I recently finished listening to Laura Vanderkam’s new book “I Know How She Does It”, and in it I was reminded of her “100 dreams” idea.
A little while back, I made a list of 100 dreams. It’s what it sounds like – basically a bucket list. But instead of putting on a bunch of arbitrary “shoulds” (I don’t need to skydive or see the coral reefs), it’s a list of 100 things that sound awesome to me, big and small. Things that I’ll actually make a point of doing, whether this year or in 30 years.
The last time I created such a list, I got stuck around number 60. It was frustrating, but then something wonderful happened – the frustration evolved into an existential crisis. What am I doing with my life? What’s it all for? The list pushed me to excavate to the truth. What do I really want? Not just what looks good to want on paper?
So I pushed for bigger ideas and ended up with 107 dreams by the end of it. It felt great and allowed me to re-examine my priorities. It gave me tremendous clarity in my day-to-day life and with my longer-term goals.
But the dust settles; the profundity of such an experience fades. That’s why, after listening to Laura’s book (excellent in the audio format), I decided to give the “100 dreams” list another go.
No existential crisis this time, but a surprising amount of my ideas changed in the year or so between lists. Things I wrote on the first list no longer mattered much to me (what do I care if I have a Stella McCartney handbag?). New ideas hopped on the page that I couldn’t have imagined the first time around (build an energy-efficient house on several acres of land).
If you’re interested in creating your own list, here’s how I did it:
1) Divide your list into categories. These are the ones I used:
-Health and food
Once you have your categories, start coming up with ideas! You might discover additional categories along the way – use whatever headers and themes matter to you.
2) Make a note beside each of your 100 dreams on where you’re at with it.
-In red, I wrote anything that I wasn’t actively pursuing.
-In yellow, I wrote things that were on my horizon or that I wanted to do, but wasn’t doing.
-In green, I wrote those things that I’m already doing.
3) Come up with a secondary list, “Dreams I’m actively pursuing”.
Put this list in a prominent spot and revisit it at least weekly, if not daily. Here’s where you put all your green ideas, and whichever yellow ones you’ve decided to take on and start integrating into your life.
When I created this secondary list, I also craved more clarity. Instead of writing, “Learn about gardening”, I drilled down and wrote, “read at least 5 books on permaculture and take notes” (I have a notebook dedicated just to this).
Here’s an example of how I condensed the “home life” dreams section:
- Purchase several books each month (use my Indigo card in Nov)
- Purchase land and build house (huge ongoing project; broken into next steps on Nozbe)
- Research at least 5 books on fruit and vegetable permaculture
4) Put your projects or habits into your daily task manager
I’ve talked about Nozbe before, which I’ve used and loved for years. It allows me to arrange some of my dreams/goals into projects, and also create recurring habits (such as “meditate every day”).
This means that, as long as I’m checking my to-do list on a daily basis, habits I’d like to incorporate pop up on my daily list – no mental energy required to remember to do something. I like to review the secondary list weekly, in order to look over some things that might not neatly fit into my to-do list, but this process takes away most of the ambiguity around my goals. I see them every day; I know if I’m moving toward them, or not.
I want to restate that this is not a bucket list – at least not in the conventional way bucket lists are used (and ignored). This is a list of things I really want to do, but things that I might not do without some long-term consideration and a little bit of planning.
For example, I want to meditate every day for an entire year. I find the idea of creating a 365-day streak inspiring (and intimidating). At the end of it, I’ll have a well-established habit of meditation, which is great, but I’ll also have the experience of having meditated every day for a year – also great. Or maybe after a year I’ll say, “that was fun but I’m done with this meditation thing”. That’s fine too – it’s all part of the learning experience.
A long-term goal that I wouldn’t be able to achieve without careful planning is getting a licentiate diploma in piano performance. I am a long, long ways away from that point. But I like to keep it on my radar, and take tiny steps in that direction in the meantime. Maybe I don’t get there for another 30 years – that’s fine. But I’d like to keep it in my head, and move toward it slowly but surely.
This process has been enormously helpful to me both times I’ve gone through it, and highly encourage you to do the same if you have a feeling of fuzziness, a feeling that you’re aimlessly drifting. It’s challenging, but it’s also quite fun – and what’s more important than that?
I picked up my daughter from daycare on Friday afternoon to make the 45-minute trek to my parent’s place. We would spend the evening with pizza and celebration and family (Jane didn’t touch the pizza – she much preferred the channa masala we had the next night from the Indian restaurant). It’s a lovely drive around the outskirts of the city, with endless plains ripe with harvest.
