by Joshua Roman
If you’re like me, your days are full of blank calendar space but long to-do lists. I essentially run a small business, and while I have partners such as a manager and publicist, there’s plenty of busy-work to fill each and every day. Problem is, since I’m not at an office with coworkers, I have to be a manager to myself, as my only full time employee! Given the lack of structure around my time, I’ve tried to implement various kinds of self-imposed schedules, but it’s tough with the randomness of traveling and performing.
Being someone who is naturally prone to procrastination, it’s a subject I’m become far more familiar with than I’d like. However, this has given me a few helpful go-to habits that might be useful for your own challenges of prioritization. Whether you’re a self-employed musician, or a full-time job holder with the tendency to put things off, perhaps these can help you get your day going as well.
1) Change your space.
A lot of times I find myself easily distracted by the things that surround me. One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to reorganize my space so it feels “just right”. Of course, once I finish doing that, I have to enjoy the fresh feeling for a while. Then, there are the habits that are triggered by seeing my laptop and the couch, the books on my shelves, the light-fixture project that hasn’t been finished yet… you get the picture. While on a normal day, any of these things can be a good and necessary task, when the mood of procrastination sets in they become obstructions to the prioritization of whatever I’m avoiding. So, moving to another room, especially a pretty empty one, is helpful. Our bedroom doesn’t have bookshelves and usually is devoid of electronic devices, so dragging my chair in there is often a great way to kick-start whatever practicing I can’t seem to do in the living room. If you’re lucky enough to have a studio, keep it optimized for focus! Hotel rooms, oddly enough, often do the trick for me as well. I stopped watching “real” tv long ago, so a hotel room is a simple space with no distractions other than what I bring in my bag. Whatever it is for you – a change of scenery can often help shift your mindset as well.
2) Start with the big things, in small chunks.
Maybe you find yourself, as I do, procrastinating by doing all of the little things that are also necessary. Perhaps there’s a big piece you need to learn, but it looks complicated, so practicing more familiar rep over and over again gives just enough of a sense of accomplishment to reward that need for productivity, without having to tackle the “big deal”. Same can be true of starting a new composition, or really any task that seems monolithic before it’s broken down. And that, right there, can be the key: break it down. Don’t try to learn the piece all at once, let yourself read through it, go on to something else, and then make a schedule that divides the learning process into chunks. Almost every project or task is made up of smaller elements, and if you find yourself feeling anxiety when thinking about the totality of a project, zooming in on the individual elements can be a good way to get yourself started.
3) Start with the little things.
Sometimes getting started can be more effective if you approach it in a subtly different way – if you are being super hard on yourself, thinking things like “I’ll never amount to anything if I don’t get this done today”, or “I’m just a lazy bum”, then you might do better starting with the low hanging fruit. Example: emails! Sometimes I’ll set a timer for 30 minutes, and clear all browser windows except Gmail so that I can start to clear up the inbox. This is more of a rolling start – as each success happens, mark it and look for something slightly bigger until you’re replying to that one email that requires research for a thoughtful reply. The timer is important here, once it goes off, give yourself a moment to enjoy the small win, then head over to your schedule or whatever you use to manage your time, and plot out the bigger immediate goals. I also think it’s important to schedule time for scheduling! This lets you check in on your progress and adjust for the best results.
4) Schedule your play time.
I think there’s a little kid somewhere inside of me that’s always concerned I’m working too hard. What if I never get around to the “fun” stuff? Sometimes setting aside time in my schedule for relaxing, hanging out, or even watching a movie will assuage those subconscious worries and help me stay focused. It may even be that those moments of play are a good goal to look forward to, a motivating force to help push through the To Do’s. Breaks of any kind help – usually when I practice or compose I make myself stop for ten minutes every hour. No matter what I end up doing, it gives the brain a rest and allows me to refocus in a more powerful way upon returning to the work.
5) Buddy up
Accountability is a powerful thing. Being near other people who are working hard has always gone a long way towards inspiring me to stay focused, as well. This is not always easy, or possible, with the self-composed work life. However, having a friend – even at a distance – to check in with and report to can be a big help. Someone who won’t let you make lame excuses, but understands the challenges of what you do as well. It’s not necessary that the people around you be musicians, artists, or anything similar, really. Work buddies are about creating a sense of responsibility that goes beyond your inner voice.
These are just some of the tricks I use to get moving again. There are many useful books and tools out there – and some might even say procrastinating is not always the worst thing to do. Of course, even when it’s useful, there is a limit. Here are a couple of videos from TED with different perspectives on procrastination. Share your own favorite tips and tools below – I’m always looking for more ways to be effective with my time!