The Power of Projects

Recently, during my 30-day challenge of posting a live video on YouTube every day, I talked about the power of projects. I discussed how turning random tasks and habits into larger, overarching projects is a great way to make the tasks themselves more meaningful.

I’d like to some few examples illustrating my point, and encourage you to start a project of your own.

Cooking Project

Most of us cook, though some of us enjoy it more than others. I’m among those who deeply enjoy it – I have been to culinary school, after all.

But cooking random recipes – which could be considered a near-daily habit – isn’t particularly interesting on its own. When it’s a habit, it’s a matter of function. I cook to put food on the table for myself or my family. It doesn’t need to be fancy, interesting, adventurous, or creative.

But if I turn cooking into a project, suddenly “interesting” and “adventurous” materialize and I enjoy the process of cooking immensely.

A recent example is a project I’m working on with friends – a vegan cooking challenge that we’re designing as a series of online classes. For this course, I need to create some videos, and – most importantly – some foolproof recipes that even a beginner can figure out.

Yesterday, testing for this project entailed making four batches of chocolate chip cookies, experimenting with different ingredients and ratios as I went. It was great fun and now I feel like I have a solid cookie recipe under my belt.

Without the project in mind, I probably would’ve cooked a batch of chocolate chip cookies, look at the flat disasters and say, “well, that didn’t work, but oh well”. I wouldn’t try again. I’d eat the mediocre cookies and I’d probably go through the same mediocre cookie experience again a few months later.

But since I was creating a recipe for a project – the project of giving a beginner a good cookie recipe – I couldn’t stop there. I had to try again so that I could hit on something great.

Another idea: If I was creating a self-published cookbook for friends and family, I would be refining my skills and recipes, made meaningful under the umbrella of a larger project.

If I wanted to perfect my bread baking skills, I wouldn’t simply make random loaves here and there – I would follow and explore every page of a breadmaking book.

It doesn’t take much extra time to do this – aside from recipe planning for the week, which I do anyway, I simply take a few minutes to snap some photos of the plated meals and take notes in my digital journal.

It amounts to very little extra time spent for a massive output of meaning and interest.

The Music Album Project

It’s one thing to write songs here and there, which is something I’ve been doing since I was a child. But to say “I’m going to write an album” changes the meaning of songwriting – the songs themselves take on more purpose, and I push myself to excellence.

It is more work to create an album compared to writing disconnected songs. But it’s immensely rewarding. One of the top 3 highlights of my creative life is when my band The Criminal Kid recorded our first album back in 2012.

Health and Fitness Projects

Instead of running every day as a habit, why not try a “couch to 5k” program or signing up for a marathon?

Instead of saying “I’d like to lose weight and build muscle” and installing a daily exercise and meal-tracking habit, why not take photos of yourself every two weeks, with details of your weight and updated measurements? (When I did this back in 2017, a helpful side-effect of having updated body measurements was being able to shop online for clothing with ease).

What about practicing yoga with the intent to do an impromptu class in the park with your friends? Improving your flexibility so you’re able to do the splits? Improving your upper body strength so you’re able to do 100 push-ups, your core strength so you could plank for two minutes, and so on?

Teaching as a Project

One excellent project is that of teaching anything you’re learning. If I wanted to get into food photography, say, I might learn with the idea to teach it once I’ve learned it. I’d need to be able to explain the core elements of what I’m learning, which means I’d understand it deeply.

Plus, teaching is a win-win – perhaps you have a friend who’s always wanted to learn how to take better food photographs. You can spend the afternoon together, cooking and talking about photo techniques. You get to anchor your knowledge in the experience of teaching, and they get to pick up a new skill without having to take a class.

You could even create an online course after you’ve gone through the process of learning a skill. If you’re a new vegetable gardener, you could create a course based on your notes from the growing season, things you’ve read and your personal experiences. You could call it “The New Vegetable Gardener” and frame yourself as an enthusiastic beginner. People don’t always want to learn from experts, often preferring to learn from someone who’s only a few steps ahead of them.

