This Friday, we at Brass Chicks are feeling a bit overwhelmed. There always seems to be so much to do – and so little time to do it! Nonetheless, we (like many in the music field) do the work we do because we love it. Although the topic of this post is not as explicitly musical a subject as what we usually discuss here, these skills can be invaluable for musicians in the era of the portfolio career. The advice below might seem basic, but these steps, combined with a little discipline, can turn too many things to do into a road map to your next set of accomplishments. If you, too, are feeling the strain of juggling more responsibilities than you feel you can manage, we hope the following five tricks for handling multiple (or many) projects at once can help:
1. Make a List
This may seem obvious: we are all familiar the ubiquitous to-do list, and we all know how to make one. You probably enough lists every day that it feels like there’s nothing special about the medium. Even this post is a list! Additionally, to-do lists frequently fail and can cause stress. Nobody wants tons of uncompleted tasks hanging over her head!
Despite all this, however, writing a to-do list has proven benefits for productivity, even when you don’t get everything done. The practice can help you get all the tasks you need to perform out of your head, so that you have the mental space to actually complete them. As a musician, your practice sessions will be much more productive if you are not simultaneously trying to mentally keep track of fifty things you need to do once you’re done playing, none of which you have written down.
Start by writing out all the major things you need to handle, in a relatively broad sense.
2. Make Sub-Lists
Now that you have a list, it is time to turn your big responsibilities into smaller, actionable tasks. For example, I am planning to perform a solo recital not long from now. My broader, long-term to-to list has a single point for “prepare for recital.” Under that point, however, I naturally have many smaller tasks:
- Prepare for recital
- Practice each piece daily
- Make detailed practice plan
- Schedule rehearsals with piano accompanist
- Write program notes
These smaller points will form the basis of your actual to-do list. Put as much detail in the steps for each item as possible. These are what you should actually consider and work towards; larger accomplishments will come about naturally as you complete their components! You might choose to do breaking-down process this for each project you are managing. Alternately, you might prefer to restrict yourself to only the most important ones and the ones involving urgent action items. This idea brings us to:
Do not try to complete all of the points you wrote in the above step at once, or even today! Look at all the tasks you’ve written down and choose which ones are the most urgent or important. Mark those tasks as somehow separate from the others. Some people do this by starting a new list with just these items, while other people might mark them with a star or use another method. The most important part of this step is that you not choose too many most-urgent/important tasks. You should finish this step with a list that is attainable or near-attainable within the day. The “1-3-5” Rule can be a good way to create this sort of list.
If you did your best to prioritize your list and still can’t come up with something short enough to handle today, it is possible that you really are trying to do too much. But do not despair! Look over your list and consider where a friend or colleague might be able to help you. If you are supposed to contact ten potential venues for your chamber group’s next concert but don’t think you can do it in time, ask one of your colleagues to help you out. If you are writing an arrangement but won’t have time to finish editing it before you need it done, see if you have a friend who might be able to look it over for you. If today is a crazy day of work and you are not sure you can fit it in, perhaps your significant other/child/friend can walk the dog today. You do not have to do everything by yourself.
5. Get Started, but Stay Organized!
Now that your list is finally a manageable size, get to work! To the best of your ability, work on only one thing at a time stick to the priorities you’ve laid out for yourself. Multitasking does not work, and it is much more important that you finish these most-important items than that you finish 15 less-important tasks. You will likely feel tempted to stray from your plan, working on your less-urgent items first. Do not do this. It is way more essential that you get in the grant proposal due tomorrow and practice your part for the show tonight than that you vacuum the apartment, work ahead on some music for next month, or buy a birthday present for your friend whose birthday is in two months!
As new responsibilities (constantly) arise, add them to your list and consider their place among your priorities. With a system in place, new obligations should not need to be overwhelming or throw all of your previous planning into flux.