Productivity is the deliberate, strategic investment of your time, talent, intelligence, energy, resources, and opportunities in a manner calculated to move you measurably closer to meaningful goals. – Dan S. Kennedy
What follows is five productivity essentials every musician should know. That does not mean they are commonly taught. So, observe well – if any of this seems strange, it might be because only the most uncommon and successful people utilize these methods in their work.
Let’s remember, though, that success is uncommon, and you can’t do what everyone else is doing and hope to achieve a greater level of success than them. As you read, be in discovery of what you could be doing differently.
You can also gain access to unprecedented productivity through my Productivity, Performance & Profits Blackbook.
There are teachers out there urging us to throw away our to-do lists and to start doing business intuitively. Now, I don’t disagree – I half disagree.
I encourage my students to follow their intuition and make to-do lists.
Now, for to-do lists to be effective, you must be conscious of the items you’re adding (are they important, and do they need to be done?), and be diligent in prioritizing as well.
Otherwise, you get caught up in the vacuous momentum of checking off easy to do items and not engaging in the challenging work that will move your music career forward.
But if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s as simple as that. To-do lists offer clarity around what you’re doing.
If you’re wondering whether you’re doing the right things, though, I cover that in the next section.
Takeaway: Your to-do lists make it clear what you’re working on and what must be done.
A goal, however, is something distinctly different from a wish. It is clear, written, and specific. It can be quickly and easily described to another person. You can measure it, and you know when you have achieved it or not. – Brian Tracy
For as long as I can remember, I have been encouraging musicians to a) set goals, and b) document said goals using pen and paper. I continue to prescribe this regimen even today.
When our goals are unclear, when we’re unsure of the actions we’re taking and whether they’re in alignment with our goals, it’s because we don’t have clear, documented goals that are always visible in the environments we operate in.
Now, it’s okay to do away with SMART goals. I don’t have SMART goals myself. My life is organized in 90-day capsules. That means I take on four main initiatives each year.
I still make my goals as specific and measurable as possible, and I even put a deadline on them, but I’m less concerned with meeting the deadline than I am with being in action.
To reach your goals, What’s required is an environment conducive to commitment and accountability. Without that you will not put my best effort forward.
Whether it’s a coach, a mastermind group, a leadership program, or some other avenue, you will only be effective in reaching your goals (or coming close) to the extent that you have rigorous accountability.
Takeaway: Documented goals make it possible for your to align your actions with your intentions.
There exists an opportunity to create templates in a variety of domains – lyric sheet templates, email templates, Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) templates, and more.
What are templates for? They are time-saving devices for repetitive tasks. Whether it’s outreach (for booking a gig), or writing a blog post, you can have pre-crafted structures that prevent you from reinventing the wheel and empower you to be more efficient overall.
We’re creatives, so we vastly underestimate the value in increased efficiency, and far overvalue creating from scratch.
Here’s the harsh reality – time is all we have, and efficiencies return to us the precious time we need to rest, sleep, connect with family, meditate, work out, and do all the other things we say we don’t have time for.
Creativity can begin with a template, however uncreative that may sound.
Takeaway: Templates help you get started faster and finish earlier.
Like templates, checklists are vital time-saving devices.
Think of things you do repetitively – writing a new song, posting to social media, unloading your gear at a show… what else? Brainstorm. Every one of these things represents a void for a checklist to fill.
It would be accurate to say there are certain conventions you follow every time you engage in certain activities, wouldn’t it? This is “protocol,” where protocol is a fancy term to describe a “certain way of doing things.”
That’s what a checklist is for. It outlines (and sometimes describes) the exact steps involved in completing a specific task with pinpoint precision (such that anyone could follow the same steps and create the same outcomes).
In business, this falls under the category of “operations.” Operations makes the everyday activity of a business streamlined and more efficient – organizing meetings, technology, processes, and more.
Operations often occurs in the background, and people don’t always notice when it’s happening, but they definitely notice when it’s not happening because things start falling through the cracks.
Takeaway: Checklists stop you from having to think about every step involved in a process, increase efficiency, and help reduce unnecessary mistakes.