You could then put your course up on a website such as Skillshare. Even if not a single person took your course, you’d still have the permanent benefit of solidifying your learning and adding meaning to your gardening experience.

Courses as Projects

Taking a course is a great project as well. If you’re wanting to learn personal accounting, you could do a bunch of random Googling – OR you could take a course on the subject. Learning from someone who’s taken the time to organize content for you, content with a clear beginning and end, is much more satisfying than miscellaneous internet searches.

Other Project ideas

What about the project of listening to 20 audiobooks in a year, where the stipulation is you can only listen to those books while you clean and do house chores? Cleaning becomes much more enjoyable that way. I’ve made my house spotless while engrossed in a particularly good fiction (The Help is a favorite).

What about turning a journaling habit into something more tangible, like a physical printed copy of your journal at the end of the year? I’ve been doing this since 2015, and my word count increases every year. It’s immensely pleasurable to receive my little paperback in the mail, and to see them take up more space on my shelf each year.

Conclusion

The idea of making projects out of habits and tasks is to create meaning out of chaos. Sure, I could journal every day until I die and reap immense benefits from it. I already have. But printing out my journals makes my life feel bigger, more coherent, and more meaningful. As a result, I’ve begun journaling more, and to a higher standard of quality. Perhaps ten years from now, I’ll look at my journaling habit as being the launching-off point to fiction or memoir writing.

Is there something you could project-ify in your life right now? A habit you’d like to implement, or a task you’re already doing anyway?

-A

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Keeping Track of Your Time

In a recent live video, I discussed the idea of time tracking, something that has been making a huge difference in my productivity and awareness. I thought I’d share more about it here.

Last week I was feeling overwhelmed by life. I was confronted by the difficulties in planning for the future during Covid. I was unsure what steps to take as an eager musician living in a part of the world that isn’t particularly hospitable to original artists.

These things are still true – Covid, and my unsureness – but I have found some helpful solutions to make me feel more in control of my day-to-day experience. Time tracking has been one of them, and it’s a habit I’m going to continue for at least another month (and possibly indefinitely if I find it useful enough).

Sunday Reviews

Every Sunday, I sit down for a couple of hours to write a review of the previous week and plan for the next week ahead. I’ve been doing this process for years, and I deeply enjoy it. Planning for the week ahead, the day before I get back into work mode, organizes my mind and gets me excited to work and take small steps toward audacious goals.

What I haven’t done, and what I’ve resisted doing for years, is to schedule my work, and to keep careful tabs on how much time I’m spending on tasks.

Perhaps there’s a rebelliousness there – “I didn’t decide to start a business and work from home only to micromanage my schedule”. I figure that I’m a highly-motivated person anyway, so why do I need to give myself time constraints and boundaries?

The virtue of time scheduling

What I didn’t realize is that scheduling my days (in a series of digital to-do check boxes) is an extremely useful way to manage my life, making sure I don’t waste time working on the things that don’t matter much, and that I’m devoting adequate time to the things that do matter, but that might be a lower priority.

For example, I’ve been reading some music marketing books to better understand the industry, as I’m several months shy of an album launch. This is a low-priority task in a time sense – it’s certainly not urgent to anyone else in the world – but it’s a high-priority task in that it’s connected to my most meaningful project at the moment. If I don’t block time to read and study and plan, then I’ll likely not do much of it.

On the other side of things, I tend to spend too much time doing work tasks. If I don’t budget my time, I can spend an entire afternoon doing something I probably could’ve done in a couple of hours.

Gaining accuracy

One benefit I hope to reap the rewards of is a more accurate view of how I’m spending my time, and how long it takes me to do certain tasks. As I go through this weekly time management process, I’ll be able to make more accurate estimates.

When I’m planning for the week, I have at the bottom of each day’s to-do a total of the hours I expect to spend on work. When the day is over, I write the actual total of time spent.

At the end of the week I can see how close my predictions were to reality, and calibrate for the upcoming week based on what I’ve learned.

Improved social life

The huge advantage of this time-tracking approach is that I’m able to schedule in long hangouts with friends while having the peace of mind that everything else that needs to get done, will get done.

