Thoughts From My Office

When I reviewed Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner yesterday, I hinted that I would spend part of today’s post expanding on Newport’s idea that “work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus.”

Newport, in this case, is specifically writing about dividing your work periods into “focused bursts” — and while I am all about batch scheduling, I’m more interested in applying the equation to what I’m currently doing at the piano.

Specifically: how long can I maintain direct focus on what I’m actually playing?

This is harder than it sounds. It is so, so easy to start daydreaming, especially when you’re playing something you know fairly well — and especially-especially when you’re playing something you don’t know all that well.

Earlier this week, I tweeted “Daydreaming is your brain resisting uncertainty,” and although I know there are other reasons why we daydream (boredom, for example, though it could be argued that boredom in and of itself is an uncertain state), I have noticed that my brain is much more likely to seek out distractions if I’m about to tackle something I’m not quite sure about.

I want to share two videos with you, and then we’ll move on to Where I Got Published:

That’s me playing the first movement of Mozart K332, which I don’t believe you’ve ever heard me play before (I write “I don’t believe” like I don’t know full well I hadn’t shared it with you before this).

I wanted to test how long I could focus just on the piece without thinking about anything else — like what I was going to eat for lunch, or what work I had to do that afternoon, or even whether I thought I was playing the piece particularly well. (Evaluating what you’re doing while you’re doing it is also a distraction. Takes you out of the moment.)

I lasted for 1 minute and 15 seconds.

Which means I’ve spent the entire week working on building my focus muscle. (Progressive overload, but for the brain.)

What I found out was the more I focused on what I was playing, the more it felt like play.

This also increases the speed at which you can learn a piece and/or fix errors, but that’s almost a side benefit.

Anyway. I want to share one more video with you, and this is the good-ol’ second movement again, only this time I’m actually playing.

It’s so beautiful. I am so focused. I’m experiencing the piece as an experience.

And then.

See, about a week ago L and I were playing the piano for each other, and we discovered that I had misread or mislearned one of the notes. (The D four measures from the end — basically I had been playing it as a C for months.)

I relearned it, or thought I had, and then when I get to the very end of the piece, after over four minutes of literally being in the moment, my brain said “hey, wait, I’m pulling up two different options for what comes next and I don’t know which one is right.”

And then the whole thing falls apart.

(And then you can see me try to play the ending through a few more times, and then you can see me decide to stop working.)

(I did start working again, as soon as I turned the video off.)

Anyway, here is the video of what I just narrated in case you’d like to see it for yourself — and if you’d rather keep scrolling, next up is Where I Got Published This Week. ❤️


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Book Review: The Time-Block Planner by Cal Newport

Nicole Dieker has written many book reviews, including posts on Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You (“a must-read guide to building a creative career”) and Deep Work (“which makes me wonder if people can only tackle a large creative project if they don’t have any more-important problems for their brains to solve”).

I’m never going to use Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner.

But that’s only because I’ve been time-blocking, on my own, for years.

I can’t remember when I first wrote about time-blocking — I know I wrote about my personal time-block strategy for The Write Life in 2017, and YES I CITED CAL NEWPORT AS ONE OF THE ORIGINATORS OF THE TIME-BLOCK PRODUCTIVITY METHOD, always cite your sources, but the point is that I have all of this stuff already laid out on a spreadsheet.

What I’d like to do with every part of the day, from the moment I wake up to the moment I start winding down.

Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner — aka The Time-Block Planner: A Daily Method for Deep Work in a Distracted World — asks you to do much the same thing. To plan out your day in advance, blocking off dedicated chunks of time for your most important work. To stick to the plan as closely as possible, whenever possible. To make a plan that works for you, including overflow time (because something always overflows) and enough space in your day to care for both yourself and your loved ones.

Plus, of course, the all-important rest and recovery that you’ll for-sure need if you want enough energy to spend dedicated chunks of time on your most important work tomorrow.

There’s a reason Newport wants you to do this on paper, and it has something to do with paper not having Twitter attached to it, but at this point I am so in touch with my personal time-block spreadsheet that I’m not interested in making the effort to switch.

Plus, the Time-Block Planner only includes thirteen weeks’ worth of time blocks. You’d need to buy four planners to get you through the year, and you probably already have a spreadsheet program on whatever device you’re currently using to read this book review.

Of course, that device also comes with Twitter attached. And email. And whatever might distract you from doing the work of planning when you are going to do your work.

