Goals of all sizes are worth setting when it comes to music. I just got a text message from a teenage student of mine who set a goal in October to write ten new songs by January 1, letting me know that she had completed the task. Some students are working on even bigger goals: college admissions, recording an album, and so on. We prepare for these lofty achievements by breaking the goals down into tiny pieces. If you are having trouble making something happen, try working it on a microscopic level.

Perhaps you are learning a new piece of music. Your ultimate target might be "be able to play this piece of music well from start to finish."

Too many of us attempt to do this without having prepared for it. We mess up and go back to the beginning, mess up and go back to the beginning. By doing this, you are programming your fingers to fail you.

A different approach
This procedure works best when you are playing from a printed score, but it can be adapted to by-ear styles as well.

The micro-goal: play the last chord. Or even one note of a chord - if  you can't play the chord all at once, your micro-goal becomes, "play the chord correctly." Let the entire world be just one note at a time until you've got it.

Now play the second-to-last note, or chord. Put them together, in time. Go as slowly as you need to go, but do play the notes in rhythm - use a metronome if necessary. Your micro-goal is "play from the second to last note to the last, comfortably and cleanly, in time."

Once you have accomplished this goal, add another note, and so on.

Most people can expect their focus to start to waver after fifteen to thirty minutes. You can tell when you are getting tired because you start to make weird mistakes you haven't made before. This means it's time to take a break, or move on to another type of musical activity. Perhaps you'll discover another goal, such as playing a piece up to speed, memorizing a piece, or improvising a song.

My role as a teacher is often to help students identify micro-goals within each of their musical activities. The more you can do this on your own, the more successful your practice will be - and ultimately, your larger goals will reflect this stronger foundation.