Thoughts on Productivity, Part III

Alright, here’s the concluding installment of “I should be writing music but I’m not.”

7. A general rule: No Brute Forcing

There is a prevailing idea, (perhaps due in part to Malcom Gladwell's pointing out the 10,000 hour rule) that the way to get something done is to just try to do it/beat your head against it until it sticks. Which, following rule 1, maybe that does work for you. Am I saying that there’s no need for hard work? That’s not what I’m saying at all. Directed hard work is important for the development of any art or craft. Brute force is hard work that has its heart in the right place, but its plan for how to achieve the final goal is misdirected, and possibly harmful.

Music students are often told that they should practice X hours a day. Maybe this works, and maybe it doesn't (though daily practice is expected, should it be for a specific number of hours?). We're not building Model T's here. We're not putting in 8-hour workdays assembling widgets (Fun fact, the 8-hour work day in America was popularized by Henry Ford, who found that shortening the 9-hour work day (and raising salaries) actually INCREASED production from the 45-hour work week). Sometimes, things don't work and it’s better to move on.

This raises a question: Is bad productivity (a stretch of time that you scheduled to do something, and then accomplished nothing) better or worse than no productivity (a span of time you didn't schedule to do something, and then didn't)? Or, possibly more accurately, is bad productivity (a stretch of time that you scheduled to do something, and then accomplished nothing) better or worse than alternate productivity/structured procrastination (doing what your brain wants to work on during a stretch of time you scheduled for something else)? By applying a brute-force method to creating art, are we working toward producing good art? An example: For my last piece, I was working on a number of motives and melodies, with a halfway-decent idea (a work titled Sibling Rivalry). After fighting with the material for a few days, I came home one night, started a new Sibelius document, and started fresh from the beginning using the same materials. The piece was completed several days later. Sometimes success is knowing when to give up and start over.

8. Systematize Processes

There is a part of making art that doesn't involve making art. I suppose it's a sort of Arts Administration, though not exactly in the same sense that people who work in Arts Administration use it. As a composer, and a self-published one at that, there's a few things I have to do. Here's a short list:

Write music
Register music with ASCAP
Get music print-ready
Submit music to distributers
Write program notes
Publicize music
Get performances
Get good recordings
Submit to calls for scores and festivals
Submit performance programs for royalty collection

And that's all composery things, it doesn't take into consideration my university duties, or the design, programming, and engraving work that my publishing company does.

Now, what if we could systematize some of these things? You can't really systematize “write music” (OK, yeah you can, I just refuse to). But things like getting the program notes on the website? Totally systemizable. One of my best examples is dealing with calls for scores. There are hundreds of organizations and ensembles looking for new music every year. They send out public announcements to several different places. Years ago, my approach was to find one I liked, get everything ready, and then realize after the deadline that I should have sent it in. It didn't take many of those screwups to change how I did things. I ended up building a system where I could enter information for calls for scores including which pieces to submit, and the system would remind me a month before it was due and would even go so far as to generate the mailing labels (with QR code capabilities) My yearly submissions went from 3 to 50 in the first year. AND I spent less time on them. One of my recent projects has been a rehearsal scheduler, that takes the schedule from a number of participants and outputs the time that everyone can meet. Which streamlines rehearsal scheduling (and, as it turns out, email) substantially. If you can master the flow of information, everything else is easy (-er).

9. A lot of custom software (and other things).

Building on the themes from “be a generalist” and “systematize processes”, a lot of what I do involves building custom software for my purposes. The “calls for scores” system I set up? Basically a highly specialized to-do list with custom fields for composing. This blog you're reading? Runs on the same system. My to-do list and daily calendar? You betcha.

It also organizes my travel funding (for reimbursement purposes), and I already mentioned the home product inventory system. Learning to program was probably one of the best things I ever did.

But it doesn't necessarily end with software. When I was writing my master's thesis, I ran into the problem that my desk wasn't big enough for the ledger-size sheet music I was orchestrating with. For several months my dining room table (the square one that I didn't buy from the OU surplus store, as opposed to the round one that I did, that lives in my office right now) moved into my office and became a second desk. Since I usually eat in the office, it kind of made sense. Within a year, I had designed and built a desk for composing (with plenty of help from dad). A couple years later, when I should have been studying for my general exams for my doctorate, Cassie and I built a couple of bookcases of my own design that doubled as speaker stands. Since I don't have any significant power tools in Norman, and because the entire project took place in my living room, they were not built as well as they could have been. Not even close. They have a few rough edges around them. But man, it sure does feel good to make things. It feels really good to make things that help you make things. It also instills a great deal of respect for people who make things and make them well.

Try writing a fugue without realizing the genius of Bach. Try building a calendar program without having an immense amount of awe for the team that does it at Google (Time zones are an ABSOLUTE PAIN.) Building furniture and building music aren't all that different, when you think about them.

