“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” – James Clear – Atomic Habits
Depending on your point of view and circumstances, the shift to working from home may be a bonus, a burden, or a bit of both. While many people have found some satisfaction in adopting new workflows and shortening their commutes – as time wears on, many of us are getting worn down.
Arguably, as a freelance writer and musician, the daily homebound grind is old hat for me. Setting aside how financially and emotionally debilitating the sudden halt to performing has been, most musicians are used to spending large chunks of time alone honing their chops and adapting to all sorts of circumstances and work settings. For touring players, frankly, anywhere you are on a given day is home. Through years of practice, we’ve also established the discipline to cope with the distractions that compete for our time and focus – be they children bickering about who gets to use the iPad next, or fellow band members complaining that the cheese on the deli tray is too sweaty to eat.
So, yeah, I’m an old hand at this. I’ve been working from wherever I call home for many, many years, and when we all locked down last March I immediately thought, ‘I’ve got this nailed.’
I. Did. Not.
Previously, there was always something on the horizon to break up my routine – a gig out of town, a rehearsal, whatever. That, coupled with the fact that the in-person interactions I so foolishly took for granted were no longer part of my day-to-day, prompted the realization that I was going to have to dig deeper to remain productive, motivated, and sane – mostly. Fact is, regardless of what you do for fun and/or profit, when your work life and social life are being lived almost exclusively over Zoom, IG Live, or not at all – well, you’re going get a bit squirrely.
I. Have. Reached. That. Point.
Consequently, I’m rethinking my approach to work – tweaking my process and routine – because although the strategies I’ve developed to stay focused work fine in the short term, turns out they’re not a one-size-fits-all solution for the long haul.
With that in mind, here are a few tips that, whether you’re a musician or not, I hope will help you keep on keeping on, productively…
First things first
Establish a ‘first thing’ routine – some variety of ‘I wake up. I do this. Then that. And then I move on from there’. I treat this like I’m prepping for a gig; doing the same thing, the same way, and doing my level best not to let anyone or anything distract me from it. Ideally, this routine involves activities unrelated (or only peripherally related) to work – just noodling around on the piano with no agenda, taking on some random task I feel no pressure to complete in one go, trying (often failing) to get a bit of exercise. No email. No socials. No stress. Until I’m fully caffeinated.
Prep for tomorrow, today
Set out everything you will need to do what you need to do before you need it – Easier said than done, but if you clear away any obstacles that might interfere with your ‘first thing’ routine or your ‘commute’ the night before – dirty dishes, the clutter in your inbox, whatever – they won’t be staring you in the face when you wake up, making getting to the ‘office’ (whether that be your home studio or a laptop on the couch) less of a trial and so, once you’re there, you can focus entirely on what you need/want/hope to get done.
Set boundaries using metaphorical elastics, not metaphorical police tape
How flexible you are will depend on your circumstances – including who’s at home with you and what your gig requires. Sure, you can let everyone know that between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM you’re not to be disturbed, but you will be. You can’t control everything, but you can control how you react when your family, co-workers, or a crazy neighbour shows up at the line you’ve drawn in the sand (virtually or physically) and completely ignores it. Again, I apply the prepping for a show/recovering from an egregious musical error on stage approach… I take a beat. I let it go. I take one deep breath, close my eyes and move on. It may sound a bit basic, but it works.
Take breaks and feel good about them
Staying productive is harder when you’re constantly thinking about how unproductive, unmotivated, or under the gun you are. To be clear, I’m not talking about lunchtime or a coffee break, I’m talking about taking brief rests to increase productivity. For me, as a writer that might mean stopping mid-sentence…
…and coming back five minutes later with fresh eyes and perspective. Identify whatever qualifies as stopping mid-sentence for you and give it a shot. Rest isn’t a waste of time, it’s a tool you can use to put your time to better use.
As a musician, any job – be it composition, recording, or learning a new piece of music – rarely gets finished in one go. “Do or do not. There is no try” may work for Jedis, but the rest of us may have to accept our limitations, work towards expanding them over time, and be okay with that process. Consider each break as an opportunity to let your mind wander around a task, see it from a different angle, and, hopefully, find a better route to get up and over it.
Full disclosure, in the time it took to write that last paragraph; I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to unfreeze the pipes in the house, I’ve shoveled, and I’ve (successfully) gotten my recycling and organic garbage to the curb before the truck pulled away. No word of a lie. I did all of this begrudgingly – with a curse on my lips and my nerves on edge. But I just took that deep breath in, closed my eyes, and then had a good chuckle at myself to boot – and that, my friends, small as it may be, is a win.
Push the envelope
Letting things go, breathing deeply – all of that only goes so far. Challenge yourself mentally and physically. Rip a page from someone else’s book and rewrite it your way – literally, if you like. Start thinking about a side hustle. Learn a new skill. Better yet just work towards learning something new. It doesn’t have to be a new language or the violin, it could be a safety roll or origami. Maybe you are great at guitar but wish to learn the drums. Try. Fail. Annoy your neighbours (I kid). Pick yourself up and do it again. Step out of your comfort zone in some small way regularly. It could be anything – music/art/work-related or completely off the wall.
Routine can be your friend. I hated practicing technique when I was younger – scales, chord exercises – hated them. Now they’re the first thing I go to, to warm up, get my head in the game, and relax. Love it. Like some pieces I know well and love to play, they’re old friends. But every time I sit down at the piano I try to make new ones. It might be just a few bars of something completely unfamiliar or refining a transition in a piece I’m writing, or transposing a familiar tune into a different key. It’s that break from routine that allows me to progress. And that pays dividends in everything else I take on throughout the day – music-related or not. It opens up possibilities I hadn’t considered and, more importantly, helps make me more willing to explore them without fear of failing.
Get some exercise
Moderate to vigorous exercise turbocharges your ability to get motivated and stay focused; even just five minutes a day. You don’t need a home gym. Or weights. Or a ‘rock hard abs in 15 minutes a day – GUARANTEED’ machine. Frankly, all you need is a couple of cinderblocks and some Ziploc baggies. Failing that, there’s always the Baby Shark Abs Workout, or, you know, just taking a walk.
Bottom line, you’ve had your routine ripped away, a whole mess of responsibilities you didn’t have to deal with while at work piled on your desk since March 2020. Regardless of what you do, keep in mind that working more effectively and more productively is a process, not a race.