Which is why, if you are interested in an absolutely analog method of time-blocking, a paper planner could be an effective tool.

(Please note that analog /= distraction-free. Your device could still beep at you while you’re writing something in your paper planner. The doorbell could ring. You could accidentally bump your coffee mug with your elbow and have to stop everything to clean up your mess.)

How does time-blocking work? I covered the jist of it at the beginning of the book review (plan your day, hour by hour), but effective time-blocking essentially centers on two series of decisions:

  1. Decide how you want to prioritize your time
  2. Decide how you want to prioritize changes

A paper Time-Block Planner asks you to cross out the sections of your time-block plan that no longer work (because you spilled coffee all over everything and cleaning it up took the 10-minute slot you were going to give to email) and draw a new time-block plan immediately to the right, with a newly-prioritized schedule.

A spreadsheet lets you shuffle cells around, although Newport argues that the paper method is superior because you can see how you planned your day vs. how you actually used your day, and that information can help you create better plans in the future.

Also, you’re supposed to actually use your day the way you plan it. That’s the biggest part of this whole deal, and the part that no paper or electronic sheet can make you do unless you come into this process already wanting to do it.

If you don’t stick to your plan, whether due to external or internal circumstance, you’re supposed to open your Time-Block Planner, cross out your beautifully-drawn plan, and draw up what you hope might happen next.

Or, to quote the Time-Block Planner (and Cal Newport) directly:

Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs: it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward — even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.

Does time-blocking work? YES.

Does time-blocking work if you have the kind of job where your day isn’t solely yours to plan? YES. (Having done both, I’ll admit that time-blocking is easier when you are 100% in charge of your workday — but if you have a job that gives you at least some discretion in how you spend your time, time-blocking can help you use that time effectively.)

Does time-blocking work if you have a partner who also has ideas about what the two of you should do with your time? YES. Especially when you use the time-blocking system to block off time for the two of you to spend together.

Does time-blocking work if you have kids? I DON’T KNOW. Cal Newport has kids, so I’d wager a yes on that one… but you’d have to ask him yourself.

Does time-blocking allow for unscheduled time, spontaneity, wandering conversations, actual wandering, etc. etc. etc.? YES. You can put as much “whim time” in your Time-Block Planner as you want (I have literally written about the importance of scheduling unscheduled time, go read it).

What if I don’t want to do the thing I blocked into my Time-Block Planner? Change your plan. (If you never want to do the things you block into your Time-Block Planner, you may need to change a few other aspects of your life as well.)

What is your favorite part of Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner? The page on which he writes “work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus.”

I’ll write more on that particular equation tomorrow. ❤️

When Maintaining a Regular Writing Schedule Goes Out the Window

Stephanie Harper is the author of Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside (Propertius Press, 2020), as well as the poetry collection Sermon Series (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Her narrative nonfiction work can be found in a number of publications, including HelloGiggles, HuffPost, Living Lutheran, Grok Nation, Aleteia, Healthline, The Daily Dot, Folks Magazine and more. She often writes about chronic illness and spirituality.

If you’ve spent any time in writing circles, you’ve probably heard some version of the “write every day” adage. The intent of this advice is sensible. After all, the only way to really hone your craft as a writer (or in any creative pursuit) is to continue doing it. To quote another popular cliché: practice makes perfect. 

In a perfect world, I would practice my writing all day, every day, churning out work at a rate of prolificacy that would make the Stephen Kings or Joyce Carol Oates of the world blush. But this is not a perfect world and I am far from a perfect writer. This is real life. 

Let me give you a snapshot of my real life. I have been plagued with increasingly complex chronic illness for close to a decade. For the last seven years, that has included a constant, unremitting headache I woke up with one morning and haven’t been without for a single second since. I spend a lot of time resting, because any physical or mental exertion wears me out. I nap daily. If I don’t take these breaks, if I don’t get the rest I need, if I overdo it too often, I can be down and out for a week or longer. 

All of this is to say that my writing life has suffered. Where I used to write in floods, churning out pages and pages each day, now I write in trickles. I also maintain a part-time job (all I can manage with my increasingly severe symptoms) that requires creative work, and this work often takes precedence. Finding time — and perhaps more importantly, energy — to write for me, to work on my stuff, isn’t always easy. 

