It’s Hard to Focus on Process if You’re Daydreaming About Results

Nicole Dieker almost called this post “the distraction of fame.” But this isn’t really about fame. It’s about something even more important.

Ever since I played for L on Friday — no, ever since I started thinking about what it would take to become a magician-musician — I’ve become kinda mildly-moderately obsessed with the idea of entering the Van Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition.

This is a huge problem, and not just because there isn’t likely to be an opportunity for me to enter until at least 2023 — not that I would be ready to enter now, but the idea that I could enter at some point in the future, and the subsequent ideas regarding what I might play and what I might wear and what it might feel like to win have all become huge huge huge distractions.

It’s hard to focus on process if you’re daydreaming about results.

Or — which is often what we are really daydreaming about — the things that are associated with the results. The new dress, the giant bouquet waiting in the green room, and so on.

You might remember, if you are a long-term reader of this blog, that I once wrote a post about the idea of giving yourself the stuff associated with the results as quickly as possible, so you can get back to the process.

This was because I had started thinking to myself “when I am a famous writer, I’ll be able to work in an beautiful home office filled with plants,” and then I realized that I didn’t have to wait to buy plants.

I could have that part of the dream now, which would help me stop fantasizing about having it and get back to work.

This sounds like I am advocating the opposite of delayed gratification. Not precisely. What I’m saying is that if you are sitting at the piano, thinking “and on that day in 2023 or whenever it is, there will be an absolutely enormous bouquet of flowers waiting for me,” you should go to your local grocery store and drop $10 on the biggest bunch of flowers you can find.

Or the fancy (but still affordable) bottle of champagne, or the new (but still within your budget) dress, or whatever it is that you’re fixating on instead of the work in front of you.

Because when you actually get the results associated with the work you’re doing — not the consumer products, but the actual results — it won’t matter what you’re wearing.

It won’t matter if there are (or aren’t) a dozen roses.

The results are, and have always been, their own reward.

And I know this from experience, which means that as soon as I started thinking about things like “there will be flowers and I’ll get to dress up and talk to interesting people,” I had to stop and say to myself “Nicole, you need to buy yourself some flowers and then you need to put on an outfit you really like and invite some friends over to socially-distance around the fire pit.”

And then I got back to work.

There is another problem, and it’s that as soon as I decided I wanted to enter not only the Van Cliburn but all of the international amateur piano competitions, it would be an excellent way for L and I to tour the world — and notice how I am already focused on the stuff associated with the results, it’s obvious that part of what I want here is to go on vacation with L, and I’ve already done the work to put the most accessible, affordable version of that desire into reality (we explored a very small, very rural state park last Sunday).

But anyway.

As soon as I decided that it was within the realm of possibility to become the kind of pianist who won international amateur competitions, I realized that I needed to first become the kind of pianist who played local recitals.

Which means that part of my attention is now diverted towards the question “what work do I need to do this month to be ready to play a recital this fall?”

And this is related to, but slightly adjacent from, the two questions that were previously dominating my piano study:

  1. How do I become more efficient at solving problems?
  2. How do I increase the length of time during which I can focus on a problem without becoming distracted?

Adding a results-based question to these two process-based questions has already changed the way I practice, and I’m not sure it’s for the best.

But if I really do want to enter international piano competitions — which may still be adjacent from what I really want, which is to be recognized as a magician-musician-thinker-writer-teacher-polymath, even though I already wrote 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 and I still stand by that statement — anyway, if I want to enter the Van Cliburn Amateur someday, I probably need to play a tri-state-area recital this fall.

Or, more specifically, L and I need to play a recital together. (BTW, L is ineligible for the Van Cliburn Amateur because he makes the majority of his income as a piano teacher — which doesn’t seem like a good reason for disqualification, but we don’t make the rules.)

And focusing on the kind of results-based work required to put on a recital might make it harder to focus on the process of becoming a better pianist.

I suppose it’s all about balance — or, at least, I hope it is.

I guess we’ll find out. ❤️

You Have to Practice Playing

Nicole Dieker knows that she is using the word “play” in the way that other people might use the word “flow.” She has read Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow all the way through, twice, and thinks she might be referring to something slightly different. Let’s discuss in the comments.

On Friday, I played the first, second, and much of the third movement of the Mozart for L.

“That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen you do,” he said (and he’s seen me do a lot of incredible things, in case you’re curious). “You were absolutely captivating.”

