Do Less, Get More Done: The Ultimate Time Management Tip For Musicians

[Editors Note: This article was written by Chelsea Ira of New Artist Model.]

 

Pretty much every indie musician I’ve talked to has two big problems that really overshadow just about everything else. Number one, there’s just WAY too much to do. These days, you need to essentially set up a business around your music – which is a full-time job in and of itself – AND you need to find time for practicing, playing, writing, rehearsing, recording, and gigging on top of that. It’s a lot to manage.

And the second big problem is that despite putting a lot of time and effort into their career, many musicians STILL feel stagnant – almost like they’re not making any progress.

So today, let’s solve both problems at the same time, so you can start getting more accomplished and start building up some serious momentum. If you want more guidance and time management tips, I have a time management and productivity guide that you can download for free. Click here to get your free copy.

The Problem with Trying to Do Everything

What if I told you that you were wasting a lot of time and effort doing things that may not have as big an effect on the growth of your career as you thought?

Let me explain. The DIY revolution has created this mindset that indie musicians need to do everything and that they need to do it all themselves.

The there are so many musicians out there competing for attention that you feel like we have to be on every single social media platform out there if you even want to be noticed at all.

Not to mention, the diminishing and fragmenting revenue streams. Today, there are more revenue streams out there than ever before. BUT, the small payouts from things like streaming services can make it feel like you need to have your hand in just about every revenue bucket just to make a decent living.

Now here’s the big flaw – if you’re trying to split your limited time between everything, you probably don’t have the time to dedicate to each to do them really well. And as a result, you’re taking a lot of small steps in different directions.

There are only so many hours in the day and time management is about using them wisely – focusing on the essentials, the big movers that will really make a difference in your career.

Let’s take a look at an example.

It’s totally normal to be on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and Soundcloud to promote your music and connect with your fans. But can you realistically fully understand each platform? Will you know the best ways to engage? The best times to post? All the while pushing out unique content and actively engaging with fans on all platforms? Probably not. All social media platforms require a unique approach if you want to be truly successful.

It’s the same for revenue streams. If you really want to be successful licensing your music, you can’t treat it like a passive income stream. You need to be actively improving your songs, co-writing, networking in the licensing industry, sending personalized emails, and doing research to find the productions your music would fit best.

I hope you’re starting to see just how important focus is. If you try to do everything you just can’t give everything enough attention to make your efforts really successful. In short, you’ll be doing a lot of things half way, never actually putting in enough time to reach your goals.

The Focused Approach

So how do you get passed this perpetual overwhelmed feeling and also start seeing real, meaningful progress in your music career?

It may seem counter intuitive, but the key is to do less – do less but better. If you really want to be successful, it’s not about doing a million different things and hoping it will work out. It’s about knowing where you want to go and taking calculated steps to get there. And saying no to everything else.

Understand Your Goals

So how do you simplify? The first step is to really understand your goals in music. What is the one thing you really want to accomplish with your music? What do you want to spend your days doing?

If you really want to spend most of the year gigging and touring regionally and nationally, why waste your time pursuing sync licenses?

Instead, focus! Make connections in the live industry, develop your setlist, improve the way you set up your merch table, and promote your shows. Maybe you could start doing streamed concerts or house concerts and think up some really cool merch. As you can see, all these tasks really compliment and work with the gigging goal.

As a rule of thumb, every time you’re presented with a new opportunity, ask yourself, “Is this related to my goals in music? Will this help me get closer to my goals?” If the answer is no, it may not be worth your valuable time.

Cut Back

The next thing I’d recommend is doing a time analysis. For the next two or three weeks, write down everything you do each day and how much time you spend on each task. This might seem a little tedious but it can really help you get a bird’s-eye view of just how much time things take.

And finally, it’s time to start cutting things out! What tasks aren’t taking you closer to your goals? What tasks aren’t getting the results you want?

You may find that you’re pouring a ton of time into trying to grow your following on Twitter. And maybe, despite your efforts, Twitter just isn’t catching on for you in terms of engagement compared to your other channels. Maybe you’re just using it because a lot of other musicians do. In this case, it may be best to put Twitter on the back burner and focus on making your other social channels even more awesome. Reallocate your time to a more productive task.

As another example, you might see that posting videos to YouTube doesn’t really align with the goals you set for your career. Despite what you may hear, doing YouTube successfully is a huge undertaking that goes way beyond just posting videos every now and then.

On the flip side, it can be a great career path for musicians who want to release cover videos, music videos, gear reviews, and tour and studio vlogs, and channel monetization and partnerships can become a viable revenue stream if you get enough views and subscribers. YouTube can also tie in well with a Patreon, and many successful YouTube artists have incorporated Patreon into their income strategy to great effect.

