Putting in thousands of hours honing our craft is essential for becoming the musicians and artists we aspire to be. Unfortunately, there are often factors outside of our control that can keep us from getting our music work done, like our job or various family obligations. But many of us also contribute to the problem by not setting ourselves up for success. We can improve our odds of having meaningful, productive music time by planning ahead, setting up our environment to support what we’re doing, and adopting healthy habits outside of our musical lives to keep us in the right headspace for doing the work.
Properly planning and organizing our musical activities can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed when we sit down to work. If we know beforehand what we’re working on, we’ll be less likely to waste time deciding what to do. You can use a multi-scale approach to do this. First, figure out what you want to accomplish over the next three to four months—what author Cal Newport calls a “quarterly” or “strategic” plan. Then, for the week ahead, block out the times each day where you will practice or work on a project, fitting these blocks around your existing obligations. Finally, figure out the specific details of what you will work on within each block of music time. This method will help you keep in mind the bigger-picture, allow you to make time for music around your other commitments, and stay focused on the details of what you’re working on in the present moment.
Our environment can either help or hinder our musical efforts. If your practice space is cluttered, and in close proximity to external distractions, it will be much harder to engage in deep work. Set up your music space somewhere quiet, where there are as few potential disruptions as possible. You can also make it easier to get started by having your instrument, recording equipment, and other tools close by and ready to use, and by keeping any distracting items—like your smartphone—out of reach. As James Clear explains in his book Atomic Habits, decreasing the friction between you and your desired activity increases the odds you’ll do it. “It’s easy not to practice the guitar when it’s tucked away in the closet.” Along the same lines, increasing the friction between you and any undesirable activity will make it harder to do.
To get the most out of our musical experience, we also have to tend to other important areas of our life. This might mean adopting healthy habits for our minds and bodies, like engaging in regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and being deliberate about where we place our attention. For most of us, it will include maintaining our most meaningful relationships. We will also benefit from having a perspective that supports long-term enjoyment, progress, and sustainability—ideally one where we know how music fits into our life, understand the importance of small, daily improvements, and see the value of playing the long game. If any of these parts of your life are lacking, you might find it detracts from your music making. In their book Peak Performance, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness explain: “The latest science suggests it’s extremely hard to perform well at work if other elements of your life are not in harmony….recognize that disconnecting ‘work’ from ‘life’ is an illusion.” We can experience more success in our musical lives by improving our non-musical ones. It also means we should be kind to ourselves if we are going through a hard time and our practice or project time suffers as a result. Music will still be there when things improve and we’re once again ready to return to it with full force.
Although much of our musical success is outside of our control, when it comes to doing the work we need to create and improve at our craft, we have more power. By being organized and prepared, strategically designing our environment, and taking care of our life outside of music, we’ll stack the odds of success in our favour.