As I began the drive, with Death Cab’s Plans in the background to help me think, I fell into an old familiar feeling, one that hits me each and every autumn. The feeling that I should be paying attention because everything is so beautiful, and it’s all going away so soon. The few yellow leaves scattered on the pavement will soon be in piles, and then they’ll make way for snow. Everything changes, so I need to pay attention.
The sunlight seems sharper. There’s more shadow in the blades of grass, bright green and contrasted. The air is cleaner. Pay attention, this is meaningful.
And with it comes the wistfulness. How did summer go so fast? How did the year go fast? How has my life gone so fast? How did I forget to feel like this?
My heart had hardened, somehow without me noticing. On that drive I felt it soften. I felt more like myself.
It’s the busy-ness. The hustle. Forgetting to breathe. Then the first colors of autumn appear like a brake. Remember this? Remember how everything ends?
In the car, I stopped the music. I turned on the voice recorder. Started saying disjunctive sentences, each sentence-end punctuated with my daughter’s decisive “yeah!” from the backseat, her new favorite word. An idea was coming to me, a lyric.
Some of the words were silly and would never see the light of day. But there was an idea I was getting to. I kept digging out the idea for the entirety of our drive, my daughter happily chatting in the background as if we were in conversation, as if we were co-writing this song.
Later that night, long after she was in bed, I listened through the recording, writing the words down on paper indiscriminately. It was two full pages. Mostly coal, with a diamond or two nestled within.
But coal from a spontaneous creative process is still something.
I don’t always remember to be creative. Autumn forces the reminder. I start to lose interest in doing the normal thing (say, not writing a lyric verbally during a long commute). I open up a little, get a little weirder in a way that feels familiar, in a way that feels like the little kid I always will be.
And now I have not only an idea, but also a memory of a time I came back to myself and started dictating a song in the car.
Now to keep remembering.
I’ve been in the midst of some heady books this summer, and I’ve been thinking about everything from boredom, genetic engineering and free time to piano practice and self-discipline.
(In case you’re a book nerd as well, I’ve been absolutely devouring everything Yuval Harari has written, in addition to “Hacking Darwin”, “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think”, and others. If nothing else, please go and read “Sapiens”.)
Today I want to talk about self-discipline. Our modern society takes a blasé approach to this skill, encouraging us to “treat ourselves” and “just do what’s fun” and “don’t worry about it”. It’s hard not to cave in the face of such advice. Life is short – I should have fun! I do deserve a treat!
I’m not saying that fun and treats aren’t great. They are. But their rewards are often fleeting. Self-discipline is hard but yields long-term rewards.
Let’s bring this down to earth. Yuval Harari talks about how he meditates for two hours a day, and once a year goes on a 30 to 60-day meditation retreat (his meditation style is vipassana). He’s also a busy university professor and author. Meditating for 10 minutes a day consistently feels like a Herculean effort, let alone 2 hours. It’s an impressive feat of self-discipline.
Yet he says this meditation practice is hugely rewarding. It allows him to observe his mind and the myriad ways he’s unable to control his thoughts. This allows him to know himself better, which he considers a critical skill in a world where companies want to know you better than you know yourself.
It also builds self-discipline, which spreads into other areas of his life. The kinds of books he writes require intense, single-minded focus and attention. Researching and thinking about history (and the future) is not a light mental load.
I might look at his two-hour meditation practice and call it a huge waste of time. Or something I’d be incapable of doing, busy as I am. But for him, those two hours are extremely well-spent as they drastically improve the quality of his life in every way – including in his ability to think and write.
Here’s the thing. I’m not suggesting you pick up a 2-hour-a-day meditation practice. As he suggests, there are other ways to build the skill of self-discipline and understanding your own mind. For some it might be really long walks outside. Henry David Thoreau went for 4+ hour long daily walks in order to think. For others, it might be an artistic practice, such as – wait for it – practicing the piano.
Practicing piano should be fun, right? My answer tends to start with, “Yes, but…”
Getting to know yourself is fun, right? Focusing on the feeling of the breath on the nose should be easy, right?
And then it’s not. And then we, with our conditioning and familiarity to all things easy, put it aside and say, this must not be for me. And flit to something else. Something more fun. A treat.
