Managing Time for Music in a Busy Life

One of the most common reasons that DIY musos like you and I just fail to get stuff finished, or even started, is an apparent lack of available time. Since the wife and I decided to have a baby this lack of time has become something I’ve needed to really think about. I’ve found a few methods that have really helped ensure I get stuff done. I’ve avoided the classic “five things…” title just to be different, but here is a list of five things… 

Life Gets in the Way

So the saying goes, and it’s very true. When music is not the way you make your living, it can get relegated to the category of ‘hobby’. But you and I know it’s much more than that. It is an all consuming passion that is rarely far from our minds, and yet there are many more important things to get done first.

I have a day job, Monday to Friday, from 9am to 5.30pm which involves an hour’s commute either way. I have a wife and baby boy who I adore spending time with doing both practical stuff (shopping, housework, baby bath and feeding times etc.) and the fun stuff (gigs, movies, playtime etc). And on top of that I have this website plus another two or three projects I’m working on at any one time.

This ultimately leaves very little time for music; writing, recording, producing, programming, mixing, mastering and so on. But I still just about manage it, by having a few simple guidelines to the way I use my time.

1. Set achievable goals

All of this time management won’t be of much value unless you are working towards something specific. Set yourself some realistic targets such as finishing an EP or album, or just a few tracks. And set a deadline. Having a date to work towards will be an incentive to get on with it.

At the same time try to avoid putting yourself under too much pressure. Unless you’re doing paid work with an agreed deadline, you can be a bit flexible. The important thing is that you are consistently working towards things that you will finish.

As an example; last year I set myself a goal of producing a ten track electronic album in six months. In the end it took ten months but I released that ten track album. Which is something I wouldn’t have done at all if I hadn’t set myself that goal in the first place. Even though it took a bit longer than I’d aimed for the result was something I’m proud of and now I can confidently move on to the next project.

2. Plan how you spend your time

That there is a screengrab of my calendar after I blocked out all the time I spend commuting, working, doing other essential stuff, and sleeping. The first time I did this it was a bit of a shock. I originally had my ‘bedtime’ at 10pm (I’m getting older and need my beauty sleep!) which left me with a tiny two hour window of opportunity each weekday.

It seemed like it there never be enough time to achieve anything, but actually knowing what time I have available puts me in a much better position to realistically plan my audio work. I also decided that I could stay up an extra hour on average without too much of a detrimental effect on my sanity and also use my lunch-breaks for some things. So now we’re looking at more like twenty available hours, not counting weekends and the occasional late night. Not so bad after all.

Equally important, if not more so, is to be happy to allow plenty of those free hours to be spent with family and friends or just generally kicking back and doing something relaxing.

For jobs that you know will take more than a couple of hours solid work, block out time on your weekends or days off work. Let your partner know that you want to spend this time working and make sure you do it. Of course, things don’t always go to plan but if you don’t even have a plan then things will never get done.

Equally important, if not more so, is to be happy to allow plenty of those free hours to be spent with family and friends or just generally kicking back and doing something relaxing. If you know that on Wednesday you’re going to spend two to three hours finalising your latest mix then you can take Tuesday night to watch a film with the significant other or go out for a meal with friends and not even turn on that DAW. Taking breaks from some audio work is beneficial too as it helps to come back with fresh ears.

3. Make the most of small moments of freedom

On weekdays I usually spend 2 hours a day traveling and have a one hour lunch-break. Although I’m not able to access my studio at these times I can still use them to get ahead on my work, planning and research.  My commute is basically 45 minutes driving and 15 minutes walking. I generally use this time to either listen critically to music I’m working on or listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Or I just listen to music…  this still  counts as research and inspiration as well as being an enjoyable way to spend my commute.

Small chunks of free time (when not walking or driving) can also be used to write down ideas, read/watch tutorials and network with other musicians who you may want to work with. Make the most of every moment. And always have a podcast or a notepad to hand.

One thing I personally do, which can be a curse as well as a blessing, is never stop thinking. On the negative side, this does lead to insomnia and the risk of overthinking things. But I prefer to look on the bright side and appreciate my restless brain as an almost constantly whirring solutions and ideas machine. So when I’m lying in bed at night, unable to switch off, at least I’m also working out how I’m gonna tighten up the low end in the mix I’m working on and coming up with ideas for the next DIY Music blog post.

4. Have a never ending “to-do” list

This may seem counter-productive when you don’t have that much time to do stuff. But I find that keeping a long list of things that I need or just want to do means that I never find myself at a loose end. After all, it would be a crime in this situation to have some free time and not actually do anything with it. 

I own an ever growing collection of notebooks, it’s a small obsession of mine. A few of these at any one time will be full of lists. These can be specific lists of tweaks I need to make and the parts I need to record for a track or more general things to do like ‘write article about finding time for music when you lead a busy life‘. Check.

More recently I’ve been using the Wunderlist app for my lists. It allows you to keep lists of anything, organised into folders (within more folders if you wish) and with dates and alarms attached. It’s handy because I have the app on my phone and desktop machine so I can update and check my lists whenever I feel the need. You can also save URLs in the notes which is great for bookmarking articles or music you want to check out. As you complete tasks you can check them off and they disappear with a satisfying chime.

5. Look on the bright side of writer’s block

Nobody can be inspired all the time. Writer’s block happens to all creative people. The mistake is to think this is a negative thing and to think it’s permanent.

Firstly, the block will end and ideas will come, you must believe this. Inspiration comes from all kinds of places and if your currentwell has dried up then you just need to wait for the next one. This isn’t a terrible thing because it actually gives you some much needed time to sort your sh*t out, to put it bluntly.

Sort out all your duff cables and bin them, restring your guitars, set up some DAW templates or plugin presets, DO A BACK-UP! Seriously, back-up anyway. Regularly. This is where your to-do lists will come in handy to let you know what you can be getting on with.

All these things will mean that when inspiration does suddenly come rushing in you are ready for it. Your guitar is strung, you can open up a recording template ready to go and you can just let it flow without having to hunt for a working lead.

If you start to see these “writer’s blocks” as a blessing you’ll generally be happier and more productive.

How do YOU Manage your Time Effectively?

Those are five methods I use to ensure I’m being as productive as I can be with the little time available to me. They’re not 100% effective and it is still a struggle to get things done quickly, but I persevere and practice patience to ensure that, even if something takes months rather than weeks, it still gets done.

I’m always open to other suggestions as to how to enhance my productivity so if you have any trick that you use please do let me know in the comments below.


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2 comments

  1. Very good column Stu. Lots of good hints and ideas of things to think about. And could cross over to many peoples/artists lives. Can I hear your 10 song collection on the web?

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