More than anything, this makes me feel like an imposter. When I go days at a time without working on my next book, without writing a single thing, how can I call myself a writer? Add in all the feelings of being in a pandemic, and I know I’m not writing anywhere near as often or as successfully as I would like to be. It’s easy to feel disappointed in myself, my situation, all of it. It’s easy to get into cycles of frustration which only increases my lack of motivation.  

And yet, the writing still comes. I publish articles and essays, often about my health — which has been it’s own sort of catharsis. I published my debut fiction novel in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, and threw myself into launching and marketing the book. I have worked a great deal on my current project, a sort of health memoir in essays, and it isn’t out of the question that I could have a final draft by the end of 2021. I have found what works for me — and while it might not be conventional, it is working.

For all of us who just can’t make a commitment to a daily writing habit, here are a few alternatives that I have found helpful at various times in my writing life:

  • Set a weekly word count or page goal. This is especially helpful for writers who are working on a novel, memoir, or some other long-term project. What’s nice about a weekly word goal is that you can still feel that sense of accomplishment, but you can fit the writing of those words into whatever pockets of time work for you. 
  • Speaking of pockets of time, be intentional about scheduling time to write. It doesn’t have to be every day, of course, but look at your calendar for the week and block out specific chunks for writing. Use those chunks as your allotted time for the week. Then, any additional time is an added bonus. And, if something comes up that prevents you from using that scheduled time, as something often does, just reschedule it. Don’t be hard on yourself. But know that there is always a time in your calendar to look forward to writing. 
  • Produce one great piece of writing a week. This could be one article or essay or short story. This could be 500 or 1,000 words of a manuscript that you’re just really proud of. You get to decide what constitutes a great piece of writing for the week, which also means you have to be intentional about considering your own work and finding something to love about it. 
  • Don’t discount the importance of thinking about writing. Even if you can’t sit down and put pen to paper (or fingertips to computer keys) on the daily, you are probably thinking about what you are working on, planning, plotting, or revising in your mind. This is all a really important part of the writing process. Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself of this. Buy a fancy notebook where you jot down all your best ideas. Keep a running bullet list on individual projects on your phone or in an email thread so it’s easy to update whenever inspiration strikes. If you are the type whose best ideas come when you can’t sleep, keep a notepad by your bed. However you do it, making a routine of writing out your thoughts will make you feel productive, even on those days when the writing just doesn’t happen. 
  • Celebrate your successes. Whether it’s once a week, a month, or an annual retrospective, make sure you look at all the work you’ve done. List out everything you’ve published, keep track of your total word count, number of drafts, whatever you can look out and see just how much you actually accomplished. It’s always more than you think it is. 

Two Problem-Solving Techniques That Might Be Applicable to More Than Just Piano

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012 and a full-time problem-solver since she was old enough to watch Mathnet. She’s been working on Mozart K332 since August 2020 and has just now gotten the first and second movements to the point where they could be performed in public. (The third one ought to go a little faster, now that she’s got two new techniques to incorporate.)

Yesterday I wrote about the ways in which problem-solving is the process of going from guessing to knowing — and, as promised, today I am going to share two problem-solving techniques that are helping me get to “knowing” a little more quickly.

At least at the piano.

(L thinks they could apply to the rest of life as well.)

These two techniques can technically (pun intended) be categorized under the same header and/or umbrella:

Avoid passive learning.

(You can reframe that as “learn actively,” if you’d rather focus on the positive.)

Here’s the first technique I’ve been using to solve piano problems:

Every time you repeat something that isn’t currently working, decide what you want to change on your next repetition — and then evaluate whether or not you actually changed it.

I initially wrote “improved” instead of “changed,” but switched it back because not all changes are necessarily improvements. You might think that the reason a particular piano passage is still unspecific/unsecure/uncertain is because you’re using an inefficient fingering, for example — and maybe the first alternate fingering you try isn’t an improvement at all, so you try a couple different ones until you find something that works for the passage you’re trying to learn.

Or, maybe you try a few different fingerings and then decide that you’re pursuing the wrong solution to the problem.

You get the idea.

(L swears all of this is applicable to more than just piano.)

The part where you have to ask yourself “did I actually implement the change I said I would” is also important. Especially when you’re working through something over and over and over. It is so easy to get into a kind of dogged repetition, where you tell yourself that if you just do the thing enough times, it will improve on its own — and it’s also easy to get into the kind of automatic repetition where you play something five times in a row and then think “wait, wasn’t I going to focus on making sure I didn’t switch to the second finger at the end of that chromatic run” and realize you completely forgot to do that.


