Feel like you don’t have time for everything you need to do?
Between teaching, practicing, gigging, recruiting, and a thousand other things, it’s easy to feel like there’s no way you could possibly keep up with it all.
But we all have at least one superstar colleague who inexplicably accomplishes more in a single day than we could hope to do in a week.
It’s mystifying. Maybe they’re just naturally more energetic than you are. Or maybe the drink A LOT of coffee. Maybe.
Or maybe they have developed excellent time management skills.
You can become that superstar. You can start accomplishing so much that everyone asks you, “What’s your secret?!”
You just need to develop a handful of powerful time management techniques.
Of the 11 techniques below, the first five apply to your everyday life as a musician. Numbers 6 through 8 cover time management in the practice room. Finally, numbers 9 through 11 address time management while teaching lessons.
Which of these do you struggle with most? Make a commitment to improve just one or two this week and watch your efficiency and impact go through the roof.
1. Plan Your Day, Every Day
If you teach many students or classes, your schedule may already be pretty packed.
So when will you practice? When will you take care of pesky administrative tasks? Let’s not even talk about planning for long-term projects or trying to recruit new students…
If something is important, don’t leave it up to chance.
Budget the time you need each day for crucial tasks like practicing, recruiting, and business management.
Even allotting 10-15 minutes each day to accomplish small-but-important tasks (budgeting, follow-up emails, administrative paperwork…) will transform your quality of life. You’ll accomplish more AND feel less stressed because you’ll know that you’re doing what you need to do to prepare for the future.
There are a few different ways you could go about planning your day. I use all of these to great success:
- Each morning, schedule your day. Write down (or type out) each important activity that you need to do that day and assign a time that you’ll get it done.
- A few hours before bed each night, mentally walk through what you’ll do the next day. This is also a great opportunity to do a quick positive visualization for any stressful activities you have coming up (read more about visualization).
- Each Sunday, make a rough sketch of what your week will look like. This is a chance to make sure you don’t have any major conflicts, especially if you teach, play gigs, and manage a busy personal life.
If you don’t have a calendar, get one.
A few years ago I switched from a paper calendar to a digital calendar and my planning efficiency skyrocketed. I didn’t want to switch because I love paper calendars, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back now that I’ve discovered how useful a mobile-phone-accessible calendar can be.
2. Know What You’re Doing Before You Start
You sit down at your computer to “get work done.”
But you don’t actually have a plan of action. You just know there’s a mountain of work you could do while sitting at your desk.
You answer a few emails, put a few things in your calendar, then you take a *quick* break to check Facebook.
Then an hour goes by and you haven’t actually accomplished anything.
It’s an easy loop to fall into! I struggled with this one until I made a crucial shift in how I mentally prepare.
Now I only go to my desk if I know what I’m going to work on when I sit down. Similarly, I only take my instrument out to practice if I know what I’m going to work on.
This small change has totally eliminated my time wasted while trying to figure out what to do.
I get as specific as possible when deciding what it is I want to accomplish. I don’t just sit at my computer to “do work.” Instead, I sit down to write. Or I compile a group of emails to read and respond to. Or I plan my lessons for the day.
Instead of grabbing my instrument to practice and mindlessly practicing whatever happens to be open on my music stand, I determine before I start what I need to practice most.
And if I want to take a break to cruise around Facebook, I do it. Because I know I have the time for it.
This small mental shift is amazingly freeing. If I don’t know what I want to do, I take a few minutes to sit in silence and consider my priorities.
Next time you’re unsure about what you need to work on when tackling a huge to-do list, give yourself a few moments to quietly consider what’s most important to you. Then act decisively to accomplish the task.
3. Leave Nothing to Memory
I managed to remember my classes, rehearsals, and extra activities without keeping a calendar.
Somehow, I never missed anything…at least to my knowledge. I was lucky.
But my refusal to use a calendar caused me a ton of stress.
I had to constantly think about what I had planned for the day. I had to continuously refer back to emails about gigs or extra rehearsals to make sure I didn’t forget something. I spent way too much energy trying to recall my calendar.
When I gave up and started keeping a detailed calendar, everything changed. I was less stressed and I stopped worrying that I might forget something.
Free up your mental capacity for more important things than scheduling. Don’t leave something as pedestrian as time management to memory. Instead, use your memory for important things, like teaching methods and recital music.
Maintain a calendar that goes beyond daily appointments and scheduled events.
Need to schedule a new student consult or reschedule a lesson? Put it in your calendar. Need to connect with more of your local music teachers? Make a note in your calendar.
Fill your calendar with everything you need to do each day and rest easily knowing that your calendar is complete. You won’t need to worry if you’re forgetting anything, because your calendar’s got your back.
4. Set Reminders
Probably too much.
But setting small reminders on my phone has transformed how I manage my time.
For example, if I’m practicing and I remember that I need to respond to an important email that I might otherwise forget, I pause my practice for just a moment and set a reminder.
