Minimalist Practicing, Part 2: No List = Practice Zen

Leo of Zen Habits is the undisputed King of Minimalism, pretty much.  In this post,  Leo talks about lists, specifically how to ditch them.  At their best, lists can be life savers, a brain on paper.  Or on Google Calendar.   At their more usual, however, lists can be annoying, unproductive and a way to waste or rationalize time.   Leo reminded me that “the only thing that matters is the actual doing.”

We shall return to Leo in a minute, but first I have a confession to make:  I am a Compulsive List Maker.  Maybe even an Obsessive Compulsive List Maker.  It could be a lot worse, so I guess if that is one of my worst faults, I’ll take it.

I joke that Advanced Maternal MommyBrain had something to do with my CLM.  In reality though, I make lists because it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something as a WAHM.  I feel more Organized, more Motivated.  I’m not, but whatever.  And then?  And then!  Then there are days that I don’t want to do anything on my to-do list, even though I have spent a ridiculous amount of time outlining, revising, adding to, crossing out and otherwise mutilating streamlining my lists into Models of JulieEfficiency.  However, I am also fully aware that the world will not end if I sit and read all day, take a nap, or play with Eric.  None of those things ever appears on my to-do lists.  But I feel guilty anyway, because I “should” be doing something on the list.  If I’ve somehow managed to complete everything on the list, I feel guilty because I haven’t already started another list.

I haven’t always been a CLM.  When I was younger, I could easily remember everything — homework assignments, doctor’s appointments, my work schedule at the mall, changes on my paper route — without writing it down.  For violin lessons, I always knew what scale and etude to prepare, where I was in my review sequence and had a general idea of upcoming performances or events for which to prepare.  The steno book I carried to lessons, specifically to take notes in, ended up being a waste of money.

As an adult, my memory is nearly as good as it was when I was a child but I don’t trust the short term section as much as I used to.  I know by heart exactly what I need to work on in my own playing.  Those Things To Do never seem to change.  But I feel better writing down exact pieces or exercises I’m going to use, the exact things I’m going to focus on, the exact outcomes I expect to achieve.  I feel Organized, Professional and Teacher-y.  Like I know what I’m doing.  Because people expect me to know what I’m doing, to practice what I preach, to set a good example.  And then I get tired of writing and thinking and enter the practice avoidance zone go off to do something else, like read, take a nap or play with Eric.  Or if I’m feeling really squirrely, watch some TV.

And now, back to Leo, who has The Solution to the never-ending cycle of Compulsive List Making.  He suggests trashing the to-do list in favor of One Thing.  You do One Thing that is most important.  The definition of Most Important is that thing which you most want to do.  No force, no pressure. When you get it done, you move on to the next One Thing.

Yesterday, planting green beans with my son was the One Thing I most wanted to do.  Today it is reading (but obviously I’m doing something else, so I’m not taking advice very well, am I? Heh.)  Saturday, my One Thing will be traveling to Sioux City to see Steve Winwood and Carlos Santana.  (Because classic rock guitarists are perhaps my favorite research topic, rest assured that I will report back with details.  Maybe even pictures.  Woot!)  My One Thing isn’t always practicing.  I’m guessing that yours isn’t either.

Most older students know intuitively what they need to work on without being given specific Things To Do.  The problem is doing it.  Zen is synonymous with being mindful.  Paying attention.  Being in the moment.  Listening to yourself.  Being centered and balanced.   It’s really hard to do that if you’re distracted by too many things competing for your attention on a to-do list.

Sometimes practice sheets can be more crap-and-clutter than helpful.  So stop practicing from a list.  Try it for a week or two.   Practice, not because you feel like you have to, but because it’s the One Thing you want to do right now.

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