Tip: need to train your "auto-pilot"? | quantity > time!

Hi guys,


I was just re-listening the audio-book version of “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.
It made me to think about numerous students and people here on this wonderful Community.
Yes; you are often on my mind! :wink:

I found out about this book last year, I saw Justin recommend it as well in a newsletter and today I encountered it again in a professional training. Reason enough to give it another go. While the autor goes somewhat deep in some methods, a lot of value is there to be read or listened to as free podcast on Spotify.

This particular piece made perfect sense in what I usually recommend to people when it comes to learning a new technique or lead part. I found out is is especially true when practicing timing and strongly time-related skills like finger-picking and strumming

The author explains how it is more important to do a certain activity a lot, rather than doing it a larger total amount of time, in order for it to become a habit.

I believe this is also true for developing muscle memory and something I often refer to as ‘your auto pilot’.

Cartoon by Steve Daugherty

I wanted to show this cartoon as "auto-pilot’ might sound as a negative thing, but in this case I emphasize it is about being able to delegate a task to your extra-self, your subconcious self so you have more (processor)time to yourself

Let’s start off with these 2 theories

My theory on the Auto-Pilot

Want to learn to fingerpick, change chords, keep rhythm AND sing?
That’s 4 things at once so you better start with one skill and train it enough, you can do it with your eyes clothes and automatically while speaking, watching a tv show etc.

This applies to a lot of things, like Keeping a rhythm strumming, fingerpicking a pattern, changing chords… The more you are on auto-pilot, the less resources of your brain-computer it will use and the more real-time resources you have left for other synchronous tasks.

I encounter people who have difficulty singing while they still struggle with rhythm or a picking/strumming pattern. That makes perfect sense as you need to develop enough skill first in order to build upon it. more info on that later.

I believe that doing this in as much sessions as possible is the key.
I rather have you practicing 5 minutes on a picking pattern every day than an hour on Sunday.

I also recommend that sleeping is helping here; each session followed by a quality night of sleep will solidify the neuron pattern, layer over layer. Like painting layers and layers of laquer on top of each other or smithing more and more layers of steel to on top of each other to create a strong sword.

Don’t get me wrong though, your 5th practice session of the day will probably add little to your fatigued brain.

The Layered Guitarist you say?

The authors theory on Quantity > Time

The autor explains that tests have shown that, to develop a durable habit, it is more important have a high quantity of and activity than to have a long total time of doing the activity.

See the analogy with my “auto-pilot-practice” theory?

Doing it a lot will help you do it automatically
The more you do it, the more automaticity, so the graph tells us.
At a certain moment in time, the automaticity is so high, the activity becomes a habit.
Apply that principle in your practice schedule. If you have an amount of hours to spend each week on guitar; try to spread it over as many days as you can. Even if that means shorter sessions.

Of course, grant yourself some time to warm up but you get the picture.

Oh by the way, In this book the author tells A LOT about how to evolve a good thing to a habit and how to eliminate bad habits. I’m not going to go deeper into that but if you combine some of those techniques, you will MISS LESS practice sessions.

The best tip in that regard is to “reset the room”; at the end of your sessions, you clean up and set up everything nicely so you can start practicing RIGHT AWAY next time.
Keep your guitar in sight and playable!

Layering the habits

Now, think again about the “wanting to learn 4 skills” and how I said “more info later”;
This is it.

Observe what the author shows in the following graph…

"The process of mastery requires that you progressively layer improvements on top of one another, each habit building
upon the last until a new level of performance has been reached
and a higher range of skills has been internalized."

Rhythm is your base layer

You need a solid plateau, a solid laquer, a durable sword to build your new habit on. Same goes for playing and singing, where RHYTHM IS THE BOTTOM LAYER.
Singing my friends, will be the op layer in most cases. The more you split up the layers in different small (“atomic”) habits for your autopilot to master, the more solid it will become.

Will you be able to bring lively, rhythmically vivid but solid songs AND solid a tighly tied and melodically pleasant melody in your first months of playing? Not very likely. Will you develop FASTER, when start practicing one layer at a time? YES!

Does that mean you can stop practicing that bottom layer as soon as it is on auto-pilot? NO!
BUT good tihng is that you will practice it anywhay when playing your songs you’re applying this to.

You have the feeling you heard this before?

Bien sur, It works a lot like my approach to building and learning songs as well…in layers rather than in sequence!

So, once again, a very good reason do build a repertoire in the core of your guitar journey
Aint that right @Richard_close2u :wink:
Oh yes, we are strong advocates for songs!


That’s a great write up and interpretation of Atomic Habits to guitar.

Totally agree what you’ve written.

It’s a great book for life in general. We are what we repeatedly do.


Thank you @LievenDV . As I read through this post, I started thinking, I do that, or in some places, I REALLY Should do that. Hopefully I can put this idea into practice. I suppose that I am like a few other students, when doing 5 minute practice sessions, I don’t feel they are doing anything as the improvement is slow and steady so you don’t notice it until suddenly you realise you can do it without thinking too much.


Those of us who don’t believe in the concept of free will live our whole lives on autopilot :wink:



This is spot on advice and absolutely represents my experience over the last two-and-a-bit years.

I made myself a ‘pick up the guitar every day’ rule, with no minimum time. I have picked that guitar up, sometimes for just a few minutes, for 774 days out of the last 775 days. That one day missed was completely unavoidable. I have just bought a travel guitar as I am going away for four nights and flying and I don’t want to break my ‘run’.

