habits

How I Keep It Together When I'm Busy

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Well, it’s springtime (only according to the calendar - several inches of snow are forecast for MN this weekend 😫), and that means crazy schedule time!

In the next 2 months, I’ll be: accompanying lots of recitals, playing many/various gigs, practicing and rehearsing for said gigs, planning out my summer teaching schedule, going to Boston for New Music Gathering May 17-19, marching in the May Day Parade, and attending a few family events.

Add to that: planning a recording project (for my first album!) and a Kickstarter (launching May 29), which is awesome, but overwhelming! I have to be really deliberate about how I spend my time, to avoid burnout/meltdown.

Earlier this week, I was thinking, “I don’t know what to blog about this week, I’m feeling really overwhelmed...clearly that’s what I should write about.” So, here is my arsenal of ways that I keep it together during crazy busy times (like right now):

SYSTEMS!

I would be the most hopelessly disorganized person without systems - my brain needs them!

This app is where all of my to-dos live. My system is loosely based on the book Getting Things Done, structured in columns (Today, Working On, This Week, Next Week, Waiting On, Planning Ahead, Done). I’m a really visual person, so I like being able to drag each card from one list to the next.

  • Zooming out to get the big picture

At the beginning of each month, I list all of the upcoming projects and events coming up in the next few months (including preparations like practice/rehearsal). I like to print out monthly calendar sheets and plot it all out. Then, I make cards in Trello for each task or project (you can also add checklists), and add due dates. It also has a calendar function, to visualize all of your due dates, but I don’t do this much because I like the analog version.

  • Reminders

I use the iPhone Reminders app all of the time for repeating tasks that I don’t want to forget (like making copies for teaching, or quarterly taxes), and also for things that I need to remember, but don’t want to take up space on my to-do list. If I’m out and about, I’ll set a reminder for a time that I know I’ll be home and at my computer, then I don’t have to worry about it.

TIME/TASK MANAGEMENT

  • Writing my to-do list in order

My planner has a space to write the 3 most important tasks first, and if I’m being really strategic, I write things in the actual order that I’ll do them, to avoid indecision.

  • Manageable to do list

I almost never succeed at this, but ideally, I would make a list that I could actually accomplish in a day. On the upside, I no longer beat myself up about not getting it all done.

  • Time blocking

I’ve tried this in the past, but I don’t do it very often, because it made my days feel too chopped up into pieces, and stressed me out a bit. I do schedule my piano practice time in the morning, though.

  • Pomodoro technique (4 cycles of 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break, then a longer break)

This works really well for me when I want to harness the power of a time deadline. Bonus: if I actually get up from my chair to take those breaks, it’s really energizing.

  • Create barriers to procrastination and distraction

If I have to, I put my phone in another room, use the Self-Control app (free!) to block distracting websites, and close my email tab until a specified time (email is not an emergency). I also have almost all notifications turned off on both my phone and computer.  

  • Scheduling according to energy

I gauge how I feel each day, but generally plan on doing tasks that require more complex thought when I have the most energy (for me, that’s in the morning, or right after a walk), and save tasks like email for mid-afternoon when I have less energy.

  • Batching tasks

I plan all of my lessons for the week at one time, try to write multiple blog posts in a row, etc. Studies have shown that each time we switch tasks, we waste 17 minutes in the process - if that’s true, it’s a wonder that we get anything done?  

  • Embrace external accountability for important but not urgent tasks -

I have Obliger tendencies (see Gretchen Rubin's 4 Tendencies for an explanation), so I either say publicly that I’ll do something, or I also have a friend that I check in with monthly for accountability and mutual encouragement!

PRIORITIZING

  • Figure out my non-negotiable tasks, habits, and activities

For me, this is exercise, cooking breakfast, spending time with my partner (he’s also super busy, as a grad student), etc. I may have to let some things go temporarily (like seeing shows, social events, or starting new projects), or even permanently.

  • Stop overcomplicating

I have a tendency to make things harder than they need to be, so I try stop and ask myself if I’m overcomplicating, and whether I need to be doing everything I originally had planned on! 

  • Simplify non-work areas of my life

Let’s be real, this translates to me wearing the same clothing more often, and cleaning less often, but it could also apply to delegating or postponing things until I’m less busy.

MINDSET

  • Be kind to myself

This one is the most important! Being hard on myself when I can’t do it all (no one can!) does not help at all. 

  • Using positive mantras like "I have as much time as I need" to quiet my brain.

  • Accepting that I have less time for creative work

I certainly haven’t been writing as much music as last year, when I did 2 100 Day Projects, but these things go in seasons. I generated a lot of work then, and now I’m working on doing something with it, so naturally I can’t (and might not want to) be creating a lot (and that’s okay). These tips are super helpful for fitting in as creative time as possible.

  • Remind myself that resistance and overwhelm are normal.

If I expect that resistance is part of working really hard, it's easier to handle. I don’t have to want to do the work, I just have to do the work.

