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Productivity Tips from a Musician (No, Really!)

Many independent musicians make their living from a chaotic patchwork of gigs, recording sessions, teaching, and the occasional side job. My parents, both independent musicians and music teachers, taught me by example that it’s possible to make a decent living as an artist if you know how to multitask. Throughout college, I juggled my schoolwork with various work-study jobs and off-campus gigs. By the time I was in my last year at Berklee, my multitasking abilities reached their limit as I tried to balance my classwork with preparations for my senior recital, my job as an assistant to the college’s American Roots Music Program, an internship with No Depression, and making my band’s first album. I’m proud of all I accomplished that year, but I sincerely hope that I’m not that busy again for a long time.

In the time since I finished school, I’ve become weirdly envious of people with 9-to-5 jobs. I crave structure, which is one of the many reasons I love touring. My time is structured, and I know the basics of what each day will look like: wake up, get in the van, drive to the gig, play the gig, go to bed with the sweet exhaustion of having accomplished something that day. When I’m at home, though, my time is profoundly unstructured. I often struggle with managing my time effectively and creating motivation for myself; I thrived in school because of the built-in infrastructure of motivation. As a master procrastinator (confession: I filed this column a day late!) I work best when I’ve got a deadline breathing down my neck.

I know that many, many people work this way, not just freelancers and musicians, but I think it’s particularly difficult given the wildly diverse and amorphous skill set required to be a musician. The business side of music, which includes booking, marketing, accounting, and numerous other tasks, can often feel diametrically opposed to the creative part, the music part, the whole reason I’m doing this crazy thing in the first place. I’ve talked to many friends who each work through that dichotomy in their own way. Many get so lost in the creative work that they struggle to switch their brain into business mode. Strangely, I’m often the other way around. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why that was, but then my mentor Bruce Molsky told me to Google the Eisenhower Matrix, which ended up unlocking a lot of the secrets of my work habits. Plus it’s got a snappy and nerdy-sounding name, which I like!

The Eisenhower Matrix, named after the famously productive President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is a way of organizing your tasks at hand. If you’ve ever read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (which I have not), you may be familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix. It divides your to-do list into 4 quadrants according to whether the tasks are urgent, important, both, or neither. The distinction between urgent and important was a game-changer for me; the most time-sensitive tasks are often not the ones that matter most in the long run. I often feel productive when I’m accomplishing time-sensitive tasks like sending emails, but I’m not working on the things that are truly important for my creative vision and long-term success. In other words, I’m spending too much time in Quadrant 3 (emails) and not enough time in Quadrants 1 and 2 (practicing and writing songs).

 

I like to check things off my never-ending parade of to-do lists; it’s an easy way to feel productive and successful. Working towards the nebulous goal of “becoming a better musician” is harder. The hurdles aren’t clearly marked, and neither are the goalposts. There’s no external infrastructure set up, no voice of authority to tell you “Now you’ve reached the next level of accomplishment on the fiddle!” or “The song is finished, and it’s Very Good!” It sometimes feels like I’m stumbling through a dark cave with no flashlight. Plus, there’s so much ego wrapped up in creative work, which makes any setback feel like a personal failure. Of course, the most difficult work is often the most rewarding work. On a good day, when the dark clouds clear out of my brain, I know this to be true. Being a perfectionist and a procrastinator can be a lethal combination, but I’m slowly and surely learning how to counteract my own worst instincts. I try to create accountability with other people whenever possible – I schedule work sessions with my bandmates or other freelance creative types, my bandmates and I set deadlines for each other, and I’ve found timers weirdly useful when accomplishing tasks at home. Basically, I’m just trying to trick my brain into thinking I’m back in school, while reminding myself that I don’t really need to be accountable to anyone else; giving my work the care and attention it deserves is an act of self-respect. Frankly, I think my career choice and my work habits are just not a good match, but I love music too much to do anything else.

Musicians, freelancers, procrastinators of any profession – how do you balance your work life? Let me know in the comments!

(If you’re interested in reading more about the Eisenhower Matrix and its function in the life of a chronic procrastinator, I’d like to recommend an article to which this post owes a great debt, and which explained my own brain to me in ways I couldn’t have articulated myself: https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/03/procrastination-matrix.html.)

Hi Isa, 

Cool topic, I can also recommend GTD (Getting Things Done), it works well in combination with the Eisenhower Matrix. And if you're a Mac person, check out OmniFocus, I know it's a little pricey, but for me totally worth it. You could probably do something pretty similar with Asana for free. 

- Gregg

This is certainly a useful post...I have encountered the Eisenhour Matrix a couple of times prior, but no doubt was stuck in Q3 at the time and did something else...the article you linked to is both PG-13 and hilarious...and accurate...

No tips I'm afraid, but many, many thanks for this article.  Aside from the fact your a musician, I could swear you wrote this about me.  I will definitely be looking into all the suggestions from you and others who have posted.  Again, thank you!

OHIO (Only Handle It Once) simplifies the Eisenhower Matrix to the binary Q1 and Q4.

Q2 defeats the point of the matix and Q3 requires someone to delegate to and ever since my butler quit that is not an option.

 

I believe you can get a butler cheap and two day free shipping on Amazon...

I didn't know about this matrix before, but these tips are extraordinarily simple and convenient. I always use the only way to sort out all my tasks: importance. This technique I used during my studies at the university. Of course, there were still deadlines for doing some tasks, but for those ones that were not so important or urgent I used AnswerShark source to find homework answers. But this tactic is also true and it should be used in everyday life, whatever you do.