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.
2020 kicked my love of reading into high gear. As the year progressed I needed something to look forward to that wasn’t on my phone or the internet. Although I was practicing, it wasn’t fitting the bill - it came with it’s own baggage at the time, since we had no idea when we could perform again (and because we know that while practicing can be enjoyable it's not necessarily relaxing).
Reading became the perfect quarantine activity and escape, and I ended 2020 having read 63 books, deeply in love with reading in a way I hadn’t been since childhood.
I love using Goodreads to keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read. They also allow you to set a reading challenge for yourself each year of how many books you’d like to read. Coming out of 2020 I couldn’t know how a busier schedule would play out for my reading habit, so I stuck with a goal of reading 40 books in 2021.
As it turned out, I still loved having something to focus on that wasn’t on my phone, or related to work or the breaking news of the minute, and ended the year with a total of 53 books read.
Overall, I read mostly non-fiction in 2021. There were a number of books I read that were genuinely impactful on my day to day actions and that I plan to read again. I hope that you find some of these helpful, or just plain enjoyable as well.
Looking ahead at 2022, I’ve set a Goodreads goal for at least 50 books. However many books I read this year, I hope I continue to love reading just as much or even more.
What books have you loved recently? What are you planning to read? Let me know so I can build my list for 2022!
For now, on to the best books of last year (in no particular order)!
The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal
There were several books I read this year that I think should be required reading for college students, especially students facing high stakes performance fields (medicine, music, law, etc.). The Upside of Stress is one of these books. McGonigal unwinds our cultural perception that all stress is bad by teaching us about mindsets and the different types of stress responses we might have. She lays out practical ways we can begin to shift our relationship with stress and understand our reactions.
Throughout the book McGonigal acknowledges that there are types of stress that can wreak havoc on our mind and body, but that much of the stress we encounter in our lives is something we can use to move forward and grow if we understand it. This book was easy to absorb and the suggestions it gives are easily applied as many of them are shifts in mindset.
Peak Mind by Amishi Jha
Peak Mind made its way into my favorites this year for its approachable, science-backed endorsement of the benefits of meditation on attention. This is an excellent book for anyone who is skeptical about the tangible advantages of meditation. Jha walks us through the experiences of skeptics, including herself, who find calm and awareness through daily meditation, and also shows us the research behind why just 12 minutes a day can be enough to make a positive impact.
In our fast moving and attention-seeking culture, this book does an excellent job of heralding the benefits of meditation for our distracted minds, as we as suggesting how you can get started if you’d like to try.
Added bonus: Jha has also done a number of extremely informative and interesting podcast interviews for anyone who’d like a preview of her research and perspectives.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
This book was an unexpected favorite. (I can’t even recall where I saw it recommended.) I’ve never liked running, but a lifetime of practicing my instrument and growing as a musician feels like its own kind of marathon. What I loved so much about this memoir was Murakami’s thoughtful reflection on how running over the course of his life allowed him to reflect on his experiences and tie them together. He eloquently describes the personal growth and reflection that comes from pursuing something that can’t be achieved quickly, or maybe ever, to the level you would like. I loved how he touched on the way all the parts of our lives are connected.
I think anyone dedicated to an art form or athletic pursuit would enjoy this meaningful reflection.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
James Clear writes one of my favorite weekly newsletters and has one of my favorite accounts to follow on social media. His claim to fame is codifying existing research and breaking it down into actionable steps and digestible pieces of information that are meant to improve our daily lives and help us develop, well, atomic habits.
It would be impossible to summarize this book in the amount of space I’d like to use here. It includes so much useful information about our behaviors and suggestions that we can implement, I’m certain you couldn’t apply it all in just one read.
Throughout the book I found myself inspired to make small adjustments and reconsider how I thought about and approached my daily habits and routines. This is definitely one to read more than once - I’m sure that I will take new things away from it each time.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
This was a book I couldn’t put down.
