One of the most valuable things in life, if not THE most important one, is time. We all have limited time to spend in this world, and many things we want to accomplish. As a musician I learned early on the necessity of spending long hours in the practice room. But it was only when I attended Berklee College of Music that I realized it was less about the amount of time spent in the room and much more about the quality of that time.
Since then, I learned a few things about time and efficiency, and here are 5 that help me be more efficient with my time.
Choosing The Right Task for The Time
We normally have plenty of things on our to-do list. Some require more brainpower than others, some are fun, while others are boring. But they all need to be done, and they all require time. Choosing the right task for the right time is very important.
I’m a morning person. My energy is at its peak in the first quarter of the day, which is why I normally use this time to do more involved tasks. For example, writing and answering important emails, or in the past, practicing my instrument. When I feel that my energy and concentration start dropping, I switch to simpler tasks. Eventually, I reach the bottom of my list and do mundane activities like folding laundry or filing papers. It’s a bad investment of time to try knocking out harder tasks with poor concentration, and it’s just as wasteful to work on simple tasks when the brain is fresh.
Break it Down
Big tasks can be overwhelming. It’s very helpful to break them down into smaller tasks.
Going back to music – playing a drum beat might look super complicated to someone who has never tried it before. Four limbs doing different things at the same time certainly isn’t trivial. However, I don’t think I’ve ever had a student who didn’t manage to play a simple drum beat by the end of the first lesson. It usually works this way: at first the student is convinced that there is no way they would be able to play the beat. So we break the beat down and work on each limb separately, which is pretty simple. Then we combine two limbs, three limbs, and eventually all four.
It’s always gratifying to see the amazement in the eyes of a student who finally plays a beat that, just minutes before, they didn’t believe they could play. The trick is to simplify, break down the big piece into small components, and gradually put it back together. The same thing can and should be done with bigger, more complex or time-consuming tasks.
Deadlines can do miracles. When I know I have to get something done by a certain time or date my level of concentration increases.
Before starting Earbits I used to produce music for TV and commercials. Often I would be given a very short amount of time to compose music. One example that comes to mind is a commercial I did for Travelocity. My phone rang at 2pm and the lady on the line asked how long would it take me to create some music. Not thinking straight, I mumbled “2 hours” and before I finished the sentence she said “great, call me when it’s done!”. I spent the next two hours super focused, in the zone, with the world around me at a standstill. To my own amazement, I was done in time and, on the following day, the commercial aired on national television.
Focusing On The Task
It is so easy to get distracted, especially when we don’t really want to do what we have to. We’ve all been there, sitting in front of the computer deciding to work on something, but then thinking, maybe I should get a cup of coffee first. It would surely make me more focused. So you go to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee. A few minutes later you are back at the desk. You are just about to start working when you notice you received a new email. So you check the email and then take a few minutes to respond. Finally you start working on your task, but you can’t find inspiration so you decide to change your physical location. You take your laptop and go to the coffee shop. With a second cup of coffee, you are dialed to dive into work. But then the guy next to you strikes a polite conversation, and before long the day is gone.
I find it very useful to make a conscious decision to focus on one specific task before starting it. I am not a believer in multitasking. When I really want to get something done I try to minimize all distractions. I don’t listen to music when I work, I don’t pick up the phone, and I often ask my coworkers not to disturb me until I’m done.
I had a friend at school who was a machine-like. He would practice 8 hours a day, go to classes, have gigs almost every night, and on top of it, freelanced as a programer, writing code into the wee hours of the morning. He normally slept 4 hour per night.
I’m not a lazy guy, but every time I spoke to my friend I felt like a complete bum. So I started pushing myself to work harder, sleep less, practice longer hours. The result was poor. I quickly realized that I don’t function very well with less than 7 hours of sleep.
After a few days I felt burned out and eventually reverted back to my regular balance. But every time I talked to my friend it would spark another episode of unbalance. It took me quite a long time to come to terms with the fact that my friend and I had different capabilities. I realized that what works for him doesn’t necessarily work for me. I stopped comparing myself to him and focused on comparing myself to me. Instead of asking how I’m performing compared to him, I started asking how I’m performing today compared to yesterday, or now compared to a few hours ago. By doing so, I started learning my real capabilities and how I can push my performance without burning myself out.
We live in an fast paced world. I’ve found that tackling the things I have to do in life this way helps me keep up. But with all the things we do to maximize our time and efficiency, we should never forget to enjoy what we do. After all, if we don’t have fun along the way, what’s the point?