The reality of my freelance composer life, and most others I’m sure, is working on multiple projects at one time. For the average media composer one project at a time will not necessarily pay the bills. Then there is also the reality of slipping timelines. You may have projects with decent budgets which allow them to be your sole focus…..but then one starts super late and another right on time and suddenly you are back in the juggle zone. This week I spent time on seven projects, composing on four of them. Then there’s pitching, admin work, emails, the organizations you participate in. So: how does one get it done? Welcome to this week’s challenge.
Important note: this is not a blog post recommending multi-tasking. Quite the opposite. I believe that if you multi-task, all the work at hand suffers from your lack of focus. It is also a very unsatisfying way to operate. What I want to discuss today is two key concepts: Deep Work and Flow. If you master one, you will experience the other.
I recommended the book Deep Work by Cal Newport last week. He explores creating ways to work at peak focus, efficiency and enjoyment. Newport himself writes prolifically – both books and research papers – while also teaching at a university, yet does not work after 5 p.m. so he can have quality time with his family. Instead of recommending working 60+ hours a week to get everything done, he encourages you to make every second of your work time count so you have quality time for all the aspects of your life, not just work.
One thing that really stuck with me was how he charts his time. When he isn’t teaching, or in meetings, he is specific about how he spends every block of time. Not only does he plan out those blocks of time first thing, but he adapts to changes the day brings. He may need to spend more time on something that initially anticipated. When it happens, he re-charts the remaining time. I love this approach. Here is how it looked for me one afternoon this week.
Another tool that I use is this little white board at my work station. It asks: What am I doing right now? The great thing about writing the answer is that I set my intention. Then seeing that answer every time I look around helps my wandering mind return to the purpose of that period. This is not the time for emails, this is not the time for Facebook, this is the time for WOTI! So sometimes I chart, sometimes I utilize the white board, and sometimes I forget to do either of those things. But what I try and consistently do is to make a clear choice: Now we are working on X. I consider what I want to achieve in that chunk of time. I listen in my head to the music I plan to write. And then I begin.
When we practice deep work we are then set up to experience a flow state. What is this exactly? I first read about it in Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (or as I like to call him: Mihaly unpronounceable-last-name). He defines the Flow state as “the optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” Who doesn’t want that?! In order to achieve Flow you must be both challenged and equipped to meet that challenge. When you are experiencing flow it is like time stands still. Everything is quiet. You are fully engaged, and you’re not even aware of how content you are. You are simply in it and doing it. That is the experience I want in my working life as much as possible. It can’t be all the time. Your DAW will crash, you will have to update plugins or spend time finding that sound you want. But setting yourself up for that state within the realities of what we do is key for a fulfilling creative existence.
Being able to focus is as challenging as it has ever been with the era of computers, social media and smart phones. But then there’s all the stuff happening in your head. Where’s the off button for that?! I am still looking. I think this is perhaps the biggest challenge for the creative: learning how to quiet your demons so you can get the work done.
I have developed a few rituals to help me and these usually occur at the beginning of the day. First I do morning pages as I eat my breakfast and drink my first coffee. The benefit is that I write out everything on my mind. When I’m done my head is literally clearer. Then I play piano for at least five minutes. Right after that I move into yoga and meditation. Sometimes my day is crazy so I do really short versions of all these. Other days I can spend more time in each stage. Then at times I have to move this sequence to the evening because the day started with a bang and didn’t stop. But I promise you this: when I practice my rituals, I create better.
I used to be totally against adopting a morning ritual. But the more I read about other creatives’ rituals and considered what I wanted my day – and my life – to look like, I started thoughtfully developing something I knew would fit me. The benefits of everything I have mentioned is that they all require focus in different ways. By the time I sit down to work I am mentally prepared to create. I’ve eased into the zone instead of throwing myself in the deep end. Focusing is a muscle, and it is now a lot stronger thanks to my rituals. It helps me be present for every moment of the juggle.
Post Script: The Juggle Is Hard
One night this week I completely hit the wall. I was fine during the day but in the evening I found myself feeling absolutely exhausted; not so much physically but deep in my soul. That feeling of being on an endless grind, no rest in sight. All the various anxieties I had suddenly piled one on top of the other and I was facing a mountain of concern. Depression is something I have dealt with on and off through my life. It is a real thing, something so many of us creative folk are very familiar with. So that was the challenge, brought on by an intense week of juggle. What to do?
First I turned to a trusted loved one. Had a long candid talk, some tears. I laid my soul bare and spoke through everything that was weighing on me. After that I honestly didn’t feel that much better, but I no longer felt so alone. Then I went to the corner store (excuse: I needed cat food) and bought potato chips, cookies and kombucha. I am not condoning eating your feelings but in the moment it felt right. I snacked on that while watching an episode of Top Chef. Then I went back to work.
I am not recommending always pushing yourself back into the studio each time you feel miserable but in this moment I knew it was the right thing to do. I could either stress about the music I needed to deliver or I could just acknowledge how awful I was feeling and compose music anyway. I didn’t pretend to feel fine in that moment, but (as it so often does) the music took care of me. By the time I was done bouncing out that cue I felt somewhat better. The way I try and deal with depression, grief or sadness is to acknowledge its presence – like having a difficult friend in your home – and then keep going. “Hello there, have a seat, I’ll be over here working.”
Self care is something we’re going to talk about a lot in this blog because it is necessary. Being a freelance creative is hard on your mind, body and spirit. If you are not taking care of yourself as you take on this career, you will absolutely suffer the consequences. I have learned this the hard way. This week my attention to self care, especially in those low moments, helped me scrape through.
Until Next Time….
I would love to hear from you about how you make it through moments like these, and how you approach the juggle in your working life. Also: a major shout out to the humans out there who raise children in addition to the career juggling act. You are incredible and I stand in complete admiration.
Thanks for reading! See you here next Sunday.