Diving into New Topics & Habits

Posted on November 16, 2020

In October I decided to write a new, short melody a day for 30 days to get more comfortable writing them. Those first 30 days are now over, and I’ve been reflecting a bit about how it’s benefited me and other ways I’ve used this approach for picking up new topics or habits. Disclaimer, I am not an expert in any topic nor am I psychologist or particularly familiar with how we create new habits, these are just self reflections that may be useful or applicable to others. If these aren’t helpful for you feel free to disregard anything you read here!

30 Days of Application

I have explicitly and implicitly used the approach of just doing something specific once a day for 30 days for a few years now. Typically I use it to build a habit, like sticking to practicing an instrument, commiting to working out, or getting the family back into the swing of walking the pups regularly.

Writing a melody a day isn’t a particularly useful habit, at least for non-musicians. It was helpful for feeling out how different scales and modes feel and sound like, learning how to read and write music with staff notation, and applying common music writing rules. This idea works for other topics, like learning a new programming language or paradigm. It won’t make an expert out of anyone, but can be a useful learning experience.

Getting Started

An easy way to get started is to set expectations, and prepare a simple foundation to remove obstacles to starting.

Setting Expectations

Expectations should be clearly set ahead of starting. Be reasonable about it: it’s easy to set expectations too high and set yourself up for failure.

  • How many days or weeks are you committing to this?
  • What should be done at the end of each day/task?
  • What exceptions are there to your expectations (for example, will you need a rest day?)

Move the goal posts if your initial expectations aren’t working for you. That’s not to say move the goal posts to make this trivial, but once you get started you’ll probably learn something new that affects how applicable your initial expectations are. Adjust them as needed.

Provide a Foundation

Make sure you have everything you need to get started on day 1. This could be work out clothes and routine, a book to follow for the time period, or a collection of online resources to refer to. Put a reminder on your phone or calendar to nudge you along if needed.

When new obstacles pop up make sure to clear them out rather than ignoring them. Typically these will be relatively small obstacles, for example, maybe you didn’t expect to need gloves for weight lifting. Spend some time to fix these small hurdles to ensure success. If you don’t have extra time out of your normal dedicated daily routine to solve the hurdle then solve it as your daily task. It’s more important to take the time to ensure you can finish your 30 days than to stick to it dogmatically.

If an obstacle comes that isn’t easily solvable you may need to examine your expectations. Is your background sufficient to accomplish your goals without struggling? You may need to reset your expectations to match where you are at today, find different resources that match your understanding more closely, or postpone your 30 day plan until your foundation is sufficient to start, and finish, successfully. There is nothing wrong with changing plans, especially if it means you can get more out of this. It would be much worse to waste 30 days and get little out of the process.

Goals and Rewards

Expectations are guide rails to the process and goals are an optional carrot to encourage finishing. Goals should also be clear and concrete. An initial goal may be to be “better at my instrument”, “lose weight”, or “understand functional programming”. These can be refined to “learn X songs”, “lose Y pounds”, and “write Z useful programs” respectively. Again, be realistic with these.

I personally don’t think these type of goals are a hard requirement to this process, but they can absolutely be encouraging. If you make goals like these make sure to expand on them if you finish them early.

Another carrot can be to set up a reward for yourself if you finish or complete your goals. I decided to buy myself a new-to-me guitar if I committed to 30 - 60 minutes of practice a day for 30 days on the starter guitar that I’ve had for years. This was an awesome way to get in the habit of daily practice and I’ve been sticking to it since that first day. Making the reward clear and concrete (again) kept my eyes on the prize for that entire month.

TL;DR and Final Thoughts

  • Applying yourself for 30 (or X) days can be a good learning experience or way to build a habit.
  • Set clear and concrete expectations.
  • Before starting give yourself a solid foundation by gathering any necessary resources, equipment, etc.
  • Optionally set clear and concrete final goals and rewards.

Bottom line, this should be a rewarding experience. If you miss a day don’t beat yourself up about it. Consider making it up on another day or at the end of the 30 days or drop that day entirely, this is all for self-fulfillment after all. If you check out the first 30 daily melodies I wrote I missed two days - it’s really not a big deal. Finally, if you aren’t getting anything out of it after a week, consider changing expectations or even dropping this entirely. Again, this is for self-fulfillment and betterment, not to arbitrarily make yourself miserable. You can always come back to it or come up with something else to try for 30 days.