  • Thinking about only one thing at a time

I know that I expend a lot of energy thinking about and projecting into the future, anticipating how overwhelmed I’m going to be, which actually brings more overwhelm to the present moment. This used to be really hard for me, so I started by making my daily walk a no-thinking-about-work zone.

  • Refusing to create more overwhelm

I can choose not to fixate on it, and not to rush while going places. This actually does help a lot.

SUPPORT MYSELF PHYSICALLY

Exercise, meditation, and eating good food are non-negotiable for me - it's even more important to support myself while super busy. This habit tracker has been really helpful:

  • Prioritize rest and breaks (especially anything mind-focusing like meditation, short walks, stretching, etc.)

We’re not machines! I know that I can’t focus for long periods of time, especially when I’m already mentally or physically exhausted. I’ve noticed that when I’m struggling to work productively, that’s not just a sign that I’m feeling lazy, it’s a message from my brain that it’s tired and needs support (via food, water, movement, or rest).

  • Scheduling time to regroup

During a busy season like spring, I have to pace myself, or my brain will turn to mush. I actually schedule rest days on my calendar (yes, they say “CAT/COUCH DAY” - Rusty the Cat is my relaxation mentor.) And, if I don’t have time to regroup, that means that I’ve overscheduled myself unsustainably, and hopefully I will learn from that and not do it again.

I've written a lot about self-care for musicians, too - links here, here, and here

These are all things that I strive to do, but of course, this is all a process, and there are ups and downs! The good part is that healthy and productive habits build on each other, allowing more and more of them to happen. If your spring is as crazy as mine, I'm wishing you well!

What are your favorite tips for keeping it together and staying efficient during busy times? Let me know in the comments!

Let's Talk About Anxiety

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ANXIETY.

So many of us deal with it, especially since the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 election. So many of us in creative fields deal with it. And many of us you would never suspect (especially stoic Midwesterners). When I mentioned my anxiety to some good friends last year, they were shocked because they had no idea, but the more people I talk to, the more I realize that so many people I know have also dealt with it - this is not an exclusive club!

I’ve alluded to having a rough time with anxiety last year in previous posts, and since it’s been about a year since things really started ramping up, I’ve been reflecting on all that’s happened, the changes I’ve made, and I want to share my experience, in case it’s helpful to anyone (you’re definitely not alone!) Plus, I really think that our society just needs to be more open about talking about mental health in general. #endthestigma

Looking back, I’ve dealt with anxiety most of my life - I worried about lots of implausible stuff as a kid, got stomachaches on sleepovers, etc. I was also somewhat depressed in college (gray, gray upstate NY winters didn’t help), and didn’t realize it at the time. For me, anxiety and depression are kind of 2 sides of the same problem, but I personally see the anxiety manifesting a lot more.

In 2010, I experienced my worst bout of anxiety, during a stressful work situation involving the launch of untested software, while simultaneously flying around the country to audition for graduate programs in collaborative piano (3 trips in 1 month) - basically, having a quarter-life crisis. That anxiety really blindsided me because it was the first time things had gotten that bad. On the outside, it looked like I was functioning, but things were pretty bad - I almost always felt like I was going to puke and ate little more than bananas many days, while waiting to hear back from schools.

At the time, I wasn’t taking care of myself well. I ate whatever sugary snacks showed up in the office, didn’t sleep enough, and rarely exercised. I made some changes, and with the help of a great therapist (there’s zero shame in therapy, and I think that everyone should get to go), I was able to recognize that all of my negative thoughts were not automatically true - what a game changer! It took almost a year, but I finally started to feel better, then my dad had a stroke and was in the hospital for the better part of the summer (he’s much better now), so naturally the anxiety fired up again.

After my dad got home and things stabilized, I learned to manage the anxiety pretty well (the most important thing for me is not missing more than one day of exercise in a row), but it’s really sneaky and can creep up without you even realizing it!

2016 was an intense year with personal/family stuff (all is fine now) and the election/state of the world, while my constant pace of work was also catching up with me. (Thanks, music school culture and American workaholic values!)

I started to question whether I should really be teaching so much - I thought that I would feel like I had “made it” when I had a studio of 30 students, but it turns out that for an introvert, that’s just a recipe for burnout, especially when you add teaching 3 group classes of 5-7 year olds, extra gigs, blogging, and composing daily.

In March of 2017, I was starting to feel the burnout, so I signed up for a class on rest with Mara Glatzel (which was great, but it turns out that you have to actually take the advice for it to work…) I spent half of my spring break in California visiting friends and family, and seeing Hermeto Pascoal in concert, which was totally worth it, but left me very exhausted (especially since I had terrible insomnia from anxiety 2 out of the 3 nights I was there). Then, I launched into a stretch of working over a month with no days off, because I need the income from accompanying during recital season to carry over into summer, when I don’t teach as much. It was no surprise that on my first day off after that stretch, I had a panic attack (on my birthday!) on the way to an acupuncture appointment. (Yeah. It’s kind of funny now.)

