Taking the Down out of Downtime

We all need times of rest and recovery. It is crucial in order to live a sustainable life. However, when you are a freelancer the occurrence of downtime is often the result of work just not being there. It is not a choice, so much as the reality of that week or month. Sometimes you see it coming; a project is wrapping and there is a gap between the conclusion and the next one starting up. Other times there is no warning. You are expecting to be working on something but No: It’s no longer happening right now…or maybe at all. SURPRISE! I am a huge fan of nice surprises, (like my guy showing up and taking me out for a sneaky happy hour date: more of that please, thank you) but downtime surprises are challenging to welcome.

The frustrating thing is this scenario which I am sure many of you are familiar with: You are suddenly faced with downtime. You end up spending the time doing the following activities: stressing about money, feeling depressed, questioning your life choices, freaking out about things you should be doing that you haven’t been doing but what exactly are those things anyway and will they actually work omg I am just so tired. Then YASS more work appears, or a project unlocks and moves forward and you’re working again so everything is OK. However, looking back you realize that you just wasted that time stressing while simultaneously feeling paralyzed and unable to function when you could have spent it actually enjoying your break! A day at the beach, some relaxed catch-up time with friends or guilt-free binge watching those shows everyone has been raving about. But now downtime is no longer on the schedule. While you could be starting this new chapter rested and refreshed, instead you are starting after a period of panic which, I think we can all agree, is less than optimal.

So: what to do? I am exploring this particular challenge because I am really not good at this! It is fascinating to me how a moment of slow work can unleash all the demons that seem to keep fairly quiet when you are so busy you can’t think. After watching the cycle of stress described above play out in my own life I decided that I just don’t want to exist like that any more. I have been discussing this issue with fellow composers including Ann-Kathrin Dern and Tony Scott-Green. As a result of our conversations here are a few things I am going to try in order to enjoy my downtime when the universe brings it my way.

My face when surprised by unexpected downtime.

Reschedule Stress

I have managed to pull this off a few times, so I promise you it can actually work if you commit to it. When you have a situation where something has happened that causes stress – like a gig falling through, or a unexpected bill arriving in the mail – you want to feel stressed right away. But what you can try is telling yourself: how about we reschedule feeling stressed about this for next week. Maybe even make an appointment in your calendar. And then let it go, for now. In a week’s time you may have a completely different perspective, or a new opportunity may have arisen to replace the one lost, and you no longer have the need to feel stressed about what happened. I know it sounds weird, but try it and let me know what you think.

This approach is perfect for downtime. Make a deal that you can enjoy yourself for x amount of days and then you will work the problem. Ann-Kathrin and I discussed how it is so challenging for us to feel like we even deserve that break. We totally do! But it can be easier to give ourselves permission for the break if we specify the time off, a certain number of days. People who work a 9-5 job automatically accumulate vacation hours on their pay check. As a freelance creative, what would that look like for you? Time to dig into that accrued time and have some rest.

Maybe this doesn’t work for you. The stress is too immediate, too loud. In that case how about giving yourself one day – just one day – to sleep, watch tv, go for a wander, spend time with friends, and then know that the next day you will buckle down, reach out to contacts, research and pursue new gigs. But give yourself a day. It is a present from you to you, well deserved and much needed.

The thing that I know we all realize, but rarely fully embrace, is that worrying doesn’t Do Anything. Worry has no function. We have this bizarre idea buried in our psyche that if we worry about something, stress about it, feel bad about it, burrow into that guilt and shame, somehow that is Helping the issue. We are paying some sort of messed up penance and it will magically help resolve the issue. But that is not the case, friends! All it does is waste time and precious energy and you are no further along in solving the challenge at hand.

The Practicalities

The freelance life is inherently unreliable. You have work and then you don’t have work. So another thing to continually pursue is bringing sustainability into your existence. This will look different for every creative and there is so many different ways to go about this. For composers, one way to do this is creating a “mailbox money” situation. This looks like a lot of different things: having music in production libraries. Continually pursuing licensing opportunities. Make sure cue sheets are submitted when appropriate. Staying on top of metadata. Being aware of what music of yours is out there and what it is doing. It was really easy to write those five sentences, but what I have described takes A LOT of work and organization and it takes time to work it to a tipping point where it is actually happening and effective. But in order to create a sustainable life we need to get better about being on top of this. And when you have downtime, that is the perfect time to do maintenance on the backend aspect of your creative life.

What are other ways to make your life sustainable? Is there other work that you enjoy doing that could provide some financial stability in your life? For some this looks like a part time job in a different field using your non-music skills. For others, maybe teaching music lessons. For me this is where the support work comes into play. I am still working in my field, doing work I really enjoy, but it isn’t specifically composing and it provides more financial stability.

