Creatively managing creative time

I was privileged to teach a class at a recent music conference. The class was called, "You Can Give the Industry What It Wants and Still Be Creative". It was taught by a team of 4 people: Suz Doyle talked about finding inspiration when you are blocked; Chuck Schlacter talked about how he researches opportunities and client requests, and illustrated how he sketches out the plan for a piece of music on a daily basis; John Mazzei talked about what it’s like to work with film directors as a composer, and the challenge of supporting the creative vision of the director while remaining true to one’s own muse.

I choose to talk about creatively managing creative time.

I was on a coaching call a while ago with Debra Russell and Nancy Moran, and Nancy talked about delegating tasks. Not just bookkeeping or web management… but the personal things you need to do around the house, or the errands you run. Her logic was, if you are self-employed, then everything you do is part of running your business. What a sense of relief I got when she said that! I’d been struggling with the house, shopping, laundry, and felt guilty about not being able to keep up with it all. It was huge weight off my shoulders to realize it was ‘ok’ to delegate some of that out. I asked my Mom to come in a couple of times a month (and paid her) to help me with the house, I found a local woman who would drive me to appointments or help me run errands (I don't have a car) in exchange for coaching.... and more.

Here's how I got myself organized:

1-Make a list of daily, weekly and monthly tasks. That’s everything you need to do. Pay bills, shop for groceries, go to the gym, etc.

2-Set up a calendar. I have mine set up as a table in Word. Preferably you want something where you can see the month at a glance.

3-Now schedule your tasks. Try to be efficient. For example, if you are downtown on Friday afternoons, then you schedule all your downtown errands on Friday afternoon, that’s when you get your photocopies, pick up toner from the office supply store, mail your packages, do your banking. If you set aside time on Saturday morning to clean house, maybe that’s also a good time to do laundry. You can throw a load in and then go clean the kitchen. If, like me, doing laundry means a trip to the Laundromat… well, I have enough towels and clothes to go one month before I need to do laundry. And when I do laundry, I put everything in the washer and then go to the grocery store and/or drug store, do any banking. Sometimes I’ll even call my mom from my cell while I’m sitting in the Laundromat. I can cross ‘call Mom’ off my list ;)

I mentioned in the class that I order my groceries on-line. There is a local company ( that deliver organics. I order those supplies on Mondays and they are delivered Thursdays. I then go to the store once a week (usually Wednesday morning) and get anything I need that they don’t deliver. I order on-line for the convenience, but also because I know that if I get swamped or overwhelmed, the first thing that goes is shopping. That is not good for my health. So ordering on-line is not only time management, it’s health management, to get a box of beautiful fresh veggies and fruit every week, encouraging me to eat sensibly.

Because I work at home, I’m able to manage cooking by preparing veggies for the steamer, and plugging it in before my last session starts, or using the crock pot. I tend to eat pretty much the same things most of the time. I make a meal plan for the week – this is not only good for time management but it’s a good budget measure as well. I always try to cook enough for two meals so I only have to warm things up.

Included in your schedule of ‘tasks’ should also be some daily personal time, just to be… to walk, to dream, to meditate, to be still. And also include, on a weekly basis, time to go over your schedule for the following week, plan your budget, balance your chequebook, make your grocery list & plan your meals. I allow 2 hours for this on Saturday morning.

4-The next step is to make a list of projects you want to work on. This could be musical collaborations, writing for opportunities, working on your album, etc. I have separate project sheets for library composing, co-writing, my album, and listings I plan to submit to. I have a project binder and in each section I put notes & emails for the different projects I’m working on.

5-Now look at your schedule, and plan when you will be in your ‘studio’. On weekends I plan 4-6 hours per day, during the week I plan 3 to 5 hours per day depending on what I have on. Allow time for social events…. Dinner and a movie – one night a week. Overall I schedule about 20 hours studio time as a minimum. Because I work for myself I’m in charge of my schedule. If you work full-time and you have a family, then your obligations are going to be different, and your available time for writing is going to be reduced. That’s life. We make choices and we need to see them through.

When you walk into your studio at the scheduled time, then you look at your list of projects and ask, ‘what is the best use of my time right now’, or ‘what is the most urgent thing to work on,’ or ‘what would I like to play with today’. Guard this time, don’t let other things eat into it. Use your weekly planning time to assess how well you are figuring out how to deal with your needs, and adjust accordingly.

