New Year, new me! We all have heard it, we all have said it. Now that the new year 2018 is one month old, what have you accomplished already? Are you satisfied with your productivity? Could always be better, right?. But what are the essential factors of being more productive? Are there any techniques you can apply in order to get more things done in a shorter time? Absolutely!
While this is a blog aimed at composers and sound designers, the following productivity tips apply to literally any freelancer, media professional or hobby enthusiast who seeks to enhance his workflow.
In the following tutorial, I’d like to share with you 10 tips that helped me being way more productive. Start 2018 right and skyrocket your productivity following these easy guidelines!
CREATE AN ERGONOMIC WORKPLACE
I have to be honest with you here. I’m not a very tidy person. However, as much as I demur at keeping my home clean all the time, I developed some sort of OCD when it comes to the condition of my studio. In order to work effectively, I just need to have everything at its place and in reach when I need it. I just can’t be productive if my studio desk is covered in cables, notes and other distracting stuff.
I’m surely not alone with this as multiple studies show that a tidy and organized working environment can and will boost your productivity quite much. On top, keeping your surroundings ergonomic will help your body stay healthy and prevent medical conditions of your back, neck, hands and eyes. Ergonomics don’t stop at a tidy desk, but are true for your whole room, furniture and equipment. As ‘ergonomics at your workplace’ is a topic that fills numerous books and websites, I’d like to just give you some quick tips on how to optimize your very own working environment:
Get a comfortable chair that supports your back and lets you work for hours without your muscles becoming tense. I recently switched from a normal studio chair to an adjustable-height, backless balancing stool which really helped me train my back muscles and sit straight.
Swap your flat mouse pad with a new one featuring a wrist rest gel pad. The pad helps to keep your wrist in a comfortable angle and prevents typist’s cramp.
Organize all the tools you need regularly so you can reach them quick and easily. Pre-patch microphone cables, place your guitar on a stand next to you, have a notepad and pen ready, etc.
Clear pathways and make equipment easily accessible so you don’t have to perform a contortion act each time you need to swap cables or switch hard drives.
Distraction kills productivity. This doesn’t come as a surprise I guess, but in today’s world of omnipresent multimedia offerings and social interconnection it’s hard to really drop out for a moment and stay focused. Nothing is more annoying than being ripped out of your zone by WhatsApp group chat messages or Facebook notifications all the time. So, what can you do to save yourself from all those distractions you’re surrounded with?
Easy! While working, close your browser and set your phone to silent mode. Unless it’s important, don’t answer every message directly. Instead, set aside a fixed time for answering mail and messages. This could be right after your breakfast, after your lunch break or while your computer runs a backup in the evening.
Tell your friends and family why you can’t answer to every message instantly and I’m sure they’ll understand. If the temptation to browse the web is to big, trick yourself and turn off your WiFi while working on a track. You can always turn it back on during your breaks.
Once you establish a habit of pulling the social media plug while you’re working, you’ll see how much more you can get done and how much easier it is to stay focused.
DEVELOP A COMPOSITION TEMPLATE
Every composer has his own workflow. Some design a huge template featuring thousands of tracks pre-loaded with each and every sample library they got, some like to start fresh with a blank project. Apart from the compositional part itself, organizing a project can eat quite a lot of your precious time. Especially if you need to label, route, balance and level each track again and again for every new project.
I remember situations where I was in cheerful spirits to create a great piece of music, but after hours of loading up all the stuff I might need, routing busses, effects returns and labeling tracks, my motivation had vanished into thin air. I recorded eight beats of mediocre music and eventually turned to other things.
I know not all of us are fond of comprehensive templates as they can shoot you in the back and slow down your progress when they get too large and confusing. However, if you find yourself wasting a lot of time with preparing your projects for composing, I’d highly recommend to create your own basic project template. I’m definitely not talking about pre-loading hundreds, even thousands of tracks you might not even need 80% of the time. Instead, prepare all the things you need to get going once and save them to a template. This way, you don’t need to stop your creative process and distract yourself with organizational stuff when it comes to composing. This is what my personal, most basic template includes:
Group busses of different instrument groups for stem mixing (strings, brass, winds, synths, etc.)
A submix channel summing all the group busses together. It’s usually armed with a High Pass Filter set to 20Hz, a limiter set to 0dB to catch peaks and a stock metering/analyzer plugin
A set of effects returns / aux channels usually armed with a short and long reverb, a standard delay and some kind of FX reverb plugin (e.g. Eventide’s Blackhole, Valhalla Shimmer, etc.)