If you are able to change, improve, or reinforce something every time you approach a section of whatever piano piece you’re working on — and I don’t mean “every day,” I mean “every single time you play it” — the entire learning process accelerates tremendously.

Which is good, because the kind of sustained focus required to make these decisions, adjustments, and evaluations is difficult to maintain. I have to actively work at avoiding automatic repetition, and although I’m getting better with practice (pun intended, again), there are still plenty of times when I stop myself and say “Nicole, you played those last two repetitions without thinking about them at all.”

On the plus side, focusing on what you’re repeating often leads to fewer repetitions. That is, you can clarify and specify a section of music after five or six actively focused passes, rather than twenty-five dogged repetitions that might yield some low-hanging-fruit improvements but might also reinforce sloppy playing or generate a bunch of uncertainties and incorrectnesses that you’ll have to unlearn later.

Essentially, you’re spending the same amount of time at the piano but less time, like, touching it.

Instead, you’re putting that time into thinking about what you’re going to do next.

And when I decide what I’m going to do next, I write it down.

This is where L and I differ — he argues that part of strengthening your memory is holding all of that stuff in your memory, and I argue that the only way I’ve ever remembered a thing is by writing it down first (even though I nearly always memorize it immediately afterwards).

I mean, I literally had that sentence written down in my notebook as part of the outline for this piece (even though I didn’t need to refer back to the notebook when I was writing the blog post).

But that was going to be the second technique I was going to tell you about, and although “write it down (if you’re into that kind of thing)” seems much less impressive than “every time you repeat something that isn’t working, identify a change and then identify whether you were able to successfully apply the change,” I stand by my initial statement that both of these problem-solving techniques are helping me expedite the process of going from guessing to knowing.

At least at the piano. ❤️

(Now I’ll finish reading this to L and wait for him to tell me that it’s really about everything.)

Problem-Solving Is the Process of Going From Guessing to Knowing

What does it mean to solve a problem?

I feel like I cannot be the first person to have tried to answer this question, though a quick Google search reveals — well, that Merriam-Webster defines problem-solving as “the process or act of finding a solution to a problem,” which doesn’t seem particularly helpful, and that someone named Gene P. Agre wrote an article titled “What Does It Mean To Solve Problems?” in the Spring 1983 issue of the Journal of Thought.

This, at least, is worth considering. Here’s a quote from the article preview (that is, the only part of Agre’s article I could read without creating a JSTOR account):

Solving is an activity that brings about a result, and the identity of the concept of solving is a function of the activity-result combination.

That sounds like something I might have written myself. Let’s keep going.

[…] whenever someone solves anything whatever, some form, structure or pattern is brought about out of an initial state which is disorganized, unformed, or lacks the desired characteristic.

Ah, there it is.

Problem-solving is bringing form to the unformed. Structure to the disorganized. Coherence to the incoherent.

And on the way — as both I and the scientific method will argue — a person goes from guessing to knowing.

This seems less ground-breaking than it felt when I told L about it last week. I was trying to explain what I had learned while I was practicing the piano, specifically that the reason I kept having difficulty with one of the sections of the second movement of the Mozart was because “I didn’t fully know it yet. I was still guessing, which meant that it didn’t always come out the same way every time. I had to get to the point where I knew exactly how I wanted to play it — wait, that’s what problem-solving is, isn’t it? Going from guessing to knowing?”

And then I immediately asked L whether “guessing” and “knowing” could be glossed onto Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 — that is, the two methods of thinking he describes in Thinking Fast and Slow. (System 1 assumes; System 2 assesses.) It’s both an incomplete and an incorrect gloss, and I abandoned it as soon as I brought it up, but it’s worth mentioning because that’s where much of my System 2 thinking is right now.

Well, technically it’s one step further.

If problem-solving is the process of going from guessing to knowing, then there could be an advantage to learning how to expedite that process.

Especially when you’re, like, learning piano repertoire.

Is there also an advantage to learning how to de-expedite the problem-solving process? To take as much time as it takes to know, and to explore different avenues of what knowing might mean? It would seem to be the case — especially when you are considering the Big Problems (life, death, love, basically all of philosophy and religion) for which a measurable knowing doesn’t necessarily exist.

How to live, after all, is a problem that should take an entire life to solve.

But I’d like to get a little more efficient at learning how to play Mozart.

