organization

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!

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)?