Less pressure, more joy

“Stop trying to win at your hobbies.”

— from The Practice of Groundedness by Brad Stulberg

I’ve been experimenting with productivity hacks for a long time, all the way back to my college years when the Franklin planner (remember those?) were a thing. These days, I wonder whether my productivity quest is doing more harm than good.

On the writing side, tracking word counts, page counts, writing speed, or time in the chair has never lasted longer than two months. On the music side, tracking practice time has lasted longer, but I sense it’s outlived its usefulness. It’s like the creative side of me constantly rebels against any kind of structure I impose on it. Plus there’s the question of whether to count certain things. Do I turn on my timer when I experiment with guitar pieces that aren’t assigned by my teacher? How about noodling on the couch and discovering new chords? Or when I practice my electric guitar instead of my classical one? What If I want to just pick up my guitar for ten minutes and try to play something from memory? Is that “practice” and do I have to stop and set the timer before I start?

When I knit, I don’t encounter these problems. I know there are people out there who track how many yards or grams of yarn they use up, set production goals, and beat themselves up when they miss them. I don’t do any of that, yet I finish plenty of projects without all that tracking because I enjoy the process. I tried to track my knitting for a few weeks and it sucked all the joy out of it, plus I ended up knitting less.

Similarly, I’ve somehow managed to eat a vegan diet for years without tracking how many days I’ve been doing it. Same with not drinking alcohol. Funny how the things I don’t track are the things that successfully become habits. Hmmm….

Maybe I should apply that relaxed mindset to my writing and my music too. To tell you the truth, I’m afraid to because all the “experts” say it leads to laziness. It goes against so much of the conventional wisdom out there. but conventional wisdom has not helped my productivity or my attitude at all. It makes what should be fun feel too much like work.

My guitar teacher isn’t one of those “track all your practice time” people. Instead, he encourages me to use the timer only as a way to guide focused practice chunks. For example, if I’m having trouble with a particular chord change, he advises setting the timer for 5 minutes and focusing intensely on identifying where the problems with that change are, what my body/arm/hand/fingers are doing, and how I can make my movements more efficient, relaxed, and accurate. He also explicitly told me NOT to track my time practicing electric guitar and just enjoy learning it, which I found interesting. I suspect it’s because he knows that when you only track time in the practice room, you’re tracking the wrong thing. Wiggling your fingers by rote for 4 hours isn’t the same as practicing with focused insight for 1.

So now I’m experimenting with loosening up and not tracking so much. I’m not a business manager monitoring KPIs on a dashboard, and I’ve spent too many years as an attorney billing my time in 6 minute increments. Creative pursuits are supposed to be enjoyable, and treating them like work apparently makes me wants to avoid them. I shouldn’t be surprised by that.

I don’t know if getting rid of metrics will improve anything, but at least I won’t beat myself so much anymore. Beating myself up over not “succeeding” in my hobbies — how ridiculous is that?


Interesting link: The mash-up I didn’t know I needed: a Bad Lip Reading version of Hamilton. Don’t drink beverages while watching!

My 2023 theme: UNplug and play

Airplane mode is not just a setting on your phone. It can be a whole way of life.


— Austin Kleon

I waste too much time online, which is odd because I haven’t had a social media account since 2015. That doesn’t stop me from spending tons of time searching, scrolling, lurking, and overloading my brain with information of dubious quality, though. It usually starts innocently enough, when I need to look up a specific thing. But after finding the answer I’m looking for and studying it from every opinion and angle, no matter how trivial, an hour has passed and I find myself in yet another rabbit hole.

It’s the curse of the infinite scroll combined with the brain’s desire for novelty. I’ve had this problem even before social media came along. What can I say? I love learning new things. But do I really need to spend two hours researching a $20 purchase? Do I really need to read everyone’s opinion about the outrage of the day (or the hour)? Do I need questionable advice from internet strangers about my life decisions? Of course not.

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot less time online, even going as far as blocking search engines from my browser and using the internet only for necessary tasks like email at specific times of the day and checking the weather. Those are the days when I feel most like myself, which doesn’t say good things about how the internet affects me.

