Toxic Time Management

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with time management. I blame Batman. Batman, you see, is just a normal guy sans superpowers who made unbelievably effective use of his time. So, as a kid, I read about productivity, and concocted time management programs to support my lofty goals of becoming a real-life superhero. The philosophy behind my programs was generally pretty simple: spend all my time doing productive stuff like practicing martial arts, exercising, studying, building grappling guns. Batman didn’t have time for stuff like making friends, building community, watching movies, and so neither would I!

I have since given up on the idea of being Batman. I’d like to say it’s because I recognized that Bruce Wayne was an unachievable ideal though it’s more likely that I just found music more compelling. The idea of using every moment as effectively as possible, however, feels like an inexorable part of my identity. There are pros and cons. The pros: I have grown a lot as a musician and also as a person. The cons: I have avoided putting real effort into anything that can’t be checked off, and that’s a lot of important stuff!

A month or so ago, after a couple very productive weeks, I was feeling pretty depressed and lonely. In the name of productivity, I put a ban on things that weren’t goal related, and had isolated myself from friends and community. It took me a couple days to climb out of the slump. Previously, I would’ve gone straight back into full-productivity mode thus propagating the cycle. This time, however, I stepped out of action to reflect on this pattern, and come up with some new rules for how to think about time management.

I have recently updated my time management spreadsheet so that it reflects these rules. It might help you to have a look before continuing. Also, feel free to make a copy and use it yourself if you like.

Productivity is best optimized by optimizing for balance

The reason why my time-management systems continue to fail is because I have previously made productivity my primary and, really, only goal. So, by the 2-week mark I’m usually feeling dried up and isolated. For a sustainable time-management system, I believe we have to plan time for restorative activities, and aim for balance. How do we do that?

Make a list of all your projects: everything you do with your life. Now, ask yourself this question: what are the important things that I’m avoiding or just don’t naturally spend time on? For me, this was community, journaling, and therapy. Make sure these go on your project list as well. Now, every week, come up with your goal budget – the number of hours you have to spend on your projects altogether – and distribute those hours amongst your projects according to their importance. Remember those really important things that you don’t naturally put time into? Make sure they get some attention.

Once you have your week’s budget established for each of your projects, break those goals down for each day of the week. This may sound like a lot of work, but I can’t tell you how freeing it is to wake up and already have a plan for what that day has in store. Also, your daily goals will help keep you balanced. Without this, you’re likely to get to the end of the week without putting any time into those very-important projects that you have difficulty getting yourself to do.

One word of warning: you’ll occasionally start working on something to be stopped in your tracks by the BEST IDEA EVER. You’ll be tempted to drop your whole plan for the day, and maybe even the week, to get started. Resist!!! Seriously, if it’s the best idea ever, it can wait until next week when you can budget some time for it. If you still think it’s imperative, take 5 minutes to rebalance your budget and allocate some time for this new work.

Easy success is sustainable success

When we’re devising goals for ourselves, we often default to something like “learn this etude by the end of the week.” If the end of the week comes and we don’t have a polished etude, we’re likely to feel as though we’ve let ourselves down regardless of how hard we worked. It’s pretty hard to estimate how long it’ll take to complete a given task. If there’s a strict deadline, sometimes we have to. If there’s not, we can avoid estimation altogether and go with tasks like these: “this week I’ll put 6 hours into learning this etude.” It is much easier to succeed with a goal like this. When you get started, make sure to err on the side of allocating too few hours. Resist competing in the battle for who can do the most work, and battle instead for contentedness and a sense of fulfillment.

Don’t let good and bad get in the way

I have previously thought of different activities as good or bad uses of time. Practicing piano = good. Watching a Netflix show = bad. I’ve come to realize that this is a dangerous, and unnecessary classification. Instead, you can just moderate your activities based on a desire for balance (see above). For some, that means 1 hour of Netflix a week. For others it means 5 or more. You choose. That said, there is a category of things we do that probably aren’t that important, but are easy and fun to do. For me, this includes Netflix, movies, and time on Facebook. If you can, try using these activities as rewards. Please take care here not to use all of your self-care activities as rewards. Investments in community, seeing friends, or taking time to relax, for example, are probably not good rewards. These are too important! Look for things you love to do that really aren’t that important for you to do. Those are good rewards.