I love spending time with friends and family. It’s the difference between a good day and a great day. My relationships are a “deathbed” thing – the people I’ve loved will mean much more at the end than the tasks I accomplished.

Having focused 2+ hour conversations with people I really enjoy adds sparkle and joy to my life. But when I’m not time-tracking and live in more of an ad-hoc way, I tend to not socialize as much. I’ll make it to the end of the week and realize I didn’t do much else aside from work. Hanging out with friends is a high-priority but low-urgency activity, so unless I make room for it and actively plan it into my schedule, these meaningful hangouts tend to fall by the wayside.

Freedom of mind

When I’ve put plenty of thought into my weekly schedule to make sure I’ve made room for everything that matters – work and play – I experience a freedom of mind. When I’m with my work, I can be fully-focused on my work (without feeling like I’m neglecting my social life). When I’m with my loved ones, I can be fully-focused on them (without feeling like I should be doing this or that task).

Time-wasting habits

A final thought on time-tracking is that, even after a week of doing this, I’m able to notice the many insidious ways I tend to waste time. A 1-hour work session becomes a 45-minute one because I’m spending the remainder of my time texting. Or a 1-hour work session becomes a 30-minute one because I forgot to account for cooking and mealtimes. Or I forgot to do a particular errand, so I need to leave the house two days in a row instead of getting it all done at once. And on.

The biggest benefit I’m finding so far is awareness. I want to become more aware of how I’m spending my time. I want to become more aware of how much time I’m spending on different areas (time spent socializing, versus my business, versus my album). I want to become more aware of the discrepancies between my predictions and what actually happens in real life.

So far, so good.

x

-Alysia

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Daily Live Videos

I love creating videos. It’s an immediate form of connection and expression. It’s faster and more personal than writing, though I still love writing plenty. How could I pick between the two? Writing allows for careful consideration, and there’s an artistry to stringing words together in new and beautiful ways.

Video backstory

In 2015, I committed to creating three videos per week for my YouTube channel PianoTV, which I did for a full two years. For two years after that, I published two videos a week. I’ve been taking something of a break in 2020, posting piano videos sporadically, but I’m looking to get back into publishing one video every week or two on that channel for the rest of the year.

I love talking about music and piano, but it’s also a lot of fun to talk (and write) about other areas of my life. I’m passionate about personal growth, cooking, reading, and a smattering of other things. I’ve created some videos on my personal YouTube channel, but the process of filming – setting up my equipment, recording, editing and uploading – is time-consuming, time I don’t have due to the demands of my work, various projects, and my toddler.

Live videos every day in September

As such, I decided it would be fun to film short live videos every single day in September. I’m currently on Day 8, and the process has been fun so far. None of my topics are pre-determined – I just pick something I’d like to talk about each day when I sit down in front of my smartphone.

This idea was directly inspired by Lauren, a super awesome person who’s been doing daily live Facebook sessions for 800+ days in a row. How hardcore is that? If she can do years of daily videos, surely I can commit to thirty days.

The benefits of creating live videos

Since I’ve created so many videos (something like 450 through PianoTV alone, not to mention all the videos in my courses), I’m fairly comfortable in front of the camera. There are some other skills I’d like to build through this process, however, namely:

  • Keeping my thoughts organized and concise (limited to 10 minutes per day, often shorter)
  • Sharing more personal details about my life (this is a big sticking point – I love the idea of being open, vulnerable and sharing the good and the bad – I’m just not very skilled at this)
  • Self-discipline (by committing to something for 30 days and actually doing it)
  • Being more comfortable with live videos (mistakes and pauses will happen)

Say I wanted to get into public speaking. Wouldn’t it be great to have the experience of doing a bunch of live videos, where I had the chance to practice improvisation and clarity of thought, before getting on a stage?

I can see this practice benefiting my life in other areas as well. Perhaps I’ll become a more skilled conversationalist, better able to get to the point and communicate my thoughts.

