Goals, Habits & Apps: Reaching Your Musical Aspirations With The Aid Of Technology

Most composers have goals relating to music. Whether you want to improve your proficiency at an instrument, develop your understanding of music theory or learn new technical skills, it takes hard work to reach these goals.

The main challenge we tend to face is consistency. These things don’t happen overnight, but rather require diligent work done consistently over an extended period of time. So while we may initially be excited to pursue our new goal, over time we get distracted. And those distractions take various shapes and forms. Often times we end up wasting time on social media or Netflix. However, many times we get distracted by good and useful things as well, such as urgent deadlines on projects we’re working on. 

This is something Stephen R. Covey touches upon in his seminal work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  He describes a Time Management Matrix consisting of 4 quadrants. Without going too much into the specifics, Quadrant 1 consists of matters that are urgent AND important. These are the sort of things that we’ll end up doing in any case, without a lot of conscious effort due to their pressing nature. Quadrant 2, however, which includes important, but NOT urgent activities is one that gets often neglected. Our goals to get better at piano or understand synthesis more deeply, fall into this category. They’re very important if we want to improve at our craft and make better music, but at the same time they lack the urgency of a quickly approaching deadline.

What all this means is that unless we make a conscious effort to work on these Quadrant 2 activities, they’ll never get done. The only way we are going to toil away on our goal to learn music theory is by consciously taking action and finding the time to do so. Otherwise, we’ll just end up drowning in the more urgent and pressing matters that want our attention. 

Habit Tracking

A tool that I’ve found helpful in focusing on these Quadrant 2 activities are habit tracking apps. These mobile apps essentially allow you to set goals for certain habits you want to develop in your life. For example, you might want to practice playing the piano three times a week or study music theory every Monday and Wednesday. The options are endless and that’s the idea behind these apps. You get to tailor them to your needs.

There are multiple ways in which these apps can be helpful in reaching your goals:

  • ACCOUNTABILITY IN DATA: Every time you complete an activity you mark it in the app. Every time you fail to complete an activity, that goes in there as well. This means that over time you’re going to gather hard cold data about how much work you’re really putting in. It’s easy to tell yourself “I’m working pretty hard”, but numbers don’t lie.
  • STREAKS AND STATS: Most of these apps provide interesting statistics based on the collected data, such as your longest streak of completions and your all-time completion percentage. These can be very motivating, especially in the case of wanting to keep a streak going just a bit longer. Some apps just provide the stats, while others reward you with badges or trophies once you reach certain milestones.
  • REMEMBER: On a very basic level, these apps help you remember what you should be working on. If you have a spare moment during the day, you can just open up the app and see a list of activities that should still be completed during the day or the current week. Most apps also allow you to set reminders for your activities.
  • MEASURE: It’s often said that good goals are concrete and measurable. Habit tracking apps can help make the goal in your head just that.

So Which App Should I Go For?

From visually pleasing options such as Today, to gamified RPG-style habit trackers like Habitica, there’s bound to be something for everyone. That’s why the best way to go about is to download a couple (most of them have a free version available) and see what caters to your specific needs most effectively. 

My personal choice of app is called Habit List. It has a nice, clean interface and provides a good amount of statistics, making the process of tracking worthwhile. However, the biggest thing that sets it apart for me compared to other habit trackers is the flexibility when setting goals. You can schedule your activities to be on specific days of the week, at certain intervals (e.g every 3 days or every 2 weeks) or on non-specific days (e.g 5 times a week). Most other apps I tried didn’t offer as much flexibility.  

Another great feature in Habit List that other apps tend to lack, is the option to skip an activity. Most habit trackers only provide the option to successfully complete an activity or to “miss” it, essentially meaning that you failed to complete it. Habit List provides “skip” as a third option. This is useful for example when you’re on vacation and have decided to take a break for a week. With other apps your completion streak would break and stats would go down, but with Habit List you can mark it as skipped and retain your streaks. This of course requires you to be honest with yourself as to whether or not your reason for skipping is genuinely justified, but if you happen to hurt your foot and can’t jog anymore for example, its nice to be able to reflect it in the app accurately, rather than it showing up as a streak of “misses”.

Making The Most Out Of Your App

I’ve been using habit tracking apps to help me work on music theory. What I’ve learned is that in addition to just using an app, it’s important to use it effectively. Here are a two additional tips that will help you make the most out of these useful tools and actually reach your goals:

  • SET REALISTIC, BUT CHALLENGING GOALS: Don’t tell yourself that you’re going to play the piano 2 hours a day, 7 days a week. You’re just setting yourself up for failure. Rather set a goal that is manageable and realistic, but at the same time challenging in the sense that you’re not letting yourself off the hook completely. It’s all about striking that balance.

  • REDUCE FRICTION: One of the things that helped me the most in working consistently on music theory was downloading the Tenuto app. This made theory practice as convenient and simple as picking up my iPhone from my pocket. The point is: the less obstacles there are in the way of completing your activities, the more likely you are to succeed in completing them. So be creative in figuring out ways to simplify the process and remove friction-inducing obstacles.

What are some apps or tools that you've found useful in working consistently towards your goals? Let me know in the comments below.