Do you struggle with keeping up regular practice?
I know exactly how you feel.
Do you beat yourself up about not practising regularly enough?
If you do you’re not alone.
Let’s face it, deep down we all know that the only reliable way to get better at drawing and painting is to practice regularly.
So why is it so hard to keep going? Are we really just naturally lazy and unmotivated?
You’re Not Lazy
I don’t think so. If you struggle with getting into a regular practice habit, you’re no different from the vast majority of people, including me. It’s not about will-power and forcing yourself to do it. That’s a great way to ensure that you don’t keep it up.
It’s about forming a habit.
The challenge for us is that deliberately forming habits is quite difficult.
We like to get into routines, we like repetition and we like to know where we are. Much of our day is already ruled by habits, but most of our routines and habits of thinking have been created without our conscious input. They’re not always positive.
When we try to get into a regular practice habit, we’re consciously trying to create a new, positive habit, and that’s a very different thing. And it can be difficult.
But finding it hard to do has nothing to do with laziness.
You Don’t Lack Motivation
You want to get better at drawing and painting, right? Then you’re motivated.
Maybe you think your not motivated enough. Perhaps if you were you wouldn’t have any trouble sitting down every day with your sketch pad and starting to draw.
Maybe you even begin to think that art might not be for you. Because if it was, you’d have no trouble practising. Sound familiar? Well, I’m here to officially let you know that you can stop beating yourself up.
You’re not lazy. You’re not unmotivated. Those are not your problems.
If we want to get into a regular drawing practice habit, to practice every day without fail, we just need to take a slightly different approach – a more positive and effective one that’s based on the way our brains actually work, not the way we wish they worked.
We can find that approach by understanding what habits are and how they are formed.
What Is a Habit?
Habits are represented in our brains by collections of neurons, which link together to create a pattern of thinking or behaviour that we fall into automatically. You can think of these collections or clusters as mental maps. They’re built gradually over time, and are strengthened by repetition.
Habits embed themselves into our daily routine when we make associations.
let’s say you always plop down on the sofa and switch the TV on when you get home from work. Over time, you come to associate switching on the TV with getting home from work so strongly that it happens without you thinking about it.
It’s a habit you might wish you could break, but struggle to do so, because over time you’ve built an association, one that’s so strong it’s almost impossible for you to disobey it. It’s become so deep-rooted that you literally have no choice in the matter – at least no conscious choice.
All habits have triggers. Your TV habit might be triggered by you arriving home from work. Or by finishing your dinner. Or putting the kids to bed. Something that you do every day, without fail, that’s immediately followed by picking up the remote.
Two powerful forces are at work here:
- Association. Neurons that fire together wire together. That’s association. When two sets of neurons fire together repeatedly – your ‘watching TV’ neuron set and your ‘finishing your dinner’ neuron set for example – links are formed between those two mental maps in your brain. These are not just metaphorical links. They are real, physical connections. When you try to break a habit it’s biology you’re fighting, not just psychology.
- Repetition. The more often we do something, the more it becomes hard-wired into our brains – literally. The more often a connection between two neurons fires, the more likely it is to fire again in the future.
These two things are the basis of all habits, good and bad. One reinforces the other. So if we want to create a positive new habit, the best thing to do is to use these two powerful forces, association and repetition, to help us do just that.
How To Create A Regular Practice Habit
OK, so we’ve decided that we want to get into a regular habit of drawing every day. How can we do that?
- Make it easier to repeat by starting small. This is really important. If you make your new habit hard at the beginning, you’ll run out of steam before you have a chance to get it established. When I first tried this, my habit was to open my sketch pad and pick up my pencil. That’s all. If I drew anything, that was a bonus (I always did).
- Use association to anchor your habit into your day. Decide carefully when you’re going to do your new regular practice habit. Choose a slice of uninterrupted time when you know no-one is going to disturb you. Early morning works really well. Now think about something you do every day, without fail, immediately before this bit of time. It might be putting the coffee on, it might be washing your face immediately after you get up. This act becomes the trigger for your habit, you do your new habit immediately after your trigger. With enough repetition you’ll build an association and begin to move naturally from your trigger to your habit without thinking.
