Pride Yourself on Your Work Ethic? Why You Might Be More of a Slacker Than You Think.

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.

Go Blazers!

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.

Next action

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.

photo credit: Kalpurush via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
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It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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30 Responses

  1. Really enjoy your posts. I’m a violinist, teacher, mom (M.M. Yale, Ed.M. Harvard). My one recommended habit is daily yoga. Last May a few days before turning 50 I decided to start a yoga practice, and tomorrow marks 365 days of daily yoga with zero misses. Was it easy? No. Was it difficult? No. It was just something I prioritized and did, for 30 minutes, every day. So to answer your question, for my mental/physical/emotional/spiritual peak, there is no question I will continue daily yoga for years to come.

  2. Thank you for the “healthy” advice, Dr. Kageyama, but this triggers a question which I’m struggling with for quite some time now. Far from being an alcoholic, I’m a Belgian and I quite like to drink beer (we have the best in the world !). I took up the harmonica recently and the online tutor, who is not only a great musician but also a health-minded person, recommends drinking only water when you play the harmonica. That was a bit of a downer to me. On the one hand, I want to have a fun time when I play music, but on the other hand I should avoid the beer…. Rationally, of course, he and you are right : you can perform better when you’re in good health, but emotionally it’s not easy to break the link between having fun with music and drinking beer. Or, like the old joke goes : give up smoking, drinking and chasing women and you’ll live another 20 years. Reply : yeah, if you call that life !

    1. Ha, this is a great question Erwin.

      If you ask me, the answer depends on the situation and what your objective is. If it’s to enjoy yourself, and have a good time drinking with your fellow musicians and the music is just part of the experience, then drink away! But if the objective is to produce your absolute best playing, then I suspect the drinking may get in the way.

      1. Dr. Kageyama, that’s exactly, well not exactly, but something along those lines, what came to my mind, right after I’ve posted the question !
        Seems that I’ll have to make a choice…
        Thanks !

        1. Oh, and my 3 resolutions are :
          – going to bed and getting up earlier, having 8 hours of sleep
          – go to work with my bycicle
          – drink water !

  3. My three habits are sleeping at least. 8 hours; walking at least 10,000 steps a day ; and eating a healthy diet including shakeology.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this blog. I have always felt that musicians should look to athletes for inspiration. We spend so much time focusing on gear, playing louder, higher and faster, when we should really be training our bodies and minds.

    I earned my MM in Saxophone Performance from Northwestern back in 1995. Since then I have performed, taught and then left music to lead a consulting business in technology development. This past Fall, I began a DA program and received an assistantship to teach at the University of Northern Colorado.
    I immediately began focusing on the mental development of my students with great results. Your research that you present in your blog helps to backstop techniques that I knew worked but were not considered mainstream.
    What’s really cool for me is that you present so many things that I have never considered, and they have positivly affected my own performing.

    I really dig the psychology of performance, and I want to fully integrate it into my pedagogical practices as much as possible.

    I may have a new dissertation topic!


    Mark Pipes
    Saxophone TA
    University of Northern Colorado

  5. Great article. Great article. I live by this parable that my cousin, who’s a yoga instructor, told me:
    A very successful CEO with an amazing full family and social life went to a swami and asked him for advice. “I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted and am so thankful. However I still feel like I’m not fully living and satisfied.” The swami began to speak. The CEO cut him off and said, “I don’t want any meditation or yoga stuff, that’s just not for me.” The calm swami continued, “Eat when you need to eat, sleep when you need to sleep and go to the bathroom when you need to go. If you can do this tasks on your own time and no one else’s, your life is yours.”

  6. As a soon to be 80 yr old who has renewed his relationship with his clarinets for the past 15 yr after a successful career as an immunopathologist. I make it a habit to practice every day, 99% of the time, even when I am tired, which unfortunatley is all too often (most men my age get up at least 5 times a night to urinate, and that is a good night). I do this because after 10 min of scales and long tones my focus returns and I enjoy the next hour totally. The improvement in my playing has allowed me to perform pieces of music that in the past relegated to the next life and this is exciting to contemplate. There are many pieces that are waiting to be developed and performed and my intention is to get as many up there before my time is up. I love what Buddy De Franco the famous 88yr old jazz clarinetist reply was to the question, “why do you still practice 2hr daily” and his reply ” I am only 70% done.”

  7. Thank you so much for writing this blog! Throughout the 20+ years I have been practicing flute, I have never been able to practice with the kind of consistency I wanted. I would always binge practice and crash later. Ironically it was by following this kind of advice that I was finally able to get consistency in my practice routine. This is very sound advice and I will be advising my students to check it out.

  8. Terrific article. I really enjoy your blog, and use your strategies in my own practicing, and teaching. I’ve loved playing the piano since
    I was about five. I now have a master’s in piano performance and pedagogy. Now 66, I still love playing, but find myself sometimes self-delusional as to what needs to be done during practice. This article set off alarms in my head! My 3 daily requirements are getting to sleep by 11:00 pm, swimming 3x a week, and remembering to be grateful.

