OK, so last time I waxed lyrical about the importance of committing oneself to a regular and structured practice session – and make no mistake, that is the best way to ensure progress on the instrument (any instrument). But we live in a hectic, chaotic 24/7 world where there's always something competing for our attention, and that can mean that a structured practice routine is simply impossible to adhere to. That in turn becomes a demotivational force, as the student feels himself slipping further and further behind schedule. Inevitably the temptation grows to simply jack the whole the thing in.
So, what's the alternative? Well, I always stress the idea of little and often in practice sessions. 10-15 minutes each day will prove a whole lot more valuable than trying to crank in a three-hour marathon at the weekend.
A lot of players get intimidated by the idea of having to get the guitar out, tune it, set up the amp and practice rig- when you're pushed for time, all this seems like something of a mountain to climb. So the answer is to have the guitar always there, always ready, always to hand. Don't pakc it away in it's case, keep it out on a stand in the living room, in the dining room. Don't worry about setting up a practice rig, just play acoustically (a neat trick is to press the headstock against a large piece of wooden furniture like a coffee table or book case – the extra mass of wood serves as a makeshift amplifier). Use the metronome in your head, or any of the excellent guitar apps available for your phone. Don't make playing the guitar an occasion you have to get ready for, make it something you do naturally.
What to practice? Well, you can make progress in just two or three minutes if you focus on the trouble spots. Rhythm and timing is always something that any guitar player can work on – a great (and simple) exercise is to simply play muted strings to pick up the rhythm and improve your sense of pulse. This translates to a much more solid foundation for anything else you want to play.
Let's also not forget simple mechanics – usually the co-ordination between fingers 3 and 4 is the weakest, so a simple finger pair exercise is a useful thing to warm up and practice a weak spot. Learning a song? Struggling with a specific chord change? Focus on just that change. Set yourself a stopwatch and hammer that one chord change until your fingers accept it and it's no longer a problem. Brief, focused bursts on problem areas can bring real results quickly.
Want to keep motivated? Go back and try old material that you used to struggle with. It's a great feeling tackling a song that's proved out of reach in the past and being able to grab it by the scruff of the neck.
So, even if you can't commit to a regular and scheduled practice routine, if trying to commit is causing you stress and sapping your enjoyment... then this is the alternative. Dive in, grab a couple of minutes of focused, “burst” practice when you can over the day, and you will find you make improvement. Don't let the guitar become another chore – let's face it, life throws us all plenty of them. Guitar is what we reward ourselves with when they're all done.