The Tiger reads like fiction but is a completely true story about a man eating tiger that took place in Siberia in the late 90s. I was fascinated by the culture, the Russian history the book provides, and the relationship people who live in Russia’s far east have with the tigers that share the region. This book includes cultural perspective, history, and educates the reader on conservation and the protection of tigers living in the wild all wrapped up into the excellent storytelling of this real life thriller.
Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer
Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety is another that I believe all college students (and adults) should read. In the way that McGonigal’s Upside of Stress breaks down how we can use our understanding of stress to work with it, Brewer outlines how we can unravel the cyclical experiences of anxiety we can get stuck in through understanding how it works.
I found this book helpful in working through my own performance anxiety and have it high on my list of books to read again. Like other books I loved this year, Unwinding Anxiety provides actionable steps and clear explanations that make it approachable and useful. It also encourages the embodiment of our experiences, much like we would in meditation or breathwork, as a way of facing our feelings of anxiety.
Breath by James Nestor
Although this is the only book on breathing I’m including in my “best of” list, I actually read six books on breathing and breathwork in 2021, which has become a topic of fascination for me. Understanding the way our modern lives have affected how we breathe and why it’s so important is something that could benefit anyone, and Nestor’s book is a great starting point.
Learning about the all implications of how we breathe has brought up so many questions for me about why wind instrumentalists aren’t thinking about the breath outside of how we inhale and exhale to produce a sound.
Nestor’s book takes us through his own experience of breathwork and through his reasearch to understand all the ways the breath affects our mind and body. It’s enlightening and enjoyable to read - my top recommendation from 2021!
"So many books, so little time." - Frank Zappa
I have loved to read since I was little, and while that interest waned a little bit when I was in school (required reading sometimes puts a damper on fun), reading is one of the great joys of my life.
I have been pretty consistent in my reading habit for the last few years, but with a lot of extra time on my hands last year and a desire to not watch the news 24/7, I kicked things into high gear. In the process, I realized how much time I could waste faffing on stupid websites, social media, etc., and how many books I could read if I was more attentive to how I was spending my time.
(Although, sometimes you just want to play Words With Friends, and that's ok!)
I use Goodreads to track what I read and it gives you a great summary at the end of the year showing all your books. (This is also a very satisfying way to celebrate yourself for reading!) After 21,051 pages in 2020, here are my top picks:
The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford
This book is one I know that I will visit over and over. I read this before I started meditating regularly, and I can't wait to read it again now that I have built a meditation habit. This book is a must for anyone with a high stakes job (like musicians!).
Deep Work by Cal Newport
I read several of Newport's books last year, and they all really make you stop and evaluate the things you do without thinking. This one focused on the deep satisfaction of craftsmanship and the benefits of learning to focus and limit distractions (not something that is exactly encouraged in our current culture). I also have to give an honorable mention to Newport's book Digital Minimalism. Like Deep Work, it encourages us to consider that what is common is not necessarily best, and that we should exercise our discerning mind rather than blindly accepting the norm.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
I love reading about history, and basically inhaled all of Larson's books last year. They are written like fiction, weaving you through the stories of a chosen few individuals, but provide the broader context to understand what was happening in the world during events like Hitler's rise to power and the creation of the cross-Atlantic telegraph. Devil in the White City was my favorite, but they're all worth reading.
Maybe you Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
This book gives you a glimpse of what therapy is really like, and the ways in which therapists are also human. It's an endearing approach and pulls some of the stigma out of therapy. Gottlieb shares about herself and about different types of clients, and there is someone or some struggle in this book that each of us can relate to.
10% Happier by Dan Harris
This is the book that convinced me to just try meditating. It's a very down to earth approach about the ways meditation can help us, even though most of us won't achieve enlightenment. I can't recommend the app by the same name (Ten Percent) enough. Meditation is changing my life.