“I was playing,” I said. “I was keeping my focus on the music and the moment and what I wanted to do with each moment.”

And then I said “It’s so incredibly hard.”

You would not think that you might have to practice playing.

Playing is supposed to come naturally, right? Something about spontaneity and freedom and not having to think about anything else but what you’re doing in the moment?

Well — you can already see what the problem is.

I don’t know at what age “not being able to stay in the moment” becomes a problem. I suspect it’s different for everybody, and it may have something to do with various intersections of nature/nurture, security/insecurity, household stability, maybe even birth order (I remember when I realized that part of playing with my younger sister meant monitoring the situation to make sure she was enjoying it too, for example).

It could also be that children don’t stay in the moment any more than adults do. We only think they do, because it seems like a pleasant thing to think.

But the idea that children know how to play and adults forget how is not a complete untruth. I remember playing the kinds of imaginative games, with my sister and my best friend, where it felt like the rest of the world fell away — you might remember me writing about it in The Biographies of Ordinary People, the idea that the bed was actually a boat and our dress-up clothes were actually princess garb and so on.

I also remember having that feeling when I played certain types of video games, mentally translating the 8 and 16-bit graphics into fully realized visions of Toroia and Narshe and Hyrule.

And, of course, reading. The easiest way to make the rest of the world fall away, as every bookish child knows, is by reading.

And then, at some point, the rest of the world gets complicated enough that it no longer falls away on its own.

But it can be pushed away — just out of focus, if you’ll forgive the pun — if you know how.

I still can’t always play — really and truly play — for the length of an entire piece. Either the mental load creeps back in (remember you need to take the salmon out before 4, remember you need to go down into the basement and see if you can find your frog box, remember you need to make copies of all of your tax documents) or I start evaluating my own performance, which is just as bad.

Which means that, in addition to practicing notes and articulations and fingerings, I am also practicing the very act of playing itself.

Building my focus, and training myself to quickly regain focus if it starts to drift. (You can daydream for a good 30 seconds without realizing you’ve started doing it — and I’d like to get that down to one second.)

Right now, the best way I know to maintain focus throughout an entire piece is by literally thinking about each note in turn. How do I want to make this sound? How does it need to connect to what’s come before it and what’s coming next? How can I make sure my audience hears every note in this trill as a distinct event, and not a blur?

It feels a half-step shy of playing (when you’re for-real playing, everything else falls away, including your active internal monologue) but it’s getting me closer.

And when I do manage to play a piece, in the way that I played for L last Friday, it is in fact incredible.

For both of us. ❤️

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.)

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. ❤️

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. ❤️

You Don’t Have to Settle if You Are Willing to Take the Time

Let’s start with another bit of work-showing. Here’s the first half of the second movement of the Mozart:

As you can see — especially if you’ve been watching my previous videos — this performance is phenomenally more specific.

First of all, it’s actually adagio. (Not “slightly-faster-than adagio.”)

Second of all, every grace note gets its moment of grace. Nothing is blurred, nothing is slurred (that doesn’t have a slur marking). I have made deliberate, replicable decisions about every single note in the first half of this piece.

I’m not sure all of the decisions are correct yet, btw. I don’t like the way I’m articulating the three notes at the end of measure 4 (30 seconds in, if you’re watching), even though Mozart put those notes into their own little phrase and I wanted to see what it was like to play them as a separate thought.

I also I think the staccato before the trill in measure 18 (2 minutes, 14 seconds in) is a little too emphatic.

And I’m not sure those descending thirds in the right hand (1 minute, 10 seconds in) are as clean as I’d like them to be.

By which I mean “I could settle for the way I’m performing those descending thirds, but I’d rather take the time to fix them.”

On very, very good days, I greet L (after our respective workdays are done) with a kiss and the announcement that I have found another “secret to life.”

I’m not sure if I phrased this discovery as “discovering a secret,” but I’m sure I shared it with the same amount of delight:

You don’t have to settle if you are willing to take the time.

If you want to work and isolate and study and perfect a series of descending thirds that nobody will ever hear but you and your partner and a handful of people on the internet, you can.

If you want to write a short story with absolutely zero clichés in it, or a choral composition with absolutely zero derivative bits in it, or an art song where the entire thing is as good as the four measures you (and everyone else who has heard the piece so far) absolutely love, you can.

