Building an Organized Thought Process: Getting the Most out of Time

Yesterday I wrote a nine hundred word essay. I was in a bit of a hurry, trying to fit things into an incredibly busy day, and I was stressed about how I was going to get my writing done in the midst of everything else I was attempting to accomplish. So I sat down and cranked it out, essentially going all out to produce something and hoping for the best in the process. I could post what I wrote, and it would be ok, but it really wasn’t up to my standards. For one thing I only had an implied thesis to guide me, which didn’t solidify into anything overtly tangible in the process. For another, I felt that what I had belted out was only loosely viable as a rough draft. The focus vacillated throughout the piece, and it would require some time and effort before it coalesced into something I’d be satisfied enough with to post to my blog site. While some of my writing is therapeutic, my main goal with each piece is pour some of my knowledge and experience into an essay that will either entertain or help fellow musicians, as well as other folks with creative bents. In order to do so the essay must have a point that is clearly made, be reasonably well supported through logic and examples, and also present itself in an organized manner. This requires a certain element of ensuring that I have the time available to do so, and that I have an organized approach to what I’m attempting to do. I have found that this holds true to most of the creative endeavors that I have been, and continue to be, involved in, whether it is writing creative non-fiction, fiction or poetry, practicing my instruments, or performing with them as well.

Personally I find that writing, and attempting to write well, helps in maintaining an orderly thought process in what could be a very disorderly mind. As I’ve mentioned in other essays I have ADD, which means that I have both the capacity to hyper-focus as well as be easily distractible. This increases when I become excited about something, particularly when ideas are flying around. My brain will latch onto a passing idea, follow that for a while, and then get distracted by another passing idea. This is one of the reasons why I started off my post college writing career writing poetry, because I was dealing with a smaller product. Today I find that most of my writing is primarily essay based and I follow a process to do it that permits me to focus and keep my thought process organized. I have a premise which becomes my thesis, and then I lay out my development through a logical framework until I reach my conclusion. For my shorter essays I do a mental outline after I’ve kicked out the idea, organize my thoughts in a logical sequence and then take a run at it. I can do this because I’ve been writing for years, and at this point the organization principles are ingrained to the point where they influence how I think.

The same principles can and should be applied to practicing my instruments. At this point in my career the value of my practice sessions isn’t based on how much time I’m sitting and playing, it’s based on what I get done in the amount of time I have. Focused practicing both in the short and long haul, produces far better results than long stints of unfocused practice. The latter actually tends to end up being more time spent playing than actually learning and improving. Each practice block should have a specific purpose and a plan to meet the goals of the practice session. If I need to address technique issues, then that is the focus, and while exercises are a great way to ingrain excellent technique I find that working a section of a piece I’m going to perform that requires the use of the targeted technique to be a much more practical and efficient use of the time. The technique will end up transferring to other situations where it needs to be employed, and I’m ending up a step closer to actually using it on a gig. This is an example of focused practicing that will move you closer to your goals, particularly when you are dealing with limited blocks of time.

Organization and time management are also highly valued by active performing artists. They’re keystones of professionalism both on the stage and off. When you have a contract to perform it sets the expectations and responsibilities that must be met. Typically this includes where and when you’re to perform, for how long, and what kind of performance is expected. This requires heavy duty organization and time management skills. This runs from knowing how long it will take to get to the venue, set up equipment and getting ready to perform, to how many pieces are required to fill the time requirement, and what pieces are appropriate for the intended audience. It even requires planning an organized departure. Often performances involve quite a bit of expensive gear; you do want to ensure that you leave with everything you brought, with it in the same shape that you brought it in. It is also important to plan things to minimize the amount of pre-performance stress that you encounter, which means including time for things going wrong. More often than not, things will go wrong when you haven’t allowed enough time for a gremlin to appear and be dealt with.