This year, I want to be even more intentional about staying offline. I know my online habits have stolen far too much energy from things that are more important and rewarding but, like any real-life activity, more difficult to implement. I want to cement my guitar and writing practices, for starters. I want to get outside, be more physically active, and explore my community. I want to spend more time with family and friends. These are such simple, healthy things, yet it’s so easy to be pulled away by all the forces (marketers, media, politicians, etc.) that want to impose their vision of the world on me. It’s annoying and disrespectful and I’m sick of it. Attention is even more valuable than money, and it’s about time I treated it that way.

So “unplug and play” is my theme for 2023. It’s a simple one, but it’ll have a positive domino effect on other areas of my life.


This month’s link: When I vist the Asian grocery store, I always get a kick out of seeing the odd English on labels and gift items. Duolingo recently showcased great examples of Japanese-to-English mistranslations in The Museum of Wonky English.

A surprise musical inspiration

My local farmers market has a public piano by the entrance. I sometimes see kids tapping a few notes on it, but most of the time it sits empty and quiet, even on market days.

Last Saturday, though, a boy who looked around 10 years old plonked away while his parents beamed and his grandma recorded a video of him. After a few seconds, I realized he was playing “Don’t Stop Believin'” from memory. Even thought it was far, far from perfect, it didn’t stop me from listening with a huge grin on my face. His parents looked on proudly, and his mom even wiped a tear from her eye.

When I eventually walked away, I found myself doing the same thing.

When I got home, I pulled out my keyboard and played “Don’t Stop Believin'” from my ancient Journey Escape songbook, which I got when I was about his age. I played that song on a whim at a school party and discovered how music had the power to draw people closer to me and make them happy. For a shy, introverted kid, that’s magical.

I regret that I didn’t fight harder to keep making music in my adulthood, but I’d like to think I’m making up for it now. Practicing classical guitar can be a slog, though, especially when the improvements are so tiny and the plateaus are so long. But there are moments where I sense I’m brushing up against that magic again and it fuels me for the next long slog. Perhaps next year, I’ll have the guts to play in public. Maybe?

So to the boy who had the courage to play at the public piano, thank you. You inspired a stranger, and I hope you keep making music for a long time.

Trivia: At Detroit sports games, fans shout “born and raised in south Detroit” because there’s no south Detroit — it’s Canada (Windsor, Ontario to be specific)!

Appreciating home

October flew by and I almost missed writing this post. One reason may be because I’m making some changes to my daily routine, with the biggest one being daily exercise. I credit/blame my new FitBit — it keeps me accountable, and I can’t fool myself into thinking that I’m more active than I actually am. As a result, I’m getting much more exercise than I used to, and I’m sleeping better too. All good things.

This month marks 16 years that I’ve lived in my current home, which is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere, including my childhood home. Like any long-term relationship, I’d been taking it for granted lately and even fell into the trap of thinking I’d be happier someplace else. Part of it may be because I met a new neighbor who moved to my building from a ritzier area and she clearly hates it here. I get it. Living in a high rise is not for everyone, especially coming from a big house with a yard.

Unfortunately, I let her attitude affect me and I even went as far as checking out a townhouse for sale in a more residential neighborhood. I didn’t even have to enter the townhouse (which felt cramped despite having 50% more square footage than my current place) to nix the whole idea. The area was too quiet, too removed from the downtown vibe I’m used to. The relief I felt when I returned to my little box in the sky wiped out all thoughts of moving.

The clincher was when a friend called that evening and asked if I wanted to watch the UofM-MSU game that was live-screening at a nearby movie theatre. How nearby? I got there in less than 10 minutes, on foot.

Sometimes I have to wander my town like a tourist to really appreciate where I live. My building is even next to a hotel! It’s an incredibly walkable town, and not just in the bars/restaurants/cute shops kind of way. The mixed use layout here means I can walk to a grocery store, two hardware stores, two drugstores, the library, several parks, the doctor’s office, the post office, the community theatre, city hall, an Amtrak station(!), even the auto mechanic. It’s so convenient to simply drop off my car for an oil change and walk back home. And if I ever feel lonely, all I have to do is step outside. There are always people around, and simply being among them makes me feel less alone.

No place is perfect, but it’s easy to let the search for perfect get in the way of appreciating the good, or even great. I’m now putting more TLC into my current living space and I already feel better. If I ever get that grass-is-greener urge again, I’ll visit a McMansion subdivision. That’ll creep me out for at least a year.