Have you ever tried vipassana meditation? I’ve started a practice about two dozen times in the last decade. I have always failed. And I’m not the kind of person who gives up easily. It’s really hard.
Introspection is really hard, too. You confront the worst things about yourself – one of the worst being that you’re totally average, ordinary and inconsequential. 65% of Americans think they’re more intelligent than average. 75% of Americans say they eat healthy. 93% of Americans think they’re better at driving than average.
(It’s not that Americans are particularly ego-centric, it’s just that these are the studies I found).
This is called “illusory superiority”. It’s a cognitive bias where we overestimate our own skills and abilities. We believe we’re special, we’re smart, we’re better looking than others, and so on.
To really observe yourself and realize the many ways you’re mundane, petty and mean-spirited is a real bummer. But humbling. It makes you a better person. Realizing how you can be petty helps you become more profound. Realizing that you’re kind of a jerk can make you kinder. But the process of realization can be painful.
Piano practice is hard too, especially as a beginner. I’ve been playing piano since I was in the single-digits, and I’ve accrued enough skills to be decent at it. I still have so far to go, but I’m not stuck on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” anymore. This makes a 2-hour daily practice something I can stomach. As a meditation newbie, I can only look at a 2-hour vipassana session and laugh – “yeah right”. First I have to gain enough ground to not give up after a few weeks, just like I always do. Maybe this means 5-minute sessions and a series of small wins. Maybe this means giving it an immovable designation in my daily schedule. And maybe with time, I won’t feel like I suck at it anymore. And, since I don’t feel like I suck, I’ll gain some momentum to continue and maybe even start practicing more. Maybe even 2 hours one day (but probably not).
Let’s circle back around to self-discipline. I observe this skill falling apart in our culture, and I’m sure you do too. My acquaintance with the dream but “no time to pursue it”…but with enough time to watch several hours of Netflix each day. Another acquaintance who wishes they read more books, while checking their phone every 5 minutes. Someone who says, “I wish I could play piano,” maybe even buys one, and then spends all their time reading about practicing (and watching videos), instead of actually practicing. The armchair philosopher, all talk, no action.
(Am I telling you not to watch this video or read this post? Maybe.)
I’m not against Netflix, or phones, or YouTube videos. But these very things are designed to steal our attention. It takes self-discipline to put them away.
It takes self-discipline to practice piano, just as it builds self-discipline to practice piano. Doing so creates a positive feedback loop.
In my life, my piano practice has been erratic. I’ve let my piano collect dust in the past. I’ve gone through intense bursts of creative energy.
Few activities in my life have been so beneficial, though, as a regular practice. I’m noticing this acutely lately, since a few months ago I started practicing around 10 hours per week again. And I’m not talking about the “fun stuff” – the times when I noodle around, write or jam on songs from the radio. This is 10 hours of working on exam pieces. And still, I’ll need to ramp up this time as my exam date draws closer.
It’s hard to practice this much. I work like anyone else, and I’m home with my small child much of the time. It means getting up early, and it also means not just flopping on the couch when that small child goes to bed.
And that’s just the self-discipline involved in getting to the piano in the first place.
Once you’re at the piano, there are many moments where you must exercise self-discipline. To go back and play that passage again, and again, and again, and again – instead of saying, “ahh, good enough,” and moving on. There’s learning a piece of music for the first time – making sure you get those weird finger patterns right, pushing through the inertia of the unknown. There’s being at the mid-point with a piece – the newness has worn off, but you’re still not very good at it. To not throw away a piece at this stage requires self-discipline in spades.
And yes, playing piano is fun and rewarding. Usually when you’ve become good at something, or when you’ve achieved a “finished product”, like an artist who completes a painting. But also the practicing itself, though difficult, can often be fun. Getting into a state of flow can be exhilarating. Often, when I’m done a practice session at 8:30pm, I’m energized, not depleted – even though I felt depleted going into that session. It’s just like a good workout.
And sometimes practice sessions are a grind. But I can’t think of a single time I’ve regretted the grind when I’m done with it.
This self-discipline spills off the bench, and into my life. And I’m always surprised by it. It’s no coincidence that I’ve been devouring heavier reads this summer. The mental training of my 2-hour practice habit has allowed me much more patience in my free time – patience to pour over and deliberate difficult, but fascinating, ideas.