  9. Great advice, Noah. My self-care includes 8 hours of sleep, walking 10,000 steps, exercise (either swimming or weights) every day, eating Paleo (including grain-free like you), studying Body Mapping and Alexander Technique, and meditating. I have been doing this for many years, and at 68 years old I am still working as principal cellist of my orchestra, feeling better and playing better than I did in my 20s.

  10. Dr. Noa,,
    I loved reading this article, and so many others you’ve posted. Although you’ve written about it previously, I want to remind your readers that even if you incorporate healthy daily habits (yoga, avoiding grains, etc.), if you go to the practice room with a “no pain, no gain” attitude, then you’ll still be in trouble. So 3 habits I try to bring to every practice session are:
    1) make healthy sounds that communicate authentic emotion. When I do this, then the music I make (no matter whether it sounds angry, or joyful) is always healing.
    2) increase my awareness of how the whole body supports music making. Although a technical problem may seem to be the result of misuse of just one part of the body, when I isolate that part, then it will be at the expense of the whole.
    3) use repetition in order to find reliability with ease. I don’t feel I’ve mastered the music until I can play even the most difficult passagework not only accurately, but with ease.
    Thanks for supporting healthy music making!
    Stephen Caplan, oboist and Andover Educator

  11. This article came at a really good time for me. I’m from Australia but am in Europe, having just auditioned for a number of advanced masters courses. Doing these auditions really battered me around more than I had anticipated. I got some offers, but it wasn’t so much the outcome as the judging itself that was so scary. This is something I have dreamed about for a long time and the reality of doing it was terrifying. I fell into a bit of a dark place and knew I needed to engage in self care to work my way back up, but from where I was it was so hard to see what would work best.

    I was inspired by the rigour of James Altucher’s “simple daily practise”. It’s a demanding program! I made some immediate commitments to myself, so here are my three habits:

    1. Early to bed, early to rise. Asleep by 10pm.
    2. Daily yoga/pilates and mindfulness meditation.
    3. Writing. I’ve recently discovered a website called “750 words”, which encourages you to write every day. I have a wonderful tendency to stew on things and spin things around in my brain without really being conscious of what I’m saying to myself. Writing gets it out of my head and allows me to clarify things, instead of letting them cook and give me brain poisoning.

    I was also inspired by Altucher’s daily mental exercise in the form of listing ideas. When I’m low I avoid practising (or doing anything that could actively help me) like the plague. So I made a list of “30 things to do when practising feels like an impossibility”. It was both harder and easier than I expected. I put it on my blog in case it’s helpful to anyone else:

    Thanks for your site, I often find you post just the thing I need to read when I need to read it.

  12. Oh, Noa, I often feel your posts excuse (and encourage and support) my musical laziness.
    Never in my life have I had the problem of practicing too much. Taking care of myself (and my interests, physical & mental health) has always been the priority. Also when there was an exam or audition coming up… And so I always end up being slightly unprepared and panicking right before. Yeah, I’m a healthy and balanced person otherwise, but so what..? Don’t you need to be slightly obsessed if you really want to make music?.. Perhaps I don’t love it enough… I don’t know. But I hate my indulgence and wish i could work harder on a daily basis and actually get some results, rather than being a mediocre player who is always “good to herself”.

    1. Ah, well I certainly wouldn’t want to contribute to musical laziness! =)

      I wonder if a helpful way of thinking of this might be striving for balance via extremes rather than balance via moderation? As an example, if I go to the gym and go through the motions, or engage in a low-intensity session, I could probably repeat this every day without much difficulty or need for as much self-care. On the other hand, if I regularly engage in really intense workouts with squats, deadlifts near maximal output, high intensity interval training, etc., I really would need 48 hours of rest, proper nutrition, and sleep unless I want to see my performance start to diminish over time because of overtraining.

      So maybe finding ways to push yourself to practice more intensely for brief periods of time, and then reward yourself with equally intense relaxation periods and indulgences might be the most effective way of being “good to yourself”?

  13. I have established what I call my ‘daily core requirements.’ They are what I consider necessary to maintain and enhance my varied practices. These core requirements are also the same requirements that maintain and enhance everything else I do. In general, I make no fundamental distinction between the needs of practice/performance and the discipline of living, functioning, and surviving; at a similar level of focus. This holistic approach seems to me absolutely necessary in order to live an integrated life; that is a life that entails habits and practices that not only apply to specific disciplines, but to thinking, acting, interacting, and even play. In my view, if all, or more practically, most domains of experience are subject to the same discipline; in the form of habits and practices, one achieves a reciprocity that is mutually enhancing. Properly understood, music, drawing, painting, writing, decorating, flowering arranging, physical culture, and so forth, can be mutually enhancing through the application of an integrated program that applies fundamental principles and understanding to essentially every activity.