- Take the time to feel good about it. Don’t forget this part. Every time you do your new habit, take a moment to congratulate yourself. Smile. Actually smile. It might sound silly, but this is a key part of getting the habit ingrained. When neural connections are accompanied by pleasure, they form much faster and more strongly. This is the essence of addiction, and why addiction is so hard to break. We want to become addicted to positive practice.
- Make it easier to repeat by preparing the ground. I’d recommend getting your materials and anything else you’ll need ready the night before. Get them ready now. Make it as easy as it can possibly be for you to do your new practice habit.
Sounds Great. Does It Work?
Yes. I didn’t make this stuff up. I’ve been doing this very thing lately and it really does work.
I came across this approach to habit creation at www.tinyhabits.com. You could do a lot worse than sign up for the 5 day habit course there, it’s free.
Here’s a couple of examples of tiny habits I started and where they’ve taken me:
- Regular exercise habit. I wanted to get back into exercising. At one time I used to ride my bike every morning before work, for just over an hour. Then I was moved to a different office with a much longer commute, and it became difficult to keep up. I fell out of the habit. To get going again, I decided on a trigger (brushing my teeth in the morning, one of the first things I do when I get up) and set myself the habit of riding round the block immediately afterwards.
Initially, the ride took only five minutes. It was easy. Very soon, I was into a regular habit and I started to slowly increase the time. After six weeks, I’m riding for twenty-five minutes every morning, without fail, and I can see and feel myself getting fitter.
At first, it seemed that there was no point to riding only for five minutes. And let’s face it, that wouldn’t get me fit. I was used to riding for over an hour, and anything less seemed like a waste of time. But starting very small, getting into the regular habit of riding every day, and then building on that is getting me fit, and I’ve found a level I can sustain – indefinitely.
- Regular writing habit. I wanted to write for this blog more regularly. So every morning, after putting the coffee on, I open up the latest piece of writing I’m working on (right now it’s this post). There’s no requirement for me to actually write anything. I have the computer booted up ready, and then as soon as the coffee is on I go straight to the computer and open the file.
In practice, I end up writing at least a little every morning now. I’ve built an association between putting the coffee on and sitting down to write that’s helped strengthen my writing habit.
This approach to habit forming really does work.
If you want an even stronger incentive, let people know what you’re doing. You’ll be much more likely to keep up your new regular practice habit if you make yourself accountable to someone. A friend perhaps, someone in your family. Tell them what you’re doing and let them know every day whether or not you’ve done it. You’ll be amazed what a difference that can make.
In fact, why not commit to it right here and now? I’ve set up a private forum for people who want to join me in getting a regular drawing practice habit started. It’s free, and a way to commit and get support from other people doing the same as you. You can join up at the end of this post.
You’re standing at a fork in the road, right now, whilst you’re reading this post. At this very moment, you have an opportunity to change your future.
You can carry on down your usual road, or you can take a small leap of faith and try a slightly different path.
You’ve got nothing to lose.
If you start your positive practice habit today, tomorrow you’ll be drawing better. Only a little, but better than you are today. Where will you be in a year’s time? Two years?
You get my point. I’m trying to persuade you to take a small, initial step: Do these two simple things and they will have more effect on your learning than all the art books or courses you could possibly buy:
- List your anchors. Make a quick list of small acts you do every day without fail. Get up. Dry yourself after a shower. Put the coffee on. The simpler the better.
- Choose one. Select one of those anchors and make it your habit trigger. Immediately after doing it, you will open your sketch pad and pick up a pencil; go to your easel and pick up a stick of charcoal; squeeze out some paint onto your palette; whatever form your regular practice habit will take. There is no requirement for you to do anything beyond that.
There, you’re done. Now you just need to remember to do it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Are You Ready To Change Your Life?
All right, ‘changing your life’ might sound a little dramatic. But if you get into a positive practice habit that you can sustain, you will have made an immediate change in your life, however small. And who knows where that might take you in a year or two.
Thanks for reading,
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