I thought that my lighter summer teaching schedule would allow me some space to rest and the anxiety would subside, but it didn’t - it kept getting worse, even as I tried a huge list of tactics: I was already exercising daily, eating almost no refined sugar, drinking almost no caffeine, getting acupuncture regularly and a massage monthly, and meditating occasionally, and then I also tried CBD oil, meditation daily, changed my diet (started eating meat again after 14 years without, and low carbs), examined if any foods or yeast were causing inflammation in my body, went back to therapy, used positive affirmations, essential oils, tried EFT (tapping), epsom salt baths for added magnesium, reducing stimuli (no podcasts or music on in the background, wearing sunglasses), Rescue Remedy, tulsi tinctures, kava stress relief tea, and probably more things that I’m forgetting.

So, I’d tried literally everything I could think of, short of medication, and nothing seemed to be making a dent in the anxiety. I was very resistant to the idea of trying meds, partly because I hoped I could control it on my own, and partly because I typically take a more holistic approach to my health as much as possible, but I was so miserable that I finally considered it.

When it came down to it, I was tired of my life feeling so hard, which feels ridiculous to say, considering the privilege that I have, but my brain was making every little activity difficult. If you’ve dealt with anxiety, you know what I mean - your brain is overreacting to everything, including normal stimuli. I felt triggered by sounds, light, seeing moving cars when driving on the highway, being out with friends (ambient noise), scrolling on my phone and computer, and had a hard time planning normal things like cooking meals or remembering what to bring with me to work - it felt like there was just no extra space left in my head. On the outside, I was fulfilling all of my obligations, so I looked like I was doing okay, but I was actually in survival mode for months (avoid this!)

In August I started taking Celexa, which gave me horrible insomnia on alternating days for 2 weeks and made me into a total zombie. I was cautiously optimistic that things were getting better at that point, when I left for California to visit family and go to California Brazil Camp, but flying and leaving my normal surroundings gave me a lot of anxiety. Halfway through the week at camp, after 3 weeks on meds, I suddenly didn’t feel anxious all the time (being off the grid from phones/wifi certainly didn’t hurt), and it finally felt like there was leftover space in my head. I am very grateful that the first medication I tried was the right one - not everyone has that experience, and it’s so difficult to wait for weeks while one’s body adjusts, not knowing if it will work.

How did the anxiety get better?

The Celexa definitely gave my brain a boost (bonus: I now have really vivid dreams that I usually remember in detail), and the lifestyle changes I’d started over the summer began to help, but I think that the main reason I feel better is that I started a personal spiritual practice, something I didn’t realize was missing from my life. My daily walk is essential - I use it to focus on a mantra or my breathing, or use it to gently untangle my brain if something is upsetting, asking myself what I need (and hopefully actually giving myself that). Doing self-compassion meditation has also been huge - we can be so hard on ourselves about performing well in all aspects of our lives, while also doing way too many things at once. We often don’t think twice about pushing ourselves to keep working, but would probably hate a taskmaster boss that did that to us!

Notice that I said “get better”, not “cure my anxiety” - I have no illusions that being on medication cures the problem, and I know that this is a lifelong issue that I will always be prone to. If my life gets more stressful and/or I don’t keep up my healthy habits, I definitely feel it, and it’s a learning process of awareness that I have to commit to. I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m still prone to workaholic tendencies, as much as I try not to fall into that trap (that Midwestern farmer heritage dies hard, as does the stereotypical musician lifestyle). Lisa Congdon talks about her experience with workaholism and anxiety here, and I relate to all of her takeaways. 

I felt my anxiety ramping up again this week, as I’m nearing spring break (starting after my concert tonight!) and have gotten a bit fried from a busy month, but I am now MUCH more sensitive to the red flags of increased anxiety and impending burnout (feeling crabby/unable to handle work/stressful situations as well as normal, heart racing, feeling fearful for no good reason, feeling exhausted rather than energized after a walk, etc.) So, I won’t let things get as bad as they did last year, if I can help it.

How to deal with anxiety

If you deal with anxiety, too, here are the most helpful tips I’ve learned along the way*:

  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

Most of us don’t get a whole lot of emotional training in our upbringing, so going to a therapist or counselor is SO helpful for gaining these tools. They can also guide you as to whether medication is a good choice for you. And, of course, if you’re thinking about hurting yourself or others, call for help immediately: the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

  • Figure out what your triggers are

Sometimes as anxiety is creeping up, we don’t even realize that something is bothering us, especially when we’re too busy to process all of our daily experiences. When the triggers are happening, speak kindly to yourself, as if you were taking care of a child (this takes practice). Find ways to ground yourself, like breathing deeply, or petting a furry friend. If you feel easily overstimulated, try reducing stimuli with sunglasses, earplugs, avoiding screens, or whatever you need to do. I also feel really comforted by having weight on me via heavy pillows, blankets, or cat sitting on my chest. 

  • Find an anxiety buddy

Have a few friends or family members who either know what it’s like to struggle with mental health, who you can call or text when you’re feeling panicky. Here’s how you know that someone doesn’t understand anxiety - they ask you, “What are you so anxious about? You should just chill out.” To which I reply, that’s kind of the definition of anxiety: it often happens for no good reason - anxious brains aren’t reacting properly to normal stimuli. It can feel so alienating when you feel like you’re going crazy and no one understands.

