How Musicians Can Stop Running Out Of Time

[Editors Note: This blog is written by Debbie Stanley, the second in a three-part series that aims to help musicians of all genres and career levels get organized in order to become more productive and meet their creative and professional goals.]

In my last post, I explained why time management is every DIY musician’s most essential organizational skill. We looked at time as a limited resource, similar to money, and at the fact that only a portion of your time (sometimes a very small portion) is actually under your control.

The truth is that you have relatively few hours and a ton of work to do if you want to make it as an indie artist, so you need ways to operate at peak efficiency. There will inevitably be mistakes and circumstances that end up costing you time; a certain amount of that is unavoidable. But what you do with the rest of your time—how you streamline, systematize, and prioritize—could add up to the difference between the career you want and one you’re stuck with.

Budgeting time is similar to budgeting money. When you write a financial budget, the thought process goes like this:

  1. “How much money do I need?” (Add up monthly expenses)
  2. “How much do I have?” (Add up all sources of monthly income)
  3. If it’s not enough: “How can I make more?” and “How can I spend less?”

The process for budgeting time is basically the same, with one key difference: Your ability to “make more time” is limited to what you can pay or persuade others to do for you, so the bulk of your budgeting strategy will likely be about how you can spend less.

How Much Time Do You Have?

If we use the same thought process to start a time budget, estimating 16 waking hours per day and 30 days per month, it looks like this:

  1. “How much time do I need?” (Add up hours of all monthly time commitments)
  2. “How much do I have?” (Total your hours [16×30=480] plus hours contributed by others)
  3. If it’s not enough: “How can I delegate more?” and “How can I spend less?”

Caution: Budgeting time is not as clear-cut as budgeting money. Unless you pay for everything in cash, you can calculate your regular monthly expenses simply by looking at your recent transaction history. But to know how you spent your time, you have to track it manually. You could keep a time journal for a month if you really want to be precise, or you can do like most people and estimate from memory.

This doesn’t have to be perfectly complete: At this point you don’t really need to know what you’ve been doing with all of your time, because presumably you’re planning to get rid of the slackery stuff anyway. You just need to know how many hours are “externally controlled,” meaning formally committed to something.

Let’s add that up:

  • How many hours per month do you spend on your day job or in school? (Include commute time and breaks)
  • How many hours on dressing, grooming, hygiene, meals, and other personal care?
  • Do you require more than 8 hours of sleep per night? Add in the extra time.
  • If you’re on a sports team or committed to recurring fitness classes, how many hours do you spend on that? (Again include commute time)
  • Are you responsible for childcare or tending to your parents? How many hours does it take, both at home and in chauffeuring?
  • Any hours spent on a committee or other volunteering?
  • What about household stuff like laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping?
  • If you already have regular music-related commitments like rehearsals or a residency, how many hours do those take including commute time?
  • Anything else? You want to end up with a total of all hours per month that you either can’t get out of or really don’t want to give up.

Total all of your externally controlled time and subtract it from 480. This is the time you have left each month to make your music career. Was it more than 20 hours per week? If your calculations are correct, you’re blessed with an abundance of available time! Was it fewer than 10? That’s ok—knowing you have less time can help you to stay focused. It can also be the writing on the wall that motivates you to put your music goals ahead of the bowling league or Netflix binges.

Now that you know what you’re working with, you can fill those hours intentionally instead of letting them simply pass you by. Managing your own indie music career brings an endless array of things you could do, paths you could try, approaches you could take, and angles you could explore. You will definitely have no problem filling your time. The challenge is to fill it with actions that have the best potential to contribute to your goals. As you’re devising your strategy, keep the following habits in mind.

