The freedom of working as a freelance musician can be amazing. Being able to take time off and, say, have a lie-in on a Monday morning or take an early afternoon Wednesday hairdresser appointment when everyone else is at work is definitely a bonus. However, it can also be a bit overwhelming your worst enemy when, upon seeing several hours of “free” time in your diary, you make ambitious plans about all the practice you’ll do… and at 3pm you realise that the time has passed, the harp is still stuck in its covers, you’re still stuck in your emails (how we love all the admin and paperwork that comes with freelance life)… and you have to leave to teach in 30 minutes.
We live in a culture where being “busy” is considered admirable and praiseworthy. “Busy” people are perceived as hardworking, responsible, organized and successful individuals. For musicians and freelancers there is the additional assumption that if you’re busy, it means that you’re in demand, and the reason why you’re in demand is that you’re “good”. The fear of being considered “unbusy”, and therefore less hardworking or less skilled than our colleagues, means that we are likely to accept any work that will come our way (low fees can contribute to this too). Becoming “more efficient” is widely considered as “being able to do your work more quickly, so you can take on even more work”.
This blog post will not tell you how to do more work today than you were able to yesterday, or how to tick off all the tasks that you have put on your “to do” list (though it may provide an interesting twist to the way you think of these lists).
However it will give you some ideas on how to find time for things that matter most in your work and life (and a little inspiration on how to decide what they are). Curious? Read on.
For whom is this text?
Everybody is different and everyone’s individual professional and personal situation is different too. Of course a single student will plan his or her days differently than a working mother, and everything will always depend on how many commitments you are already juggling.
A less busy schedule may make it difficult to move your work forward, especially when you feel that there’s little structure in your days. It is often particularly true right after you graduate and find yourself without lessons, classes, practice sign-up sheets and/or room bookings and everything else that provided the external schedule you had to fit in. At this point in your life there may be periods when you’re particularly busy, while at other times things become very quiet. Switching from one to the other will be easier if you plan ahead and establish your own rules that will help you keep the balance between work and rest.
Paradoxically, when life becomes extremely busy and your schedule is full of professional and personal commitments, planning may feel easier in the sense that scheduled commitments provide the structure into which you just HAVE TO fit everything else. This forces you to choose the most important things and ditch anything that takes too much of your precious time and doesn’t lead to completion of the tasks.
It may well be that at times like these you will feel that you’re already so efficient in managing your commitments that no amount of planning will help you do any more work. Provided that you do have enough time for sleep, food and physical activity, you probably don’t need to read my text, so click away and carry on doing your best as you already are.
However, if you think that the sleep-food-exercise part can be a bit of a problem, read on and see if you can improve your planning in order to take better care of yourself.
Whatever your situation, establishing your own routine will give you the feeling of being more in control of your own life. It will not only help you to move your projects forward during quiet times, but you will also be able to ensure that they progress when life gets busier. Any good routine must include time for rest and recovery, so you will find it especially useful after completing busy patches of work, as it will bring the balance back into your life when you need it most.
Can you tell the difference between the URGENT and IMPORTANT?
This most refreshing idea has been passed on to me by Imogen Barford, my teacher at the Guildhall School. It’s a method attributed to Eisenhower, which will divide your work into two main categories:
Actions that will bring you closer to the goals and dreams that you want to achieve in life. They may or may not have a deadline.
Things somebody asks you to do, things that you should be doing… or that you think you should be doing. They often come with a deadline, and almost always have (or seem to have) a significant deal of urgency to them. They may well be part of your important goals – for example replying to the email offering you a gig that you always dreamed of. However, very often what falls under this category may also sound like “my colleagues/family/teachers/news/society tell me I should (not)…”, “every woman should…” and so on. The “urgent” things have the tendency to “call” for your attention more loudly than the important ones.
Only you are able to tell one from the others. How to do this is an extremely broad subject, but the short answer means asking yourself two questions:
- What do you want your life to be like?
