5 Focus & Productivity Hacks for Musicians | How to Do More in Less Time

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Understanding Focus & Productivity

Do you ever go into the studio to write music, really motivated and ready to achieve a lot, but then come out with pretty much nothing to show for it? Do you find yourself getting distracted and scattered, not making any progress?

Focus and productivity hacks. Your ability to focus is one of the most important aspects of your progress towards your musical goals. If you’re working at a regular 9-5 job, you get paid for your time. If you’re unproductive, scattered, or unfocused, you still get paid – up until a point anyways. You could always get fired.

But for anyone who’s an artist, or self-employed in another field, your focus and productivity is everything. It determines your income, your opportunities, your status in the industry and more.

So that begs the question, how can you become more focused and productive? And what does it mean to be “focused”?

Let’s first break down focus. I like talking about it in 2 dimensions. Depth of focus, meaning how engaged are you in that moment. How honed in, or in the zone are you?

Second is length of focus. How long can you sustain focus for? Clearly, both depth and length of focus are important for producing music.

I’ve invested a lot of time and energy in personal development courses, reading books, studying how the brain works etc. My journey has taken me all the way from doing a 2 year coaching program with Les Hewitt, the author of The Power of Focus book, to studying with a Japanese Zen buddhist monk with a PHD in Deeper States of Consciousness. In this video, I want to condense down and share some core lessons I’ve learned along the way with the intention of assisting you in being more focused and productive when it’s time to be creative.

Below the video I’ll link some great sources where I’ve gotten this information if you want to follow up and study it yourself, as well as some info on my coaching program for musicians if you’d like to work with me.

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Focus Can Be Trained

The first thing that I want to share with you is that focus can be dramatically improved with training. We all naturally understand that if you want to be stronger or more fit, you need to go to the gym and workout, then the body responds by increasing its capacity.

Yet, we don’t ever seem to do this for the mind. Most people have never even thought of the possibility of training their brain like they train their body. However, it’s now emerging as a new field of study. If you look at peak performance organizations where focus and mental capacity is absolutely critical and high performance is needed in the most challenging of situations, you’ll see them using mind training.

The US Military has figured this out. In the Navy Seals, their elite DEVGRU unit, better known as SEAL Team 6, has built a Mind Gym where soldiers build their capacity for focus and flow. I’d be hard pressed to think of any profession where focus was more critical than being a Navy Seal in the most intense life or death situations in the world.

Technique #1 – Reduce Distractions

We live in a world of distractions. Smartphones are bombarding us with texts and notifications, when you’re on your computer, there’s a world of social media sites. We’ve trained ourselves to be hyper connected, nearly 24-7.

There’s a massive downside to this though. Each and every time we’re distracted, even just by our phone buzzing for a text, we lose focus and are interrupted. It takes, on average, 17 minutes to regain the same level of focus. The problem with this is that interruptions are coming at us far more frequently than every 17 minutes, meaning we are living in a constant state of distraction.

This is called “continuous partial attention” or “shallow work” and it’s the opposite of the state we need to be in to do our best creative work.

We just talked about Seal team 6 and their Mind Gym. Well, just one of the things they do in the Mind Gym is use sensory deprivation tanks tanks to accelerate the speed at which a Seal can learn a new language. By using these techniques, they can reduce that time from 6 months to 6 weeks. By dramatically reducing outside stimulus, they’re able to achieve astounding results.

So what does this look like for focus on music? I’m not saying to build a float tank in your studio, but you do need to overcome your desire for distraction. Most of us are totally addicted to distraction.

Here are some simple things you can do:

  1. Have a no phones in the studio policy. Turn them off and leave them outside so they don’t disturb you.
  2. Realize that you are constantly building habits. If you break your focus in the studio and check Instagram, for example, you’re building the habit of shallow work and being distracted and ineffective. Ask yourself, “What habit do I want to build?” If you give in to distraction, you’ll literally rewire your brain to be more prone to distraction the next time.
  3. Turn off all automatic pop up notifications on your computer. In OSX on Macs you can turn on “Do Not Disturb” in your notifications center by Option + Clicking. This ensures nothing will pop up visually for you or make a sound.
  4. To avoid temptation to go online and check social media, use an app – Freedom – that totally blocks the internet for a period of time.  Or you could do it the old-school way and just unplug your modem or router.
  5. People can also be a big distraction, so if you live with others, then let them know you need some focus time and not to disturb you.
  6. Batch shallow work together and “Drain the Shallows”. E-mail has to get answered, I get it. You need to make phone calls. You need to use social media to connect with fans and promote yourself. Rather than doing that every 10 or 15 minutes throughout your day, instead batch it together into one concentrated time. Spend an hour on the shallow work and get it done. Then, when it’s time for a creative session, you can set it aside and focus deeply.