Color coding and labeling of all the tracks and groups
Folder Tracks (Cubase) or Track Stacks (Logic Pro) for each instrument group containing a few empty instrument and audio tracks
Transport section: two project time rulers in beats and seconds, a default project tempo (120BPM), 4/4 measure and locators set to roughly 3 minutes
These preparations should have you set for most things to come and allow you to dive right into composing whenever creativity strikes. From here on, you can go as fancy as you like: Pre-load processing plugins into the group channels, arm your tracks with console or tape emulation plugins, apply pre-set EQ curves to your groups, create more FX channels, the list is endless.
LIMIT YOUR RESOURCES
This is by far my favorite one! But what does limiting your resources mean and how can limiting yourself be of any real benefit?
Well, let’s be honest: most of us composers have a passion for hoarding plugins and sample libraries. We all have terabytes worth of sounds and samples and I dare to say only the fewest of us managed to listen through them all yet. When it comes to composing, we all tend to face the same questions: ‘What string libraries will sound best for this line?’ – ‘Which of my 263 compressors suits my cinematic percussion bus the best?’ – and so on.
Fact is, with all those plugins, samples and virtual instruments at our disposal, we’re given so many possible roads to take that it’s easy getting overwhelmed by the opportunities. This can massively slow down our productivity, I’m sure we’ve all experienced this.
This is where limiting your resources comes in handy. I think the first time I was pointed to this was when I watched a video by composer and Spitfire Audio‘s co-founder Christian Henson, who preaches and practises this technique all the time. He’s calling it ‘starving yourself of resources‘ if I recall correctly. What it means is that before you start writing a new piece, you limit yourself to just a couple of sample libraries, tools or plugins to work with. This not only massively reduces the number of potential routes to follow, it also forces you to be more creative and imaginative with what you’ve got at your disposal.
I love this technique and I use it all the time! Up to now, every time I stuck to my pre-defined, limited set of tools I came up with much more unique and interesting sounding results than when I was firing with my whole broadside of libraries.
Just give it a try to make sure to switch up your tool collection from time to time!
CREATE A MEANINGFUL SKETCH
Not every media composer creates sketches before composing the actual piece and by far not every composer writes down his sketches on paper. However, a well-defined sketch of your track will help you compose more efficiently and will take out all the guesswork you’re likely to come across during the process.
I have to admit I’m a bit lazy when it comes to sketches. You know, you got struck by this (seemingly) great idea, already have a soaring melody and pounding rhythm in your head – you really want to dive in but – STOP – first put it all down on piano and do a proper sketch. WTF? Why?
Because it will help you in the long run. 9 out of 10 times, after I’ve fully orchestrated and arranged my initial 16-bar idea, I get stuck and don’t know how to go from there. I spent so much time carving out the last little detail of those few beats, that my brain is empty and tired and I’d rather close the project and do something else.
Had I taken the time to work up a proper sketch of my piece upfront, I could now probably orchestrate the whole thing through from start to finish. This is why you should always create a meaningful sketch of the piece you’re about to orchestrate. A simple, two- or three-part piano sketch can be all you ever need. Just clearly define things like your chord structure, your melody and countermelody, the rhythm and breaks. Trust me, if you can come up with a piano sketch of your whole piece before recording even a single string line, you will have it so much easier down the line. You’ll always have something to guide you through!
EAT THE FROG
This one concerns the arc enemy of productivity: procrastination. To be true, this tip is another one I’ve learned from Spitfire Audio’s Christian Henson and it somehow stuck with me. I’m not sure if I can quote this a 100% right but regarding procrastination, Christian came up with a nice analogy that goes something like this:
You’re invited to a festive banquet with all of your favorite dishes, one looking and smelling better than the other. However, you’re being told that somewhere along the courses, you have to swallow a raw frog (I know, this is a bit weird but please stay with me!). Would you eat the delicious food first, not really being able to enjoy it at its fullest because you know, somewhere down the line, you’d have to eat a frog? Wouldn’t it be better to deal with the unpleasant situation first in order to really being able enjoy the rest of the evening?
I’m a professional procrastinater myself when it comes to accomplishing unpleasant tasks but the advice of ‘eating the frog first’ was a huge mind changer for me. You can put it this way: If you’re kicking inconvenient tasks down the road all day – like doing your taxes or making that call – something in the back of your head keeps pulling you down and is building up pressure – either consciously or subconsciously. However, if you determine for yourself to start your day by getting rid of all these duties first, you can work on the things you like clear-headed and therefore be more productive. As easy as that!
DEVELOP YOUR OWN DAILY ROUTINE
This one is pretty obvious, although quite a good deal of people including me and some of my freelancing friends tend to struggle with establishing daily routines from time to time. I mean it’s obvious, didn’t we choose to work as freelancers so as to not fall into the daily routine of a 9 to 5 worker? Didn’t we decide to be our own boss to choose our working times according to our needs?