- How will the work that you are doing now bring you closer to the life that you want, and which actions will accelerate and which will interfere with the process?
I ask these questions to myself on a regular basis – usually towards the end of December, and then around July, which for me naturally coincide with getting ready for the “new opening” of the New Year and then a new season. I write the answers at the back of my planner, trying to be a specific as possible. Some ideas will be clearer than others and easier to set up as goals for the upcoming weeks and months; others will take some time to clarify. Having them written down and revisiting them regularly will help you stay on top of what you want to achieve, and I highly recommend that you find a space where you start making notes of all ideas and dreams that come to you.
To be perfectly clear – distinguishing between “important” and “urgent” does not mean completely giving up on one in favour of the other. Whatever your goals and dreams are, you will have to pay your taxes (and do a few other things that you may not quite like), but knowing what truly matters will help you make sure that you find time for the important things in your life.
…how do you make it work in day to day life?
1. Put it in the calendar
I add all events to my Google Calendar immediately as they are scheduled. Having been for a long time a fan of “pen and paper” planning, a few years ago, with sadness, I finally said goodbye to paper diaries as my primary point of reference, as the fear of losing them and being left without any notion of my future plans was too much to bear.
Among many advantages of digital scheduling is the option of sharing your schedule with others. This may be especially helpful if you’re working on a long-term joint project with colleagues, or would like to share your schedule with your family. I am sure they will appreciate being able to check your diary instantly for any changes that may affect the family plans (like a surprise birthday party thrown for you!).
Another useful future is the option of setting up small recurring tasks that need to be done every week/month. These small tasks only take a few minutes but may be hard to remember. One example is checking the SPAM folder, which I personally schedule weekly and do straight away when I have a notification coming up on my phone. That’s one thing less on my to-do list!
2. Create an overview of the week
On a Sunday I sit with my planner and write in any scheduled commitments that I see coming up for the week. This may include lessons, rehearsals, meetings, travel plans – anything with a fixed date and time that has been scheduled in my Google Calendar. The only thing I do not write down are the recurring tasks, which I don’t need to schedule (as they only take a few minutes and there’s no preparation involved), plus I don’t need to remember about them (as the notification will pop up on my phone/laptop).
To be precise, the first thing that I do is actually drawing my upcoming week (this being my own version of bullet journalling). As you see in the first picture, I have drawn 7 spaces for the seven days of the week, since this is what it mostly is. However – if I know that on one day of a given week I will be travelling or in rehearsals/performances all day and I don’t want to have to remember any extra tasks, I’ll just make one (or more) fewer space(s). It makes it easy to see how much time is really left for other work, and forces scheduling all tasks to be completed before or after that day.
By creating a similar overview of the week you can easily assess your workload, and it is at this stage that you may want to consider if you need to reduce the number of commitments, while there is still some time to rearrange. This is also related to the question of when will you have time for…
3. Time off
At this stage, I try to plan at least 1 complete day off per week. This means no practice (unless I want to play for my own pleasure!), and certainly nothing like “I’ll just teach this one lesson since it’s at my home”. A travel day is not a day off either. Even if travelling all day means that you’re not going to practise or do any other work – this still does not count as resting time for you.
In a very full week, this may require some micromanaging, like for example rescheduling this one lesson which prevents you from having a completely empty day space. But it is so worth doing this – and especially giving yourself permission not to practise (it is scary to let go of this one, I know!). I guarantee that once you put this one-day-practice-ban in place, your playing the day before and after will be so much more refreshed and efficient.
Another thing to consider at this stage, and before adding any more tasks, is checking that your body will have time to satisfy its three basic needs:
This means letting go of a hope of doing a 3 hour practice session early next morning if the day before you are in a gig that finishes late. It also means spending some time thinking how you will organize your meals, as shopping and cooking take time (even popping out to get a ready meal usually takes good 30 mins). I probably don’t need to tell you about the importance of regular exercise and right now, with tons of YouTube videos available on virtually any sport you can think of, it is easier than ever to start exercising almost anytime. All these should slowly find a place in your plan of the week, especially if you haven’t really done this before and it hasn’t become your habit yet.