If you’re at all like me, you might try to use your reward time productively. If that’s the case, decide ahead of time (during your weekly budgeting) what you want to do as a reward. It’ll be a little harder to blow off.

For the love of all things holy, just treat yourself well

I think the true test of any time management system is quality of life. Are you happy? If the answer is no, you might not be balancing your time well. Loneliness and depression are formidable foes though. A better approach to time management could be useful but it’s probably just one facet of the battle. Here’s a great article about battling loneliness from my friend Ashley Kirsner of Skip the Small Talk. There’s a great section on self-care which is a category of activities that we could all stand to put some more time into. I wish you all the luck in achieving a balanced and fulfilling life. Now go forth and be awesome!

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What Engineering Taught Me About Making It In Music

Before I took the plunge into being a full-time musician, I got my bachelor and master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering. For a while I was pursuing music and software development simultaneously and, when people asked what I did, I would say “during the day I hit keys and, at night, I hit different keys.” It’s truly a wonder I don’t have carpal tunnel.

Every once in awhile I catch myself complaining about how I wasted so much time pursuing those degrees only to ditch my software job and focus on music. While it’s true that I don’t really spend much time writing denoising algorithms these days, I did learn a lot of important lessons during my time as an engineer that have helped me succeed in other areas of my life. Perhaps they can be useful to you too. So, here are some that I’ve found particularly helpful.

It ain’t impossible until it’s impossible

Engineers and programmers are often handed tasks that may actually be impossible but we accept that as part of the job description. By the time you’re a senior engineer you’ll have succeeded and failed so many times that the question “is it possible?” just doesn’t seem relevant anymore. Instead, you’ll only ask “why, and how long do I have?” If you really want to do something, why not just try it? Choose to believe it’s possible, and evaluate your belief later on. I recommend having an accountability team packed with insightful people to help keep you accountable both to your goal and to reality. It can be hard to let go of something we’ve invested a lot of time and energy into, and a solid group of friends and supporters can help provide an unbiased perspective on what you can and cannot accomplish.

Think small to go big

George wakes up one day and decides he wants to climb a mountain. He does a little research, flies to Tibet, takes one look at Mount Everest, flies back home, and goes back to bed. Sure, laugh at George, but I bet you’ve done something like this. Maybe you saw an amazing piano player and, despite your previous interest in learning piano, decided you just can’t be that good and binged on Netflix instead. Well, nobody climbs Mount Everest the first time they go climbing (or, if they do, they’re probably frozen to the mountain somewhere), and nobody plays like Oscar Peterson without working their asses off for years. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by some new goal, try breaking it down at least 5 times. For example,

I want to be able to play piano like Oscar Peterson.
I want to be able to play “C Jam Blues” just like he does.
I want to be able to play one chorus of “C Jam Blues” just like he does.
I want to be able to play one measure of “C Jam Blues” just like he does.
I want to be able to play one measure of “C Jam Blues”, right hand only, just like he does.

Now doesn’t that last thing sound like something you could do? I’m pretty sure you can! Start there and work your way up.

Failure is success in disguise

In every major tech corporation there’s a shrine to Steve Jobs and a plaque with all their favorite words. The first word on that plaque is “pivot” (followed by “monetize” and “utilize”). Well, Steve Jobs was kind of a jerk in my opinion, but I’m a big fan of pivoting. What is pivoting? Let’s say you spent the last year making a whole lot of tasty cupcakes. Your car is packed with the things, and you’re headed to Massachusetts where marijuana was recently legalized and cupcakes will be in high demand. Unfortunately, your tasty cupcakes are so tasty that you accidentally eat them all before you arrive (whoops, burp). You realize, however, that you are a freaking cup-cake-making ninja. Perhaps you can sell your knowledge, and teach others your art. Or maybe you consult with other shops. Maybe you start a food science blog. The point is, whatever you learned, created, or invented in pursuit of your goal might be as, if not more, lucrative than what you initially had in mind. If you fail, take a moment to reflect on what new skills and knowledge you have, and consider some creative ways to use them in pursuit of a new, different goal.

I know that doing new stuff is scary. It still scares the crap out of me more often than not, but I promise it gets less scary the more you do it. Good luck doing amazing things! I look forward to hearing about your successes and failure.

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