Updated: Jun 10, 2021
This is part 3 in a series of articles entitled Too Busy for a Real Vacation? Streamline Your Work and Buy Time for YOU. The articles discuss habit changes and strategic projects designed to equip you to maximize your working time.
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. -- Cal Newport, Deep Work
Ah, deep work. Most musicians certainly learn deep work skills -- perhaps with different terms and sometimes less structured approaches than Cal Newport, Georgetown Professor and author of the book Deep Work.
Observers of musicians may say with some amazement how we work with great intensity or focus. My husband marvels at how I can focus deeply in a room filled with chaos -- which from his perspective can mean that my depth of focus sometimes might prevent me from realising that our kids have decided to cook pancakes for dinner by themselves… or that they have borrowed the car (they are 7 and 9 at the time of this writing, so that's a bad idea).
Joking aside, there are real benefits to being able to use the skill of deep work -- if we can figure out how to use it. Newport touches on several ways in which deep work can be utilized (and I highly recommend reading his book), but I’ll focus on how to apply the concept to daily focused work, as it is what I use daily to help me to make consistent progress in my varied responsibilities.
Looking for our deep work sweet spot
As we look for our deep work sweet spot, it’s good to know that as musicians we have strong focus muscles already... and that gives us a leg up on this superpower. From here, what many of us need to do is to learn how to wield the skill of focus -- of deep work -- to our advantage, not only in the practice room, but in applying our 'brain space' to running our music business.
Think about what point in the day you are mentally best suited to do different tasks. Most of us are most focused in the earlier part of the day -- for me, the golden hour is between 8am-12pm. Some may be able to return to deep work after a break (like lunch), but after experimentation I have found that I’m really at my best in the morning, so that’s where I put my most important work.
With 2 kiddos finally in full time school (praise the Lord!), the solitary part of my working day is restricted to school hours. If I didn’t have kids, I’d start at 8am, but instead, as soon as school drop-off finishes -- and then I’m pedal to the metal during the day. After-school hours are either with my kids or teaching or in rehearsal.
Barring the inevitable variances, my average day looks like this:
10:30am: Tea break (I’m married to a Brit, after all)
12:30pm: Lunch, walk
1:15pm: Secondary project
2:00pm: Admin work
This allows me to balance a few things. First, I get two anchored, non-negotiable blocks in my day to do deep work, with a break in between to refresh my mind. Second, because I do all sorts of projects, I can dedicate those blocks as needed. The first is almost always for practicing, the second for writing. The “secondary project” block is usually used for long-term planning, strategy sessions, meetings or other projects.
Third, thinking of my time this way makes it much easier to be flexible when needs arise, because I know what can be dropped from my schedule and what needs to be shifted but kept. I won’t end up dropping important balls when human days don’t go perfectly according to plan.
Lastly, I can give myself grace to know that if I follow a certain priority plan for a week and it turns out that I don’t like how I’ve prioritized things, I can shift things around moving forward and try again.
GIANT CAVEAT: I'm a work in progress, just like you.
I thought it might be most practical to share with you what I currently do. But it comes with a GIANT caveat. I’m a work in progress! Unless you're not a human, you are, too.
It’s important to me to be perfectly honest with you about my own habits, and the experimentation it’s taken to get there. While my kids were much littler, I struggled for a routine that was this steady, and even today there are honestly still weeks that are off-kilter. It took about eight years to transition from baby land back into a place where I started to feel balance again. I've learned the hard way to see my overall sense of progress grow, not just from immediately tangible results, but from my increasing awareness of how and why I use my time the way I do. That keeps me confident to move forward... far more than whether or not my scales were perfect today.
I have not been down this road without healthy doses of frustration, self-pity, and unhealthy comparison to other colleagues who seemed to have it all together.
I have not been down this road without healthy doses of frustration, self-pity, and unhealthy comparison to other colleagues who seemed to have it all together. Reaching out to those friends and colleagues to see what I could learn from them has often revealed to me their own sense of struggle and a reminder that life takes us in different directions, and that isolation can stump us even more than the problem we think we see. We can learn from each other, but we shouldn’t compare.
So reach out for help, take what works, try things, and do what works for you.
In my next article, I’ll share two practical applications to help you to develop and use your deep work superpower.
If you haven’t already signed up for BackstageForum, I recommend you do that here so that you can get first-dibs access to the resources in this series.