This may sound like a lot to add to your schedule, especially if you are used to skipping meals, cutting sleep (only parents of young babies are excused here!) and the last time you exercised might have been at school. If you feel there’s no easy way out, try thinking of the smallest possible step you could make today. Do you think you could…
- go to bed 10 minutes earlier? (an alarm clock reminding you about bedtime is a great idea – resist hitting ‘snooze’!)
- prepare a big portion of a (simple) salad for supper and put some of it in a box for lunch the day after?
- tell your friend that you’re going to go for a short walk once a week and ask them to check if you did (or perhaps even join you)?
Of course, even if you take the above into account, there may be times when you find yourself booked for longer patches of good work, and as a result working full on and unable to find a day off for more than one week. It is especially important to plan your rest around these busier periods, as with some very long and intense projects you will probably need more than just a day off when they come to the end. A good idea may be crossing out some days after the last session of the patch as soon as you accept the work – at least as many days as weeks without time off.
4. To do (or not to do…) lists
Now is a good time to take a separate piece of paper and write down all the things that require attention, tasks that should be completed, ideas, requests, and so on. Having them all written down leaves the mind free from thinking of all of them at once.
However, this is NOT a “to do” list. This is merely the list of all things currently on your mind, from which you are going to choose the tasks that you will actually do.
Being organized doesn’t mean writing endless lists and then worrying about ticking everything off (which is most people’s idea of “being efficient”). At first it may feel that “everything is important”, especially since this is the message most of us hear from a young age. But now you’re an adult and at last you get to pick you own homework – remember, urgent is not the same as truly important.
5. Goals and priorities for the week
By now your plan for the week should include:
- all the scheduled commitments
- one (or more) day(s) off
It should also take into account your most basic needs (sleep, food, exercise).
You probably also have on hand a separate list of all tasks possibly awaiting your attention. It is a good time to get out your list of dreams, goals and ideas too, if you have made one already.
Now, choose up to 3 tasks or projects which will be the most important ones to complete (tasks) or work on (projects) this week. The number of items you pick will depend on their size and how much time you have available (judging from your overview of the week).
If you have an audition coming up in a few days and limited time available to spend with your instrument, it is very likely that your top and only priority will be practice. If you decide that this is the week when the most important task will be finding someone who will build your new website, you may be able to add one or two more tasks on top of that. As you continue with this method you will get to know yourself better and be able to estimate more accurately how much you can schedule – and realistically do.
Then look at the remaining items on what used to be your “to do” list.
- Do they have a deadline, and if so – what will be the consequences of missing it?
- If there’s no external deadline – what is your own time frame? When do you want the projects/tasks finished? Do you still want them to be finished, or have your goals and priorities changed?
Then comes the hard part – cross off the tasks that you are NOT going to do; not only this week, but ever.
If this idea is new to you, start with just one task in each category: one that you choose to do no matter what, and one that you will not do at all. This will be a big and important step towards more conscious and efficient planning.
Of course nobody is perfect, and it can happen that a week has passed and one or more priority tasks will still be lingering at the top of the page – which of course is not ideal (for example, the goal “October blog post” was on my list for several weeks now… and finally turned into “November blog post”). However, the most important thing is to learn from your mistakes. If this seems to happen a lot, go back to choosing just one task, stick to it, and do your best to do just this one.
Now you have to decide what to do with all the remaining tasks, and here you have 3 options:
- You won’t be doing them, neither this week nor in any foreseeable future – put them at the “back of the notebook” ideas list and revisit them later
- You won’t be doing them this week, but you will plan to deal with them in 2, 3, 4… weeks – add a reminder to the calendar under the relevant date
- You will find the time to do them this week – choose the day (and possibly time, if you can) and write them in
The questions you have asked yourself earlier about the deadlines and the consequences of missing them will help you to find the answers. There may be tasks on this list that seem to tell you “I really should be dealt with soon, so leave me on your list and see if you have time” but they carry a significant potential for guilty feelings if you don’t have the time (and if there are many of them, you’re likely not to have that time). It is important to be honest with yourself and recognise this pattern. When it happens, remind yourself that there are only so many hours in the day and that there is only so much as you can do in life. It is much better to let go of the things now than beat yourself up about them later.