On a personal level, maybe it’ll allow me to feel less insecure about my flaws and shortcomings by sharing them publicly. Being able to share all sides of myself – the sides I like and the sides that aren’t so favorable – might allow me to be more myself. If I have nothing to hide, then how can I not be exactly who I am? There’s a deep strength that comes with self-acceptance. If I accept and embrace myself, the light and the dark, how could I not be stronger, more alive, more capable of going after everything I want in life?

Who knows where the next three weeks of this challenge will lead. Who knows what I’ll talk about. I feel excited and lit up by that. Each day is a new little surprise. Each day, I’m 1% stronger, and 1% less afraid.

-A

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Posting my Five Year Plans

I just finished creating a page for my five-year plans and updated my “now” page to detail my quarterly and annual goals.

Will it Fly?

This was largely inspired by a conversation with a friend after doing the first exercise in Pat Flynn’s book‌‌ “Will it Fly?”. He had decided to go through the exercises in the book as a way to come up with a highly-aligned business idea that we can work on together with another friend. I’m excited to continue going through the book as well, and will post some takeaways as I‌ do.

I‌ was nervous to share my five-year plans with him. Five-year plans tend to be a little ridiculous. You consider the absolute best-case scenario, and sometimes it feels a little delusional. I‌ struggle with striking the balance between audacity and pragmatism. Too audacious and you’re living in a fantasy. To pragmatic and you’re not going to care about your plan.

But after we discussed each and every point on our lists, including the audacious ones that made me cringe to say out loud, I‌ realized something. If I’m afraid to say something out loud, how will I‌ ever hope to create it in real life?

Fears and objections

I’m afraid of sounding stupid, delusional, ridiculous, greedy and narcissistic. But if my five-year plans make me feel that way, it means I’m not properly aligned with them.

(Note that I’m calling them “five-year plans”, not “five-year dreams”. Dreams are all well and good, but they feel very someday. Everything on my list is something I’m working toward in the real world. These are ideas I’m bringing into physical reality – dreams tend to live in your head.)

If I‌ was fully aligned with everything on my list, there would be no inner resistance to them. I might feel challenged by them, but I’d know on a gut level that I‌ was absolutely capable of them.

Upgrading my character

Part of setting audacious five-year goals is becoming the type of person who resonates with those goals. It’s about getting rid of all the mental boundaries around them. It’s about transforming thoughts like, “this is delusional” into “this is a stretch but absolutely within my capabilities”. It’s not so much about taking action – though that’s a massive part of it – but transforming who‌ I am and how I‌ think.

That’s what excites me most – pushing my own boundaries, raising the ceiling, and growing my character.

Practicing courage through transparency

As such, I’ve decided to publicly share my five-year plans on this blog and write about the process. One thing I‌ love about Pat Flynn is how transparent he is with his business – his monthly income reports are downright inspirational. I want to be transparent about my life’s journey in hopes that you can find inspiration here as well.

My gut lurches a little at sharing this so openly, but it’s an opportunity for me to lean into courage, my primary word for 2020.

I‌ hope you’ll share the journey with me. It’s going to be a ride. 🙂

-Allysia

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Five-year plans are a bad idea.

I’m a huge planner. I love sitting down to a blank page to dream up scenarios and make lists. I plan my week ahead. At the end of the year, I like to plan my year ahead. And I‌ love daydreaming about my future self and all the things she’ll have achieved and tried and experienced.

Problem is, it’s a bad idea to make plans based on what you’d like to achieve in five years.

The logic goes like this:‌‌ In five years, I want to be a traveling and performing musician. So then I‌ work backward and figure out what I‌ need to accomplish this year, and then break that down further and figure out what I‌ need to accomplish in the next quarter. Makes sense, right?

This is how I’ve always done it. But life doesn’t work like that.

The universe is really interesting. Some of the coolest opportunities that come to us are totally unexpected, things we could’ve never predicted. We meet new people. We receive a job offer out of left field. A friend tells us they’re working on a creative project that sounds fun, but is completely outside the realm of anything we’ve done. So why plan for a future you can’t predict?

I’m not saying don’t plan at all. And I’m certainly not saying to submit yourself to the whims of the universe, floating goallessly through life.