With that in mind, in the past week I’ve discovered two piano practice techniques that have helped me accelerate the process of going from guessing to knowing, neither of which are probably all that applicable to anything else besides the type of problem-solving that involves rapid memorization, precision, and physical recall.

I’ll tell you about them anyway, just in case they might be applicable to something else as well.

More tomorrow. ❤️

(Also I really should make a JSTOR account and read that whole article. Consider it on the to-do list.)

Thoughts From My Office

Let’s start with this week’s work-showing. I really wanted to get the second movement of Mozart K332 performance-ready, as it were — and I almost thought it was, but as soon as I put it under the pressure of “making a recording,” I realized there were still some uncertainties in the recapitulation.

This is still astoundingly more specific than it was last week, specifically because I am using some new practice-and-problem-solving techniques that I will write about next week.

But the ending is still… well, you can hear the moment at which it becomes uncertain. This wasn’t a nerves-related fluke, either; I played this piece for Marian Call over Zoom last night (I feel like I ought to restate that as “I played this piece for Alaskan singer-songwriter Marian Call, whose music you should immediately listen to and/or buy”), and the uncertainties appeared again, right in the same place, even though they didn’t show up when I was just playing the piece for myself.

Some of this may also have to do with the whole “I’m getting to the end of the piece, I’ve played it so well, I really really really don’t want to mess up” thing, because of course when you think “I don’t want to mess up” that leads you to think about “messing up” instead of “doing anything else but messing up” and OF COURSE YOU DO.


More on all of this next week.

Before I share where I got published this week, I should let you know that I finally caught up on Beth Jusino’s Market While You Write class (I should probably restate that as “I caught up on the marketing class taught by award-winning writer, editor, and book publishing consultant Beth Jusino, who is based in Seattle”) and Beth suggested that I start collecting your emails for a mailing list.

I have done mailing lists in the past; right now I kind of count this blog as a “mailing list,” since you can subscribe to it by email, but Beth suggested (directly, to me) that not everyone will want to subscribe to a daily blog post but some people might like to subscribe to a weekly blog roundup or a monthly announcement post.

Which is, in general, the opposite of what I want (I tend to delete announcement emails on sight, because if I’m already following the person through their blog or social media feed I already know what the announcement is going to be).


I am but one data point, and you can provide many — so let me know if you want me to create a separate mailing list that isn’t just “subscribe to my blog via email.”

(Bonus data points if you let me know what you’d like that mailing list to include and how often you’d like to receive emails.)

Let’s take a look at where I got published this week!


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Not-Magic Is Letting the Elements Manipulate You

If magic, as I wrote earlier this week, can be defined as the manipulation of elements, then it would seem to follow that not-magic could be defined as letting the elements manipulate you.


L isn’t as sure of this as I am.

“Isn’t that Zen?” he asked.

“No, it’s not Zen,” I said. “Also I don’t know enough about Zen. But accepting what is around you is different from letting it affect you in a negative way.”

What I’m trying to get at is this idea that not-magic is the assessment of a situation, the understanding that it could lead to a negative outcome, and the decision to let that negative outcome happen even though you could take positive action to prevent it.

(This is different, btw, than watching someone else’s actions lead them towards a negative outcome and not doing the extra work required to prevent that outcome from happening. You can do that work — and we often do that work for the people we love, especially when they are still learning how to be people — but there’s also a time and place for letting natural consequences transpire.)

Essentially I’m arguing that, in any given situation — and especially in a situation that is currently making you feel bad — you have three options:

  • To make choices that you hope will lead to positive outcomes (to improve, transform, create)
  • To do nothing (and accept that you’re going to feel bad, but that’s okay)
  • To make choices that you suspect might lead to negative outcomes (but hey, you’re already feeling bad, it’s the feeling-bad’s fault, that’s why you picked that fight or indulged in that self-destructive behavior)

One of these options leads towards magic.

The other leads away from it.

And the third — well, here’s where it gets interesting.

You might remember, if you read this blog on a regular basis, that Tara K. Shepersky recently wrote about positive action, negative action, and neutral (non)action in her guest post on Virtues and the Creative Life.

She discovered that neutral trends towards negative:

[My husband and I] got into a protracted discussion once, in which we argued each other into an understanding that’s become a tenet of my daily life: there is no such thing as True Neutral. Neutral trends Evil. 

In other words: doing nothing is almost as wrong as doing something you know is wrong.

Right away we run into two big problems: Your Choices Limit Your Choices vs. Everything Is Real (to quote two of my own blog posts, go read them).