Being able to work the whole night through and sleeping late the next morning sounds exciting, but for the long haul, letting loose of any daily routines just can’t good for your body, your mind and your social life.
I think, developing some daily routines is the only way to keep a social and/or family life intact and therefore keeping your mind open and sharp. If you’re sitting in front of your computer all day, you’re not only risking health issues, you’ll also be struggling to participate in the social activities of your friends and family.
Arrange enough time for a proper breakfast and lunch, use your breaks to meet up with friends or make new ones. Keep yourself in good condition by going for a walk, set some time aside to do sports or other activities apart from music production. As counterintuitive as it sounds, you can only be productive if you allow yourself to experience other things than your studio walls from time to time.
KEEP YOUR BODY AND MIND NURTURED
While supplying your body with enough food and water in order for it to work properly might seem clear as day, the truth is that most of us tend to lose track of this once we’re in the zone. How many times did you have to wonder about when you had your last glass of water after concentrating on your new composition for hours?
By accomplishing complex tasks like composing or mixing, your brain consumes a good deal of energy. This energy has to be restored on a regular basis so your body and mind can stay focused and healthy for long periods of time.
As most of us know, across the day, your body needs around 1.5 to 2 liters of water. Coffee, tea, energy drinks and lemonade obviously don’t add to your hydration balance. So as to not fall into the trap of forgetting to drink, get yourself a glass and a bottle of water before you start working and place them on your desk where you can see it. I promise, having something to drink in plain sight will help you remember to keep hydrated. As soon as you finished the bottle, get up and replace it with a new one. Making this a habit not only keeps your body and mind sharp, but it also provides you with some short breaks to reset your ears and get your blood flowing.
Regarding food, its hard to set a fixed formula as everyone’s body works differently and has their own needs. Nevertheless, if you stick to some basic, common-knowledge rules, you can easily retain a stable energy level over the whole day:
Don’t skip breakfast! A balanced breakfast is key to provide your body with enough energy for the day. Your body and brain burn calories over night, which is why it is most important to refill the batteries in the morning and get your metabolism going. Having a well-rounded breakfast in the morning also helps to prevent having the munchies come noon.
While working, try to eat a couple of smaller portions instead of one big dish so you don’t get tired and sluggish. Also, try to stick to light food which easier to digest.
If possible, try not to eat at your workplace. Apart from risking to spoil your precious equipment, I find it very important for my mental health to separate work and breaks from each other as much as possible. Change rooms – or even better – get outside, have lunch with a friend. Your body will thank you.
RESET YOUR EARS
Looping the same verse over and over, tuning a single strings line for hours, we’ve all been there, right? If you’re stuck with a certain part of your composition, don’t feel you’re progressing or can’t tell if you really enhanced or rather worsened a sound, take a break.
While taking breaks might seem counterintuitive to being productive, it really is the opposite. Stepping away from the computer and laying aside your headphones for a while tremendously helps your body – and most importantly your ears – to reset. With ‘break’, I don’t mean moving over to Spotify and blasting the new Two Steps From Hell record or fire up your gaming console. I mean the tying-your-shoes-and-going-out-for-a-walk kind of break. No ear buds, no phone calls, just you and yourself.
Giving your ears just 20-30 minutes of rest will effectively help them to relax and readjust. When you come back to the studio, you will see – or rather hear – that judging your sonic decisions is much easier now. Apart from resetting your ears, you’ve also loosened the strain that being stuck in a task imposed upon your body and mind.
SET SMALL MILESTONES
Imminent deadlines, a project that’s been sitting on your hard drive for years, seemingly unfeasible loads of work lying ahead – we all know the feeling of standing at the foot of a mountain, not knowing how on earth we should ever get this done. No matter if you have to finish a project for your paying customer or challenging yourself to be more productive: Getting things done is mostly a matter of mind.
You can get all of this accomplished, you just have to trick your own brain. Here’s how you do it:
Instead of seeing the mountain, the huge load of tasks ahead and the far-away goal at the summit, break down your challenge into small bits of tasks or milestones. Instead of going ‘I need to have a finished track at the end of the day‘, say ‘I want to get this verse done in the next two hours’. Even if you don’t, you’ve given your brain a task that was doable which gets you started with a completely different mindset. Define small milestones that lead to your final goal bit by bit and try to accomplish them one after another. You will see, each small goal you meet will give you a motivational push that makes it even easier to meet the next one.
There you go! Of course, this list of tips is by far not complete and it wasn’t even intended to be. There are so many things you can do to get more things done, however, these are my 10 favorite guidelines I follow to be more productive. What are yours? I’d love to hear how you boost your productivity!
I really hope you’ve found this article helpful and I’m excited to hear if you could put these tips to use. Feel free to let me know in the comments section!