Habits That Waste Your Time

  • Failing to define your goals. You didn’t just throw a dart at a board full of industries, land on “music,” and accept it with a shrug. You chose music over all other options because it’s your passion, but you must define it more specifically than that. What part of the music industry? What role do you want? If it’s performance, what instrument? What genre? Touring? If so, where, how often, and to what size of audiences? And dozens more questions. If you don’t know exactly what you’re aiming at, it’s as if you’re throwing darts blindfolded and hoping a bullseye will jump in front of them.
  • Losing sight of your priorities. It’s so easy to take your eyes off the prize. It can happen if you live in reaction mode instead of actively planning your steps. But even if you’re utterly fixated on achieving your goals, you might still be vulnerable if another captivating thing—or person—enters your life. Donovan Keith alludes to this risk in the mournful “Silhouette,” about an enchanting girl “and the promises you made me forget.” Here’s a jarring realization: Having this career requires not having a multitude of other good things. There are difficult crossroads in your future.
  • Mishandling distractions. This is the minute-by-minute version of forgetting your priorities. If you’re supposed to be concentrating on those booking emails or that website update, but as you’re working on it you keep checking Facebook or wandering away for a snack, you’re just making everything harder for yourself and spending more time than you can afford. I trained myself out of this habit with a Nike “Just Do It” poster next to my computer. I cursed at the damn poster countless times, but it kept me on task.Here’s another trick for when your brain keeps interrupting you with reminders of other things you want or need to do: Make a “parking lot” to jot them down and keep going. It could be a pad of sticky notes, a notebook, a note in an app on your phone—whatever method you can use to capture the thought and go right back to work without breaking your concentration.
  • Reinventing the wheel. The most foolhardy myth about time that we nonetheless keep telling ourselves is, “I’ll remember.” Any time you do something that you’re going to do again, document the procedure. Make a checklist. Capture the details of the steps as you’re doing them so the process can go even more quickly and accurately the next time. Then remember to use the checklist next time, and refine or correct it. Soon you’ll have a killer procedures manual and it will be far easier to delegate tasks to others.

Habits That Protect Your Time

  • Write down your Big Picture. In a notebook, in a digital document, on a posterboard, on your mirror with a dry-erase marker . . . whatever way works for you, but somewhere, in some form, have a clear description of your goals and the timeline and tasks that are carrying you toward them. Look at it whenever you’re feeling unfocused or uninspired.
  • Know your flow. How long can you work without losing concentration? 15 minutes? An hour? Do you do better working on something a little bit each day, or in a full-day marathon? Or as career counselor Wilma Fellman asks, are you a sprinter or a plodder? Sprinters like to work on projects when inspiration hits (or a deadline looms), while plodders prefer to do a little at a time within a regular, methodical routine. Whichever you are, don’t try to change—embrace it and make it work for you.
  • Know your energy cycle. Are you an earlybird, a night owl, or maybe the in-between afternoon person? Again, whichever you are, don’t try to change. Studies indicate that this tendency is innate, not just a habit or a preference. Try to complete your tasks at the time of day when you’re most likely to have the type of energy they require: Do email and write social media posts when you’re best able to be quick and upbeat. Handle contracts and advances when you’re sharpest and least likely to make errors. Do routine tasks like posting new shows to all of the online calendar platforms when you’re most tolerant of boredom. Catch up on skimming social media timelines and checking out new music when you’re fried and no good for much else anyway.
  • Recognize false urgencies. The internet, and the email and smartphones it spawned, have conditioned us to respond with urgency to things that are utterly unimportant. Be very selective with who and what you turn on notifications for. Create blocks of isolation when you can silence your phone and work offline, or if the work is web-based, open one browser window at a time. Close yourself in a room if your housemates need a visual cue not to disturb you. You might be surprised at how productive you can be without the constant popups and dings.

Now you’ve got some new ideas for figuring out how much time you really have and making the most of it. In my next post, I’ll give you ways to enlist help from others and to equip them with the tools they’ll need to actually save you time instead of creating more work for you.


Debbie Stanley, owner of Thoughts In Order, has been helping chronically disorganized clients get their act together since 1997. Her next book, The Organized Musician, publishes Sep. 20, 2016.