Time Management, Brain Management

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I was having an online conversation with some choral directors recently in which we were grappling with the perennial issue of how to fit in preparation of music. In particular, the issue was the prep needed for special events above and beyond your regular musical activities. The person who started the conversation is going to two training events over the summer that each require prior learning of music and was finding herself in a state of some overwhelm trying to fit this in around an already busy schedule.

This is in a music-specific version of the classic workflow issue of how you accommodate projects within a role that is already full-time. By their nature, projects are relatively short-term commitments that start, go through a period of focused activity, and then finish. So they demand considerable inputs of time and attention, but since they are inherently temporary, you rarely have that kind of time and attention going spare in your capacity. Take on two at once and you get a real bottle-neck.

The first thing to note is that, though the question is often framed in terms of time management, the problem is usually one of attention management. It is not the physical constraint of having enough hours in the day that causes the problem (though we may experience it as if it were) but having enough brain space to process everything competing for our attention. So, with that in mind, here are some thoughts that emerged from the discussion.

Give it Regular Attention

One of the things that makes a project daunting is having to upload all the details into your head before doing anything with them. If you schedule a regular slot in your day to give it attention then you cut a lot of this cognitive overhead as you keep it alive and just pick up each time where you left off. (This is much the same reason why you get better results from 20 mins a day instrumental practice than 2 hours once a week the day before your lesson.)

Part of the effectiveness of doing this is thus from frequency - getting back to the material before it has been pushed out of your head by other stuff. But having a dedicated slot in your day adds the advantage of being ready for it when you get there. You also save on decision fatigue by not having to work out each time when to get on with it; if you always use a scheduled slot, you can save that decision-making capacity for content rather than just getting started.

Find Continuities

One of the problems of overwhelm is fragmentation of attention. If you keep adding new activities/projects you eventually spend so much mental energy switching from one to the next that you run out of attention actually to do them. One way to mitigate this is to bundle together elements they have in common into a single mental category (and, by extension, slot for scheduled attention).

In this instance, if you have music to learn in four different areas of your life, then rather than scheduling time for each activity, into which you need deal with admin, rehearsal planning, correspondence and music learning, you can schedule a slot for learning music in which you address the content for all of these areas of life. Think of it by analogy with piano practice. Rather than doing separate sessions for a solo recital, a duo recital and new repertoire for next year, you’d do a single session in which the technical warm-up at the start would support all the repertoire work, in which you balance learning and polishing, immediate and future needs.

The point here is not just about cognitive efficiency (though this is part of it). It is also about the development of skill. Fluency is something you achieve by in-depth work, so your music-learning sessions should be delivering enhanced production capacity as well as merely churning through the content.

Automate Everything You Can

Anything you have to do repeatedly becomes more efficient if you develop explicit processes/systems/routines to do them. This goes for music-technical activities like arranging or memorising or preparing music to direct, and it also goes for all the other life stuff that eats up our cognitive resources.

This is another production/production capacity issue - spontaneity is lovely, but it is greedy of decision-making. Don’t squander it on things that aren’t particularly important to you. Making a shopping list will get you out of the supermarket faster, and will allow you to spend the time you’re there with the back of your brain processing music rather than all of your brain comparing brands of marmalade.

Quality Time

Learning music (or indeed any central element of a new project) needs your undivided attention to become more fluent and nuanced. There were several comments in our discussions about using time driving or doing the ironing as learning time to be spent listening to or practising or mentally rehearsing the music. From a time management perspective, this looks quite efficient - it is taking something that is largely automated already and using the spare cognitive space opened up to get on with the music.

But whilst this is efficient from a time perspective, it is not necessarily efficient from an attention perspective. However automated these tasks are, they still need some call on your brain, to keep you on task (and indeed safe). So if you plan to learn your music primarily during these tasks, you will be preventing yourself from getting into that deep learning zone of mindful practice where you build skill. You may get through a lot of music this way, but you won’t make yourself better at learning it for future reference.

Now, I’m not saying don’t do this kind of musical engagement - that would be a bit like telling you not to sing in the shower. But I am saying that, like singing in the shower, these activities are best seen as consolidation sessions, not learning sessions. If your scheduled sessions are working, your brain will want to process the material, to live with it, chew it over. And any time you find yourself doing a task that is at least partly automated in real life, your brain will happily haul out the music you have been working on and give it a bit of mulling to help it get bedded in. But you need the dedicated time to ignite this process.

Delegate and Delete

There are four things you can do with a task: Do it now, Defer it, Delegate it, or Delete it. You can’t delegate learning, but you may well be able to delegate other things to make space for learning. Indeed, you may find that once you’ve automated something, that actually makes it easier to hand over to someone else.

You also need to decide every so often if everything you’re currently doing is actually still necessary. Sometimes you stop doing something and just don’t miss it. Which is why you’ll never find me learning music whilst ironing...

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