But there is an approach that makes more sense. It’s in two parts.

1) Take action now. If I‌ want to be a performing musician in five years, that means‌‌‌ I’m really interested in music right now, at this very moment. Therefore I should ride that wave, and take advantage of the energy that this interest in music creates. If I‌ write some music, maybe play with friends, maybe try an open mic night or other type of performance, then I’m already a performing musician. If I enjoy it and keep at it, perhaps I’ll end up a higher-level touring musician in five years. Or perhaps, after taking action on it for a little while, a totally unforeseen opportunity for something else comes up. Maybe I play a show, and meet with someone who’s making a film, and end up collaborating on a film score. You really never know.

But you need to take action on what seems fun and interesting. We often get stuck in research/analysis mode. There’s nothing wrong with research, but it can be a way to delay taking action. You spend three months reading about writing music instead of just writing and experimenting, and you’re no closer to being that performing musician. Whereas in the first example, maybe you’ve already gone up on stage in front of others.

2) Instead of making 5-year plans, consider your 5-year character. We can’t predict the things that will happen in five years. There are way too many wildcards, and life would be boring if you could. What IS worth thinking about, and working toward, is the kind of person you want to be. The character traits you’d like to develop.

Is your five-year-from-now self more courageous? More emotionally expressive? More organized? Honorable? Forthright? Energetic? Fun? Creative?‌ Intuitive? Self-sufficient? Loving?‌ Kind?

Sometimes opportunities arise that allow us to upgrade our character. Perhaps you go through a devastating experience that ends up making you a more compassionate person. Perhaps an experience with being swindled makes you develop more honesty in your own character.

Even though we can’t control the things that happen to us, we can control what happens within us. The kind of person we are right now, and the kind of person we become.

Taking action now on those crazy-exciting ideas is going to make your life immediately better – no waiting for five years. And thinking about how you might improve your character is also something that can happen today.

Who is the person you want to become, and how can you be more like that person right now?

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On getting a personal trainer.

Today I went to the gym and had a session with a personal trainer. He showed me how to improve my squat form, made me realize that my lower core strength is abominable, and that my hips are strong.

Most importantly, though – having a fitness trainer was fun!

All of the pressure of knowing what to do was taken off my shoulders. I just needed to show up and do the work. Hard work, I‌ might add. Harder than I would’ve worked if I was on my own.

As a piano teacher, I understand the reasons having a personal coach can 10x your results. It’s so nice to rely on someone else’s expertise instead of having to figure everything out for yourself, unsure of if you’re even doing it right. Both in fitness and piano, for example, it’s difficult to self-correct posture, but doing so can make a night-and-day difference in your results, not to mention avoiding injury.

All my life, I’ve considered the expense of a personal trainer to be frivolous. That’s why I’ve never had one before. I can use free resources and figure it out on my own, so why not just do that?

But there’s something about the social element – someone expecting you to be there at a certain time – and the accountability element – do the work!‌ – that makes having a trainer so effective. It’s expensive, yes. But there’s the reward of a fun gym session, a social experience, pushing myself harder than I would’ve otherwise, and not having to plan anything. That makes it worth the cost to me.

It makes me think about what other areas of my life I could 10x with some individual sessions. Wouldn’t it be great to have personal trainers in other aspects of life? You could have someone come to your house and teach you how to cook great meals. You could have an artist show you how to paint with watercolors. A fashion designer help you choose your wardrobe. A‌ hair stylist help you with your everyday looks. A personal development coach to help you dream big. A psychologist to help you untangle your past. And on, and on, and on.

Not all at once, unless that’s how you prefer to live your life. 🙂

I’m going to start leaning in this direction. Instead of trying to rely on myself to do everything, why not outsource to others, saving myself time to focus on what I do best?

There’s value in being thrifty and resourceful, in being able to learn new things. Those are qualities I’ve already developed. Now I’m ready for a different adventure. Outsourcing as a way to grow faster.

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Self-discipline, the crucial skill you must build

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.

-Allysia

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