Before I made music for a living I juggled multiple jobs, brewed coffee at midnight and worked two 9-5s in one day (9am-5pm and 9pm-5am). This isn’t a strategy that works for long, but it taught me time management and focus. Early on I read two books that changed my life. “The Four Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss and “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. Tim’s book helped me block out distracting outside influences from technology and social media, subscribing to a “low information diet.” Julie’s book helped me reign in internal forces like my “inner critic” to work more clearly without fear of judgement. The combination of managing these internal and external factors made a huge difference to my workflow and creative output. Together they provided the tools and structure for a focused productive day in the studio. There are endless distractions, options, and junk that conspire against your creative spirit – let’s look at some concrete ways to remove these obstructions and stay focused on your work.
Singular Start: Start the morning early and avoid news, emails, and other distractions until you complete one key task. This is the biggest personal takeaway for me from “The Four Hour Workweek.” It can be a small, satisfying task. Once it’s done, check your email and move on with your day. It’s about momentum, and one angry email or distracting news story can derail the entire day. Typically I like to work from 8am to noon, and then approach emails so that I’m not wasting valuable “muse time” during the morning and evening hours when the creative juices are really flowing.
Stay In Creative Mode: As we’ve explored with other posts, color-coding and other prep can make a huge difference to creative flow because you aren’t flip-flopping between left and right brain functions. Take care of the prep work ahead of time with templates, routing, maintenance, and organization so you don’t interrupt the creative state to find a missing cable or change the signal routing.
Isolate Your Devices: Leave your phone on another floor where you can’t see it or hear the vibrations. Turn off all desktop notifications on your main creative computer. Disable the wireless or ethernet if needed. If you have Gmail set to load automatically when a browser is launched, disable it! Remove the temptation by creating an obstruction that reduces the appeal. Set your preferences to avoid auto-updates. One update reminder can stop the creative process in its tracks.
Chunk Your Tasks: Creative flow requires large 3-4 hour chunks of time to get momentum. There’s no way around it. Save the small busy work for another time that doesn’t require flow, preferably during non “muse hours.” Batch them together for smaller 15min, 30min, or 1hr periods of time while you’re waiting for an airplane or in transit. Think of the big creative projects as large bills, and smaller busy work as loose change. Focus on the big chunks, and organize the loose change.
Clear The Periphery: Everything in sight is a potential distraction, even on the edges of your workspace. All of it can affect your subconscious mind. Clear and organize your desktop. What has to be within an arm’s reach? Carefully consider your environment and remove any distracting “flare” from your workspace.
Clear The Mind: Use Morning Pages to clear the cobwebs of your mind. Meditate if that works for you. I use trail running to enter another mental state and work more effectively. Create a Safe Space: Reserve a dedicated creative space where you feel safe to create, fail, and iterate. Fail often, fail privately. Some people like noisy environments – but I need a silent isolated room. It’s not exactly clear what white noise does to your brain, but it definitely occupies it, so manage the noise of your creative space.
Avoid Multi-Tasking: Many people think they can multi-task, but it’s an illusion. Your brain isn’t multi-tasking, it’s just quickly switching between tasks, and it’ll never be as effective as focusing on one task at a time. Be mindful, work with purpose, and you’ll get more done. This especially applies with listening. Often times I’ll multi-task when reviewing a new mixdown, and miss something crucial. Don’t do this! Listen with intention and focus.
Define a Theme: The temptation is always to jump around – check twitter, answer a few emails, watch some TV, chase your dopamine rush in various cycles throughout the day and then realize you haven’t done shit. This is because you’ve fractured your time and constantly refocused your attention so you feel busy. It’s a trap. Instead, define a theme for the day. I’ll do maintenance Mondays where I do everything I’ve been procrastinating in the studio: backups, cleaning, removing redundant files. Or maybe make it meeting Mondays, where you batch schedule all your meetings in one day. This provides a better flow and you’ll get more things done.
Brain Dump, Reduce, and Destroy: In the mornings and evenings I’ll do a brain dump and write a massive to-do list on a legal pad, and star all the critical items. Not everything will be important, but I want to jot it down so I don’t forget. Then I’ll start a new reduced list with only the important things. After this, I’ll write the day’s tasks on an index card. Much like a “back of the napkin” approach, the physical limits of the card force you to pare down a concise list of the day’s tasks. You feel accomplished and this narrow list allows the mind to focus on just a handful of items.
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