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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