How Busy Is Too Busy?
I have been reading, and thinking, a lot about time lately. Then again, doesn’t it always seem like we are thinking about time?
How much can I get done today, how much is left to do, there’s not enough time to cook or do laundry, how many more students could I teach, etc…
I’ve just started reading Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, and already it has made me reconsider the way we perceive time and how we’ve come to interact with time the way we do.
Just before starting this book, I had a conversation with my husband that I never imagined I would have - I actually said out loud that I would like to be less busy.
As musicians, we’re primed from an early age to know how to be busy successfully, and that to be busy is to be successful. But lately, as my plates continue to fill with activities that feel an awful lot like busywork, I’m wondering how much of that actually equals success?
If I am constantly teaching but never have time for the deep, intensive practice that is required to perform the way I want I am busy, and maybe successful? What if I consider the type of students am I teaching, how well I am teaching, and how much my performance abilities suffer - do I still feel successful?
If I never have time to sit down and flesh out new ideas for classes and workshops or to codify what I am learning from teaching and performing, I am definitely busy but what about successful?
If I can’t enjoy time with my family or doing activities I love because I am working so much, it’s possible I am both busy and successful, but not content.
All of these questions are very personal - we all want different things, and we've all reached varying levels of achievement to this point.
As I was reading Four Thousand Weeks last night, I came across two passages in the book that really made me pause:
“…you have too much to do, so you try to fit more in, but the ironic result is that you end up with more to do. The worst aspect of the [efficiency] trap is, though, is that it’s also a matter of quality. The harder you struggle to fit everything in, the more of your time you’ll find yourself spending on the least meaningful things.”
“The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use of a portion of your time.”
I can relate to these statements at my core. I’ve had that feeling so often that time is slipping away and that I never quite get enough done to really treat myself to spending time on the important stuff.
It’s exactly how I was feeling when I said I’d like to be less busy (it’s still seems weird to say that out loud!). Isn’t that why we work so hard in the first place? Not to add more to our plates, but to be able to choose what’s on it in the first place.
Even in just the first few chapters of Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman makes the point that as we get more skilled and gain more resources our culture does not reward us with time - it rewards us with more to do and higher demands.
I feel a strong urge to release things right now - even some good things - to have space. Space to be still, to sit and think, to practice and not be rushed.
What would it be like if we weren’t constantly chained to exterior time keepers like the demands of others and the sense that we need to be everywhere and everything to be worthwhile? I think it would feel luxurious, and probably also incredibly challenging because it would require directly opposing the cultural norm: busy = value.
Isn’t it interesting, too, that just talking about doing less sounds lazy, selfish, and entitled? Or at least that’s how I’m feeling talking about it. Not to mention the financial factor here - there’s only so much we can choose not to do before the bills pile up, so some of this is daydreaming for sure.
And still, I’d like to cancel a few things this week. Free up some time to practice, to plan, to write…maybe even to do nothing.
Is there a way to shift how we relate to time in our current culture? I’m not sure, but it’s fun to think about.
The mind-body connection is both simple and straightforward and incredibly complex. It makes sense that our thoughts and our physical body would be intertwined (we do carry our brain around in our body all the time!), but the ways they affect each other are many and it can be overwhelming to consider how we might address this to improve our day to day life, performance, and ability to play and communicate through our instruments.
I love exploring the mind-body connection through yoga. I’ve learned so much about anatomy through my yoga practice and teacher training, and I have gained a lot of understanding about the way our fascia, muscles, and bones work. (I’m still learning, of course - this is not a small topic!)
No one part of the body operates alone.
As an example, recently I was finding that one side of my jaw/tongue felt stiff and immobile when I was practicing. My initial thought was that I must have been clenching my teeth throughout the day or while sleeping. As I observed myself, though, that proved not to be the case.
Further observation led me to notice that when I turned my head I could feel strain/tension in the muscles around my collar bone that connect the shoulder and (surprise!) the jaw on the side of the tongue where I was experiencing limited mobility. By following up with some simple exercises for the point of origin in my shoulder and neck, I was able to relieve the tension inside my mouth.
It’s not just our physical body that benefits from this kind of knowledge and attention. In the situation I described above, understanding that the limitations I had been experiencing in articulation and mobility around the jaw were coming from something clearly temporary and fixable gave me a peace of mind in practice and the ability to plan well to alleviate those issues.