I schedule a calendar event on my phone to remind me to send the email later in the day, when I won’t be practicing.
That way I don’t have to keep ruminating over the email while I practice. And I don’t have to worry about if I’ll remember. I can return my full attention to my practice.
Just a quick note of caution: only set reminders for things that are important. For example, there’s probably no need to interrupt your practice time to set a phone reminder to order a new pair of shoes on Zappos. If you find yourself distracted by a pair of shoes while you’re practicing, develop your ability to focus and practice efficiently by joining the 5-day Mindful Practice Mini Course.
If you know you have a tendency to procrastinate, the first step toward busting your procrastination habit is to identify your priorities (read the full post on procrastination).
Make a list of your most important goals and projects. Then rank them in order of importance. Organize your daily schedule to reflect this ranking.
If making a list isn’t quite enough, discuss your goals with a colleague or another teacher. You’ll be amazed by the breakthroughs you can make during a casual conversation.
Allow distractions to fall away as you develop your laser-focus on what you need, right now. Once you know what’s most important, be brave and get to work.
In the Practice Room:
6. Develop Your Personal Routine
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t optimize your personal routine to maintain a schedule that suits your needs and preferences.
When during the day are you most productive? When do you practice most efficiently? When do you feel sleepy? When would you prefer to teach your easiest-to-teach students? What about your challenging students?
You may not be able to create a perfect schedule, but you can improve your enjoyment and efficiency by paying attention to when you prefer to do certain tasks.
Here’s a broad-strokes version of my personal routine:
I’m a morning person. Which means that I have a ton of energy from 7am to 11am and I’m basically useless after 8pm. Most days, I have a burst of inspiration around 2pm that lasts until around 6pm. So I try to schedule my practice time, teaching, writing, business planning, and recruiting activities from 7-11am and 2-6pm.
I do my best to reserve early mornings and late evenings (when I don’t have gigs) for yoga, meditation, reading, and spending time with my wife and cats.
Everyone’s different. I know many exceptional musicians who do their best practice after 8pm. Observe what works best for you and adjust your schedule as much as possible to fit your needs.
7. Make Practice Non-Negotiable
Regardless of your professional aspirations, schedule time each day for personal musical practice. And make it non-negotiable.
Whether you strive for constant improvement or you simply want to maintain your skills, you can’t afford to sacrifice focused practice time. You likely won’t be able to schedule as much practice time as you’d like, but that’s no excuse to throw in the towel.
Consider your priorities and determine the minimum daily practice needed to move toward your goals. When you know your minimum daily practice looks like, put it in your calendar. Each day might look a little different, but that’s OK.
Don’t give yourself the excuse of “not having time.” You don’t buy it when your students claim to be too busy to practice, so don’t accept it from yourself either. Once your practice is non-negotiable, you will find time. And you’ll be happier for it.
8. Maximize Your Practice Room Efficiency
Sometimes practicing is terribly difficult. No matter what you work on, you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall. But the only thing you’re making a dent in is your head.
The key to minimizing those head-banging practice sessions is simple: learn to practice mindfully, with focus and efficiency. Transform your practice habits by joining the 5-day Mindful Practice Mini Course:
In Your Teaching:
9. Create a Lesson Map
Map out approximately how long you’ll spend on each topic your student is studying. How much time will you spend on scales, technical exercises, etudes, repertoire, and orchestral excerpts? Will you allow any time at the end of the lesson to review important concepts?
Your lesson map can be as rigid or as flexible as you like. Consider each student’s long-term trajectory and the timing of their upcoming performances. If a student has a major audition looming, you know you’re going to need to cover certain things during every lesson.
By preparing in this way, you’ll save time in each lesson and you’ll avoid forgetting any important topics. Your lessons will gain a cohesive, well-organized feel that your students will appreciate.
10. For Each Student, a Timeline
Use these goals to structure a timeline for the upcoming month, semester, or year. With each student, outline the things they will need to accomplish along the way to reach their goals.
Is your student auditioning for college? By what point will they need to have performed all of their repertoire for you? When will they give practice performances and mock auditions? When will each piece be memorized? How much practice is needed to reach these goals?
With each student, write down the timeline you create. Make a copy — keep one in your files and give the other to your student. Refer to the timeline at the beginning of each lesson to check in with how things are going and if any adjustments need to be made.
But for most of us, the most powerful thing we can do to improve time management is to keep things as simple as possible.
Some of the most influential teachers I’ve worked with maintain only a handful of wheelhouse pieces, etudes, and exercises that they teach to every single student they encounter. Rather than collecting and teaching every piece and etude for their instrument, they save time and energy by sticking to the most useful pieces and exercises.
You can always spice things up by adding a new piece to your repertoire or exploring a new etude book. Otherwise, keep things simple.
What’s Your Secret?
How do you manage you hectic life as a performing music teacher? What’s your secret? Leave a comment below and tell me about it!
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