(I mean, first you have to figure out what makes those four measures different from the rest of the piece, and you haven’t figured out how to figure that out yet. But it’s on your list, because you really really really want to solve that problem.)

You don’t have to create work that you secretly wish was a little better. You can, if you want to, keep working.

The perfect may be the enemy of the good, as is often said — but the good is just as much the enemy of the perfect.

I always make the joke that I can tell what you’re thinking, and in this case it’s also what I’m thinking:

But what if you don’t have the time?

I don’t mean “during the day.” If you’re able to get to whatever it is you’re practicing/studying/creating — writing, music, chess, math — at least a few times a week, you can apply the unlimited time principle that I wrote about yesterday. (“I may only have 30 minutes to work on this project today, but the total number of work sessions that I can apply to this project are unlimited.”)

I mean “before the deadline.” What if you don’t have enough time before the recital, before the next draft is due, before your next group meeting, etc. etc. etc.?

What if you have to settle simply because you have to ship?

One option is to divide your work into “time-bound projects” and “unlimited time projects.” If you know that you’re working on something time-bound, you can make strategic choices about where to settle for good-enough and where to push for a little bit more. If you’re working on an unlimited time project, you can refuse to settle and keep working (no matter how long it takes).

The second option is to figure out how to get better at the stuff you’re currently settling on. If you’ve accepted that the ends of your trills are always going to be a little blurry, then… un-accept that? Solve that problem, and just that problem, and be satisfied that you’ve moved everything forward by one specific solution?

The third option is to figure out how to get faster (or “more efficient”) at the stuff you’re already doing well, so you have more time to work on the problems that are still problems.

This is where I admit that I’m still thinking about this. That I’m trying all of these options in their turn, and simultaneously, and hoping to figure out how to put them into play (pun intended).

But if I already had all the answers, there would be no reason to spend part of every day asking myself how to get better at solving problems. ❤️

Why I Went Back to Time-Blocking

Yesterday I wrote about having to “figure out which part of my day to take time from,” and if you’ve been reading Nicole Dieker Dot Com for the past six months or so you might be thinking wait, didn’t you try this experiment where you let the days unfold without trying to plan them in advance?

Yep, I for-sure did.

(If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you might want to read Thoughts on a 39th Birthday and On the Paradoxical Nature of Unlimited Time.)

Part of the experiment stuck, in that I no longer go to bed at 9 p.m. and wake up at 5:30.

But as soon as the new year rolled back around, I started asking myself questions like “What is the biggest positive change I can make in my life?” and “What is preventing me from working on the problems and projects I most want to prioritize?”

(Wow, that’s a lot of Ps.)

The answer turned out to be you need to go back to time-blocking.


(You might ask.)

Time-blocking is the practice of setting aside certain parts of the day for certain activities. Many of us automatically time-block without thinking about it — we know that the first hour of our day is set aside for ablutions and breakfast, for example, or we always start our workday by spending 30 minutes on email.

But time-blocking gets way, way better when you think about it.

In my case, I started by making a list of everything that was important to me. Everything I wanted to prioritize, and everything I wanted to be part of a typical, ordinary day.

Then I started asking myself how all of these priorities could fit into an ordinary day. What would I need to de-prioritize, for example, in order to spend an hour every weekday writing this blog post? Where does chess study fit in? How can I do all of this and be done in time to have unstructured, intuitive, let’s-let-this-unfold evenings with L?

I essentially told myself “You have unlimited time to learn this Mozart sonata — but you only have 90 minutes of practice time per day. You have unlimited time to make your current musical composition as good as you hope it can be — but you only have 30 minutes of composing time per day, Monday through Friday. You get 15 minutes per day for chess study, so make sure you’re using your time in a way that will actually help you get better at chess.

This is where I have to acknowledge both the privilege and the freedom of being able to structure my days around my freelance work. If I weren’t able to use the hours between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. exactly as I chose, I’d have to de-prioritize some of my longer-term goals.

(Also, I wake up at 7 now — not 5:30, thank goodness, but not 8:30 either — so I can get my piano practice done before I start freelancing.)

Why I am I telling you all of this?

Because it ties back into what I was writing about yesterday — that you have to set aside time for the things you want to do, and that I hadn’t set aside time to take this online course that I had wanted to take when I signed up for it in January.

