Focus and intensity are key components to staying alert while practicing so you can meet your musical goals. Though many musicians want to practice for hours on end, it’s nearly impossible to remain focused for such a long amount of time.

According to Dianne Dukette and David Cornish in their 2009 book The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team, most teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time. They can, however, choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing.

For musicians trying to learn new skills or master a particularly difficult section of a song, I think that 20 minutes actually seems a bit too long. Try no more than 5 to 10 minutes at a time. Even 1 to 2 minutes can be useful if you really need to zero in on something specific.

To keep your level of intensity high while you’re playing your instrument, try these 6 steps.

Have an ending time for your practice session. Whether it’s 10 minutes or 2 hours, make sure you know how much time you’ll have. You’ll get a lot more done and be more focused if your practice time isn’t open-ended.

Decide on 3 main goals for your music today. This could be 3 sections of one song. Or, a scale, an exercise, and 1 section of your song. Do NOT start playing until you know what you’re trying to accomplish.

Write down those goals you just decided on. Seeing these details in print makes it seem more real. Use your Practice Planner, a piece of paper, your smartphone, your calendar, or whatever else you’ve got. Just be sure to write down today’s goals.

After you’ve warmed up, start with the goal that you most want to avoid or that scares you a bit. Tell yourself that you WILL accomplish this goal right now. Tell yourself that this goal is important to you, that you’re up to the challenge, and that this is great use of your time.

Put on a timer. Give yourself a specific amount of time to accomplish the first goal. Set the timer, and turn it so you cannot see it while you’re practicing.

Remember, for today you may not be able to play that music the way you hear it in your dreams. But, you can definitely work out the technical details and play it accurately at a very slow tempo. This can be accomplished much more quickly than you imagine, and having the timer on will push you to intense levels of focus and to get the job done.

Using a timer allows you to forget about the clock. Without a timer on, many musicians are tempted to look up at the clock to see how long they’ve been working on something. This gets you out of your focused zone. Forget all about time and intensely focus on the matter at hand. When the timer goes off, you’re done with this item for today.

Each time you complete an item on your goal list, write down what you accomplished, your metronome setting for today, and what still needs improvement. Tomorrow, seeing these notes will get you focused immediately.

Try these 6 steps right now. Even if you’re not going to practice immediately, schedule your next practice session (with a specific start time and end time) and write down what the goals for that practice session will be.

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