Mindless vs Deliberate Practice: Bite-Size Guitar Podcast Episode 4

Episode 4 of the Bite-Size Guitar Podcast looks at how you practice is more important than what you practice.

Understanding the difference between mindless and deliberate practice is crucial if you want to get better as a guitarist. In this episode, I’ll explain how easy it is to dip into mindless practice and how to avoid it happening to you.

Apple Podcasts

Listen to the podcast using the below player or search for Bite-Size Guitar Podcast in any podcast app.

Ask a Question

If you have a question about this episode or any other question about learning or playing guitar, ask it here and I’ll answer it in a future episode.

Use your Android/PC/Mac (iOS doesn’t work) to record your question below and send it to me to be included in a future episode.

Tips for asking a question for the podcast:

  • Introduce yourself at the start (eg: Hi, I’m Aaron from Australia …)
  • Try to record in a quiet environment to avoid background noise
  • You have up to 90 seconds to record, so take your time providing any details you want

If you want to send me a question in text instead of voice, you can send it here.

Useful Resources

Here are some helpful guides to help you improve the quality of your practice sessions:

Podcast Episode 4 Transcript

Hi, I’m Aaron from guitargearfinder.com and this is episode 4 of the Bite-Size Guitar podcast.

In this episode, let’s look at how you practice guitar. There are a lot of videos and articles on what to practice such as scales, chords, and techniques, but how you practice is just as important to get right.

When you take the right mindset with your practice, you’ll improve. With the wrong mindset, you’ll gradually stop improving and get stuck in a rut. Then you’ll need to go back and listen to episode 1 of this podcast to dig yourself out of it.

So this episode will help you avoid ruts or plateaus in the future by making sure you think about practice in the right way.

You’ll learn three important things in this episode:

  1. The important difference between mindless and deliberate practice
  2. The three signs that you’re mindlessly practicing and how it hurts your progress
  3. How to switch to a more deliberate practice routine and what it can do for you

So let’s start by looking at what is mindless and deliberate practice.

Mindless vs Deliberate Practice

You can probably guess the main difference between mindless and deliberate practice. If you’re mindlessly practicing, you’re not really focusing very hard, you’re going through the motions and generally pretty laid back.

When you deliberately practice, you’re intensely focused on what you’re playing and paying very close attention to fixing any imperfections or mistakes in your playing.

An obvious and extreme example of mindless practice is a guitarist lazily strumming a guitar while watching a movie. If that person were to tell you he practices two hours a day, what would you think? Do you think those two hours really count for anything? Is he really going to get better this way?

It should be pretty clear why those two hours aren’t going to do much for his playing. Half-paying attention to what he’s playing while watching a movie isn’t practicing. It’s completely mindless and he won’t gain anything from it.

There’s nothing wrong with lazily playing guitar for fun or as a way to relax, but it shouldn’t be thought of as practice, because mindless playing won’t help him improve.

Now, that’s an extreme example, but it paints a clear picture of what you want to avoid if you want to get better on guitar.

The first thing I’ll say about mindless or deliberate practice is that a lot of guitarists think they always deliberately practice, but they often dip into mindless practice.

Most people will swing back and forth between mindless and deliberate practice during a practice session. Some guitarists spend most of their time with mindless practice without realizing it.

So my goal with this episode is to help you catch yourself whenever you dip into mindless practice, so you don’t waste your time.

The key difference between mindless and deliberate practice is how much focus you’re putting in and what you’re focusing on.

It might seem obvious that you should focus on what you’re practicing, but research by neuroscientists shows that it’s crucial for your development.

Focus is a key ingredient you need for your brain to form new connections and get better at something.

The more intensely you focus on something, the stronger those connections become, and the more likely you’ll learn from your practice.

The Problem With Mindless Practice

The problem is that you may not notice that while you’re practicing, your focus has dipped and you’ve slipped into a mindless state. You might think you’re focusing intensely on what you’re practicing, but our brains have ways of tricking us into relaxing our focus.

You might feel really good at the end of your practice session, even if most of that time was spent in mindless practice. I often struggle to help my students realize they’re mindlessly practicing because nobody ever thinks they’re being mindless.

I see this the most with intermediate and advanced students. Mindless practice is really common with intermediate and advanced guitarists because their higher abilities make it really easy to relax their focus, while still playing without mistakes or issues.

In other words, they’re so good they can play guitar in their sleep, so part of their mind does go to sleep.

The big problem with mindless practice is that it’s a silent killer. It tricks you into thinking you’re practicing when you’re really just running on autopilot.

This leads to slower progress and you can quickly get stuck in a rut.

So let’s look at some clear signs to watch out for that let you know if you’ve dipped into mindless practice.

3 Signs of Mindless Practice

The first sign is that you’re repeating the same things over and over from session to session.

Now, repetition is a crucial part of learning something, but it’s also really tricky to do properly. If you feel that you’re playing the same things over and over and not getting better at them, that’s a sign of mindless practice.

As I’ve explained in earlier episodes, it’s important to mix up your routine to keep things fresh. If you stick to repeating the same scale runs, licks, or techniques every time you sit down to practice, you’ll start slipping into mindless practice.

The second sign that you’re in mindless practice is when you go into autopilot.

Do you plan out what you’re going to work on before you start practicing? Or do you sit down and go through the same routine every time?

It’s okay to start each practice session with the same warm-up exercises, but if you’re running through them on autopilot, you won’t get much out of it.

