Sidewalk art by James De La Vega, spotted in New York’s East Village
There is a current trend of so-called “productivity” blogs that have been popping up all over the internet. What many consider to be the original, Lifehack, has now spawned countless others: ZenHabits, 43Folders, Get Rich Slowly…… you know what, just peruse the list compiled here. You’ll get the idea. The goal of these blogs is first to inspire readers, then provide them with tools and advice for optimizing their lives, achieve their goals, make more money, and become as efficient as possible.
The irony of this overwhelming glut of productivity advice is the fact that the sheer effort required to read all of it is immensely counterproductive. It’s a gigantic distraction feed. I have no faith that the value gained from the tips outweighs the lost time in reading them in the first place. A cursory glance over a handful of top productivity blogs, over the course of a couple weeks, should give you just about everything you need to know. The rest is filler and book-hawking.
I like to distill overly complex themes and ideas into completely simple guidelines. In the case of personal productivity and efficiency (that is, actually getting things done), these guidelines are reflected perfectly in music:
Get into a rhythm – Being productive is about consistency over time, not inspirational fits and starts. Create a groove, don’t wait for one. Set a schedule and stick to it. Record your schedule in Google Calendar and set it to send you text message reminders. Stick to your schedule no matter what. This rhythm will give way to habit. Habit gives way to routine. You will churn out results when your metronome is steadily clicking.
Limit background noise and feedback - The best way to get things done is to stay focused. The best way to stay focused is to control your environment, not your behavior. A guitarist doesn’t play louder to be heard over street noise, he simply soundproofs his studio. Do your creative work in a designated work area, and keep it free from distractions. No gadgets on the desk, no extraneous photographs. When you limit your surroundings there is less to be distracted by. It’s the same principle that people use when dieting: instead of restraining your urge to eat a candy bar, just don’t keep a candy bar in your house in the first place.
Play your part and play it well – Do one thing at a time. This is a principle applied passionately by jazz musicians, where a soloist’s role in a combo is extremely important. You can’t afford to do more than one thing at a time. When another musician is playing, you listen. When you’re playing, you play. Give and take, but not at the same time. Multitasking is the biggest cause of counterproductivity. The mental effort required to start a task in the first place demands that you stick with that task until it’s completed. Starting a task, then starting another task, and then returning to the first task will result in poorer quality overall, and a much longer timeframe for completion. Do one thing at a time, and make each thing you do an exercise in excellence.
Give it some soul – Van Morrison said, when speaking of Sam Cooke, “If a singer is not singing from the soul, then I do not want to even listen to it. It’s not for me.” The same is true with your own project or career. Inject your endeavors with soul or else they’re not worth a damn thing. You need to actually care about something in order to do it well. Work with passion and honesty and grit. Love what you’re doing. Your intensity comes through naturally in whatever task you’re performing, and intensity is infectious.
Let it breathe – Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was a huge proponent of playing the spaces. “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” he said. In this way, a single note must carry the weight and emotional load of 10 lesser notes. When there are fewer notes in a piece of music, each note becomes more important. View your tasks, errands, and endeavors as musical notes. Don’t fill your day with too many of them, and fill the rest of your day by “playing what’s not there.” Relax. Have fun. Make your periods of work intense and productive, but limit them. Give them “end” times. Respect those work periods and don’t let them bleed into your “free” time. Weave both together like lines of counterpoint instead of segmenting them off from one another completely. Play the notes, but live in the spaces.
It’s all music.