You know those “1 weird trick” ads that offer to get you a flat belly or $1000 dollars in no time? They’re awfully tempting to click on, aren’t they?
I think it’s natural to want a silver bullet. A counter-intuitive practice strategy. A paradigm-busting tactic for managing nerves. Rhodium-wrapped strings with a NASA-developed synthetic multifilament core that will make your instrument sound like a Strad.
But what if the real silver bullet is hiding in plain sight? So basic and obvious that we pooh-pooh it and look right past?
No pain, no gain
We tend to take pride in setting unreachable standards, beating ourselves up, and willing ourselves through things we don’t always want to do.
I sort of enjoyed this. It felt good. Productive, even.
And then I started studying psychology and encountered words like self-love, self-care, self-compassion.
Blech. It all seemed so…warm and fuzzy and rainbows.
I figured that sort of thing is fine if I wanted to be happily mediocre, but didn’t see how it would help me maximize my potential. I mean, don’t we have to maintain unattainably high standards and push ourselves relentlessly in order to get there?
Well, a strong work ethic is indeed incredibly important. But it turns out that working hard doesn’t always mean what we think it does.
The Portland Trail Blazers recently beat the favored Houston Rockets to advance to the conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years. Pretty remarkable, since you would have been hard pressed to find a single (non-delusional) person who would have predicted this back in October.
Of all the factors which contributed to their success this year, one of the most underrated is their health.
As of the All-Star game in February, the Blazers’ players had missed the fourth fewest number of games due to injury, and was the only team to have had the same starting lineup for every game. A 53-game streak that represents the sixth longest in NBA history.
If you’ve ever played in a great quartet or ensemble, you know what a difference it can make to swap out one person, never mind multiple people. So you can imagine what a difference this would make for an NBA team whose success is predicated on familiarity and trust.
In fact, check out the chart at the bottom of this page. See the cluster of teams high and to the left? These are the teams which represent 5 of the 6 division winners. Then look at the teams low and to the right. Those represent the two teams which won the fewest games in the league.
Over the last five years, the Blazers have had a horrible track record with injuries. Their players missed more games due to injury than all but one team in the NBA, and had two very high-profile injuries some felt were preventable. So what happened this year? Did the Blazers just happen to have one of those charmed injury-free seasons (knock on wood)? Or is there something else at play?
I think it’s no coincidence that this year, they hired a new Director of Player Health and Performance who emphasizes cutting-edge preventative care.
Perception of effort
Instead of pushing their players to the breaking point, the Blazers now track a number of variables for each player including sleep, hydration, soreness, and mood, and will sometimes even remove a player from practice if he has expended a certain amount of energy.
Why does this matter? Well, our perception of effort increases with sleep deprivation. Things just feel harder and more difficult. And if you’re tired and sore, you tend to get lazy and sloppy – which increases your risk of getting injured.
It feels good to work hard. But just because it feels like we’re putting in a lot of effort doesn’t necessarily mean we’re getting things done and making meaningful progress. We could simply be spinning our wheels, needlessly beating our heads up against a wall, or reinforcing bad habits – wasting energy by engaging in junk practice just so we can say we put in the time.
Furthermore, when we haven’t slept enough, there’s a tendency to select less demanding tasks. So without even realizing it, we end up working on the easy things, instead of tackling the really challenging issues that would probably make a greater difference in our playing.
Self-care for peak performance and productivity
So what are the elements of self-care that are essential for maximum productivity and peak performance for musicians?
James Altucher is a best-selling author and successful entrepreneur, but has had his share of highs and lows. From it all, he learned that we can’t be at our best unless we prioritize the basics.
Calling this the “simple daily practice,” he suggests that for maximum performance in our lives, we must engage in daily activities that ensure our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs are met.
How? By exercising, sleeping, eating healthily, surrounding ourselves by people who lift our spirits, keeping our mind sharp, and striving for inner peace through activities like prayer, meditation, or a mindfulness practice (check out Choose Yourself for more – I’m pretty sure it’s the best $.99 you could possibly spend).
Yawn. Nothing you haven’t already heard before, right?
Unfortunately, self-care seems too obvious. It’s tempting to move on with our day, and continue the search for that mind-warping, paradigm-shifting, game-changing insight or tactic, rather than sitting down to plan how to make these boring basics a daily priority. Be honest – it’s so basic you’re not particularly inspired to click that blue “like” button, right? Ha, gotcha!
Meanwhile, weeks and months pass, we continue to practice our hineys off. Convince ourselves we are working hard, when in reality we are being lazy. Slacking off in the self-care department. Failing to make it a habit to treat ourselves like the finely tuned instruments we need to be.
After all, does working hard and being committed mean practicing until 2am, getting only 4 hours of sleep, and canceling out your efforts? Or calling it a day, and getting into bed early enough for 8+ hours of sleep?
Does discipline mean practicing when you don’t want to? Or perhaps making yourself stop practicing when you need to take a day off and rest instead?
Or exercising, eating healthily, staying hydrated, meditating, engaging in activities that help to recharge your batteries, cultivating a life outside of music, and engaging your other curiosities even when it feels like 24 hours is not nearly enough time for everything?
Tapering, and practicing less before a big audition or performance?
Sometimes working hard means taking our lead foot off the gas. There is such a thing as practicing too much, or being too laser-focused.
As the Zen saying goes, “To know and not to do is not yet to know.” So take a moment right now to identify your daily essentials. What are 3 habits that you know would help you be at your mental/physical/emotional/spiritual peak?
Mine are (1) getting to sleep before 10pm, (2) lifting 3x week, and (3) avoiding grains (yeah, I know that one’s weird, but it is what it is). Do I always adhere to these? Umm….
I’m curious to hear what yours are – list them below in the comments.