This is a nice big long post and I’m going to give you some gold in the second half, but first let’s talk about New Year’s Resolutions.
Ok, what are some of the usual suspects?
- “I’ll spend more time making music”
- “I’ll buy less gear”
- “I’ll read the manuals for all the gear I already own”
- “I’ll explore a new style/method of composition”
- “I’ll collaborate more with other musicians”
- “I’ll write more songs”
Got any more you’d like to add? How are you actually going to achieve them?
Admittedly, this is as good a time as any to reflect on the past year and think about ways to make the coming year better for our music.
But why wait until the end of the year to reflect? Surely you know how you’re going all year round. Sure, it’s a nice stop-off point to take a breather, look back on how far you’ve come and give yourself a pat on the back.
But resolutions? Really?
Let’s call them for what they really are (or aspire to be): GOALS.
And if you’re serious about achieving your goals, they need to have measurable outcomes. And they need to have definable steps (effort) to get there. That’s the key. Repeat after me: For each goal, plan the effort and measure the outcomes.
1. What’s your goal?
Be specific. Vague hand-wavey resolutions like “I’ll write some more songs” isn’t good enough. How many songs? “I’ll write twenty new songs” is better. Remember – it has to be measurable. There has to be some objective way to determine whether you’ve met your goal or not. It’s a bit scary the first time you do this. Hang in there.
2. What’s your effort?
Break down the steps you need to take. For example, writing a song might mean writing lyrics, composing some chords and melody and then recording a demo. SCHEDULE THE TIME TO DO IT. How long does each step take? It won’t happen if you’re not sitting there with a pen and a pad and a guitar.
3. What are your outcomes?
Remember – you’re not measuring the effort you put in, you’re measuring the results of that effort. So, your outcomes are not the number of hours you put in. It’s not how hard you tried. Your outcomes are the number of finished songs you’ve made. Or the number of manuals you’ve read cover to cover. Or the number of new musicians you’ve collaborated with. It’s the end result.
The real trick is to do it iteratively. Focussing on a single outcome 12 months into the future is a fool’s errand. It’s too easy to ignore because it’s so far away, and by the time you get close enough to care you won’t have done enough work. And it’s too big to learn from your experiences – you’ll have to wait a year before you can put them to use.
Instead, focus on much smaller time slices. I prefer months, but weeks, fortnights or even quarters might work better for you.
For example, if I wanted to write twenty new songs this coming year, I might plan it as two songs per month:
- February: 2 songs
- March: 2 songs
- April: 2 songs
- May: 2 songs
- June: 2 songs
- July: 2 songs
- August: 2 songs
- September: 2 songs
- October: 2 songs
- November: 2 songs
There’s twenty songs right there.
Notice I left out January and December. It’s not fair (to yourself) to schedule work in those months: January is often a third over before most people are back into work mode again (and many people take holidays in January or are otherwise difficult to get hold of). December gets mighty hairy about halfway through, and the first first half is handy to have for any projects that end up running a little later than originally planned.
Two songs a month might work out pretty well if you know what you’re doing. If it takes six hours to write and demo a song, then twenty songs is achievable in twelve hours a month, or maybe three hours a week.
But if you don’t know what you’re doing, you probably don’t have a workflow sorted out yet. A necessary part of achieving your goal is working out how to achieve it. So if you still want to write those twenty songs, but haven’t had much experience, it might make more sense to do it like this:
- February: 0 songs (just get a song half-finished)
- March: 1 song
- April: 1 song
- May: 2 songs
- June: 2 songs
- July: 2 songs
- August: 3 songs
- September: 3 songs
- October: 3 songs
- November: 3 songs
There’s twenty songs again.
And here’s why it’s important to separate effort from outcomes. It looks like the back half of the year is harder work than the front half, but it’s not. If writing a song (eventually) takes six hours, you’d be spending eighteen hours writing in November. But if you don’t have a workflow sorted out, you probably should be spending eighteen hours in February and March just on one song. The level of effort doesn’t change throughout the year – but you work toward the outcomes accelerating (because you get better at it).
Draw up a simple spreadsheet and put three columns in: The first column is for dates; the second column is for your target outcomes; and the third column is for your actual outcomes. At the end of every cycle (e.g. the last day of every month), open up the spreadsheet and record your results for that cycle. If you’re not very disciplined, I suggest going to shorter cycles, such as weekly. Get into the habit of tracking your progress and keeping yourself accountable.
Of course, it won’t always be peachy. You’ll get stuck. You’ll miss some targets. Life gets in the way. You’ll have to work around it, you’ll have to improvise. You might even change your plans. But you won’t conveniently forget about it. You won’t dismiss it. You have to keep yourself honest.
If you miss a target, you need to work out why that happened. If the outcomes required more effort than you previously thought, you can either put more effort in or lower your targets. If you got distracted or something got in the way, you can either make sure it doesn’t happen again or you can lower your targets (if it will be unavoidable next time around). Either way, you have to do something.
The great thing about plans is that you can always change them.
Some people are scared of making plans because they think they’ll be too rigid, or they won’t stick to their plan (and then feel stupid for it). Not true. Plans are your friends. They keep you honest and illuminate the way forward.