6. Scheduling the priorities.
Sometimes you may not need to do this. If the audition for the job of your dreams is in 5 days, it’s probably a long time since you’ve uninstalled Facebook from your phone, rescheduled most of your commitments and now you’re up practising at 7:30 am (and hoping your neighbours won’t kill you).
However, with projects where the pressure is not quite so high and the deadline further away, you can boost your efficiency by cleverly scheduling the time when you plan to do the most important tasks of the week. And the single best way to do this is:
Do it before everything else.
By “everything else” I mostly mean emails, social media and news. If you can, try going through your morning routine (shower, breakfast, etc) without interacting with your phone at all and then work for at least 20 mins before playing with it (fine, take a minute to check if you haven’t got a missed call about a gig from the Berlin Philharmonic – but that’s about it!). I personally try to have the most important work of the day done before lunchtime – it usually consists of working on one of the week’s goals and a practice session and I try not to answer any emails before then.
If you want to be even more efficient with the way you use your time when you work on these important projects (or need to know when, at last, you can look at your phone!) set an alarm to know when the 20 mins is up. In fact, if you have a tendency to get bogged down in details, forgetting about taking breaks or overrunning with tasks, have a stopwatch on to remind you of beginning/end of work and break slots. For me personally 20 mins work – 5 mins break works well, but experiment and see what’s best for you. The alarm clock can be quite annoying (and I personally only use it when I want to super-boost my efficiency), but it works so well that it’s almost scary. I highly recommend you try it even once!
7. Habit trackers
Another idea (again inspired by bullet journaling) which I think is great for when you want to learn new and useful habits (or get rid of the old and unhelpful ones). It will be especially effective if you want to work on taking better care of your sleeping/eating/exercising habits.
As a fan of stationery and all things paper, there are few things I find more satisfying than ticking a box off. Luckily, when I bought my planner it came with two sets of stencils and one included (joy, oh joy!) little squares, perfect for drawing boxes that will need to be ticked off later.
This will vary from week to week, but I usually draw 7 days for habits I want to implement every day (for example drinking sufficient amount of water or mindfulness) and then (after taking into account my day off) any other numbers of squares for other work-related habits that I only work on during work days.
For example, if in the coming week there is one day off, one whole travel day, and one concert day, that would leave 4 practice* squares in this week.
*Yes, l admit, that practice is still not a deeply ingrained unconscious habit of mine and there are days when I need a box waiting to be ticked off, or it won’t happen. Cast the first stone if you never skipped a practice session because of admin… or adminstagram).
Likewise, if there’s a habit you want to get rid of (for example, no Facebook before 20 mins of work) that is done exactly the same way: draw your boxes and tick them off in the evening after a whole day of not indulging in the unhelpful habit.
If you’re not so keen on drawing anything, google “printable habit tracker” and print one off for yourself. Most of them allow space for at least 10 habits and 31 days in a month. I find it a bit too much, and normally only work on up to 4 habits in weekly cycles. This way, even if I happen to have a “bad habit” week I can simply turn the page and start anew.
There’s no “ideal” planning
Your routine will change as your life changes. There’s hardly any such thing as “ideal planning” – mainly because the world we live in is not ideal and even your perfect plan will have to be flexible when life starts throwing challenges at you. However, I hope that what you’ve read will inspire you to find time for what is important to you and worry less about the things that don’t matter so much.
Please let me know – which of the above ideas has made you feel inspired? How will you put it into action now? Tell me in the comments below!
Mark Foster – Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management available on Amazon