How to stay focused & motivated over time


When I was building the majority of my skills I used the insight in this article every single day. I didn’t know how effective it really was at the time but I certainly do now. I specifically remember using it when I was building my alternate picking skills. Alternate picking mastery is one of those projects that can take a couple of years to complete. Without the simple strategy I am going to give you in this article, I would not have been able to sustain my enthusiasm long enough to win through.

Everyone has run into this obstacle: You get excited about a skill you want and start practicing it vigorously, but then as you work on your new skill it becomes increasingly obvious to you that your new exciting project is a big one: It’s going to take a long time and a lot of practicing to get what you want. At this point your excitement starts to wither away.

Excitement leads to unrealistic expectations which eventually leads to frustration


I still stumble on this obstacle even after over 30 years of practicing experience, so don’t blame yourself, it’s built into your brain to make any challenge smaller than it really is. Certain emotions simply makes your brain more likely to have unrealistic expectations. Any emotion is really just the body’s way of preparing you for what you are about to do. The hormones of excitement and passion makes you very positive about what you want and also about the means of getting it so that you will launch and get started.

The not so great thing about being overly positive is that you increase the likelihood that you will be disappointed when you realize the truth about getting what you want. And, if you go through this process of being really excited and really disappointed enough times, your brain will eventually refuse to get really excited about anything out of the fear of getting disappointed!


But this is where you come in. You need to upgrade your brain in order to fix this issue and be able to charge at any challenge that comes your way. Because the reality is that you can handle any challenge, learn any technique, skill and absorb any amount of information you want. There are no limits. And when your brain tries to calculate the distance to the target you are aiming at, it makes a huge mistake of assuming that your development follows a straight line. It doesn’t. Progress is slowest in the beginning and then its speed increases exponentially.

There can be no passion, and by consequence no love, where there is not imagination.
William Godwin

Our core challenge is this: Big exciting results inspire lots of passion and action, but takes more time to realize which, in turn, decreases passion and action. People with big ambitious plans often end up impatient, frustrated and unmotivated. People with small unambitious plans never get motivated in the first place. This is the core of the motivational paradox: you can’t get motivated by something small and achievable and you can’t sustain your motivation for something big and long-term.


The most natural conclusion to this problem would be to find a working middle ground: Picking something to practice that isn’t too big or too small, just perfect in size to make you motivated and easily achievable to stay out of impatience. This is the advice we usually give each other when impatience kicks in “Pick something easier, get there faster” but this seldom works long-term since, as we decrease the size of the result we are striving for we are also decreasing our excitement about it. So we end up navigating in the world of mediocrity, not too high, not too low, and not too terribly excited about anything.

What you need in order to master your instrument is tons of excitement and passion. So we can’t afford to use any strategy that lowers those two emotions. But what if you could do what appears to be impossible?: Reduce the size and time needed to get what you want while increasing passion and enthusiasm. Now you have more power, more energy and you practice harder with more focus while attacking smaller, faster and more achievable goals. This is what you want: To be as motivated and excited as you would be when aiming for a huge amazing goal, but to have the actual goal in front of you be totally achievable in a short period of time.

When this is your path, you constantly get what you want. Your goals are small and achievable but you are super passionate about each one of them. Practicing becomes a string of exciting victories constantly affirming that you really can become as fantastic a guitar player as you want.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.
The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus”
Alexander Graham Bell

So now we have two simple steps that we can use to upgrade our trusted biological CPU:

Step one:

The first part of our strategy is to create a small achievable target to aim at. Instead of aiming at total alternate picking mastery, you pick a “sub-skill” that will lead you to that greater goal. If you want to master all modes of the diatonic scale you might want to pick just one mode in just a couple of positions on the neck and really take that first part to the extreme (As you always do when your focus is mastery)

Now you are focused on a smaller, much less exciting result than “mastering all modes across the fretboard” but this is where the next step comes in:

Step two:

Let me explain: When you get really excited about learning something your brain just went through a split second analysis of the pleasure involved in learning what it is you want to learn. In other words, your brain quickly figures out the positive consequences of learning that new thing, but it does this faster than the speed of perception and without us giving it much attention.

Because this analysis is so fast it doesn’t touch on a fraction of the potential positive and pleasurable consequences but only takes the most obvious into consideration.