    My daily essentials, or core requirements, vary as needed, but certain fundamental elements never change. Firstly, I maintain a plant base diet. The benefit of this must be experienced to appreciate; absolute cognitive and physical improvement. If I may, check out to learn how to do this in a rational and evidence based fashion. My second essential is aerobic and strength training exercises. My third essential is ‘morning papers,’ and journalizing. So-called ‘morning papers’; established by the Julian Cameron, author, poet, playwright; attempts, through continuous and uninterrupted writing, to discover a true and creative flow. Of course, music training, and other discipline follows, but these three practices are, for me, the groundings essential to sustain my efforts. My complete list is rather long; as such I do not always engage every daily requirement. So my list is somewhat idealized. Still, I mix and choose what is needful, and eventually cover every area to my personal satisfaction. Prioritization is key to achieving my goals.

    What is a work ethic, and how do we actualize this? A work ethic is an attitude that determines not only how we work, but what we think about how our efforts are accomplished. To me it implies honesty and integrity. As noted, the best work ethic can be impeded by a lack of understanding of overlooked factors, such as sleep and rest. What the literature indicates is clear; a work ethic, no matter how well defined, cannot successfully operate without an understanding of basic physiology of psychology. The fundamental need for breaks, rest, sleep, and bodily maintenance cannot be ignored. I could not agree more. Still, and only occasionally, a marathon effort, in the absences of proper rest can result is a genuine breakthrough. This is my experience; therefore I’m confident this is not an anomaly. Of course, as always, such breakthroughs are the product of a prepared mind, and body. I offer this for your consideration. Thank you.

  14. Thanks for a refreshing talk! Completely agree with all the lines in your blog – they are just apt both for personal and professional well-being! Thanks for sharing with us.

    My self care includes – complete cooking and little bit of walking in the morning (hope that serves as a daily exercise 🙂 )- with weekend walk as much as possible. Meditation while I travel to the office. In the evenings, little bit of reading, music and TV watching to educate and entertain myself. Spending light hours with family is one big energizer…

    Best Regards,

  15. Another really great article that focuses on the psychology of being a musician. Your posts always motivate me and make me feel like a can really succeed at this music thing. I love music, I really do but it seems like life gets in the way all to often.

    What is interesting is my list is exactly the same as yours. (1) getting to sleep before 10pm, (2) lifting 3x week, and (3) avoiding grains.

    The truth is I haven’t been doing any of these things, recently not even one of them. I have been chasing after girls and staying in social situations way longer then I should. I have no schedule to speak of even through I could easily have an amazing one much better then most people thanks to my work. Yet I still just run out of time and am never able to get everything done that I meant to do that day before literately passing out at 2am.

    I know I am probably answering my own question here. But don’t you have to be a little bit of an asshole to your friends and to yourself by saying NO I’m not going to go hangout and chill because iv got more important practice/work to do?

    1. I don’t think you are being entirely honest, or mature, when you imply that you have an obligation to hang out with your friends, rather that develop yourself musically, or in any other way. If you have articulated to your ‘friends’ that you would rather practice on the piano, or pursue any particular discipline, instead of spending so much time with them having fun, and they still attempt to dissuade you; they are not the best of friends. They may be true friends caught up in habits that demand a collective participation to rationalize the own negligence, or bad habits.

      Look, some friends are just confused, immature, or addicted to; you name it. Other friends will purposely try to drag you down, because they are incapable of self-discipline, or self-development, (at least at the present time). If you truly want to acknowledge that burning need, (I’m assuming it is), to experience the benefit of a disciplined practice in a musical calling, just take the leap. Quite frankly, you need to cultivate like minded friends, if in fact you are as you imply; a musician in need of an environment to encourage your real interest.

      Why did you post your particular comments, detailing your difficulties, if you were not seeking, and ready to listen to meaningful suggestions? Direct action trumps technique. This elegant website is bursting with methods, techniques, and insights to address all kinds of performance and practice issues. But until you ‘take the leap,’ ‘make a start,’ ‘resolve to work,’ toward your musical goal, (and perhaps other worthy goals), years from now you will be referring to yourself as the asshole; for accommodating the confused needs of your so-called friend, rather than the higher ideals that define a functional and productive life. I offer these thoughts for your consideration. Thank you.

    2. Hi Victor,

      I suspect you probably know what is right for you deep down, but this reminds me of something someone told me when I was interviewing for colleges. He had been a football player, and said that when he was a freshman, one of the seniors told him that there were three things he could focus on in college. Football, academics, and a social life. The senior said that if he wanted to have any amount of success at any of them, he could only pick two.

      My interviewer said that his freshman year he tried to have all three, but by the end of the year, decided that the senior was right. He picked football and academics, and while it wasn’t always easy, he felt he was the better for it. And he met his wife in college, so it’s not like he had zero social life – he just had his priorities clear, and didn’t sacrifice the things that were really important to him.

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