Technique #2 – Mind Training

Do some form of mind training. Just like you’d go to the gym and do a workout, you need a workout for your mind. I highly recommend meditation. Aside from its huge laundry list of other benefits, meditation is a very effective way of building focus. Now, meditation is a big topic that warrants at least a whole video on it’s own, so I’m not going to train you on it in this video. I’ll just speak a bit to how and why it’s useful.

In order to focus deeply, you need to build the willpower and mental discipline to resist distractions. Most of us are addicted to checking out phones, e-mail, social media every few minutes. This is a habit you need to break, but it’s very difficult without some form of mind training. It’s difficult because apps and smartphones are specially designed to be addictive. An interesting book on that is Hooked – How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

Meditation is the antidote. It builds the strength in your mind to stay on task and resist the temptation to distract yourself. Just like going to the gym for the first time, it’s likely to be frustrating when you first try to meditate because you may have never trained this part of your mind. You’ll be trying to focus on your breath, then your mind will race off on some tangent thinking about an e-mail you need to follow up on, or a bill you need to pay.

When this happens, many beginners say, “I just can’t meditate.” But that’s because of a misconception about what meditation is. People think that meditation is clearing your mind completely and feeling a state of pure bliss. While that can happen, after years and years of practice, it doesn’t mean you’re not meditating effectively if that doesn’t happen.

To use our gym analogy again, the first time you go to the gym, you’re going to be weak. You’ll try and lift a weight and it’ll seem impossible, but unless you lift it, it you won’t get stronger. With meditation, when your mind wanders, then you bring it back to your breath, that’s like a repetition with a weight. That work strengthens your mind. When your mind goes off thinking about what you need to pick up at the grocery store, and you bring it back, that makes you just a bit stronger and more disciplined.

In his book Tools of Titans – The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferris, meditation and meditation-like techniques come up several times. In particular, there’s an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger where he speaks about how meditation has helped him to build focus.

Technique #3 – Plan Your Work & Prioritize Micro-Goals

A plan helps you stay focused and clear on what the objectives of your time are.  I really like the quote, “If you don’t have time, the truth is, you don’t have priorities.  Think harder; don’t work harder.” – Tim Ferris.

I spend time before going into the studio to make a plan, setting micro-goals, and placing them in order of priority.

And example of my plan and micro-goals for a studio session is:

  1. Adjust the timing of the lead vocal by Warping it
  2. Tune the lead vocal in Melodyne
  3. Do manual volume automation to smooth out the dynamics of the lead vocal
  4. Use a dynamic EQ on my synth group, sidechained to the lead vocal, to make space for it and prevent frequency masking
  5. Process the lead vocal with EQ, compression, de-essing, reverb & delay

Having this list open when I’m in the studio helps me to stay on track and methodically go through each step that’s needed to bring the song to completion.

Technique #4 – Single Tasking

There’s a whole book called Deep Work by by Cal Newport. Deep work is this focused type of state we want to be in when creating music. As opposed to shallow work. Shallow work is much easier and it’s where most of us spend our days. When you’re working at a cafe, or in an open-concept office with co-workers, answering e-mail, responding to texts, connected to Slack or social media, you’re in a shallow work state.

Part of deep work is focusing on a single task at a time and not multi-tasking by switching between various things. The reason I recommend focusing on a single task and not switching is due to something called “attention residue”. “This concept states that every time you’re switching from one task to another, a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the previous task. This makes it hard to work with the necessary focus and intensity required for deep work on the new task. As a result, you lose a little bit of productivity every time you switch tasks.” There’s a full research study on this that I’ve linked above in the resources section.

So how do you single-task? Before you go into the studio to work on music, sit down and plan your session as I’ve noted in technique #3 above. Don’t just go in with the intention of “writing a song”, or “mixing down the session”. Make micro-goals and prioritize them. This time spent planning will yield huge benefits to your productivity.

Technique #5 – Productivity Apps

If you want to hack this process even further, I recommend an app called Vitamin R. It’s based on the Pomodoro Method, but is far more advanced and effective. It allows you break your session into what they call “time slices”, each with a specific objective. So, I’d create a time slice for each one of the items in my to do list.

You can adjust the length of each time slice, and set up structured breaks in between. Vitamin R helps to keep me on task and reach each micro-goal, and track my progress in a log book. It’s an amazing app that I’ve been using for years and it really helps with things like complex mixdown or sound design projects with tons of steps.

Review & Summary

So let’s recap and summarize. The depth and length of time that you can sustain your focus for are related to your results in your music career.

You can train your mind to be more focused and build new habits that make it possible to do deep work. To start off, follow in the footsteps of Seal Team 6, and eliminate distractions to help accelerate your progress. Explore meditation as a way of building the willpower and mental discipline necessary to resist distractions. Plan and prioritize your work before you to into a creative session to get the best use out of your time. And finally, try out productivity apps like Vitamin R to enhance your results.

I hope you’ve gotten a lot out of this post and that this information helps you immensely in your creative work. If we’re not connected already, subscribe and stay in touch.  I hope to connect with you again really soon. Cheers!

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