10. Do what you love.

“Do what you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life” is totally cheesy (and according to the internet, first said by Confucius) but it's also totally true. I’ve been told over the past n years that I need to relax more. That I need to take time for me, and that I need to slow down and enjoy life. What perplexes me is that, I already do. Life is AWESOME, and I (more or less) get to do exactly what I want. I get to make cool things. How do you relax when you know that there's so many more cool things that you can do!? That said, there's an inordinate amount of code that runs Liszt that was written while watching Law and Order: SVU on Netflix. Sure, down time is important, but if you're doing a job that requires a lot of down time and recharging, are you in the right field? Maybe the answer to the “relax” equation isn't to take more time to relax. Maybe it's to do things in such a way where you don't need to relax. Things don't have to be hard. And at long last we find ourselves at the end of my productivity adventures, which in itself was an exercise in structured procrastination. I hope that at least some of this has been helpful, and if it hasn’t been helpful then hopefully it has been thought-provoking, and if it hasn’t been that hopefully it has been entertaining. I’m off to do some work.

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Thoughts on Productivity, Part II

I meant to post this several days ago, but I was hanging out with a whole bunch of fun people at the national CMS conference in St. Louis. Here's part II of “it's easier to write things about productivity than to be productive.”

4. Be a generalist.

The world is becoming so specialized that the generalist is starting to become a novelty. In higher education this seems especially true. Working in IT I often came across professors who were amazing at their craft, but had no idea how to do anything more than the absolute basic on the computer (the phrase “I'm not good at computers” came up a lot, a later rant will be “when did 'I'm not good at X' become an acceptable excuse for not knowing things?”).

Put simply, things inform other things.

Within the field of music we try to exercise that idea, requiring composers to perform and requiring performers to attend classes in theory and history. But outside the field of music there isn't much required past undergrad. What about the impact of visual art on music? Or the impact of music on literature? More practically, what about the effects of marketing on music? What's the best way to brand an ensemble? What's the best height to build speaker stands? How can one apply the idea of Lean production to practicing music? (Is this even possible?) If you don't look for the answers, you won't know. (Preachy bit) What appears to be happening in the arts, especially in the US with a decline in funding, is that being a great musician soon won't be enough if organizations that hire great musicians keep closing. In Aaron Sorkin's commencement speech at Syracuse he said that “to get where you’re going, you have to be good, and to be good where you’re going, you have to be damned good.” “Damned Good” will soon mean not only acuity of craft but also innovation in application of craft.

Emerson once said that “The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss.”

American universities have become quite good (damned good?) at producing Why-knowers, but less so at producing How-knowers. I wonder if perhaps Emerson is about to be proven wrong.

(I thought this was supposed to be a blog post about productivity)

5. Free your schedule.

This idea comes from Marc Andreessen, who got it from Eric Abrahamson (from his book A Perfect Mess), who took it from Arnold Schwarzenegger. And it basically states that, if possible, you should forgo the schedule and just spend each day doing what you want.

It sounds totally crazy. If I need to spend all day working on writing music, I do. If I need to write a paper, I'll write it. If I need to lesson plan, I'll plan lessons.

The brain is an amazing thing, if we let it work. Because what I've found in my schedule-freeing-ness is that while I'm working on whatever I want to (like refinishing a coffee table. Or some dining room chairs. Or building a desk) my brain will work out the tough problems on what I need to do (like that tricky passage in the sax quartet, or create a melody for the piano trio).

There's a lot of background thought that goes on if you let the brain do its thing. And most of the time it self-regulates too, so if something NEEDS to get done, it'll get done before the deadline.

I'll stop there, because others have written on the subject with much better clarity than I could. But the schedule thing is amazing.

6. Inbox Zero

I have this idea that the more stuff you have in your inbox, the more stressed you are when you look at it. I haven't had my inbox number in the thousands for at least the last five years, and probably longer. Email takes a lot of time.

Several years ago I ran across Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero. It sounded like an interesting idea, so I tried it. Wow. I use my inbox as a list of things I need to take care of. Either I need to keep them in mind (like whenever I order something from Amazon, the correspondence stays in my inbox until it's delivered) or I need to take action (meeting requests and the like). Sometimes these things go into one of my to-do lists (I have two personally, a normal 'daily' to-do list and a long-term to-eventually-do list), sometimes I read them and delete them. The grand total of my inbox at this moment: 19. Eight of those are for the CMS national conference I'm attending this week. Three are calls-for-scores that I need to look at and enter into Liszt.

I still get a fair chunk of email a day (all my accounts filter into one main account), but a lot of it gets skimmed and deleted quickly. It also takes less time to sync my email. Some other thoughts on email: Five Sentences and Matt Might's article about How to Send and Reply to Email.

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Kyle Vanderburg