On the one hand, you might only have enough time/energy/space in your life to prioritize certain actions — which means you might have to accept “doing nothing” in certain situations, even if you actively want to change those situations.

On the other hand, well… everything is real. Everything in your life affects you (and the people around you) for better or for worse, so why not try to make it better and not worse?

Tara identified three virtues (patience, kindness, and courage) that she is currently using to help her both prioritize and guide her creativity and her choices:

I’ve found that having specific virtues to navigate by gives my art a better chance of spotting neutrality, interrogating its intentions, and bending it toward good.

In my case, I feel like I’m starting to pare everything down to a binary:

Is this magic?

Or is this not-magic?

And, as Tara noted, neutral isn’t really an option.

Either you’re actively trying to solve the problem in front of you or you’re not, and you know, when you start, whether you’re trying to solve the problem.

More on this next week (tomorrow is, of course, Thoughts From My Office), but I’ll give you a hint of what to expect:

Problem-solving is the process of going from guessing to knowing.

Is that statement true? I may have to write a few thousand words before I figure it out — so we’ll start on Monday. ❤️

My Creative Energy Skyrocketed When I Slashed My Mindful Morning Routine

Katie Lemon is a nomadic writer currently based in Oaxaca, Mexico. A self-proclaimed “conscious copywriter,” she works exclusively with brands making a positive impact on the world — from sustainable businesses to non-profits and feminist organizations. She also writes personal essays about travel, sustainability, personal development, and more.

Wake up with the sun. Move through a lengthy yoga sequence before meditating for a half hour. Scribble out morning pages by hand: three laborious pages of stream-of-consciousness gibberish. Bundle up for a brisk morning walk. Come home, peel off all my layers, and craft a balanced breakfast and homemade latte.

Finally, finally, sit down at my computer to work. Wait — no, I still have to set my intentions for the day. Close laptop. Check the time. 10:30 a.m. Bang head on desk repeatedly.

I’ve always believed in the power of a solid routine. By following the same daily structure, I’ve been able to work away at even the most insurmountable tasks and see real progress take shape in both my personal and professional life. 

Plus, having lived in five cities and three countries over the last couple of years, my routines have felt nothing short of essential. Without them, I feel untethered. So when I dove headfirst into full time freelance work over a year ago, I knew I wanted to establish the sort of morning routine that would keep my creativity stoked and my passion for my work alive. 

Enter the morning routine to end all morning routines: a laundry list of healthy habits and introspective practices that would surely make my freelance life blossom with creative insight and productivity.

When I first decided to do yoga, meditate, write morning pages, walk, cook a hot breakfast, and set daily intentions before launching into the tasks that actually made up my job, I figured I may have discovered the secret to an ideal work-life balance — a sort of enlightenment I couldn’t wait to achieve.

I could see it so clearly: I’d feel more grounded than ever. I’d float from task to task after my luxurious morning routine, feeling so deeply connected to my inner well of creativity that ideas would pour forth from me with ease. My skin would begin to glow. Tiny cherubs would float around me as I lay down to sleep at the end of a satisfying work day. And then I’d wake up to do it all again, my energy never wavering.

The night before I set out to accomplish this lengthy list of to-do’s for the first time, I gleefully set an alarm for 7 a.m. I envisioned myself waking up with birdsong and the sun, stretching my arms overhead, eyes clear and bright.

Instead, when my phone blared at me the next morning, I awoke with a start. Squinting at my screen to turn off the alarm, all I wanted to do was roll over and go back to sleep. But I couldn’t hit snooze, at least not on the first day of what was going to be my Dream Morning Routine.

I begrudgingly sank down onto my yoga mat to crank out a few sun salutations. My creaky morning joints cracked and popped in protest. I dreamt of leaping back into bed, or at least making some coffee. As I moved from one pose to the next, ideas for my work kept running through my mind. But I forced them out, feeling guilty for not staying present in the morning routine that was meant to leave me inspired and refreshed.

The rest of the morning proceeded like that. And so did the rest of the week, and the week after that. Each day, I noticed myself sitting down to work later and later. My breakfasts got more complicated. I decided to add some resistance training before my daily walk. I started hitting snooze, because as soon as I woke up I dreaded the thought of sitting for a half hour with my legs crossed followed by writing three pages of my most asinine morning thoughts. 

No thank you. I’ll just stay here in bed. Morning pages can wait another fifteen minutes, right?