Let me touch on the obvious point here for a minute: a financial safety net. Easier said that done, am I right? But knowing exactly how much you need in the bank to survive for a few months, and then prioritizing saving that up so it is there for you when needed, will be a massive mental relief in times of slow work. Finances are an area that is so rarely discussed in the arts. There is this understanding that we are all starving artists, barely scraping by, and that’s just how it will always be. Sadly it doesn’t just apply to the arts anymore. Apparently 8 out of 10 Americans live paycheck to paycheck. No bank is too big to fail, and there are few places in the job market that are safe and reliable, if any. A career in the arts no longer seems like any more of an scary financial choice than most other careers. This reality is barely comforting. We still we have to figure out how to get by. Personally I am nowhere near where I want to be financially. But this is something I am committed to educating myself on and improving.

Here is the key question you need to ask yourself: How much stability do I need in order to enjoy my life? For every person that will be different and it will also change at different stages of your existence. Therefore it is a question you need to keep asking yourself. Whatever your answer is it will be unique and it will be right for you and wrong for most others, so it is very important not to compare your choices with other people. They aren’t you. Therefore they are making different choices. What is right for you, right now?

Life On Your Own Terms

The reason we stepped off the ledge into the freelance life is because we are not fulfilled by the 9-5 day job existence and we want to live life on our own terms. We want to control our schedules. We want to work in the area of our passion, instead of having it as a hobby. I was talking through these concepts with composer Tony Scott-Green. We both came to composing for media later in life after being musicians our whole life but spending time in different careers. Now that we are here, we see ourselves doing it for….ever. Instead of a life where you are working for the weekend, or working for retirement, we are both trying to curate a life for ourselves daily that we want to do for the rest of our allotted time on this planet. How great is that? How privileged are we that this is even an option?

When you are freelance you have the opportunity to curate a day-to-day existence that suits you. Fits your workflow, fulfills the level of stability you need, the amount of sleep and exercise your body requires. The challenge becomes the fact that you are solely responsible for making these decisions, and keeping yourself accountable. The possibilities are endless which is both wonderful and overwhelming. But it would be disappointing to miss this opportunity to create your best life. “Your best life” is one of those phrases that I feel has become super annoying along with #blessed or #yolo. But setting aside the over usage and the annoying instagram “influencers” who have this as their catch phrase, we truly have an opportunity to create this for ourselves.

Ryan Holiday posted a great article about this issue today here. He described his perfect day in detail which was fascinating as it involved his work. What does your perfect day look like? What I am doing right now fits into my perfect day. I love writing this blog, it brings me so much joy. After I wrap up here I will be heading back into the studio and composing for a few hours. Also something I like to do. Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy it which is annoying and short sighted. I forget because I am stressed. I forget because I am choosing to worry about things I have no control over. But I want to remember.

My dear big brother visited at the perfect time, between projects. I managed to quickly organize a happy hour hang and it was an excellent reminder of the importance of friend & family time.

Reflection

Tony shared with me that a few projects just wrapped and so he was spending some time going over the last quarter, seeing what worked, what didn’t, what could be improved. I thought this was such a fantastic approach to downtime: embracing it as a much needed scheduled maintenance point in the work cycle. There is so much that can be done at the end of the project that we often do not have time to take care of as we are racing onto the next one. Things that come to mind include the following:

  • bouncing all the cues, making sure you have wav and mp3s for every cue
  • maybe taking the next step (if you didn’t have to already) and stemming out each cue
  • examining the DAW template you used and seeing how you want to develop or tweak that for future projects
  • examining your workflow for the project – what worked and what needs to be improved?
  • adding tracks to your audio reel and scenes to your video reel if appropriate
  • updating your website with details about the latest (now complete) project
  • marketing through social media about your latest endeavour
  • curating and releasing the soundtrack of the project

I could go on, but these are just some of thing things that you can address when finishing up a project, and they can help you with landing the next one. We can always improve on our process, but the only way we will do so is if we take the time to examine how we are doing and what we need to develop.

The end of a project or a quarter is also a good time to see how we are generally doing: Where are we at financially compared to where we want to be? How many projects did we pitch on? How many clients did we reach out to? Who responded and is there further follow up work needed in that area? We have talked a lot about data and feedback in this blog and it is something I will keep coming back to. If you want to move forward, you have to examine where you have been.

Refill Your Bucket

James Clear, another of my favorite writers, also wrote about recovery this week in his article The Theory of Cumulative Stress. He talks about the importance of replenishing your resources. It isn’t a good idea, it is completely necessary. “…recovery is not negotiable. You can either make time to rest and rejuvenate now or make time to be sick and injured later. Keep your bucket full.” So when that downtime arrives, seize the opportunity and refill. Downtime will happen. Welcome it when it arrives and make the most of it.

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