  • Get regular exercise

Even a daily 20-minute walk makes endorphins that anxious brains like! Or, try a dance break?

  • Don't work through exhaustion for too long

Of course, working through exhaustion is often unavoidable, but I know that continuing to push through without enough of a chance to rest will lead to burnout and increased anxiety, so I have to be really careful (and even schedule rest days/parts of days on my calendar).

  • Try journaling

Doing a brain dump can help get these swirling feelings out of your head, but I also know that it’s hard to think clearly when you’re in a state of anxiety. Going back to read it later might be helpful, or maybe just the act of writing will make you feel a little better.

  • Look to your diet for clues

Cutting out sugar and caffeine are both immensely useful in managing anxiety, and maybe low blood sugar is exacerbating it, too. I highly recommend getting assistance with this process - Lucia Hawley of Essential Omnivore helped me SO much (and you can work with her online, wherever you may be!) Her recent blog post about anxiety + food (the first in a series) also has some really good considerations.  

  • Remember that seemingly negative qualities also have a positive side

This has been a hard one for me to come around to, but dealing with mental health challenges has forced me to be much more self-aware and to take care of myself better. Also, the sensitivity that makes me susceptible to anxiety is actually a superpower that makes me a good musician and collaborator. As many times as I’ve cursed my brain for its difficulties, making friends with it is much more helpful. And, I wish it wasn't this way, but giving birth to the next, upleveled version of yourself usually comes after a period of struggle.

  • Remember that seemingly fun or easy activities also require energy

If you’re an introvert or HSP (highly sensitive person) like me, be careful of overloading your schedule - even fun things take energy, so you have to weigh the fulfillment of that experience against the depletion of your energy and need to recharge. So...

  • Create white space in your schedule

I know, to overworked musicians, this one sounds hard, if not impossible, but you must! If you don’t have enough space in your schedule, you won’t have time to process all that’s going on in your life (which I’m betting is a lot!) I think that people with anxiety need even more time to process, as do sensitive people. Also, it takes a lot of energy to support others through teaching and performing, and we don’t give ourselves enough credit or leeway for that.

  • Give yourself a break

I mean this literally and mentally/emotionally - I’m sure that you’re doing a great job at so many things and pushing yourself pretty hard, so you deserve that little break for an extra cup of tea, a walk outside, or just to say kind words to yourself.

  • Figure out what works best for YOU

There are a million tips for managing mental health, but we’re all individuals, so ultimately it comes down to experimenting until you know what works for you personally (which can be frustrating, but necessary).

* Please note, this post is not medical advice, just a means of support. Seek qualified medical advice if you need it!

💗💗💗

If you struggle with anxiety or other mental health issues, I'm holding space for you - you’re not alone. I sincerely wish you the best in managing it, and hope that this post is helpful to you.

What are your best tips for managing anxiety? Let me know in the comments!

Habits that Support My Creative Work

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As someone whose career is built on having a personal practice (music), and helping others do the same, I am endlessly fascinated by habits and routines, and I’m always trying to start new ones. I’ve come a long way from a past version of myself, who would decide, “This is it - today’s the day I’m going to overhaul my whole life!”, draft a long list of things to start doing, do most of them the first day, do far fewer of them the second day, get overwhelmed/slightly ashamed of myself, and promptly quit doing most of them. That’s clearly a terrible way to start habits, and I now take a different approach - much more gradual, usually one thing at a time. (I also have some tips on keeping up a creative habit here.)

But it’s not just keeping up with my piano practice that affects my career - it’s also all of the habits that contribute to my general well-being. Here are my personal routines and habits that form the underpinnings of my creative work:

Daily habits/routine:

  • Meditation - I do this first thing in the morning, still in bed, and usually do a guided meditation in the Insight Timer app, which varies depending on what I feel I need that day. (I have a daily reminder set each morning that asks that very question!)

  • Daily walk (or the gym if it’s too cold, but I promised myself that above zero-degree windchills are walking days, and it's made me hate winter much less!) My walk has really become a form of meditation where I gently untangle my brain, maybe repeating a mantra to myself, or just asking myself questions about what I need or what’s bothering me that day.

  • Cook a solid breakfast, usually scrambled eggs with a pile of veggies and some avocado.

  • Vitamins/supplements

  • Drinking enough water - I use the app Plant Nanny to track this, because gamifying works! I’m still amazed at how I gain energy (or lose moodiness, hah) within minutes of drinking a glass.

  • Piano practice and/or composing time in the morning. I try to treat this as a non-negotiable, but if I’m not feeling it, I can employ one of these strategies.

  • Sleep - I try to be asleep by 11pm.

  • Non-work hours - no work after I get home from teaching (~ 8pm) if I can help it. Rest is more important, so that I can replenish my energy to be productive the next day.

  • Taking more breaks for stretching, snacks, water, or a mini-walk if it’s warm enough.

Other regular habits:

  • Acupuncture once or twice a month - this is as relaxed as I ever get!