That was a thoughtless choice, in the literal sense of the word.

I’ve turned next week’s overflow timeslot (because every week needs at least one overflow timeslot) into “course catchup,” but if something more important overflows (like a freelance writing project, because freelancing is the only thing I currently allow to overflow its scheduled time blocks), I’ll have to catch up on the course later.

But at least I have a block set aside for this work.

Which really means at least I have a plan.

Which really means at least I’ve put some thought into this.

There’s one more thing I want to tell you, and it’s that I really-really-really want to buy Cal Newport’s new Time Block Planner as a professional development expense and review it on this-here blog.

I don’t need a time block planner (I have my own system, and if you guessed “it’s a spreadsheet” you guessed correctly), but this Time Block Planner is supposed to help everyone put a little more thought into their workdays, whether they’re freelancers or have traditional jobs — and it’s even supposed to work if your days are highly unpredictable and most of what you do is reactive.

Which means I want to know how Cal is approaching time-blocking, whether it’s different from the way I approach time-blocking, and how I can steal the best parts of it for my own life.

I’d keep writing about how excited I am to learn more about this planner, but — you saw this coming, didn’t you — I’ve used up the time I blocked to write this blog post, and it’s time to move on to the next thing.

Which is, in this case, lunch.

See you tomorrow. ❤️

You Have To Set Aside Time for the Things You Want To Do

Let’s see if this sounds familiar:

  1. You sign up for something that takes place in the future, like an online class or a book club or a community choir. It’s something that you’re really excited about, not something that feels like an obligation. (Too many other things in your life already feel like obligations, after all.)
  2. The future arrives, and the class/club/commitment begins. It might feel like a bit of a surprise, even if you dutifully put it on the calendar. (How is it already time for the first book club meeting?)
  3. You realize that you are unprepared to participate in this thing that you really wanted to do. Your week is too full to read the book, study the course materials, learn the music for the choral rehearsal. (You might even wish you had never signed up for the thing in the first place, or secretly hope it gets canceled.)

We’ve all done this, right? I mean, I’ve been writing about time management for years and I just did this very thing myself — I signed up for an online class in January, the class started last week, and I realized that I hadn’t set aside any time in my schedule to take it.

Which means this thing that I really wanted to do, that could benefit my career and connect me to other writers and help me solidify what I might want to prioritize over the next year, is not getting done.

Because if you don’t set aside time for the things you want (or need) to do, you won’t do them.

I’m pretty sure I know what at least half of you are thinking right now:

Um… I just do the things I want to do when I want to do them? Without making a big deal out of it? Like, I don’t worry about scheduling time to read a book, I just read when I feel like reading?

There’s honestly not much I can say against that, if it’s working for you. But it feels like you might be answering a different question (“am I able to spend part of every day doing something I enjoy?”) than the one I’m actually asking (“when I add a new commitment to my life, do I also set aside the time the commitment requires?).

My argument is that you can’t decide to do a thing without thinking about when and how you’re going to do it — and I’m making this argument because I just decided to do a thing without thinking about when and how I was going to do it.

What’s this really about? Why am I spending this week focusing on the way time interacts with problem-solving?

Because I suddenly found myself with a time-related (and time-sensitive) problem to solve.

Basically, I signed up for Beth Jusino’s Market While You Write: Building an Audience Before You Publish Your Book on January 8, the class started on February 4, and I looked at my planner and thought to myself “You don’t have any extra time this week to take this class.”

Unless, of course, I sacrificed something that I was already prioritizing — like going for a walk, or playing chess with L, or writing music.

(I am getting so much closer to being able to beat L at chess. We are keeping track of the games by how long it takes for one of us to gain a significant advantage over the other, and my daily chess study is proving advantageous.)

Luckily, the course is asynchronous and will run through the end of February, which gives me plenty of time to catch up — but if the course is supposed to take an hour per week and you don’t set aside an extra hour in Week 1, you have to set aside two extra hours in Week 2.

This is the flip side, by the way, of things take the time they take — which, if you don’t want to click that link, has to do with my decision to take as much time as I needed to solve every problem in a particular Mozart piano sonata, even if it takes the rest of my life.

Because I don’t have the rest of my life to take this course, and you don’t have the rest of your life to participate in that book club.

Which means that I have to let these things take the time they take, too — and figure out what part of my day they’re taking time from.

More tomorrow. ❤️