It only makes sense to me that we should set reasonable goals, figure out what we need to get or to know, and then set out to save for that software, or set aside time to learn/practice, and use available resources (like songwriting forums) to get feedback on what we are doing, or even to share our process and ask for advice. We assess progress by looking back and asking… did I move forward over the past few months? Am I writing better, more consistently, did I finish what I set out to do?

I recommend these books:
“Getting Things Done” by David Allen
“The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron

The handout I distributed at the class is available here:


cinderkeys said...

I have a full-time job and other responsibilities not remotely related to music. If I suddenly had 20+ hours per week to dedicate to music, I'm not sure I'd know what to do with it. :)

Any suggestions for those of us with day jobs?

Vikki said...

Hi cinderkeys... I think the same principles apply. You figure out your task list and schedule the to-dos, then block out the remaining times for writing. Some folks get up earlier so they can write before they go to work, others make time in the evening. Some can only write on the weekends. I'm of the opinion it's better to do something everyday if you can - even if it's only 20 or 30 minutes.

One thing I suggest to my students is, when you get home from work, presumably you are going to cook dinner or warm something up... that usually takes 20 minutes or so... and you can use that time, while dinner's cooking, to write or practice.

I'd also carry a notebook or a digital recorder with me, and note down snippets of conversation, or headlines, or ideas that come to me over the course of the day.

As to knowing what to do with 20+ hours... they are easy to fill. The problem is more staying focussed and using that time effectively. It's being the architect of your own creative work time (rather than relying on external structure) so that you can look back, in time, and see that you have accomplished what you set out to do, or learned more about the craft, and moved forward in some way.

Debra Russell said...

If you're going to do creative work in the evening after working all day, also helps to do something to "restart" the day.

For example, you might take a quick shower, do some yoga or stretching, perhaps take a walk. Even brushing your teeth could work. Something to say to your body and mind, we're beginning our day anew.

I agree with Vikki, doing something each day is an easier habit to create than once a week.

Block the time out. Perhaps Monday evenings for 1.5 hours is marketing time. Tuesdays and Thursdays are creative time. Wednesday is admin.

Be sure to give yourself some time completely off, to play, to socialize or even to do nothing at all.

If you spend 10 hours a week on your music, on your passion, with consistency, it will make a difference. Just because you don't have 20+ hours each week, doesn't mean you can't pursue your dreams. Do what you can do, with consistency and it will make a difference.

Your Coach,
Debra Russell
They call it the Music Business, I'm your Music Business Coach!

Vikki said...

Jeffrey Steele - a songwriter with a huge number of hits under his belt - spoke at the TAXI Road Rally, and one of the things he said is that he writes every single day. I heard other successful composers say the same thing. I try to write something every day, a verse, a chorus, a few lines, noodle with a melody, etc. IMO, if you write every day, it keeps your creative muscle in shape, it keeps you in the flow. More than that, though... it helps you become emotionally detached from your work. So when something doesn't come together, or when you get a piece of music returned or rejected... you can think about it dispassionately, knowing that you have the capacity to put it aside til later for rewrite, or treat it as experience and put it in your idea drawer, or simply write something new. You know you can, because you do it *all the time*.


cinderkeys said...

Interesting ideas. When I read "in the studio," I assumed that meant practice time (for vocal techniques, guitar, or whatever your instrument is). That's the part I'm finding it hardest to block out time for. You have to be in a certain place, and you can't multitask.

I do use the while-dinner's-cooking approach when I can. Most of what I have to cook requires my presence, though.

Writing songs tends to happen in my between-the-cracks time. I can work on things while I do the dishes, walk somewhere, etc. I haven't been prolific for a while, but that's because I haven't been disciplined about making good use of the between-the-cracks time. When I did, my output was a lot higher -- it worked for me.

mandy said...

This was GREAT. Thank you for sharing. I'm trying to find ways to manage my time, while creating space for creativity. Tasks, calendars, scheduled blocks of time. All of this. Thanks!

Charlie said...

Vikki, this was great advice. Thanks for taking the time to post all of this. I went from having all day of writing and producing, to getting a day gig, and have to find time to write. It's tough, and hearing about how other artist's manage their time is very helpful. Happy New Year,

Songs from the Pumkin Patch said...

Thank you for the advice and I also like Debra's idea!!!