  • Massage once a month - so worth budgeting for, to keep my hands, arms, and neck from getting too sore.

  • Scheduled rest days after big events, and I try to observe Caturday as often as possible!

Batching activities together:

  • Batch cooking on Sunday so I have food ready to go for the week, otherwise my energy levels will tank and I become hangry - that’s never good!

  • Plan all lessons for the week on Monday.

  • Weekly admin check-in on Monday (organization, financial, website updates, etc.) All of those things don’t always happen each week, but having it on the calendar ensures that those things don’t get neglected for too long.

  • Writing on Thursdays.

Staying organized:

  • Trello - I use the app Trello to house all of my to-do lists, structured in columns (Today, Working On, This Week, Next Week, Waiting On, Planning Ahead, Done. I’m a really visual person, so I like being able to drag each card from one list to the next.

  • Reminders - I have many set on my Phone, so that I can avoid forgetting about upcoming important activities, but also not think about trying to remember them.

  • Scheduling to-do list items - I try to write my to-do lists in chronological order, and utilize the Due Date function on Trello cards, so that I can visualize when things need to get done.

Habits I’m still working on adding:

  • Yoga - I keep thinking I’m going to start, then I don’t! I need to take my own advice, and start really small, like 5 minutes a day.

  • Journaling - this is something I do at least weekly, but would like it to at least be a part of my workday morning routine. It really helps me sort out my thoughts, hopes, dreams, goals, everything!

  • Better evening routine - I want to have screens off at least an hour before bed, in favor of an analog activity like reading, drawing, or taking a bath.

In case you’re thinking, “Whoa, I could never do all of that stuff,” I’m not perfect, I don’t do all of it every day, and it’s taken me years to develop these routines, which are also always changing. I think that the most important change I’ve made is committing to practicing self-compassion when I don’t accomplish all that I want to, for whatever reason. Sometimes we have less energy (here are some strategies for those days), and it’s just not realistic to think that we can perform at a high level all of the time.  

I’m trying to shift to an attitude of saying, “maybe that was not a realistic expectation” instead of beating myself up for not making whatever change or doing whatever task. For me, committing to taking care of myself better (both physically and mentally) has at least raised the baseline of my energy level and ability to handle the often overwhelming life of being a self-employed musician. Self-care is a buzzword right now for good reason - we could all use more of it!

So, if you have lingering new year intentions that you’ve lost track of, no matter - whatever habits you want to start or improve, just start today with one thing! If you have multiple things you want to track, I have a free tool for you: Musicians’ Habit Tracker Worksheet!

What habits are you trying to add to (or remove from) your life? Let me know in the comments, and I'll cheer you on!

Let Something Go - Roundup of Posts for Busy Times

The last couple weeks have been pretty crazy, what with writing and submitting a grant to make my upcoming album, family events, extra gigs, rehearsing for a faculty recital at MacPhail tonight (look for video of that soon), rehearsing for our Brazilian Carnaval next weekend (yes, it’s later than the real one in Brazil), and health insurance fun. 

Naturally, I wanted to make my life a little bit easier by not writing a new post this week, AND I want to promote the idea that we can let something go every once in a while, in support of giving ourselves what we need (in this case, a bit more rest). Nothing terrible will happen, because there’s no such thing as a blogging emergency!

If you’re feeling frazzled, I invite you to consider what you might let go of, just this once (or completely, if needed).

So, here’s a quick roundup of posts for surviving (and thriving, if possible) during crazy times:

I hope these are helpful to you - wishing you a restful weekend!

7 Ways to Get Inspired to Compose When You're Not Feeling It

The consensus around here (I live in Minnesota) is that we've had enough winter. Too bad it's still early February, and the malaise has already set in, which might be making it hard to create. If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time, you know I love this quote from Chuck Close:

You also probably know that I’m a big believer in forming daily habits instead of just waiting around for inspiration (which may never come), but the fact remains: some days we’re just not feeling it. Hopefully you have some kind of daily habit that you’re committed to, so you work through the resistance on those days, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Here are some quick tricks for getting started, even when you’re not in the mood to create:

1) Try a change of scenery

Although we pianists can’t take our instruments with us (but maybe you can), that doesn’t really matter. Taking a walk or a short jaunt to the coffee shop can get your mind in a different place so you have new ideas when you return.

2) Play music that feels good

On Monday I was in a tired/anxious mood and I fully turned it around by chugging a little Natural Calm and heading to the piano (away from a screen!) to play some deeply-grooving samba while standing and kind of dancing around (full disclosure: I’m glad no one was watching). It totally changed my mindset and got me excited to write!

3) Do something else that feels good (then get back to writing) 

Figure out a small action that would feel good - maybe it’s eating a square of chocolate, taking a minute to stretch, or petting your dog or cat. Anything to get you in a more positive vibe can only help.