This is a small example of how growing our understanding of the way the body works can help us solve problems in our practice and understand barriers that come up in playing and practice.
I always try to be on the lookout for ways to deepen my understanding of how the physical and mental aspects of playing are connected.
Recently, I’ve been discussing the role of the sinuses and soft palate in tone production with a lot of my students. I once had a teacher explain this to me by saying that you should raise the space just above the center of your eyebrows inside your head. (Did you try it? It’s possible! Kind of weird, right?)
You can create a similar feeling by breathing in quickly through the nose, or by mimicking the beginning of a yawn (are you yawning now from trying that?).
Doing this helps us create resonance by using open space real estate already available in our head - the sinuses!
As I was working through this concept with a student, I was thinking about how that space above the center of the eyebrows is also the location of the third eye or anja chakra.
In yoga, the third eye chakra is our seat of knowing or intuition. It acts as our center of wisdom and consciousness. This chakra allows for clear thought and self-reflection, and when it’s balanced trades “me vs. them” for a more interconnected approach to thought.
When this chakra is blocked or out of alignment we might notice tension around the brow or headaches, sinus issues, or trouble concentrating and sleeping. Emotionally, we might feel a lot of self-doubt and worry, or find ourselves overthinking a lot if the third eye is out of balance. A blocked anja chakra can impede our ability to be confident.
Have you already noticed some connections between the third eye chakra and what we do as musicians? At our best, we want to be able to connect with our audience and our fellow musicians - we strive to stay open to others in performance. Not to mention that I think we’re always in need of clear self reflection and the ability to trust our intuition and abilities without overthinking.
I don’t think it’s a far stretch to consider how the third eye chakra and the same space in our physical body might be connected in the creation of resonance and our sound, not to mention our phrasing and clear communication through music.
So, how can we bring this concept into a more concrete application? How can we balance this chakra that it will benefit our musicianship? Some of these ideas may be things you already do in your practice and performance. If that’s the case, focusing on them in a new way might help to bring about new benefits or a greater understanding.
Visualization is a great way to focus the mind.
Try visualizing yourself in detail, playing at your best and connecting with your audience and fellow musicians. Or, visualize tension leaving the area at the center of the forehead, like a light flowing through allowing you to open up resonance and the third eye.
Moving your body is a great way to balance any of the chakras.
To bring the third eye back into balance, try child’s pose. Rest your head on a block, blanket, or the mat/floor and gently rock the head from side to side. Any gentle neck stretches will also help with opening up this part of the physical body.
Meditation is a powerful way to balance the mind and the third eye.
Try a guided mindfulness meditation. Or, simply sit quietly and with stillness, allowing yourself to be present to your thoughts and feelings.
At first it can feel like a far stretch to combine the chakras with an aspect of musical performance like tonal resonance. As we grow our understanding that the body and mind are always intertwined, we close the gap between thinking of them as two separate entities and open up new resources for ourself as musicians.
At the end of a semester, a school year, or a long project we might notice ourselves lacking in energy. How inconvenient that we often hit this energy lull right when we need to push toward the finish line.
Lately, I’ve noticed this in my students as their energy levels drop and their attention to detail goes along for the ride.
This is the end of the first “regular” school year post-pandemic; we’re busier than we have been in two years, bouncing right back to the same expectations as the before times.
Is it any wonder that we feel a little tapped out?
It’s not just my students that are running low on energy - I am also finding myself feeling drained at the end of each day, and wishing for an extra hour of sleep when my alarm goes off.
Fortunately I am more aware than I used to be of the ways I can help bolster myself for a busy life. I know that practicing yoga, meditation, eating well, and making sure I have time to practice the flute all help me feel prepared, calm, and generally well. But knowing these things help doesn’t make it any easier to fit them in when my schedule feels stuffed to the brim.
I would guess I’m not the only person who can feel even more stressed about fitting in the “good stuff” when time is lacking. It can easily become just another thing that we have to check off the list each day.
The necessity of our responsibilities isn’t going away any time soon, so how can we find the extra boost we need to recommit to finishing a task well?
By making time to have fun.
Are you rolling your eyes yet? Thinking, “I’m busy and tired and she is really suggesting that I have fun?!”
Well, I am.
Hear me out - it’s not as trite as it sounds.
I am not saying to drop everything and take an island vacation. In fact, I’m almost suggesting the opposite. Find somewhere in your day that you can genuinely enjoy an activity. Preferably, an activity that has nothing to do with your to-do list.
