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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.