Over the years I have found that having an organized plan of attack for most of what I do in my life yields rewards, and through my writing practice I have helped myself establish a platform to reap those rewards in many areas of my life. It has helped me think in an organized and logical manner, streamline and improve my musical practice sessions, run rehearsals that minimalize wasted time, and ensure that I maintain certain aspects of professionalism in my performance duties. I have also found that my thought process is much clearer and more engaged on days where I’ve spent time actively writing than when I haven’t, because I apply similar principles to my other tasks. Yes, the ADD does still kick in, and sometimes my attention span has spasms, but for the most part I have found my method of dealing with it.

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Time Crunches: Another Exercise in Organization

Well, I’m definitely back home because the rehearsal schedule for the week is in. Tonight the blues band is auditioning a pair of drummers, Wednesday the rock band rehearses, Thursday morning the blues/rock band rehearses, then Thursday evening the blues band auditions another drummer or two. The rock band has a gig Saturday night and then we start over, trying to fit in an acoustic band rehearsal someplace as well. What I really need to see is the gig schedule filling up a bit more, but that’s another work in progress. Adding on to the above, I sent out sixteen inquiry letters this morning for part time teaching positions and need to continue the job search while also keeping up with the writing pattern I established last week and working in some practice times as well. So much for the simplifying discussion with my counselor a couple weeks ago.

Generally I do better when I’m busy, mostly because it forces me to prioritize my tasks and then I need to create and keep a pretty organized schedule in order to stand a chance of getting everything done that I need to do. When I’m not really busy then I have a tendency to skip the scheduling aspect and things don’t get done at a rate that even approaches personal satisfaction. I end up thinking that I have more time than I do so the procrastination starts, particularly when I have a task that I’m viewing as less than fascinating that needs to be finished. Most people have similar issues and while my time in the Army tells me that what it really boils down to is discipline, there is also that thing called motivation that has its own impact. When you are self-employed, you are the boss and unless you’ve got a client that needs your immediate attention, you are the only one telling yourself to do something. I essentially have to be my own Drill Sergeant.

Deadlines make huge differences and planning your work by actively creating a schedule creates the framework that enables the deadlines to be met. I know what my writing goals are for the week, and I know what my rehearsal and band schedule is for the week. The only way things will get done is if I sit down and plan when I can get the writing in, when I can get the musical preparation in, and then use that time to do it, not something else. This is further complicated by needing time to take care of the dog, the kid, the wife, and my own physical needs, so there needs to be time in the schedule for those things as well. Once again, get out the paper and pen to figure out what time you need to pick up the kid, make dinner, eat, and all of the other tasks required for the family. The time in between these things is what I’ve got to work with for the work related stuff so really, if I don’t create the schedule, things won’t get done and I’ll have even less time to work with.

When we do the schedule we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish in a given amount of time. Last week I managed to crank out 43 pages of a potential book project, along with several blog posts and the letters of inquiry that I printed and mailed today. I was writing about 1,500 or so words of the book project a day and then about another 800 or so for the essay of the day. I was “on vacation” for Thanksgiving break, but it was very much a working vacation. I think I spent about four hours writing each day, including Thanksgiving Day, Monday through Friday. I wrote two blog posts over this weekend, one Saturday and one Sunday, and now I want to get back in the saddle with the novel. So I need to allot that time. I didn’t take an instrument with me last week so there was no practicing to be done or other musical preparation for the week.

Usually I have about six hours of time between dropping my daughter off and picking her up from school Monday through Friday. If I write for four then I have two left to walk the dog, eat lunch and maybe start doing some instrument work or job hunting, on days that don’t have a rehearsal during the day. Hmmmm. I guess it will take some discipline to get through it all. I also have some time after she gets home from school but that varies depending on what she has scheduled for extracurricular activities, appointments and what not. All in all, during the actual course of the day I have about 7 hours to work with before dinner, and then the evening rehearsals and gigs. Yep, it’s time to hit the drawing board to map it all out. How’s your schedule?