The Practice by Seth Godin
I have talked about Seth Godin's daily blogs before. I love the way he pulls information down into small, digestible, actionable thoughts. This book reads like one of his blogs with lots of very small chapters, but is an absolute MUST for creatives. After reading this on my Kindle, I plan to order a paper copy so I can go to town with sticky tabs and a highlighter!
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
My favorite type of reading to indulge in is fiction (usually with a tinge of history or fantasy), and this book was such a vivid read. The characters were realistic and easy to picture, and I loved the glimpse it provided into Indian culture, especially given my deep dive into yoga this year.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
V. E. Schwab's books are amazing. She writes intricate and beautifully detailed plots and characters, and I love the way she uses language. I couldn't wait to read this book, and it didn't disappoint. The characters are exquisite and the story is both uplifting and heartbreaking. I actually lost my sense of time reading the end of this book and spent an unplanned hour in tears as the story resolved itself. Who doesn't want to read a story you can completely lose yourself in?
There were a few books I read last year that I didn't like at all, but even those were time well spent. I'm already excited about the books I'll read this year and the time they will help me spend not faffing around on social media! All the books below have links if you want to read more about them or the authors. Happy reading!
P.S. Leave a comment with some books you love - I'm always looking for more to read!
We all know it's scary to try new things. There was also a time for all of us that it wasn't so scary. Maybe that was just a year ago for you, or ten years ago. Maybe it hasn't been that way since you were very, very little. Perhaps you can't even remember that time.
Over the course of our lives we've all learned new things, even in "safe" ways. We've started new jobs and been trained to do new tasks. Maybe you became a parent or got married - those are definitely new skills. If you're a student, you learn new things all the time.
So, what's the tipping point where we lose our willingness to do these new things? For some it's when we are young and we realize that someone might be watching, or a kid at school makes fun of us for something mundane we've never paid attention to. For others, we are older and realize that we don't want to do anything we don't feel absolutely sure of because we might fail.
In my case, it crept in when I reached a certain amount of "success" with work - suddenly I became aware that if anything I did didn't reach my standard someone else might judge it and think me less capable.
As that feeling crept into my work life, from the outside you might not have noticed anything different. I coasted along at my regular activities doing mostly the same quality of work as always, and to some extent that presents like success. At the same time, I stopped putting my neck out when something new and interesting popped into my head.
Eventually, this feeling that someone might notice me failing was spreading like a weed into my previously reliable endeavors. What if someone notices that high F# wasn't just right? What if they know I am nervous and can't remember what other instruments play this chord with me? What if they can tell I feel nervous?
So it went, as I continued to stuff these thoughts and feelings further and further down until a lot of previously comfortable situations made me very, very nervous.
Ironically, the pandemic and the ensuing shut downs gave me the best opportunity yet to evaluate my perspective and what started this vicious cycle of doubt.
Our mind and our body build support systems for our habits, so when I started to doubt myself a little, those thought pathways became stronger. Over time, they became body-builder thoughts. Tough, hard to move, and persistent.
I'm currently reading The Practice by Seth Godin (if you don't read his daily blog, you are missing out big time: https://seths.blog), and he delves into the reality of creating in the most digestible way I have seen yet. As the title of the book implies it is the practice, not the ensuing result, that matters.
Good decisions can still have bad outcomes, and this is where most of us run astray. We are so obsessed with the outcomes that we lose sight of building the skills and habits for our own personal goals.
We forget that we have no control over the outcomes.
We become disillusioned by what we have been taught - to be a successful musician you must be a college professor or full time orchestra musician, to be a successful learner you must produce straight A's, etc - that we stop thinking about what matters most to us.
What do you really want to achieve or do to make a difference? What do you want to create?
Reflecting on this thought pattern and cycle has give me a new energy to focus on the goals and projects I have created for myself and can create for myself, and to stop expecting external validation or criticism to provide much besides self doubt and distraction.
(Sticker and inspiration for the title from https://www.thegraymuse.com, artwork by https://morganharpernichols.com, The Practice by Seth Godin https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53479927-the-practice)
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.