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.
I have a wonderful friend who inspired me with today’s post. He shared a list of his – a sort of “life philosophies” list, a list of things to keep in mind – and it’s been on my mind all week. I wanted to create my own list, print it, and put it somewhere I’ll see often.
My list has several similarities with his (he had some great ideas!), but I went deep and thought about what the most important things are in life (to me), some rules of thumb, and questions to ask myself.
I’ll share this list here today in the hopes that it’ll inspire you to create your own or reflect on your own priorities.
Hope you enjoy it!
The most important things in my life
2. Having the confidence and courage to express that honesty.
3. Energy. This means taking care of my health and body with diet and exercise, taking care of my mind with frequent ideas and input, and taking care of my heart with the things which fill my cup.
3a. Diet and exercise: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (Michael Pollan). The exercise that I enjoy best is daily walks interspersed with occasional sports (like tennis), yoga and HIIT.
3b. An energetic mind: My mind functions best when it receives plenty of input, such as by reading many non-fiction books and listening to interesting podcasts. Ancillary to this is having frequent interesting conversations with people.
3c. Filling the cup: Things that make me feel whole and fulfilled include time spent with loved ones, writing music or working on other creative endeavors, writing, and having a little space in my life to breathe and not “do”.
4. Marriage. Continually reinforce this bond with random acts of kindness, interesting conversations, and weekly dates. Prioritize my marriage, especially over tasks that seem important but aren’t (like checking emails).
5. Time. Time is one of my most precious resources, and all of my decisions should take this into account. Am I making the most of my time? Am I organized and efficient? Do I have enough time for the things that matter most (relationships, fun, personal development, creative projects)?
6. Relationships with others (children, family, close friends). Be thoughtful and giving. Remember and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Have meaningful conversations that strengthen our bonds. Be a non-judgemental safe space.
7. Autonomy. Prioritize having freedom and control in my life and work.
8. Money. Increase revenue (to create more time and autonomy), decrease expenses, and make investments.
9. Reverence. Take time to appreciate the beauty and sacredness of life. Step out of the ordinary and remember the extraordinary.
10. Learning and knowledge. Along with health, relationships, and passion projects, learning/knowledge make my life rich and fulfilling.
11. Passion projects. Pursue creative passions and projects without fear.
Rules of thumb
1. Never have my phone at the table.
2. Eat meals with my family whenever possible.
3a. Before speaking, run my words through three filters: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
3b. Don’t engage in gossip or negative talk about others.
3c. Complaints are seldom if ever necessary.
4a. Limit/moderate spending on non-essential things (makeup, clothing, impulse purchases, take-out)
4b. Spend freely (within reason) on things which contribute to my personal and professional growth (books, courses, exams, membership groups)
5. Remember to breathe and slow down. Stop and smell the roses.
6. Listening to music enriches my life, so don’t be lazy about it.
7. Prioritize sleep (7-8 hours).
8a. Ask questions about others instead of talking about myself.
8b. Don’t be afraid to share my opinions and viewpoints in a non-aggressive manner.
8c. Don’t allow opinions and viewpoints to become my personality, which creates rigidity. Be open and willing to consider another point of view.
9. Don’t wear sweatpants or leggings-as-pants outside the home (exception is wearing leggings to the gym).
10. Take good care of my possessions so they last longer.
11. Make simple decisions in 5 minutes or less (ie what to eat for dinner).
12. Allow myself and others the ability to make mistakes without judgment or criticism.
13. Take the time to cook nice meals, even if they’re simple and quick.
1. How can I have more fun with this?
2. How can I be more social with this?
3. What would 10x my results?
4. Who are five people who have what I want?
5. Is this the most important/best use of my time?
6. What can I learn from this experience?
7. Can I learn more by doing a 30-day trial on this subject?
Even though we’ve lived at this house for 5 years, it’s not too late for a house tour – right? We’ll be making some changes in the next year, so I thought it’d be fun to take you around our space, which we’re very proud of.
P.S., we didn’t clean or tidy before this video, so what you see is real life! 🙂
It’s Friday afternoon and I’m wrapping up some work-related tasks for the week. The sun finally came out, though the air is cold for being the middle of summer.
After enjoying an Ethiopian buffet for lunch, I was waiting to pay. The owner had to go hunt down the debit machine, so while I waited, my eyes gravitated toward the television.
I’m not a news person. You might call me ignorant, and you might be right. But I’m a sensitive person and news has the tendency to quickly turn me cynical.