4) Give yourself permission to write whatever

If you’re freaking out about not having any good ideas, just gently try to let that idea go, and remember that we always have to create lots of less-good stuff in order to get to the good stuff. Ira Glass sums this problem up pretty well: 

[vimeo 85040589 w=480 h=270]

So that means creating anything, regardless of its quality, is still a critical part of your creative process and evolution as a creative person. In other words, tell your inner judge to pipe down (at least temporarily), and just write.

5) Write something bad on purpose

You can take that idea one step further, and just decide to write something "bad". Odds are, it won’t be that bad, and it’ll help you release any pressure you might be putting on yourself to create something great.

6) Close your eyes and listen to whatever pops into your head

What you hear in your head might be a sound, a few notes, or it might be an existing song of someone else’s, but no matter, it’s a starting point. That familiar song could be something that you create variations on, or the sound might evoke an interval or rhythmic motive, enough to get you started!

7) Get random!

Sometimes you just need an unexpected idea to get you started. Here are a bunch of random generators:

I hope these ideas can help you get started when you’re feeling stuck or resistant - it happens to all of us!

What’s your favorite way to get yourself going when inspiration is lacking? Feel free to share in the comments!

Keeping Your New Years Resolutions Beyond January

A lot of people roll their eyes at the idea of New Year’s resolutions, either because they bristle at the arbitrariness of January 1, or because they, smugly annoyed at the huge crowds in the gym for the first few weeks of the year, think that no one actually keeps resolutions.

I might be guilty of being in the second camp, as someone who actually exercises all year long (not a humblebrag: I mostly do it to maintain my mental health and avoid feeling terrible). But I get the eye-roll - the reason why resolutions often don’t work is because they can be pretty wishy-washy. Stating your intention is a good first step, but if you don’t make a plan for actually doing these things, you risk getting overwhelmed and not starting your big goals, or forgetting about them entirely! (Not that I’ve ever done that…😳)

We're hitting the time in January where the freshness of the new year is starting to lose steam, so here’s what I do to try to keep my goals rolling all year long:

Regular Check-Ins

Truthfully, I haven’t always been the best at these (often the urgent tasks push out the important), but I’m trying some new things lately:

  • CEO Day

I got the idea for this from the amazing Being Boss podcast - they sell a bundle of worksheets that I’m sure are amazing, but instead I made up my own process (and am continuing to refine it). Each month I schedule a whole day to look at my big picture/overall vision for my work, including an emotional check-in (how am I feeling about my work), financial update, systems, things to delete from my life, and surveying upcoming goals and projects.

  • Desire Map Planner

I’m trying out Danielle LaPorte’s daily Desire Map planner this year - it has spots for core desired feelings, gratitude, and things to stop/change, in addition to the usual to-dos. It’s giving me a more positive vibe for my daily tasks, which is always welcomed - mindset is the underpinning of everything!

Also Being Boss-related, Kathleen Shannon devised this method: each quarter you make a chalkboard (mine’s a bunch of post-its on posterboard) with blanks for the things that you want to invite into your life, such as clients, gigs, certain amounts of income, followers/subscribers, and unexpected extras. I also have spots on mine for my word of the year (Connect) and 2 daily habit trackers, one for meditation and one for piano practice (from Elise Blaha Cripe’s newsletter). I have been doing chalkboards for about a year now, and they continue to evolve (as our goals do).

  • Weekly check-in

I admit that I have gotten lazy about this one (because sometimes there is just too much to do, and it’s not as essential), but I have a checklist of things that I try to accomplish on a weekly basis (keeping up with financial stuff, updating my main Trello board, sorting through my unruly downloads folder, and checking my Goals Trello board. This might soon just be replaced by the CEO Day.

Make non-negotiable daily habits (one at a time)

I am the kind of person who’s motivated by keeping up a streak of days and not breaking it, so coloring in little circles on a chart, or using an app that tracks these things (I use Insight Timer for meditation). We all miss days of our daily habits, and that’s okay - don’t get discouraged and quit - but missing two days in a row greatly increases your chances of quitting entirely, so avoid that, if possible. Also, only adding one thing at a time (or maybe two) also increases the likelihood of keeping that habit (as I wrote about here).

Set goals whenever you want, not just on January 1

The beginning of a year, or any time after a period of rest, can be great opportunities to revamp our routines and habits. For teachers like me who operate on an academic calendar, that’s September, after Thanksgiving, after winter break, after spring break, and the beginning of summer. So, I could easily take any of those opportunities to reboot.

But, something I often need to remind myself is that we can create fresh starts whenever we want to - today or even on a Saturday night at 10pm. As the writer Alexandra Franzen is fond of saying, “Today is not over yet!” It’s easy to let mindset get in the way, but with a little self-compassion (doing and committing to new things is hard - give yourself some credit!), we can keep moving forward.

Break everything down into bite-size pieces

 

Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time!

(I say that to my students a lot - they don’t think it’s that funny, either.) The fact remains - we can accomplish big things in small chunks, especially committed, consistent small chunks. In 2017, I did two 100 Day Projects in which I wrote 8 measures every day, and ended up with dozens of finished pieces and tons more ideas. It didn’t feel like I was doing much each day, but those small efforts really do add up.