An example: Let’s say you suddenly feel a strong urge to learn sweep picking. You saw something, heard something or had a thought in your head that inspired you. Now we know what just happened: Your brain performed a split second analysis of the positive consequences of learning sweep picking and the positive emotions of enthusiasm and passion emerge as a result of that analysis. That’s why it “inspired you.” But if clarifying 1% of the possible positive consequences makes you excited, just imagine what the other 99% will do for you.

The two steps boosts your brain and makes it ultra focused on an achievable result


Once you have downsized your goal from “Mastering all modes across the neck” to “Mastering the Aeolian mode absolutely and totally completely in two positions” you are ready to amp up your emotions. You do this by creating a conscious analysis of the rewards you get when you achieve this smaller goal. You ask your self the following:

“How great is it going to be when I master this?”

The cool thing is that your brain has to answer that question. The second it hears you asking the question, it starts searching your database for answers. If I ask you “What’s the color of your hair” your brain will start searching for it right away. Right?… It’s involuntary. So all you really have to do is ask the question often enough for your brain to constantly give you new answer and expand you excitement and passion.


Another question could be: “How would it feel to solo using my new skills in just this area of the neck?” and then really see if you can imagine how it would feel to have that level of control. It’s important that you don’t stop at the logical analytical level but that you really try to imagine how great it would feel. If a little smile appears on your face as you imagine it you know you’ve got it right.

What really happens when you do this? Well, the time versus reward ratio changes. When you started out you had a huge result in front of you which generated a great deal of excitement and passion. Now, you have a smaller much more achievable goal in front of you which is not so likely to motivate you. But as you get clear on the actual and very real reward of mastering it, passion and excitement grows – and you can turn it up almost as high as you want.


In order to increase your excitement you can use different questions that trigger different parts of your brain. You can use different positive emotions and ask:

  • How proud would I feel if I mastered just this little thing?
  • How excited would I be about learning even more?
  • How great would it feel to use this skill when I practice with the band?
  • How would my band react if I mastered this perfectly and how would that feel?
  • How certain would I feel about mastering other skills?
  • What would it do to my confidence as a guitar player?
  • How much easier is it going to be to master the rest of this mode?
  • How much fun will I have using my new skill?
  • What would mastering this skill say about my future as a guitar player?

As you already know from reading my articles on mastery, mastering a little is the key to mastering a lot. The all-pervasive and constant focus on mastery means that you will move much faster towards your ultimate goal as a guitar player. It is the key to developing incredible skills as a musician. So this is not a way of hyping yourself up about learning a little insignificant part of the whole, it is the fastest and most effective way to get to your ultimate skill level!

You need to constantly remind yourself of doing this until it’s automatic. Put up post-it notes everywhere and make sure you can’t forget to do this several times a day. You don’t need to bring a huge list of questions with you everywhere, all you need to do is to ask yourself how great it will be when you master this one thing. I used to do that when ever there was an empty space in my stream of thoughts. “How great will it be when I master this?” and then I would imagine myself using this new skill and I would imagine how great it would feel. Just this tiny four note lick at mastery level. Over and over and over again. No wonder I was constantly out of my mind with excitement about practicing…


Let us convert all these words into a quick formula you can use right now. Here are the simple steps:

1. Decrease the size of your goal

  • Go from “Mastering alternate picking” to “Total mastery of triplets on just one string”
  • Go from “Mastering the major scale across the neck” to “Mastering two positions at an insane level”

2. Get real about the actual rewards of mastery

  • Ask yourself what mastering a part of the whole will really mean to you
  • Keep reminding yourself of this on a continuing basis

As with everything the actual improvements you get in your playing from reading this article is completely dependent on the actions you take right now. Will you make sure that you can’t forget to do this every day – right now? Will you take a look at what you are practicing now, how you feel about it and whether it would benefit you to use the above steps – right now? Will you set up a reminder so you won’t forget to read this article again one week from now? And then the next week and the next? Will you take actions to ensure that the time you just spent reading this article turns into actual improvements in your playing and development as a musician – right now?

“All speech is vain and empty unless it be accompanied by action”

The five percent of people who take action right away, now, in this instant,  are the ones who will eventually build extraordinary skills. The other ninety-five percent will talk about it, read about it, have a good time dreaming about it, but not change their playing in any real way. Be part of the five percent. It’s easy. You just have to actually DO something and right NOW.

How to stay focused & motivated over time

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