You have huge dreams for your music. You love music. You want it to be your career. And if you're being honest, you're pretty good at it.
But some days, it's just so hard to work! Each day, you start with the ambition of making an amazing song, or some other momentous achievement for your music career. And each day, the time somehow slips away. What happened?
It's okay, you're just human.* You are subject to the productivity traps that threaten all of us. But fortunately, there are things you can do to overcome this.
*If you are not human, please let me know in the comments below. It may mean that my blog has much wider readership than I anticipated.
Maybe you're not taking your music seriously.
How many tech start-ups do you think are created accidentally? How many successful artists do you think stumbled their way into their careers? I would wager none. When you want something to be your career, you have to consider it to be work; consider it to be your job. You're not a hobbyist anymore, but an entrepreneur.
At this point, your doubt may have snuck in: you think, "But I'm not good enough to do this professionally yet. I'm still a beginner." That may be true, but the best way to become better is to treat your vision as work and as your career, not as a hobby you dabble in whenever you have the time. At the point you consider yourself an entrepreneur, a true pro, you're finally ready to begin learning and working in earnest.
This doesn't mean that music can't be fun, or that this can't be an enjoyable career. But an entrepreneur doesn't give up when she's tired or skip a day because she doesn't feel like working. She keeps returning to her work with the reliability of an employee to a job, and with the intensity of the founder to her tech-startup. And it's that repeated "showing up" that matters in the long-run, for your success and for your growth in talent and skill.
"But Milo, what about that overnight-success that everyone knows about?" I've heard it said that behind every overnight success, there are years of preparation and planning. Maybe someone truly got lucky and stumbled into success with no prep or planning. Can you count on being equally lucky? No? Then begin your preparation and planning now so you can be successful in the future.
Taking on the mindset of a pro is incredibly powerful. Stephen Pressfield describes this concept at length in his book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. This book is a must-read. It completely reframed how I view music as my career.
Work First, Play Later
Your mom probably used this strategy when telling you to do your homework. But it is so, so important for two reasons.
First, when you play first, you have no idea how much time playing will take. Maybe you'll lose track of time playing a video game and not realize how much of the day has slipped by. Maybe you'll extend your hike because you're enjoying it and it's good for you. Maybe you'll repeatedly allow the next episode on Netflix to play, feeling guilt and shame each time you start a new episode because you know you're shirking what's most important.
There will be time to play later if you do your work first. I promise. But starting with your work lets the work determine how much time it needs. Maybe you'll finish faster than you expected and take on a second task, accomplishing twice as much as you expected. Or maybe things will go slower than you thought and you have to spend even more time working. At least you still have time to finish your work, prioritizing work over play. Your play-time can be moved a little to make room for what's really important.
Second, your best time really is earlier in the day. You may have heard that you make around 35,000 decisions every day. Some may be big, like "should I apply for this job" or "should I buy this car". Others may be tiny, like "should I put mayonnaise or ranch on this sandwich" or "should I go to the restroom now or can I wait another minute". And every decision you make, big or little, chips away at your energy and capacity to make more decisions for the rest of the day. It's tiring!
And if you fill your day with decisions like "I'm going to play this round as a sniper" or "I'm choosing not to work just yet", you're wearing down your ability to make good decisions during your work, decisions that could have made your work better.
You may feel you're a night-owl who prefers to stay up late. I know I do. And though there can occasionally be a bit of magic in making music while sleep-deprived, there is a power in starting early, whenever early is for you, before your brain is too tired to give its best.
If you want to craft an amazing song the world will want to listen to but your phone is vibrating with a new text every twenty seconds, you're not going to be able to focus. Same with chat rooms, social media, email accounts, and anything else that robs your focus from your music. You'll make your best decisions when you're in your groove - when you've achieved the state of flow "flow"; when you've lost sense of everything outside your DAW. And that's a beautiful thing. Everything that pulls you away from your DAW can wait.
My big hangup is research. It's so easy for me to pause production in order to learn if that plugin on sale is better than this one I already have, or what processors are coming out next year, or which approach is the best to quietly cool a powerful computer. Maybe these will each be important eventually, but it would a shame to let them rob me today of the time I need to work, particularly in those few, precious hours in the day when my mind is at its peak. Understanding the best way to silence computer fans becomes important the next time I build a computer, not months or years before. And keeping up to date on processor news is really just a hobby if I'm not actively shopping with the intention to buy.