Maybe it’s the ten minutes you read a book by your favorite author at the end of the day. Or, the time it takes to do the daily Wordle over your morning cup of coffee. It could be driving with the windows down and the radio turned up or taking a walk to get some fresh air.
As you might have guessed, those are some of my current favorites. Your list might be completely different. Identifying the things that genuinely bring you joy is an important step in helping ourselves create more brain space for the tasks we have to do.
You are doing something good for yourself at a foundational level by identifying these every day things that bring you joy - you’re setting yourself up to have somewhere you can go easily when you feel your mind or body becoming weary. Not somewhere you can escape to in avoidance for a day or a week or in place of completion, but a place you can hold space for yourself on a regular basis.
Prioritizing these small pockets of joy works because it is when we allow our brain to take a break that it really gets to work. As we rest and relax the brain codifies information, correlates the things we have learned, and rejuvenates itself. Have you ever put down a difficult puzzle only to come back later and instantly see what you had been missing?
None of us like to acknowledge it, but when we really feel there is no time or energy is exactly when we need to carve out space for these small joys. Soak them up fully for a short time each day and carry the joy back to your work.
We are all aware that nothing is perfect. Logically, we know this is true and yet we continue to strive for perfection anyway. The dissonance this creates can be pervasive for musicians - we desperately want perfect response, performances, stage presence and technique even as we are fully aware that absolute perfection is impossible.
This disconnect between what we want and what we know is possible can leave us with a distinct dissatisfaction; a nagging feeling that we are not capable of what we hope to achieve.
So if we’re not really striving for perfection, what are we working toward?
In Terry Orlick’s book “The Pursuit of Excellence” he emphasizes connected focus. In a solitary sport or pursuit, this means being fully connected to the task at hand. But there are a variety of layers to this - in chamber music, it could be connecting to your fellow musicians; in teaching it might mean to focus on fully connecting with your students through what you are teaching. It could even mean focused listening when you are the audience and not the performer.
Having this connected focus in mind has proven incredibly helpful for me in tying together elements of mindfulness and yoga with my musical practice and performance, and particularly helpful in learning to work with and through performance anxiety.
Last weekend, I hosted a big event for around fifty flutists. Beyond organizing and coordinating, I had three performances spanning across the entire day - one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and a concerto performance in the evening. My biggest anxieties about the day were tied to my ability to maintain my focus with so many important things happening at once, and how my attention might hijack those performances.
Leading up to the day I made sure to stick to my regular meditation practice because I knew it would help me to manage racing and distracting thoughts (among other benefits), but I also made an added priority of connected focus. I imagined the ways I would connect with attendees, focus on the message of the music or the other musicians I was performing with, and how I would stay present to the overall message of the music and the day. When the big day finally arrived, I did my best to do all of those things in the moment.
Were my performances perfect? Absolutely not. Neither was the day. But they were both meaningful, connective, and engaged. I rolled with the punches in both performance and coordinating as best I could and focused on the desired outcome that a connected focus would bring.
Overall, I had an easier time accessing my focus and accepting the things that did not go as well as I might have hoped.
Of course I’m still a human (and a musician), and after the fact I found myself ruminating on some of those imperfections even though I was managing my emotions better than I might have in the past.
In the days following the event I was reading “Think Again” by Adam Grant, and in one of the chapters he talks about embracing imperfections - even going as far as to acknowledge or advertise them. (The book gives the example of applying for a job and not camouflaging things that you know might be viewed as detriments). Grant’s point is that by acknowledging weaknesses and getting them out of the way we can focus on emphasizing our strengths fully.
This connected with my recent experience in a small light bulb moment. I don’t have to get up on stage and announce my weaknesses to the audience, but I can take Grant’s advice when preparing for or reflecting on this situation and future events and performances.
If I acknowledge my weaknesses, noting what could have been better and, most importantly, what I can learn from them, I can move forward with more ease and more growth toward my goal of connected focus.
In the heat of performance this approach of accepting imperfections while maintaining connected focus helps me to release the past and stay in the present with my mind on the right things. When I’m working with a student it allows me to do a better job of staying a curious listener that is engaged in what they are saying and experiencing.
The most valuable thing we have to gain is the ability to see ourselves as musicians with more perspective and balance. To see both the things that need work as well as the things we do well. To have the opportunity to make sure that we are learning from both our imperfections and our strengths equally.
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.