If you want something done, ask a busy person.
Or, in the case of Anders Ericsson, who needed subjects to stick with his gruelling number memorisation scheme and test his hypothesis about deliberate practice, choose people who have learnt to stick with hard-work.
… I made it a point to recruit only subjects who had trained extensively as athletes, dancers, musicians, or singers. None of them ever quit on me.Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
A focused work ethic isn’t something you can turn on with mere good intention. It takes skill to persist and skills must be developed.
As I write, I’m stationed in the Mother’s study
It’s a Saturday morning and I’ve told my family I’m going to be writing here from 10 until 12. My family are generous, including in their support for my writing, and agreed, with enthusiasm, to allow me this time, alone, in the quiet, to write.
In theory at least
My sister has come to visit and is writing a letter to her plumber. Our enthusiastic Mother is supporting her with suggestions of wording, advice (always make sure you are specific about what preparation means) and scheduling. They grab the calendar and start working out when the plumber would be best installing the bathtub.
The letter requires a template, because letter writing is not a run of the mill activity, and then printing, signing, scanning and sending. Therefore, it is twenty past ten by the time I have chased the Mother out of the room.
I look at the screen and take a calming breath
It’s not a situation unique to me. Finding time to concentrate and work on those things requiring deliberate practice, like playing the piano, is difficult. Especially when you live with other people. Routine and closed doors help, but since I live out of a suitcase, they can be difficult to come by.
We can complain about distractions
Pigeons flutter across the field opposite. However, I’m not sure the real problem is the distractions themselves. I am not a helpless child waiting until my family are asleep to have quiet to do her homework. My problem is the absence of ferociousness when it comes to dedicating, and protecting, the time I set aside for my work. I’m the one who’s responsible.
Yes, I’m at risk of sounding lecture-y, as my sister would say.
Perhaps my voice here gives away my insecurity
I want to be dedicated to the few things that matter most to me, but sometimes it’s hard to dispel the distractions. I can put my phone in a drawer and hide from social media. My phone is a tool. People present a trickier challenge. What can I do about my mother popping in to ask if I can take her to her appointment next Wednesday? Or popping into the study to tell my sister (who’s now working at the father’s desk) our father is on his way home? They’re going to brew some beer together.
When my mother is happy and smiling, she uses her sweet little sing-song voice and adds a sugary sorry to each interruption. How is it possible to be angry with her when she’s being adorable? How can I muster up my ferociousness and declare that I need quiet when I’m sitting in her chair, at her desk, with a tummy full of her cooking? It’s impossible.
I roll my eyes and smile; I must keep trying.
I find thinking about deliberate practice as a mindset helps
For me, it comes down to deliberate choice. Am I reacting to the many factors around me? Is the urgency of a few tasks dominating my mind? Or am I making careful choices about how I spend my time? If I let myself roll with my surroundings, if I forget to pause and prioritise, then discover I haven’t painted or written anything in a while.
What’s more, I end up tired. This spirals: I sleep too few hours, don’t run or cycle, forget to meditate and find I can no longer touch my toes because I haven’t been doing yoga. The excuses roll in, I say I’ve been too busy but this reality is I haven’t been ferocious enough about protecting my priorities.
I used to object to time plans
The rigidity goes against my nature. I was much more comfortable with imagining I’d get things done in a gentle spontaneous manner. This was a convenient lie to tell myself. My getting things done looked like a deadline and a mighty rush. It did not feel good and often left me feeling unsatisfied with the work I had accomplished.
I could do it, because I could rely on my quick brains to solve any last-minute issues and, my tongue, if necessary, to talk me out of problems. This is like people who don’t sleep much saying they can function with less sleep between yawns. Progress might get made but how do we feel about it?
Furthermore, I used to think planning took too much effort
And as it was inevitable the plans would fail, they were pretty much pointless.
But I got frustrated by my lack of good feeling about my achievement. Not planning was resulting in an erratic output of work which runs contrary to my belief that consistency is essential. You can’t run a marathon if you only run when you’re in the mood. And you cannot complete a novel if you’re not sitting down to write when the house is silent.
In my schedule, I marked off the hours already committed to something or other with coloured pencils and then looked at what was left. What I noticed about my plans was how little time I had to write. Furthermore, once I started looking at the time set aside to writing, I realized most of it was spent doing random admin tasks. Useful things to be sure, but not what I had intended.
At which point, I took a Sunday and I marked out a whole long stretch for writing
I designed the day to support my writing rather than trying to fit the writing around what was already in my day. And it was like falling in love with the art all over again. So I edited work I’d been doing and found I had the time to think about the wording. I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t contemplating the bus timetable or my to-do list. Instead, I’d submerged in the activity I wanted most to be doing and was loving it. I felt I could even do it well.
Which is why I read about Anders Ericsson’s research
He’s fascinated by people who excel, and I’d like to excel.
I’m trying to build my routines through awareness of what I’ve now learnt. People excel through conscious determination. They need a willingness to keep at the minute details. Not in a half-minded way, but with the honed skill of keeping at it. Ericsson thinks of this essential commitment as a skill, something it takes time to develop. It’s a skill found in athletes and serious musicians and, I hope, to be developing in me.
Oh and it’s all a lie anyway. I have a room of my own here; I just don’t have a chair.deliberate practice