It’s natural for our brains to try and put us on autopilot whenever it can. When we start to notice we’re getting better at a technique, scale run, or lick, our subconscious mind will want to pull us into mindless practice so we don’t need to work as hard.

You need to fight against this urge to just cruise along or else you’ll be sucked into mindless practice.

You’ll sometimes hear advanced guitarists say that you don’t need to practice, you just need to play. Those guitarists are running on autopilot and they mindlessly practice.

In the past, they would have had to put in deliberate practice to improve, but gradually over time, they’ve slipped into mindless practice without realizing it.

They might be really accomplished guitarists right now thanks to the deliberate practice they put in in the past, but they’re not going to get better.

That’s fine if they’re happy with their current skill level, but if you want to improve, “just playing” doesn’t work.

The key point to remember is to watch out for a feeling that you’re on autopilot. If you ever feel like you’re just cruising along or going through the motions, it means you’ve slipped into mindless practice.

The third sign to watch out for is if what you’re practicing feels easy.
Deliberate practice is hard. It takes a lot of mental effort to intensely focus on something while practicing. Focus is like a muscle, it gradually tired out as you flex it.

If you try to intensely focus on something, you’ll quickly learn how hard it is to keep that focus on point. Your mind will start throwing distractions at you or you’ll quickly lose interest and want to move on to something else.

Deliberate practice is hard to keep up, so keep this in mind when you practice.

If you’ve been practicing guitar for an hour and you still feel full of energy, you’ve probably spent much of that time in mindless practice. Pretty much nobody is able to intensely focus for an entire hour without needing breaks.

If your practice doesn’t feel challenging, or you don’t feel yourself burning through energy as you practice, it’s a sign of mindless practice.

So watch out for any time you’re practicing if what you’re playing feels easy. That’s a sign that you’ve slipped into mindless practice.

Keep your practice sessions short and keep your focus up. Twenty minutes of deliberate practice is far better than two hours of mindless practice.

How to Get Started With Deliberate Practice

So hopefully by now, you understand the basics of mindless vs deliberate practice. You know what to watch out for to make sure you don’t dip into mindless practice. Now let’s look at what to do to get started with deliberate practice.

The first thing to do is to review your practice routine. Look at all of the things you normally practice and how challenging they feel to you right now.

If something feels easy enough you can play in your sleep, remove it from your routine and replace it with something challenging.

If you’ve been practicing the same scale runs for the last few weeks, temporarily replace them with different scale runs. The change will keep things fresh while still working the same skills.

If you normally start your practice session by warming up with some basic finger exercises, try adding a metronome to force yourself to focus on your playing in a different way. Set the metronome at a tempo that forces you to focus.

Go through everything in your practice routine like this to make sure you’re working on things that really will challenge you.

The next thing to do is to separate time for serious practice and time to just enjoy your guitar. Hopefully, I’ve made it clear that mindless practice doesn’t help you improve.

But you don’t need to be pushing yourself every time you play guitar. You also want to enjoy it.

Imagine a professional basketballer. He will regularly need to go through serious training drills and practice games to sharpen his skills. But he’ll also want time to just wants to muck around and take things less seriously.

He’ll shoot some hoops with some friends and just enjoy playing the game. The serious practice helps him stay sharp and improve his skills, while the times he’s relaxed and just enjoying the game helps keep him sane.

Think of your guitar playing in a similar way. If you want to get better, you need to have times where you’re focused on practicing. But there’s nothing wrong with also having times when you just throw on a backing track and enjoy your guitar.

The key point to remember is to keep things separate. Have focused practice sessions, then have times when you just enjoy playing your guitar. While it’s possible to mix these two things together in one session, you run into fewer problems if you keep them separate.

Try having a 15 minute focused practice session, take a 5-minute break, then come back to your guitar and just mindlessly enjoy playing it.

If you give this a go, you’ll understand what I’m talking about and why it’s important to keep things separate.

The last tip I have for now on how to get started with deliberate practice is to know your limits. If you start noticing your focus wander after 10 minutes of intense practice, don’t try to keep going. Take a break and come back later.

You get the best results when you’re in deliberate practice, so if you figure out that you can only stay in deliberate practice for 5 or 10 minutes at a time, that’s fine.

Find out what your limit is and work within that limit.

To put all of this into practice, this week I suggest taking a close look at your practice habits. The next time you sit down to play guitar, keep checking with yourself whether you think you’re in deliberate or mindless practice.

As I explained earlier, you don’t always need to be deliberately practicing, but deliberate practice is the only way to get better. It’s okay to have times when you just sit and play, but don’t be tricked into thinking that time counts as deliberate practice.

Take a close look at what you’ve been working on, make sure it’s still challenging enough for you, and replace anything that feels too easy with more challenging materials.

Try to find the sweet spot of things that are challenging enough that force you to stay focused, but not so challenging that it feels frustratingly hard.

Have a read through the guides listed earlier on this page for more detailed advice on planning your practice routine.

Ask Me a Question

Something extra I want to do in this podcast is to start answering questions from listeners.

If there’s something you’ve been struggling to figure out, something you’re having trouble with, or want some advice about guitar in general, this is a chance for me to answer your questions in a future episode.

I’ve set up a tool at the top of this page that lets you record a message and send it to me. You can use this to record yourself asking me any question about guitar, and I can feature you in a future episode where I answer your question.

I’ll be looking forward to hearing your questions. I hope you’ve found this episode useful and I’ll talk to you next time.


Check out more podcast episodes here.