 


Time management and staying focused on your goals is going to be an ongoing effort. As your career grows you’ll find you need to reassess how you’re spending your time to make the most of your present opportunities. To help you stay on track, you can also download my free time management guide: The Musician’s Guide to Getting More Done, and revisit it as often as you need to.

If you want more tips, I’d also recommend checking out the book Essentialism.

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.

The #1 Skill Artists Need To Get Organized

[Editors NoteThis is the first in a series of articles on organization written by Debbie Stanley. Vote for Debbie’s “Time Management For Musicians” Panel to be held at SXSW 2017.]

The most essential organizational skill for a DIY musician is time management. Organizing your data and your belongings are important too, but those also require first organizing your time. If you get to the gig 30 minutes before load-in and your gear is tangled and strewn all over your vehicle, you’re still better off than if you show up tidy and inventoried and 30 minutes late.

Being cluttery stresses you, and you can fix it when you get fed up with it. But being late stresses the venue and can burn bridges that you won’t be able to repair. Taking control of your time is your most urgent objective.

“Spending” Time

Time is like money. They’re both forms of currency, and often one replaces the other: If you don’t have money, you’ll have to spend time. When you’re indie and still developing, you don’t have the money to pay for everything you need, so you do it yourself: You spend your time. Once you get some money, you start paying people to do some of the work for you: You buy back your time.

The big problem with time as a form of currency is that it’s limited. On one hand, it’s great that you automatically get 24 hours every day. On the other hand, there is nothing you can do to receive more time. It is literally impossible. Think of all the language we have around this: make time, find time, stretch time, gain time, save time. These are all illusions. You get the same amount of time as everyone else, on the same schedule, in the same increments.

This illusion of a bottomless well of time is a major pitfall for ambitious indie artists. You go to a workshop or read a book or meet with a consultant, learn dozens of great ways to grow your music business, get all fired up and motivated, and tell yourself you’re going to do all of those things. All it will take is dedication and self-discipline and focus, and you have those qualities so you can do this!

No. You can’t do all of it. The math doesn’t work. Enacting every great idea would take more hours than you have. You must choose the best ones that will fit your time budget.

So the first thing to understand is that time is like money: It’s finite. Next is recognizing that, of your already limited time, you only have authority over a portion of it.

Externally vs. Internally Controlled Time

All of your time is either externally or internally controlled. Externally controlled time is governed by forces outside of yourself—other people or circumstances, or simply realities you can’t change. Sleep is a great example: It’s a requirement of survival, so you have no choice but to spend about a third of your life doing it. Other examples are the hours you must spend at your day job, or at school, or commuting—obligations that you really can’t afford not to fulfill—plus the minimum amount of time it takes to run your life (eating, showering, doing chores, etc.).

The time that you’ve voluntarily committed to someone or something else is also externally controlled: It’s life-balance things like playing in a sports league or taking a regular shift at the animal shelter, but also all of your music-related commitments: rehearsals, performances, recording sessions, media appearances, songwriting circles. Anything with a deadline or a schedule becomes externally controlled as soon as you promise to do it.

Internally controlled, or self-controlled, time is what’s left. It’s what we tend to call “free time,” which is ridiculous since it’s obviously not at all free or cheap. Start with 168 (the number of hours in a week), subtract all of your externally controlled time, and you’ll probably be shocked at how few hours remain. For most people it’s only about 1-3 hours per day.

Your internally controlled time—the time you get to use exactly how you want to use it—is a scarce and precious resource. And as a DIY musician, it’s all you’ve got.

The 80/20 Rule

You can’t always know which time expenditures will pay off. Most of what you do will, at best, contribute in some small way to moving the entire operation forward. At worst, it will knock you back.

There is a theory called the Pareto Principle, a.k.a. the 80/20 Rule, that tells us, on average, 20% of any category is the really valuable stuff, and the other 80% is of less value. Some people take this to mean that 80% of everything is crap. That’s an exaggeration: the 80% isn’t all useLESS. Some of it is, but most of it is just less useFUL.

Applying the 80/20 Rule to time, you can expect that about 20% of the time you spend working on your music career will pay off the most. The other 80% will either be necessary but no-glory work, or mistakes that waste time.

The problem with the 80/20 Rule is that it’s hard to predict which 20% of your time will produce the big rewards. However, if you’re making well-thought-out choices about how you spend your time and keeping track of the results, you’ll become better able to anticipate how to budget your precious few self-controlled hours.

Where to Begin

I know this is a lot to digest and it can be discouraging at first. Don’t throw in the towel—you CAN make this work for you! For now, start thinking about time as a resource like money: Recognize it’s limited and pay attention to how you’re spending it. In my next post, I’ll show you ways to maximize your self-controlled time and build a strategic time budget.


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.