How I Keep It Together When I'm Busy

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Well, it’s springtime (only according to the calendar - several inches of snow are forecast for MN this weekend 😫), and that means crazy schedule time!

In the next 2 months, I’ll be: accompanying lots of recitals, playing many/various gigs, practicing and rehearsing for said gigs, planning out my summer teaching schedule, going to Boston for New Music Gathering May 17-19, marching in the May Day Parade, and attending a few family events.

Add to that: planning a recording project (for my first album!) and a Kickstarter (launching May 29), which is awesome, but overwhelming! I have to be really deliberate about how I spend my time, to avoid burnout/meltdown.

Earlier this week, I was thinking, “I don’t know what to blog about this week, I’m feeling really overwhelmed...clearly that’s what I should write about.” So, here is my arsenal of ways that I keep it together during crazy busy times (like right now):

SYSTEMS!

I would be the most hopelessly disorganized person without systems - my brain needs them!

This app is where all of my to-dos live. My system is loosely based on the book Getting Things Done, 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.

  • Zooming out to get the big picture

At the beginning of each month, I list all of the upcoming projects and events coming up in the next few months (including preparations like practice/rehearsal). I like to print out monthly calendar sheets and plot it all out. Then, I make cards in Trello for each task or project (you can also add checklists), and add due dates. It also has a calendar function, to visualize all of your due dates, but I don’t do this much because I like the analog version.

  • Reminders

I use the iPhone Reminders app all of the time for repeating tasks that I don’t want to forget (like making copies for teaching, or quarterly taxes), and also for things that I need to remember, but don’t want to take up space on my to-do list. If I’m out and about, I’ll set a reminder for a time that I know I’ll be home and at my computer, then I don’t have to worry about it.

TIME/TASK MANAGEMENT

  • Writing my to-do list in order 

My planner has a space to write the 3 most important tasks first, and if I’m being really strategic, I write things in the actual order that I’ll do them, to avoid indecision.

  • Manageable to do list 

I almost never succeed at this, but ideally, I would make a list that I could actually accomplish in a day. On the upside, I no longer beat myself up about not getting it all done.

  • Time blocking

I’ve tried this in the past, but I don’t do it very often, because it made my days feel too chopped up into pieces, and stressed me out a bit. I do schedule my piano practice time in the morning, though.

  • Pomodoro technique (4 cycles of 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break, then a longer break)

This works really well for me when I want to harness the power of a time deadline. Bonus: if I actually get up from my chair to take those breaks, it’s really energizing.

  • Create barriers to procrastination and distraction

If I have to, I put my phone in another room, use the Self-Control app (free!) to block distracting websites, and close my email tab until a specified time (email is not an emergency). I also have almost all notifications turned off on both my phone and computer.  

  • Scheduling according to energy

I gauge how I feel each day, but generally plan on doing tasks that require more complex thought when I have the most energy (for me, that’s in the morning, or right after a walk), and save tasks like email for mid-afternoon when I have less energy.

  • Batching tasks

I plan all of my lessons for the week at one time, try to write multiple blog posts in a row, etc. Studies have shown that each time we switch tasks, we waste 17 minutes in the process - if that’s true, it’s a wonder that we get anything done?  

  • Embrace external accountability for important but not urgent tasks -

I have Obliger tendencies (see Gretchen Rubin's 4 Tendencies for an explanation), so I either say publicly that I’ll do something, or I also have a friend that I check in with monthly for accountability and mutual encouragement!

PRIORITIZING

  • Figure out my non-negotiable tasks, habits, and activities

For me, this is exercise, cooking breakfast, spending time with my partner (he’s also super busy, as a grad student), etc. I may have to let some things go temporarily (like seeing shows, social events, or starting new projects), or even permanently.

  • Stop overcomplicating

I have a tendency to make things harder than they need to be, so I try stop and ask myself if I’m overcomplicating, and whether I need to be doing everything I originally had planned on! 

  • Simplify non-work areas of my life 

Let’s be real, this translates to me wearing the same clothing more often, and cleaning less often, but it could also apply to delegating or postponing things until I’m less busy.

MINDSET

  • Be kind to myself

This one is the most important! Being hard on myself when I can’t do it all (no one can!) does not help at all. 

  • Using positive mantras like "I have as much time as I need" to quiet my brain.
  • Accepting that I have less time for creative work

I certainly haven’t been writing as much music as last year, when I did 2 100 Day Projects, but these things go in seasons. I generated a lot of work then, and now I’m working on doing something with it, so naturally I can’t (and might not want to) be creating a lot (and that’s okay). These tips are super helpful for fitting in as creative time as possible.

  • Remind myself that resistance and overwhelm are normal.

If I expect that resistance is part of working really hard, it's easier to handle. I don’t have to want to do the work, I just have to do the work.

  • Thinking about only one thing at a time 

I know that I expend a lot of energy thinking about and projecting into the future, anticipating how overwhelmed I’m going to be, which actually brings more overwhelm to the present moment. This used to be really hard for me, so I started by making my daily walk a no-thinking-about-work zone.

  • Refusing to create more overwhelm

I can choose not to fixate on it, and not to rush while going places. This actually does help a lot.

SUPPORT MYSELF PHYSICALLY

Exercise, meditation, and eating good food are non-negotiable for me - it's even more important to support myself while super busy.

  • Prioritize rest and breaks (especially anything mind-focusing like meditation, short walks, stretching, etc.)

We’re not machines! I know that I can’t focus for long periods of time, especially when I’m already mentally or physically exhausted. I’ve noticed that when I’m struggling to work productively, that’s not just a sign that I’m feeling lazy, it’s a message from my brain that it’s tired and needs support (via food, water, movement, or rest).

  • Scheduling time to regroup

During a busy season like spring, I have to pace myself, or my brain will turn to mush. I actually schedule rest days on my calendar (yes, they say “CAT/COUCH DAY” - Rusty the Cat is my relaxation mentor.) And, if I don’t have time to regroup, that means that I’ve overscheduled myself unsustainably, and hopefully I will learn from that and not do it again.

I've written a lot about self-care for musicians, too - links here, here, and here

These are all things that I strive to do, but of course, this is all a process, and there are ups and downs! The good part is that healthy and productive habits build on each other, allowing more and more of them to happen. If your spring is as crazy as mine, I'm wishing you well!

What are your favorite tips for keeping it together and staying efficient during busy times? Let me know in the comments!

Rebecca Hass

Pianist and composer