… keep messy file folders stuffed with 3×5 notecards and napkins and torn matchbook covers where you’ve scrawled your thoughts. When it comes to nurturing creativity, neatness works against you. – John Carlton
Do you ever come across brilliant chord progressions, awesome song lyrics, or even killer email subject lines? Of course, you do, right?
And does it ever occur to you to capture this inspiration somewhere?
Sure, creating a playlist of your favorite music is not a bad place to start. But whatever we keep in constant view has a way of blending in with the background, never to shine as brightly as the first time we discovered it.
Your swipe file is the perfect place to capture all inspiration as it manifests. Understand well – I am not saying to copy or plagiarize. You don’t want to rip off a lyric and put it in your song.
But for all those times you feel uninspired, wouldn’t it be nice to have a place to turn to for some needed inspiration?
A swipe file is also a great place to store sales messages, stage banter, social media posts, and anything else that worked. Whenever you come across something that works, save it for later and take inspiration from it for new projects.
Takeaway: Capture all your inspiration in swipe files – handwritten scrawls on napkins, compelling sentences from magazine clippings, notes on the back of business cards, all of it. This forms the foundation of everything you create – songs, blog posts, emails, and more.
If you’re an ambitious musician, then you’ve surely had thoughts of being as prolific as artists like Frank Zappa, Tangerine Dream, or Miles Davis at times, haven’t you? I know I have.
So, what’s the pathway? How do you go about getting to where you want to go?
It’s not by sacrificing quality. You should learn to identify “good enough” in your efforts, sure, but the pathway is in setting up productivity processes that support and guide your activity every step of the way. Use the above as inspiration.
I’m done trying to be great.
These were the words that came to mind as I sought to complete an item on my to-do list today.
I’d put together a short to-do list before going on break. Nothing crazy, just a few things to help me get organized and prepare for the next six months, which will likely be just as intense as the last.
But running errands wasn’t going exactly as expected. So, I stopped and asked myself: “Is this something I really need to do right now?”
And I soon realized it wasn’t.
“I’m on break. My priority is to disconnect, rest, exercise, and get some sun.”
What I Realized
On my walk, I took some time to think about why my mind was feeding me those words: “I’m done trying to be great.”
And the answer was forthcoming, and much simpler than expected.
I need more rest, and my resilience isn’t at its best. That’s it!
It’s funny how much tiredness and fatigue can affect your mood and state of mind. Sometimes, it isn’t deeply seated trauma from childhood or an all-out spiritual battle. Sometimes it’s just that you’ve had too much caffeine!
What I’m saying is:
It’s altogether too easy to overthink and over-intellectualize everything. Sometimes the answers are right under your nose.
Is This Something I Need to do Right Now?
While reflecting, I also recognized the value of this question.
If you’re an ambitious creative or creator, chances are you have a to-do list a mile long already. Although everyone says to prioritize, this can be tough when you have so many tasks and projects to consider.
What I’m beginning to discover, though, is that about 80% of my list either doesn’t need to be done now or doesn’t need to be done at all.
By that logic, you should only be left with 20% of your list, which you should find easier to prioritize.
If you want to take it a step further, then do as Tim Ferriss does and find the one decision that removes 100. Find and focus on the one thing that will make most if not all others a mere triviality.
But if you do choose this path, know one thing – it may take days, weeks, or even months of thinking and reflection to uncover what that one thing is.
So, Am I Done Trying to be Great?
Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.
I’m done trying to be great when I can’t even be expected to be at, or give, my best.
Those hours are best spent in a cocoon – getting away from electronics, resting, getting some exercise, and bathing in the sun. If the world permits, travel, and pool as well.
This can also be a good time to think and reflect. But only if I’m ready. If I need to give my mind a rest too, I will.
It’s one thing to try to be Superman when you’re at your best, but you’ve got to switch that off while you’re on break. Expectations should be loosed. Surrender and let go. Don’t be hard on yourself.
This seems to create more flow in life, anyway. Things come easier when you aren’t trying so hard. And maybe it’s the best way to live.