It makes eating healthy easier. No thanks, I don’t need the cookie. The mantra of this era is to indulge your whims, but isn’t a life where one exercises restraint just as worthy, maybe even more so? Exercising restraint with food now gives me a better chance of having energy to play with my grandkids and continue being productive into my golden years. Exercising restraint in what I say to others allows me to have high-quality relationships forever. Exercising restraint with my wallet allows me to save and invest. Exercising restraint with parties allows me to be fresh for my morning practice. Exercising restraint on the amount I work allows me life to be more balanced. I’m a much happier person when I’m not just giving into my fleeting whims and impulses.
People who worship impulsivity look at this restraint and call it deprivation. They call it a life not lived to the fullest. I’ve been this person, I’ve memorized those lines.
But I now think the opposite is true. Self-discipline doesn’t lead to deprivation. It leads to abundance. An abundance of energy. An abundance of joy. Saying no to the cookie might give me a fleeting pang, but it gives me a long-term feeling of confidence. It gives me a feeling of strength, being able to say no to what most people don’t say no to. That strength becomes my identity. Inner strength, integrity and confidence make me happier than any cookie could.
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
– Henry David Thoreau
I was thinking about thinking.
It wasn’t in an idle moment, staring out the window or at the wall. It was while I was practicing piano.
At first I rejected the experience. “You’re not supposed to think while you play piano,” I reasoned. “It’s like meditation. You’re supposed to just play, just be.”
But then I noticed it happen, again and again. Not active thinking (“What should I make for lunch today?”), but passive thinking (images of that one time I said that stupid thing).
My piano practice sessions, currently around 2 hours a day, are filled with passing images and impressions. While I play music and concentrate deeply (because I AM concentrating), these images come and go, a constant slideshow. I don’t pay much attention. My attention is on the music. But I started thinking about it afterward.
My mind is doing all of this vital processing while I’m practicing piano. Kind of like how your mind processes your life via sleep and dreams – my piano practice sessions are an extension of that.
Life is full of difficult, complex problems. The kind that can’t be solved in five minutes. Where should I live? Should I travel or settle down? Should I have another child? What would be the best living environment for my current child? Should I chase that crazy dream? How would it play out in reality? I’m swimming in these problems, just like everyone else.
These problems need time to stew and simmer and bubble. I think about them actively sometimes, but mostly I just let them run in the background. Like when I’m practicing piano. All my problems, major and minor, cycle in the background when I’m engaged in other, more physical, actions.
I thought about other times my thoughts simmer. When I’m doing yoga. I’m breathing, I’m in my body, I’m in the moment, and yet I’m aware of all these background processes in my mind’s system. Floating on by, barely noticeable unless I go looking for them.
Going for walks without audiobooks or podcasts. Sitting in a waiting room without a phone. Driving a car without listening to anything. Observing my daughter play. Taking a shower. The time it takes to fall asleep.
These are precious pockets.
This weekend I had an entire day to myself, since Michael took our daughter to the lake with his family. It was a rare treat. By the end of the day, my mind was feeling so loose and free. Unwound. The day was spent in simple pursuits – piano, a creative project, some songwriting, yoga, lots of reading – but those simple pursuits gave my mind some space. Some air. I was alive in the doing, full of ideas, and so completely relaxed from it.
I’ve been thinking about how we cram the seconds of our day with input. How output is important, like writing this post or tinkering with songwriting. But also how important the space between input and output is. How the simmering of your mental soup makes for a delicious life.
As the day wore on and I pleasantly unwound, I realized how I tend to pack my days with doing, with input. Podcasts on walks and drives and when I cook. I love podcasts, they connect me and light me up. But what about a little silence sometimes? I thought about my tendency to pull out my laptop at night and get in a little more work, instead of having a short yoga session. How hard it is to practice piano sometimes, but how it ends up being the best spice of all for my mind.
I thought about how I used to be. Teenager Allysia, early-20s Rock Band Allysia. I was open, I was unwound. I didn’t stuff my life with doing. I didn’t even get a smartphone until I was 24. I was art, art, art.
My life is better now, and I’m much happier in my 30s than I was in my 20s. My life is consistently getting more enjoyable. While I tend to don the rose-colored glasses for my past, I have to remind myself that, though I was art, I was also untethered.
But my fondness for the past isn’t for the drama and shenanigans of being young. It’s for the way I used to think. Open, free, with room to roam. Now, a decade later, I have to remind myself to let my mind out of its box once in a while. To come out to play.