As for big, overwhelming projects, I often find that when I’m procrastinating the most, it’s because I haven’t broken down my tasks into small enough pieces - “Launch sheet music store” needs to be broken down into: “Decide which pieces to publish”, “Edit Piece 1”, “Fix layout of Piece 1”, “Research legal concerns”, “Look into how to set up Squarespace shop”, etc. (That’s on my list for this week.) Our brains are way more capable of handling a bunch of small tasks, one at a time.

Schedule everything!

If you have a big goal for the year (one of mine is recording my first album, eeep!), it’s easy to sit around on January 1 and make your big dreamy list (yes, this is also an important step), but never convert that into actual bite-size action steps or make time for doing each one. It seems so obvious, but when I don’t get projects done as fast as I’d hoped, it’s because I didn’t make time for them, like actually putting it on the calendar on a certain day (or at a certain hour if you really mean it!) I love using Trello’s calendar function, so that each card that you’ve designated a due date for fills itself in on a month view of the calendar, giving a great big picture view of when everything has to happen.

Make sure deadlines are realistic

I am often (okay, most of the time) way too ambitious when planning out what projects I want to accomplish in a month. It’s a fine line, because setting a deadline makes me finish sooner, but when I have too many things to focus on, I either get overwhelmed and don’t finish many of them, or get burned out. This is definitely something I’m still working on.

Regular journaling

I’ve started and stopped this habit so many times, but I got a fresh start on it this week, starting each work day with some journaling. It’s not something that I want to pressure myself to do daily, but definitely want to do regularly, so that I can stay in touch with my thoughts, ideas, and dreams, and also have a dedicated place to process my experiences.

Don’t give up!

As a recovering perfectionist, this is one I've worked on a lot (and continue to work on) - part of me is dead set against failing at anything. But, the more I soften this viewpoint, the more I can embrace learning as I go (since that’s actually what we have to do), and adjusting what doesn't work right away, making getting started less scary.

If that goal is really important to you and you still haven’t done it, figure out why - could you tweak something about the process, are you just resisting getting started (if so, set a timer for 10-15 minutes and make yourself work on it just a little bit), or do you need to make time in your schedule? Maybe there’s a little shift that you could make in your lifestyle or your mindset that would really help.

Bottom line: don’t be afraid to start, and restart (again, and again) - a little flexibility with yourself goes a long way, especially if you have the illusion that everyone else has it together and you don’t. (I might sound like I do, but I have to work really hard to stick with things, too.) It’s all a process, we’re all just doing our best.

How are your 2018 goals or habits going so far? Are you going strong, or losing steam (or some of both)?

How To Keep Up A Creative Habit When Life Gets in the Way

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Keeping up creative habits (or any habits) is not easy, but it can be done!

I’m almost always super busy, but I'm managing to do two 100 Day composing challenges this year (almost halfway through the second one now!)

How?

Mainly, I kept it to a manageable amount of writing (only required myself to write 8 measures a day), and chose a format to my challenge that included public accountability (more about that later).

Why?

Some of us have this idyllic, Pinterest-fueled idea of creative habits (sitting down to write in a picturesque place with a hot beverage and a smile), but really, daily life has lots of obstacles, there's resistance, distractions, the list goes on.

If you’re like me, on the positive side, your creative habit makes you feel more like yourself, connected to the universe, excited about life, curious, interested in things, etc. This is how I strive to feel (although I have no magical unicorns flying around)!

Despite all of these good feelings that come from creating, there’s the negative side, too - feelings of self-doubt, uncertainty, all of the feelings! (seriously, read The War of Art).

When it comes down to it, you have to know your why for your creative habit. For me, part of it is knowing that I want to amass a body of work that will make me proud when I get old. In the muck of the everyday, that’s not always easy to remember, but I don’t like to make Future Me mad at Past Me (that’s the worst).

How do we make this happen?

  • Make it easier to do the habit - remove barriers (distractions like social media, Internet, pick a time when you’re less tired, etc.)

  • Make sure you don’t just plain forget to do it (especially early in the habit-forming process).

  • Reminders of your why - visual reminders in your workspace, on your bathroom mirror, even paper that you’ll trip over on the way to door. There will always be obstacles, so a commitment to yourself and your habit is crucial.

  • Figure out a trigger for your habit (for example, you could always do it first thing in the morning or after another activity).

  • Make yourself feel successful, with realistic, or even ridiculously small goals (floss 1 tooth) - do it daily no matter the outcome.

  • Expect resistance - it won’t feel easy or inspiring every day, and this is totally normal.

  • Check in with yourself regularly to see how/if your habit is working, and tweak your commitment as needed - this is okay!

  • Get more comfortable with uncertainty - the blank page can bring up so many other uncertainties that we feel, especially when creating is our work (am I any good at this?, etc.) So, you have to know yourself and know your excuses. Leo Babauta addresses this really well in a recent Zen Habits post.