On the television, the news was detailing the most recent exploits of ICE. Pulling people from cars, separating parents from children. I almost broke down in tears right there. So easy to say from my point of privilege, as a Canadian woman. But how is it that these things are happening now, in this day and age? How has the fear of immigrants gone this far?
My problems are trivial, but they’re mine. I’m not at risk of deportation or separation from my family, which should be the end of that thought. But still, my own little concerns, little though they may be, feel heavy and weighty in my life.
We’ve been looking at houses in the city, closer to childcare, further from Michael’s work. Currently I drive 1.5 hours (one way) in order to have access to quality childcare. I’ve been doing this a couple times a week for over half a year, and the longer it goes on, the more rage I feel, rage against a broken system. Canada is better than the United States, but childcare is expensive and not readily available to all. It’s why so many moms decide to stay home while their children are young, permanently affecting their ability to advance their career in a meaningful way.
I want to be a mom AND have a meaningful career. It shouldn’t be so hard to have both.
Moving to the city means a daily commute of 1.5 hours for my husband, so it isn’t a fair trade-off. At the same time, it isn’t fair that I have to drive so far just to work, especially with a child who doesn’t always like the long drive. Few things are more stressful than inconsolable screaming during endless highway stretches.
If I could learn to be happy with what is. If I could embrace being a stay-at-home mom, and put work on the backburner. Even for a year. We could ride out Michael’s work contract and consider moving afterward. When I write it out, when I think about it, it seems like the obvious answer. Just deal with it, right?
Yet when I turn that over in my heart, I just feel blue. Heavy. Like the story of my next year will be defined by a resigned sigh.
Staying at home and being a good parent is challenging, but I don’t mind it. I spent the first year of Jane’s life scaling way back on work and focusing on being a stay-at-home mom. I made good friends centered around playdates. I cooked food and kept the house in order. It was fine. But now I’m in a phase where I want to focus on work. Especially because the possibility exists of becoming a parent to an infant again, which will reset the cycle.
The problem is the lack of choice. If I had the choice, I would work 3-4 days a week right now. It’s just too much driving, too much time away from home. A regular 8-hour day turns into a 12-hour day.
Still, there are real issues in the world and I’m stuck on this one. I’m complaining about a commute, but at least I have a family to commute to.
Many women would kill to be in my position. We can afford for me to stay at home with my daughter. Between my (small) income and my husband’s (slightly less small) income, we’ve been able to make it work in our little town. Many women work long hours with low pay and don’t have the option to stay home, even if they wanted to. Other women, like myself, feel somewhat forced into the situation, and a little resentful about it as a result.
Jane loves her current daycare. She’s excited to go there, and happily waves goodbye when I drop her off. Playing with the kids is a nice reprieve for her. The thought of pulling her out as the winter months approach, a real possibility, is a heartbreaking.
Where I live, winter driving can be unpredictable. Blowing snow, blizzards, fog, and ice are all reasonably common. In the peak of winter, we only have 8 daylight hours, and highway driving in the dark in these conditions only exacerbates them. Last winter I braved the highways once a week for daycare because I was desperate, but I don’t know that I’d do it again. It’s one thing if it’s just me in the car; it’s another entirely when my daughter’s in there with me.
So then Michael is supposed to drive in these conditions, and every day? Is that a fair trade-off?
We’ve been making serious plans to list our house in the fall and to start looking for a new place in the city. This should thrill me, but I’m left feeling guilty and a little bit blue. My husband is such a generous and kind person. Moving makes his life so much harder, but he wants to make my life easier.
Why can’t I do the same for him? Put it off for a year, or even half a year? Try to shove that resigned sigh back down and make the most of it?
So we’re floating in the ether of indecision, with no decision on either side being an easy one. I’m waiting for that alternative – that brilliant idea that is so perfect and I can’t believe why I didn’t think of it before.
Like maybe we just go travel. Do the opposite of settle down. Embrace the ether. But then I think about it, and it seems prohibitively difficult. Too difficult to be worth it.
What about getting a little condo in the city, so I can have a place to live during the work week, and then go home for the weekends? A temporary solution for the next school year? But that’s expensive and I don’t want to be away from my husband so much, and to have him be away from his daughter so much.
We’ve been having a wonderful summer so far. The pacing has been good and we’ve had lots of time together as a family. In some moments I’m blindingly happy. In some moments, it’s clouds over that sunny sky. It’s a little bit blue. Thanks for reading.