Leave greatness to superheroes. Be you because that’s what people are going to be attracted to. Being you is how you will find your unique purpose, voice, and calling. Being you is the magic that attracts all you desire in life.
So, you’re looking to accomplish more as a creative or creator.
But you wake up late, check your phone first thing in the morning, and end up watching videos on YouTube before even getting your day started.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But motivation is an inside job, and unless you have a reason to get up and do what you know you should be – and want to be – doing, you either won’t do it or won’t give it the attention it deserves.
One productivity hack that has worked for me, and that goes against conventional wisdom, is addition.
Doing More is Doing More
I’ve shared much about focus and doing less, but the ugly truth is, the main reason I get so much done is because I have deadlines to meet, and because I keep adding new to-do items to my list.
What!? How does that work?
Look, I’m not saying I don’t cull my list periodically. Whether it’s things that don’t bring me joy, don’t help me create an income, or simply aren’t effective, I actively eliminate, automate, or delegate what shouldn’t be on my docket anymore.
But before I ever reach that point, I just keep adding new items to my to-do list. Currently, my weekly list is up to 18 items (with some representing three to five tasks each). I’m due for a serious culling.
But if I’m looking to get things done, this is the way to do it.
As they say, if you want something done, ask someone who’s busy.
And I’m busy (although not in the sense that I’m out of control).
Both Positive & Negative Motivation Produce Results
There are plenty of pieces on Medium about writing a certain number of blog posts per week, or how to set up your writing processes to support the creation of new content regularly.
Look, I’m all for maintaining a library of swipe files, templates, and references. Processes are great to have.
But here’s the thing – you’re not going to do the work unless you have a reason to. It doesn’t matter how nice your keyboard is unless you start putting those fingers to work!
A deadline, however unsexy, is highly motivating (even if it’s what some would call “negative” motivation).
Towards the end of March, I decided I wanted to replace my digital magazine with an eBook, and there weren’t many days left in March.
So, in four days, I wrote 8,000+ words, edited, and formatted a brand-new eBook. Just in time for April 1.
I was clear on what I needed to do, and when it needed to be done by. I got to work, and any creative challenges I encountered, I solved along the way (instead of planning for millennia before even beginning).
Can You Handle Organized Chaos?
If you’ve been at this for a while, then you might know what organized chaos looks like.
In fall 2014, I started ghostwriting blog posts from home, teaching guitar at nights, and working at the University as a theater tech on the weekends. I even tech hosted community gatherings, played gigs, recorded music, and maintained my own websites and blogs. I kept up that pace until summer 2016, when I started working completely from home.
But if you haven’t been to that point yet, then I’m sorry (not sorry), you still have no idea how much you can accomplish in a day or week.
If you’ve been through organized chaos, I would give you a pat on the back and congratulate you on emerging victorious through the smoke of battle.
Otherwise, you’ve got to keep stretching. You will not write or create more just because. You will write or create more if you have non-negotiable deadlines to meet and clients you’re accountable to.
People on Medium often talk about earning $1,000, $4,000, or $6,000 per month writing. Trust me, it’s easy to earn at that level when you’re disciplined and have a solid work ethic.
Don’t Forget to Cull
I couldn’t handle organized chaos forever. Unless your name is Gary Vee, I suspect you won’t be able to either.
It’s all well and good to push yourself, at least within the limits of what’s healthy. But that line can get mighty blurry when you start waking up in a fog every morning (could be an early warning sign).
So, if you’re going to increase productivity through addition, please remember to purge from time to time. Discard tasks and projects that no longer serve you. Replace them with better ones. Or begin to cultivate more discipline and focus for the projects that matter to you.
Use addition as a tool to get things done, not as a strategy for freelancing, business, or life.
You could achieve more if you were in a position where you had no other choice.
If you get too comfortable, and have no reason to stretch, you’re not going to do more.
It’s as simple as that.
If you have a lot of free time in your day to stop and think, it might be time to start adding more to your to-do list.
Because you will begin to see just how much you can accomplish in a day or week.
There’s a lot more time than you think.
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