and loose because, for me, that’s where the art and humanness come in. Wildlife photographers or commercial photographers I’d guess would have a much higher Practicing ratio.

And I do want to improve my guitar playing at least a little, so I’ll probably aim for 50 / 50 instead of my past track record of 0 / 100... 

Think about your own Practice / Play ratio for the things you love to do, have to do, and want to do.

How can you make it work for you?