I have also noticed the ‘brain overload’ - it’s really hard to add a new skill on top of the previous one. Learning a scale and think you know it? Try adding alternate picking, it’ll fall apart at first. Try adding a metronome - terrible at first.

I realised it has taken me for ever to learn ‘Happy Birthday’ finger style as my brain struggled to automatically read tabs, which were a new concept when I started, as was the actual fingering method of picking two strings at once. How could something apparently so simple be so hard? I eventually gave up for a while but went back to it a few months ago and practiced it for 5 minutes every day and guess what, I can read tabs much more easily now and now I can play Happy Birthday, finger style by heart (don’t ask me to sing it at the same time yet though :wink:).


These concepts are perfect for applying to approaches to practice and I have definitely come to see the value in breaking “things” down into smaller and smaller parts in order to get them right. If I am struggling with singing cadence over a progression (i,e 2 chord changes and 25 words between them) I will put that section on Loop (super slow if necessary) and just repeat it until it becomes “automatic”. THis is a fast way fo getting to “competence” as long as you are practicing perfectly you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

As a language teacher I am constantly telling my students that they have to work on all four skills (readging, writing, listening and speaking) and that though they are seperate, they are ALL mutually reinforcing. . .same goes with the “language” of music. . . skills must be attacked sperately but they’re all mutually reinforcing in the end. . . great post LievenDV!!


Excellent insight. Thanks for sharing. Will incorporate into my practice time. Starting with finger picking!

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Great post, well done @LievenDV thank you!

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Yes this all goes in line with my thought process that you basically have to know how to play guitar to learn guitar. Which, we as beginners, don’t. We don’t have the fundamentals established in which we can build anything. It’s why it’s so frustrating. And I think 90% of other players have completely forgotten what it was like to not have those fundamentals, and can’t really grasp why we are struggling so much with the what we find so incredibly difficult. They just say the same things to beginners over and over.

Now what’s interesting though are those mantras: “practice, practice practice”… “it takes time”…“play songs, play songs, play songs”… Yes they achieve the outcome of what the repetition provides, but without explanations like this and, alongside with the piece of info that Justin pointed out how mistakes are vital - that the brain needs mistakes to separate between repetitive motions and solidify what the correct ones were - I don’t know if he still stands by that thought, but it definitely went along with my years of piano where I would practice a section, go to sleep knowing I’d have forgotten it, yet wake up the next day having it in muscle memory. So I know the practice practice practice thing works. It’s just incredibly frustrating to not have the fundamentals to use for practice.

My last thought, is about a point @JKahn made to me that’s a great perspective (it’s perspective that we’re missing as beginners) is to remember that like a child learning to read, or play soccer, I’m not going to be reading novels or playing pro soccer for years. I’m going to be sounding out words and kicking the ball terribly for a long while. That, combined with Justin’s point that mistakes are ok/actually good, and the reminder from piano that my repetitive motions do stick after a few good practices, I’m just trying to plug away every day, a little at a time, and it will get better. It’s just getting those fundamentals of strumming, AND chords, AND timing all established, so I CAN get better, it’s mentally painful to for it to take so long, that’s all.


A good reason the remind ourselves to enjoy the process. I, so far anyway, am enjoying the 5 or so minutes practicing tremolo at 40 bpm.
My family? Not so much.

I just came across this fantastic little essay.

I’ve been playing guitar for about a year now, and more than anything I want to play fingerstyle. Of course, eventually I want to do all of the four things that LievenDV mentions: “… fingerpick, change chords, keep rhythm AND sing…”

And of course those are four different DIFFICULT things to do competently:

  1. Fingerpick
  2. Change chords
  3. Keep rhythm
  4. Sing

It is impossible for me now to channel my brain into four parallel areas of concentration SIMULTANEOUSLY.

For now, I’ve mostly jettisoned the idea of singing and have tried to concentrate on the first three things. Sometimes I focus exclusively on figerpicking patterns—the specific patterns that Justin gives in Folk Fingerstyle Patterns Part One and Two is really helpful…

Other times I focus on chord changes, and other times on rhythm. Breaking things up into five minute mini-sessions where I use a countdown timer on phone (or on metronome) definitely helps.

I think that the closest I’ve gotten to nailing a song is Fast Car. I started with this fantastic lesson by Justin. It has probably taken six months of practicing of working on it five minutes or so a day to get to the point where I’m at now—where I can put Tracy Chapman’s song on the stereo and play along with it to speed.

There are occasions where I’m completely locked into the song for five blissful minutes of pure joy. (These “occasions” have only taken place over the last few weeks, so after six months of practice, it is fun to see it kind of come together).

One more observation: when I am having that transcendental experience of being completely locked into the song, I seldom can follow the words. There are moments where I can lip synch—like for some reason when Tracy sings “so I quit school and that’s what I did” (she’s talking about caring for her alcoholic father), I’m right there.

But most of the time when I’m locked in, I cannot even follow what Tracy is saying. The weird thing is that I KNOW THE WORDS to this song. I know the song. It seems though (for now, at least) that when I’m locked in, all I can hear//pay attention to is the rhythm, the fingerpicking, and the chord changes…

Anyway, sorry for my long meandering. Thanks again LievenDV for the fantastic post and to all for the great comments.


This is an incredible post. Fantastic guidance!

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