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Monotasking Music: Practicing Music In a World of Distractions

Late last month, the New York Times ran a piece on an area of psychology and behavior that has been gaining more steam in recent years called monotasking. Monotasking is the act of doing a singular activity without distraction. Seems straight forward enough, right? How hard is it to do just one activity at a time.

Apparently, very challenging.

The Times article begins by challenging the reader to read this piece without distraction. That means turning off the TV, turning off music, getting rid of other ambient sounds that you may have on but don’t ever really notice and focus on just reading the article. I personally found this very challenging – as the article’s writer was probably expecting – but I got through it.

Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, Netflix, laptop on with phone in hand all going at the same time makes for a very distracting environment and one that many (including myself) are routinely engaged in. The multi-screen generation is certainly upon us for better or worse.

Monotasksing is an acquired skill in the digital age. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal argues that monotasking “is something that needs to be practiced”. Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ ‘Note to Self’ podcast observed that when humans have to switch tasks it uses up a little bit of finite attention and energy. According to a University of California Irvine study , these distractions can occur upwards of 400 times a day. Ever feel drained at the end of a day? There’s good chance you’ve been distracted to death.

In the digital age, where distractions are the new norm and doing more than one thing at the same time is encouraged, praised and a very sought after skill (see Linkedin) despite countless studies piling up year after year refuting the effectiveness of multitasking and how splitting your attention 20 percent across 5 activities is hand-over-fist less productive than devoting 100 percent of your attention to a single task.

Music and learning the skill of playing music and playing bass are no different. This article is extremely relevant to you, the bass player and musician who works, tends to a loved one and/or family and is forced to multitask or deal with some kind of routine distractions.

Distractions and Music: Focusing Your Practice Time On Just Playing

I’ve published a number of pieces on practice before (Developing Good Practice Habits, Improve Your Practice Routine For Bass With This Book , How to Develop Strong, Lasting Practice Habits, Practice Routine: Quality Over Quantity ) and each time I’ve stressed that the quality of your practice will ultimately dictate how effectively you learn the skill. Practice is entirely what you put in is what you get out of it.

Practicing distraction free is a difficult training exercise. It means wholly immersing yourself in what you’re working on for even a duration of time as short as 20 minutes. We’re not used to turning off our phones or even being separated from them for more than a few seconds, but phones are the biggest source of distraction that we face today.

I write this as someone who doesn’t know, you the reader’s, schedule or personal commitment to practicing music and bass guitar but the next time you go to practice, consider the following:

  1. Turning off your cell phone
  2. Turning off the television
  3. If you’ve got Pandora, Spotify or some other ambient music playing turn that off, too

And just play. Work on what you want to work on or if you’re not working on anything in particular just play and see what comes out when your focus is only on your instrument. You might be surprised by what comes out.