I can’t blame smartphones for everything, and I can’t blame growing up. There’s no blame at all. It’s just change. If I could have the open mind of my old self, and the good sense of my new self, then that would really be something. I can paint a square. I can make the time.
When I was much younger, I used to get panic attacks. I felt a clawing anxiety about things I couldn’t understand or control. Darkness, the world “out there” with people, fierce summer storms – all these were triggers.
I haven’t had a panic attack in many years, and as horrible as they were, they don’t compare to the gut-level anxiety that comes with having a child.
In our childless days, I would worry about my husband. Any time he had to trek to work on icy or stormy highways, any time he made longer voyages, cross-country or otherwise. I would worry that I’d never see him again. Not a consuming worry, just like a switch that would sometimes flip while I was doing the dishes or a yoga pose. I’d have the thought (what if he dies?), push it away, and carry on.
After having a child, I look back on this worry as laughably elementary. I still don’t want him to die, of course, but now if the two of them leave the house, he’s not the one I worry about. If he burns himself on a pan and spills a bit of hot sauce on the floor (as happened yesterday), my first instinct is to make sure our daughter is far away and unhurt. My distant second instinct is to see if he’s okay (he was).
The first time Jane was sick, when she was around 6 months old, I barely slept. She just had a regular cold and a small fever, but I listened to her breathe all night. Was she getting enough air? Is she breathing too fast? Is she going to wake herself up with all that snorting? I wonder if she needs medicine?
The first time (and only time – so far!) that she had a high fever, I stayed awake all night while she slept restlessly. I watched her sleep, I counted her breaths, I called the health nurse, I gave her Tylenol, I waited an eternity for the morning to (get my husband to) take her to the hospital.
Because taking your child to the hospital is terrifying. But Michael isn’t terrified; he’s unflappable. So he took her in while I lay in bed, trying to get an hour or two of sleep, but just worrying instead.
She was fine, it was nothing serious. Still, I clung to her tightly when she came home. This little lump that I love so much.
And then the first time (and only time) she caught a stomach bug. Michael was away, because the Fates have it that he tends to be away when she gets sick. It was bedtime and we were cuddling to sleep. She coughed, and I felt weirdly wet and warm. So I turned on the light, and we were both covered in vomit. I cleaned us up, changed our clothes, changed the bedding. Half an hour later, again. Half an hour later, again. I got wise to the routine and we started sleeping on towels. I lay with her all night, drifting into 15-minute pockets of restless sleep, to be woken to the sound of pre-vomit. I became skilled in jumping to the rescue with a towel to preserve her jammies.
I’d grab some fresh towels and nurse her. She nursed all night. I was afraid of her getting dehydrated. We made it to the morning and she was already much better. But all night long, the merry-go-round of terror.
If anything happens to a child in a movie, or commercial, or a story on the news, I can’t bear it. I cry. It’s too much. I don’t listen to the news at all if I can help it. Michael told me a story once and I haven’t been able to wash it out of my head. The story comes back to me and turns my stomach, hurts my insides. I never want to hear a story like that again.
We were watching A Quiet Place for the second time. In the movie’s intro, we looked at each other with tears in our eyes. Is there anything more terrifying than the thought of losing a child?
On a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis, toddlers and babies are so demanding of time, attention and energy. I’m not always (read: seldom ever) bursting with gratitude and lovebeams. I don’t spend my often-monotonous days as a parent in a blissful reverie, as much as I’d like to. It’s hard work. I try to be patient, I try to be pleasant, but sometimes I’m annoyed and tired.
Despite this, I feel a love on a deep, primal level like I’ve never felt before. Back in my panic attack days, I feared my own fragile mortality. But that seems like nothing now. I would give my life for hers in a heartbeat, without question. Now her life is the thing I most fear losing. Not mine, not my husband’s.
Is it biology? Is it how parents are programmed?
That visceral love is terrifying because it leaves you vulnerable. A sappy commercial can break you into a million pieces. Your child getting sick can crack open all your deepest fears.
I need to practice a new vigilance, a vigilance against allowing this terror to chronically encroach on my life. To allow her the freedom to grow and experience the world away from me. To not get in her way out of a desperate need to keep her safe. To hold myself together if she falls ill or gets injured, for her sake.
Before having a child, I remember fantasizing about the experience – what my life would be like, the funny things she’d do, seeing my husband be a father, and all the love. I didn’t fathom the terror in those dark corners of 2am, helpless against it all. Where you can do nothing but pray. I get why people pray. I really do.