This went on for three months. I spent more time, energy, and focus on my morning routine than any other part of my day. By the time I finally sat down to write for work, I was already sapped of creative energy. I had been up since dawn, and what did I have to show for it? Some chicken scratch filling an old notebook and sore sit bones. But I pushed through, thinking that soon enough, I would feel the benefits of all this inner work that I set aside hours for each day.

At the end of the third month, I landed a big project. It was a rush job for a new client — I would need to pump out a lot of work in a very short amount of time. I was excited to do the job, but nervous, too. So on the first day, I got to work immediately: I woke up, stretched for a few minutes, made some coffee, and jumped straight in. 

After chipping away at the project for a few hours, I had made some major headway. The words had flowed easily. I felt energized and inspired. I stopped to check the time. 10:45 a.m. I did a double take. I had already finished a third of the project by the time I would normally be sitting down to start work. 

That’s when the irony of the situation hit me, and I wasn’t sure if I felt closer to crying or laughing. Forcing myself to check off a 3-4 hour to-do list every day before I could even think about my work had robbed me of the time, energy, and mental space I needed in order to do my best creative work. 

From there, I completely slashed my morning routine for a few weeks. I simply got up when my alarm went off, stretched a bit, and made a quick breakfast before sitting down in front of my computer with a cup of coffee.

I watched my creativity and my productivity skyrocket. Ideas came to me quickly and easily. I had more time to pitch the kind of work I really wanted to be doing, and the energy to turn out my very best work for clients.

I was no longer funneling all my brain power into a bunch of activities that were meant to prepare me for the day, and instead just getting straight to what I needed (and wanted) to be doing: writing.

It’s been over a year now since I realized how detrimental my morning routine was for my creative process. After a few weeks of the most minimal morning routine I’d ever had, I did start to feel a bit ungrounded — like my life revolved around pumping out client work and checking off essential tasks. 

These days, I’ve found a harmonious balance between the “dream” morning routine that left me drained and the minimalist routine that made me feel burnt out. 

I’ve brought back the morning pages because I do love the catharsis that comes from dumping all my thoughts somewhere. But I no longer write them by hand, and I no longer force myself to write three pages — I just open a blank document on my computer and let the words pour out until I feel like I’m finished. I usually do a little yoga before I sit down at my desk chair, but I keep it short, slipping in a 2-3 minute meditation at the end. I make a quick breakfast, but I always cook something hearty enough to stay fueled.

And most mornings, I’m poised at my laptop, digging into my work for the day between 8:30 and 9 a.m. 

I had to listen to my gut rather than a long list of self-imposed “shoulds” to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of. I kept the non-negotiables: the things that truly made me feel grounded and connected to myself. But I shortened them all greatly. 

I thought my dream morning routine was the key to being a creative person and successful writer. I thought that because I could now construct my days however I wanted, there was no reason I shouldn’t indulge in all the habits that normally connect me to my creativity first thing in the morning. 

In reality, all it did was make me feel constantly behind. Like every day was getting away from me. Like I had to complete this list of to-do’s before anything else, even while I tried to hold myself back from drafting the first lines of an article in my head during meditation, or scratch down a reminder to myself to email that one client before I took my morning walk. 

With the balanced morning routine I have now, I still feel like I get to connect to that intentional part of myself that loves to start each day slowly and purposefully. And even moreso, I’m not rigid about it. If I’m feeling inspired and want to jump right into work without doing my morning pages, I do. If I’m feeling antsy and can’t bear the idea of slowly moving through a yoga sequence, I dance around my kitchen while I make breakfast instead. 

I no longer feel beholden to a daily checklist that only gets in the way of my creativity and productivity. Instead, I listen to what my body and brain need each day, and I honor that instead of some arbitrary routine I’ve forced upon myself. 

It’s not perfect, but I have to admit: I feel much closer to being surrounded by cherubs and birdsong every day — and much more connected to my creativity. 

Magic Is the Manipulation of Elements

A short digression, because of the snow — and because L and I have gotten ourselves onto the subject of magic, and I want to work through what I’m thinking about it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to come up with some definition of magic, btw. You might remember what I wrote about magic when I went to Disneyland in 2017:

I don’t believe in magic but I do believe that people can create magic, which is to say they can imbue items or people or experiences with meaning.

In 2018, I reviewed magician Nate Staniforth’s book Here Is Real Magic:

Here Is Real Magic, as the subtitle suggests, isn’t really about magic. It’s about wonder. Staniforth writes about two different kinds of wonder: the kind that can take hold of an audience, which falls in line with my definition of creating magic, and the kind that can take hold of the self.

