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)!

Enjoying my obscurity

Last month, I published my first novella in over 10 years. The last time I released a novella, I worked with a small publisher and was required to do a bunch of promotion, such as hawk it on social media, do a blog tour (remember those?), beg for reviews, and waste money on swag to give away at a conference I attended.

This time around, as an indie writer, I hit “Publish” and went grocery shopping.

My bio on my website contains the phrase “enjoying my obscurity.” I haven’t had a social media account since 2015, and I don’t kid myself expecting that anything I write will draw tons of readers, but I’ve stopped caring because I’ve learned to value the process more than the results. With no imagined audience to perform for, I’m free to experiment, practice, and create on my own terms.

Austin Kleon has a great message for recent graduates about the advantages of obscurity:

There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better.

. . . .

You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money.

Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts.

So if you’re struggling with “what will people think?” in your creative projects, it might be a good idea to turn off social media for a while, or even delete your accounts. I know it’s hard because we want people to care about our work, but acknowledging the reality that few people care resets your expectations and makes you truly appreciate any attention that you do get. Best of all, you can focus on the one thing that actually matters: practicing.

Overthinking and performance don’t mix

Last month, my guitar teacher held a group class/recital where all of his students play two pieces for each other and receive feedback. As you can imagine, in the weeks leading up to the group class, all four of us freaked out to varying degrees. At the last group class in December, one student even refused to play and attended the class only as an observer. Did I mention we’re all adults?

Knowledge isn’t the same as skill

Culturally, it’s hard being an adult beginner in anything. Children are expected to screw up while they’re learning, but for some reason we expect adults, including ourselves, to be good at a new skill right away. Why? I’ve observed a lot of adults who erroneously equate knowledge with skill and believe they can read/watch/think their way to acquiring a skill.

It doesn’t work that way at all. I understand why people do it, though. Actually practicing a skill, as opposed to simply reading about it, smacks us into our real-world limitations, and that can be too humbling an experience for some people. We’re learning–of course we’re not going to be perfect. We never will be. Yet we put so much pressure on ourselves that we either shy away from the challenge or we overthink the challenge and end up sabotaging ourselves.

Overthinking and getting in my own way

I’m no exception to this. In last December’s group class, I didn’t exactly choke, but I played scared. I chose tempos that were too slow for the pieces and overthought each chord change and right-hand fingering. Sure, I didn’t make too many mistakes, but my playing was robotic at best. My teacher often tells me I’m a control freak (guilty) and I need to trust my ears and fingers more. Think in phrases and the piece as a whole, not the individual notes and chords. Perform and communicate emotions rather than simply execute what’s on the page.

He’s right, of course. As Met Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim says, the job of a musician is to vibrate air at people and make them feel a thing. If I play something note-perfect but don’t make listeners feel a thing, I missed the mark.

Turning off my critical brain

So for the June class, I purposely chose two pieces with wildly different styles. One was a romantic, moody piece and the other was a playful piece called “Danza del Gatto” (“Dance of the Cat”). After the usual hours of practicing, I made up my mind that the group class was simply another thing to practice. I have very little experience performing music as an adult, and the group lesson would be a good opportunity to get more used to it.

So when it came time for me to play, I turned off my critical brain and focused completely on the music and the emotions I wanted to convey. I managed to forget that I was even playing in front of other people.

My teacher said it was the best he’d ever heard me play those two pieces. I finally got out of my own way. The new challenge: remembering how I did that and repeating it.

There are no end goals: it’s ALL practice

People who play sports understand that overthinking ruins performance. Overanalyzing causes players to choke, I think people in creative fields can learn a lot from sports psychology in this area. Everything is practice, including things we consider THE end goal–big games, job interviews, auditions, performances, published stories. We believe that a particular event is the be all and end all capping off our hard work.

Nope, it’s just another practice session. I think that’s a healthier way to approach whatever we set out to do.