Emails can be responded to later. Your friends don't need an immediate reply to their quips or a response to their plans. Social media will be there when your work is done. If you take your music seriously, that means valuing it more than those other things. Would you let your phone distract you when you're on a first date? Definitely not. Give your creative work the importance you'd give a date: your full, undivided attention.
Do What's Important, Not What's Urgent
This is a sneaky one that gets me all the time if I let it. I get caught up in doing what needs to be done now instead of what's really important. I've heard this called "the tyranny of the urgent" because an unimportant-but-urgent thing can keep you from doing the work that's really important.
There are so many forms this can take. When I have a software bug that needs troubleshooting, I feel I need to solve it right away when that's just not true. What about an email advertising a huge plugin sale with only a day left? The email will still be there after my work for the day is done. Sometimes it feels urgent to critique a song for a friend before making a song of my own, or chatting with the members of my producers' study group before I've had a chance to make music. All of these things can be positive things, but not when they come before what really needs to be done.
Elon Musk doesn't receive any phone calls at all when he's working. Why? A phone call feels urgent in that you have to answer it immediately. But just because somebody calls at a specific moment doesn't mean that the call is more important than the work you are doing. When people need Elon, they email him. And he checks his email at regular intervals throughout the day once meaningful pieces of work have been finished. Likewise, you can control what you work on when, in order to make sure the most important work gets done.
Do the Most Important Thing First
You've probably heard of the book The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, written by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. The entire book boils down to one lesson: pick the single most important, most beneficial thing you can do now that will have the biggest positive result on your future. And then do it right now. Don't wait. Don't work from the least important task to the most important task throughout your day. Don't even start with something easy as a warm-up if it's not the most important thing.
When you practice finding which one thing is the most important, you develop your ability to prioritize. This is especially useful for musicians and producers like us, when there isn't a career-path or a to-do list set out in front of us.
And when you practice doing the one thing first, you'll find your productivity soaring, and you'll have the incredible satisfaction of knowing you did what was most important.
What happens once you've finished your one thing? Pick a new one thing, and then work on that until it's finished. The cycle repeats, keeping you productive, focused, and efficient. And it feels pretty refreshing to set aside the daunting nature of "plan my whole career and find a way to make it succeed" and instead focus on "doing this one thing right now".
The authors are on to something. And whether you read the book or not, you can benefit from the concept. Choose to use it, appreciate the simplicity it brings to your work, and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing your working time was spent the best it could have been spent.
Forgive Yourself For Being Human
Sometimes you're just going to feel burned out. I often struggle with not being focused and productive enough, but once in a while, I'll find myself in that weird state of being too focused and too productive. What do I do all day? Work. What do I do during my evening's relaxation time? Work some more. If enough days of this go by, I get so mentally fatigued and emotionally discouraged that my productivity is shot.
What do you do when this happens? Take a vacation day. At a bare minimum, take an hour or two off for yourself. Sleeping in late, long lunches, and Netflix marathons aren't part of any recipe for success. But when you're approaching burnout, they can be exactly what you need. Celebrate your progress and productivity by rewarding yourself with one or more of these. And the hardest part, once you've learned to consider yourself a pro and your music as your career, is to do this guilt-free. But learn to do this guilt-free, so it has a chance at rejuvenating you.
And there will be days when you don't get any work done at all, even when you weren't intentionally taking a vacation day. Maybe you slipped up by doing your least important work first and never ended up having time to do work that's actually meaningful. Or maybe you never made it away from video games or your favorite TV show to even create the appearance of work. That's okay. Forgive yourself for being human.
But know that's when you have to pick yourself up. If you've been dieting to lose weight, then slip up and have a binge-meal, what's done is done. Maybe you even needed a little break from the diet for your sanity. Or maybe not. But one binge meal doesn't undo an entire diet, and it certainly doesn't mean you can't keep dieting and making progress in the future. Likewise, one lost day isn't going to kill your music career as long as you make sure it's only one day. Accept that you were defeated today, and make a plan to win tomorrow.
Productivity and effective work time are things all of us struggle with. Maybe some of us more than others. I usually feel I must be worse than anyone at this. But it's part of being human, it's a problem that will never completely vanish, and it is something that you can overcome.
Unfortunately, it doesn't get easier. You won't feel more like focusing and being productive next week, next month, or next year. It's just not going to happen. But you do have an advantage once when you make a habit out of earning your success: by working first, working smart, and doing what most needs to be done. And learning this lesson now will mean far more for your career than any class or music program could.
You have the power within you to make it happen for yourself. Better now than waiting until next week or next year to even begin. Make today count, so tomorrow can be even better.