In 2019, I started reading books about magic and magick and witchcraft:

Enchantments framed magic as the rituals you use to set your intention. The lit candle is not what’s magic, the part that’s magic is the part where you carve your intention into the candle and by doing so focus yourself on what you want or what you are looking for or what you are going to do.

And at the very end of 2019, in the last little bit of the before, I wrote about the way Maggie Stiefvater defined magic in her novel Call Down the Hawk (the quote below is hers, not mine):

If you’ve ever looked into a fire and been unable to look away, it’s that. If you’ve ever looked at the mountains and found you’re not breathing, it’s that. If you’ve ever looked at the moon and felt tears in your eyes, it’s that. It’s the stuff between stars, the space between roots, the thing that makes electricity get up in the morning.


The opposite of magical is not ordinary. The opposite of magical is mankind.

If you were to read all of those excerpts — as I am assuming you just did — you might come away with the idea that magic is an emotional response. Magic is something you feel when something magical happens.

But that’s not quite correct.

Magic, as we all know, is an act.

Which means that magic could also be an action.

L and I got onto this topic by asking ourselves whether more adults would work towards a so-called Piano Achievement if there were such an achievement to be achieved.

Basically, I was arguing that one of the reasons people aren’t interested in doing the difficult work of learning the piano is because there aren’t enough professional opportunities available for everyone with the requisite skills. There aren’t enough paying gigs, to be sure — but there also isn’t quite enough space for every talented musician to find an audience, even doing free recitals or posting videos to YouTube.

Plus, some people don’t want an audience. They just want mastery — and although that kind of mastery is its own reward, more people might pursue the path towards mastery if they started out thinking there would be a reward at the end.

“We need some kind of achievement badge,” I said. “Like what they give out on Steam, when you do something very difficult in a video game. You could send in your video to a qualified group of people, and if they agreed that you had successfully demonstrated excellence at the piano, you’d get your badge.”

We talked about whether it would be like the belt system in karate (“I have a black belt in piano”) or whether it would be like the test required to join Mensa. Whether such a system would reveal that there were more top-level musicians mastering their various instruments in the privacy of their own home than any of us realized, and how that might affect the music industry as a whole.

(Except we kinda figured that out that last bit with YouTube and Bandcamp, and it didn’t change as much as we thought it might.)

And then we started talking about The Magic Castle. The idea that what people really want after developing mastery in a particular skill isn’t a badge, but to be recognized by other masters. To be invited into the club, as it were.

And then we just started talking about magic — what it was, whether it was something that could in fact be created, and whether the two of us were in fact in the process of becoming magicians.

You already know that I don’t mean magician in the traditional sense. Nor in the fantastical sense. I mean it just a tiny bit in the Arthur C. Clarke sense, in that any sufficiently advanced level of mastery, at any discipline worth mastering, could be indistinguishable from magic.

But I also mean it in the Maggie Stiefvater sense, and I’ll go ahead and quote what she wrote about the Magician tarot card in The Raven’s Prophecy:

Regardless of who or what you believe in, the Magician is an extraordinary master of all trades, and he is resilient because no matter what the world throws at him, no matter how much he loses, he will always have the most powerful tool at his command: himself.

And I might mean it in the Lev Grossman sense, because much of the way he had his students study magic in The Magicians was identical to the way musicians approach their instruments. (He even gave them “Popper exercises” to practice.)

Not that this is solely about the magician-musician connection, even though those words are oh-so-very-similar. It’s about — well, you already know how I’m going to define it, you already read the title of this blog post, you already know what I told L over coffee and tea this morning:

Magic is the manipulation of elements.

Magic is the specific choice. (This might mean that magic is also the disciplined choice.)

Magic is the all-green week. Magic is choosing to solve problems and changing behaviors that are no longer working.

Magic is transforming what is in front of you because you have decided to transform it — and the point at which you become a magician is the point at which you know how to do the transformation.

The emotions associated with magic — the wonder and whatnot — are the results you get from this specific, deliberate, disciplined application of knowledge.

(Even — and especially — when you experience the wonder yourself.)

And while being recognized by other magicians might be a desire that is hard to ignore, the truth is that once you have attained that level of mastery in your own life, you won’t need outside recognition because you already know what you already have.

More on this later this week. ❤️