The Caffeinated Flutist, Vol. 17- Staying Focused

by Mary Hales

Hey there, flute-trepreneurs!

We all know that in this busy day and age, it can be hard to keep our focus on the task at hand long enough to get it done. As I write this, it's 7:00 on Thursday night, I've just made a cup of tea, and I'm currently balancing working on this post with an old John Oliver summary of the last French presidential election before I start grading and doing my own homework for 18th-Century Counterpoint. (I lead a thrilling life; keep up if you can.)

Between all of the above, studying for comprehensive exams, and starting to work on my thesis, I think it's fair to say my plate is fairly full this year. I'm also one of those people who always worries about getting the small day-to-day things done - it could be anything from making my bed to doing the dishes, to making sure I get my German lessons on Duolingo done. This is a long-winded and very roundabout way of saying that modern life has a lot of moving parts, and it's hard to focus on each one to keep them all moving the way they should.

So this week, let's talk about some coping strategies and some ways to move forward:

Be willing to negotiate with yourself—up to a point.

I mentioned Duolingo above; just the other day, I lowered my daily goal from five lessons to three. I realized that as the semester goes on, it would have been harder and harder for me to maintain that daily time commitment and level of focus to learning German. That was a fairly easy negotiation for me to make with myself; the kind of negotiating I wouldn't recommend is anything that would add significantly to your cumulative daily stress, or anything you think you wouldn't be able to get done as well as possible by the deadline. It can be a tricky line to find.

Remember that you can't give 110% to everything.

I recently went home before a recital that I would have loved to attend because I realized I'd already had an incredibly taxing day, and I needed to have something left for myself by the time I got home. Prof. Dade and I have discussed this before—it's in our nature to want to give everything we can to the things we do because we want to do our jobs well. However, we have to remember that we're humans too, and sometimes, we have to pump the brakes a little. (This is also your gentle reminder that self-care is never a selfish thing - you have to take care of yourself before you can give your best to anyone or anything else.)

In that same vein...

get adequate sleep.

This is something I've stressed to multiple students of mine just today and something I've talked about on my blog multiple times before - after my last two seizures in 2015, the first thing my doctor told me after putting me back on anti-epilepsy medication was to safeguard my sleep as best I could. His exact words were as follows - "A tired brain is an irritable brain, and an irritable brain is an epileptogenic brain." Now, that's not to say that everyone who only gets three to five hours of sleep at night is bound to have a seizure eventually; I haven't read the science on that, so I won't make any claims. However, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, some types of epilepsy are tied to the electrical and hormonal changes that occur in the brain during the natural sleep-wake cycles, which can cause people like me to have seizures in their sleep or when falling asleep or waking up. (More on that here.) Aside from just those benefits, many studies have been done that show the benefits of good quality sleep for both physical and mental health. When your brain is well-rested, you'll be better able to focus and work hard on the things you have to do.

Plan ahead.

We all know how this one works because it's been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember (or is that just me?). Personally, I keep two calendars - one in my Day Designer planner, and one on my phone. If something doesn't make it into one, it makes it into the other; that way, I know I have everything written down somewhere. Ideally, I'd like to find a way to consolidate them into one, but the phone doesn't offer specific meal planning slots yet. Writing things into a schedule and sticking to it has also proven helpful not just to me, but to most people I know. We're less likely to forget things when we write them down, and if it's something like practicing or research, we're more likely to treat it as the serious commitment it is. (It's also incredibly satisfying to check something off the list - especially if you write it in for that purpose!)

Be gentle with yourself.

I got an email newsletter from the wonderful Taylor Rossi today, reminding me that sometimes, we need to remind ourselves multiple times that we CAN do the things we set out to do, and that we ARE worthy of success, and that we DO deserve the good things that happen to us, however they come together. Sure, some days are going to be better than others; some days the imposter syndrome will come back to bite us again. No matter what, you deserve love, acceptance, and the rewards that come with hard work. All anyone can ask of you is that you do your best every day, no matter what your best looks like that day.

That's all for now, folks. Until next time!

Flutist Mary Hales is a native of Conway, Arkansas, currently studying under Alice K. Dade at the University of Missouri School of Music for her Masters in Flute Performance, and Dr. Neil Minturn for her Masters in Music Theory. Follow more of her writing at; find her on social media with the handle @maryhalesflute.

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