Ugh, discipline

Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.

– Often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but there doesn’t appear to be evidence he ever said this.

I do a good impression of a disciplined person, but more often than not, I lapse into slug mode. Inertia is no joke when I try to kickstart myself into action from a dead stop.

I’m at a dead stop often. I’ll have a burst of productivity for a day or two or a week and then nothing. Burst, stop, burst, stop. Interval training works for exercise, but in other areas of my life, I prefer consistency.

It doesn’t help that the things I want most feel so far away. Mastering anything takes decades of sustained effort. Getting over the initial “I suck” hump alone can take years. I’ve taken classical guitar lessons for a year, and while I’ve improved a lot, I still struggle with chord changes and knowing what notes are where on the fretboard. And writing? Oh jeez, I’ve been writing all my life, sold my first short story in 2006, and I still consider myself a newbie–I have so much to learn.

Sitting down to practice writing or guitar is difficult even though I love both. Perhaps that love is what makes it tough. I’m feel like I’m climbing a mountain and have made it only 3 feet up, or like I’ve hit a plateau thinking I’ve made good progress and see that the mountain is even taller than expected. Some people find big goals motivating, but I find them demoralizing.

No wonder I’d rather read or surf the web or snuggle the cat or take a nap than practice. Practice takes effort. It might be why there are people who spend more time shopping for guitars than playing them. (This is so common it has its own acronym: GAS, for Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.)

But yeah, I’m dealing with an old-fashioned discipline problem, and I suspect it’s because I’m thinking too long-term about where I want to be. I need to force myself to put my head back down and focus on daily processes and systems for my practicing instead of distant end results. My brain can wrap itself around a single day. Any longer than that, not so much. I have to trust that if I stick to a solid daily system, good results will happen as a byproduct.

And I have to remember that checking the internet yet again is simply what I want now, NOT what I want most.

A year of guitar and the magic of small, consistent actions

I picked up a guitar for the first time a year ago. Because my hands are small, I followed the online advice to buy a smaller instrument and ordered a Taylor GS Mini. Even though it’s a 7/8-sized guitar, it felt like holding a coffee table in my lap.

The first few months were a struggle. Stringed instruments have always intimidated me, and the guitar was no different. It took me a few weeks just to figure out which tuning pegs went with which string and what direction to turn each peg to make the string go sharp or flat. I memorized “Eddie Ate Dynamite. Good Bye, Eddie” to tune each string, then couldn’t remember which string was the top string and which one was the bottom string.

Then came the actual playing, or “playing.” I buzzed every note, and each chord shape brought a new finger contortion. I took some online group lessons, and stretching my index and pinky fingers across four frets for the exercises was a no-go, even on the higher frets (which are closer together). I even gave myself tennis elbow from squeezing too hard on the neck. Chord changes were (and often still are) a mad scramble to get my fingers from one position to another.

Then three months later, as if I wasn’t challenged enough, I decided to focus on classical guitar. I found a local teacher and, on his recommendation, bought a full-sized classical guitar (an even bigger coffee table on my lap). I was such a newbie to all things guitar that I couldn’t start on Book 1 of the workbooks he uses–I had to start on the PRE Book 1, and even that was a struggle. Although I can read music, I had no idea where the corresponding notes are on the fretboard, so every single note required a few seconds of mental buffering. My tone was so bad my teacher joked it sounded like a trombone.

So if you told me a year ago that I would be working on this Book 3 piece a year later, I would’ve suggested maybe backing off your dispensary purchases.

Can I play it perfectly yet? No, but that’s not the point. The fact I’m working on this at all is a miracle to me. I didn’t think I’d be near this kind of music for years. My classical guitar now feels comfortable and my GS Mini feels tiny. Who knew?

I don’t practice every day, although I’m getting closer. If I take missed days into account, I average about 45 minutes of practice a day. I’m now at the point where incremental improvements are harder and require more practice time, but I’m thrilled that I got over the initial hump. Most people who attempt guitar quit within the first year, and I can understand why. Learning anything new is incredibly frustrating, and when people say you have to practice 10 hours a day to get better, it’s discouraging as well.

But improvement doesn’t require heroics, especially not at first. Even if you set lofty goals and fail, you’ll fail upward. Want to practice 2 hours and get only 15 minutes? That’s 15 minutes you didn’t have before, and my teacher tells me that even 15 minutes of practice, when done with concentrated focus, can make a big difference. Want to write 1000 words but get only 500? That’s 500 words you didn’t have before. And so on.

The key is consistency. You’ll improve faster with 30 minutes of daily practice than 3.5 hours once a week. What I’ve also found is that doing a small amount of guitar practice or writing each day makes me want to do more. A win all around.

New Year’s resolutions tend to fall apart this time of year, so I hope you go easy on yourself, reassess, and get back on the horse. Small, consistent habits aren’t glamorous, or even noteworthy, but they’re incredibly powerful.

If you want more information about building habits, James Clear has a great book called Atomic Habits and an excellent weekly newsletter (he’s much less wordy than I am, in case you’re concerned). Good luck and have fun!

2021 reflections

It’s the time of year when many of us reflect on how we spent the last 12 months. For me, 2021 was the year I reclaimed a lot of my time and attention:

  • I quit reading the news (I highly recommend it–the stress raises your cortisol, which in turn suppresses your immune system and that’s the last thing you need right now).
  • I quit all volunteer activities except for writing Postcards to Voters. For some activities, like community theatre, it was a difficult decision because I enjoyed making props and decorating sets. Other activities were easy to quit because I always felt used.
  • I started learning guitar. For me, this was the key that clarified the rest of my priorities. I found it easier to say no to time-wasters when I had a weekly lesson to prepare for, and committing to music rejuvenated my commitment to writing.
  • I quit trying to be traditionally published and embraced self-publishing. I wrote more about it here, but I have to say this is the best creative decision I’ve made in the 20+ years I’ve been writing. My brain is full of ideas again and best of all, I’m having fun. It’s been too long since I had fun writing.

The world is filled with people and organizations who will gladly tell you how you should spend your time. The best thing to do is ignore them. Your life is too precious to squander on people who see you only as a tool for their own agendas. If your goals and their goals align, great! But don’t let someone else’s priorities be your priorities because of peer pressure or guilt or other mindgames that reveal how little they respect you.

Each of us has unique gifts to share to the world, but if we don’t give ourselves the space to explore and develop those gifts, if we let others yank our attention all over the place, if we spend too much time reacting to the immediate instead of working on the long-term, those gifts will die. Your soul likely will too.

Remember, when you say “yes” to something, you say “no” to everything else. Make sure it’s worth the tradeoff.

What will you say “no” to in 2022? What more important things will you say “yes” to instead?