Carpe Vita

Sorry about the length of time that has passed since my last post. I’ve been caught up in grading mid-term exams and tallying grades for my part time English professor gig here in Chicago. This has created a bit of a time crunch in my world, forcing a temporary focal change for the week. During periods such as this I inevitably find myself growing increasingly irritable and short-tempered, largely because I find days passing where I don’t have a musical instrument in my hands and I’m not writing. Instead it becomes a seemingly endless stream of passing judgment on other folks’ written work and analyzing what they can do to improve. Not a bad gig, but quite time consuming even when it’s part time. Now that midterms and additional papers are in the bag I can thankfully turn my frontal lobes back to what matters most to me workwise, making music and writing. These periods do, however, make me consider the whole concept of having or budgeting time, and all too often it does tend to seem like time is something we never have enough of.

Frequently we get caught up in the routines and expectations of day jobs, family life and then, when we’re tired at the end of the day, sack out in front of the idiot box (a.k.a. TV) to amuse ourselves until we fall asleep. We then think wistfully about all of the things we could accomplish, often relating to our dream jobs or dying dreams, if only we had enough time. Oh well, someday we’ll have the opportunity is often the next thing that comes to mind. In reality none of us really know how much time we have. We hope that we will have long healthy lives and some of us do, but many end up having lives that are all too brief in their passing.

Some years back Robin Williams was in a film titled “The Dead Poets Society” in which he plays an English teacher at a private high school for boys to whom he introduces the beauty and life in poetry and the ideas behind the phrase “Carpe Diem.” The concept of Carpe Diem, or live for the day, does come into play here but on the surface it might seem a bit on the shallow side until we really think about what it means and what it doesn’t mean. Carpe Diem doesn’t mean that we don’t make goals for our future, or plans that play out over extended periods of time. It has more to do with the concept of mindful living and being aware of how we spend our present moments, in essence what we do with our time every day of our lives.

In order to truly live for the day, it is vital that we pay attention to what is important to us and act accordingly. My wife mentioned an article she recently read where the writer stated that we make time for the things that are important to us and if they aren’t truly important, we won’t make time for them. I think he was partially correct in this. Yes, sometimes this is the case, but all too often we let moments, hours, days, sometimes weeks and even years pass without seizing or making time to become more than we are. Sometimes fear stops us, but sometimes it’s a pattern of behavior that we’ve grown so accustomed to that breaking out of it seems to be a superhuman task. Inertia can also be a powerful barrier to overcome, particularly when we’ve empowered it with negative self-talk and/or listening to too many naysayers in the crowd. Nevertheless, making time for the things that are important to us is what we need to do.

Having the ability to recognize when we’re veering off course from our daily goals is key to ensuring that we are indeed living according to our personal Carpe Diem credo. This in itself takes both practice and self-discipline. All too frequently we find that we have essentially robbed ourselves of time that could have been spent in a manner that left us feeling more fulfilled. Many of us get sidetracked either through chores around the house which suddenly become incredibly important to do right at this instant, or a mindless activity like a videogame where our intent was to take maybe a five minute break which somehow we emerge from an hour or more later. While this doesn’t mean that we don’t do our chores, and that we never play a videogame or sack out in a vegetative state in front of the television, it does mean that we must make conscious choices about how we’re using, and all too often, wasting our time.

So, how do we change? How do we make time for what we love, our avocation, the things that we were/are meant to be and to express the talents we have? I think that is something that each one of us has to answer for ourselves, but the first step for all of us is to reprioritize our schedules and accept that the bottom line is that we must make time. Then, at the end of each day, it’s not a bad idea to reflect on how that day went and what you accomplished that moved you a step closer to where you want to be, whether it is as a musician, artist, writer, or whatever your avocation is. This is not a time for whipping yourself, but rather to think in terms of today, yesterday, tomorrow and where or what you desire to be before your clock stops ticking. Ultimately you’ll know whether you’ve moved yourself forward, held or lost ground, but then that was today, this day, and only this day. Tomorrow is a reset, with its own moments to seize and your next opportunity to make time for what truly matters most to you.