  • Public accountability (if that motivates you) - I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book The Four Tendencies, which sorts people into 4 types based on how they respond to inner and outer expectations. I’m an Obliger (tends to meet outer expectations, and resist inner expectations) with a lean towards Upholder (tends to meet both inner and outer expectations). This book is more fascinating to me than most other “personality type” books because it really addresses different ways that people are suited to forming habits (super useful to me as a teacher).

  • DON’T GIVE UP! The process of forming habits is also a learning process. So, give yourself some grace. If you miss a day, this is not a failure - just start back up the next day. People who miss two days in a row of a habit are way more likely to give up entirely.

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You can do this, too!

If you’re a musician who wants to compose more, and is also motivated by external accountability, you can join the Creative Musician Club to form some community around your habit! I’m taking a small group of people this fall to test out some prompts, starting Monday, November 6.

You’ll get 21 daily emails, each with a prompt to get you started writing a piece of music. These prompts aren't intended to make you finish each piece, but just to plant a seed, so, if you participate for a week, you'll already have 7 new ideas! You’ll also get an invite to join a Facebook group where we’ll share successes and struggles - a great place for encouragement and accountability. I'm going to be doing the prompts right alongside you, too, as part of my 100 More Days of Writing Music challenge - you can follow along on Instagram here.

EDIT: This 21-day challenge is over, but I'm formulating a free course that includes daily prompts and access to the Facebook group - to be notified when it opens, sign up below!

And, if you need more help deciding on and keeping healthy habits to support your creativity, I have just the thing: 

What are your struggles with keeping habits, creative or otherwise? Let me know in the comments!

Habits That Help Me Stay Healthy + Productive

I’ve come to the conclusion that my spirit animal is actually a plant. Here in Minnesota we’re now in the deep freeze (hard to believe that it was in the 60s only a month ago!) I really don’t love the cold, but the sun is finally shining again this week, and I find myself feeling so much more motivated and feeling that it’s easier to be productive. With that and the craziness of December, I have had to make an extra effort to keep my self-care going in order to survive (let alone thrive!) until winter break. Check out last week’s post for some great self-care resources.

I relate to these plants trying to grow toward the light!

I relate to these plants trying to grow toward the light!

But, even more basic than self-care is my routine - the set of habits that keep me healthy and accomplishing what I need to each week. Here's what I'm doing:

Daily habits/routine:

  • Getting up at 7am on all work days to utilize my most clear-thinking hours in the morning

  • Regular exercise first thing in the morning (so that I don’t have a chance to think about it and choose not to)

  • Vitamins

  • Scheduled practice time - I’m usually at the piano by 9am

  • Sleep - I try to be asleep by 11pm so I can get enough sleep, varying levels of success on this

  • Non-work hours - I try not to work after I get home from teaching around 8pm, unless I have a deadline. I’m not going to be doing quality work at that hour, and rest is important!

  • Taking more breaks (for walks if it’s warm enough, stretching, or snacks)

Other regular habits:

  • Acupuncture - every couple of weeks or so - this is as relaxed as I ever get!

  • Scheduled rest days - Usually Fridays, although now I have trio rehearsal in the morning, and other work activities seem to be sneaking in lately. In any case, I try to make sure I get some quality cat-on-lap couch time.

Batching activities together:

  • Batch cooking on Sunday so I have food ready to go for the week (this helps me avoid shoving random foods into my mouth throughout the day)

  • Plan all lessons for the week on Monday.

  • Weekly check-in on Monday to make sure things like keeping financial info up to date, keeping my computer and space organized, updating my website, etc. get done on a regular basis. Everything on there doesn’t happen without fail, but having it on the calendar every week ensures that those things don’t get neglected for too long.

  • Writing on Tuesday or Wednesday

Staying organized:

  • Trello - I use the app Trello to house all of my to-do lists, structured in columns (Today, Working On, This Week, Next Week, Waiting On, Planning Ahead, Done. I’m a really visual person, so I like being able to drag each card from one list to the next.

  • Reminders - I have many set (using the iPhone app), so that I can avoid forgetting aboutupcoming important activities like quarterly tax deadlines.

  • Scheduling to-do list items - I experimented with scheduling each hour of the day for a while, which, to my surprise, ended up being freeing, because I had to focus on one thing at a time. I eventually stopped doing that in favor of a to-do list written in chronological order and generally scheduling to-do list items for a specific day, which works pretty well (when I stick to it)!

Habits I’m still working on (baby steps!):

  • Yoga - 10 minutes at a time, 3 times a week

  • Meditation - I used to be in a great habit of 5-7 minutes per day (not much but still helpful), motivated by the number of days in my streak on the Insight Timer app, but have struggled to get back into it. Maybe I need a more consistent time of day.

  • Stretching - I need to be better about taking care of my body so that I avoid repetitive stress injuries.

  • Always getting enough sleep

I’m always assessing and tweaking how my routines should work. I can’t imagine how overwhelmed I’d be without these systems - they automate ways to stay healthy, and free up space in my mind that I can then use for creative pursuits.

My winter break starts at noon on Saturday, so I’m now confident that I’m going to make it! I wish you all restful holidays with as little stress as possible.

What are your essential habits that help you stay healthy and productive?