In my utopia, I would have an assistant. Or maybe a dozen. And a gal Friday. And a guy Tuesday. And an amanuensis (such a wonderful word, which sounds luxurious and suggestive and always makes me think “Latin massage therapist,” but actually just means someone who writes down what you say).
Sadly, in real life it’s just me and my standing desk in the bedroom. So today I’m going to talk about multitasking; about juggling ALL THE THINGS.
I’m not talking about the kind of multitasking I do while playing violin and singing and looping—that is wonderful and exhilarating—I’m talking about the more macro version, shifting focus between projects and obligations. This larger kind of multitasking isn’t really something I yearn to be good at. (It’s not healthy, experts say; studies show that it keeps you anxious and superficially flitting from one item to the next on a never-ending to-do list, never delving deeply enough into any one thing to achieve the elusive, wonderful feeling of “flow” that all creative humans crave.) What I really yearn for is the ability to do ONE thing at a time, to devote myself and all my work energies with great intensity and focus to a single project for a period of weeks or months…and then to be DONE with it. To live life as interval training—as espoused by the wise studier of athletes Tony Schwartz in his illuminating book “The Power of Full Engagement”—with periods of strenuous effort alternating with periods of REST and RELAXATION! Meet a writing deadline, go to Hawaii. Make an album, take a ski vacation at Whistler. Open a show, rent a house in the woods with a bunch of friends and family.
IN MY DREAMS.
The reality of this crazy life is, it’s just not that simple. I haven’t had a vacation in years, and rarely have a full day off. The double-edged sword of the current technological explosion is that while we can now accomplish much more and much faster and more connectedly than ever before (YES, indie and DIY everything!!)…we’re now EXPECTED to keep up with it all at a dizzying pace.
And as I get older, I find that many things now take way LONGER than before. Waking up, for example. I used to have two speeds: on and off. I would go out like a light, be soundly asleep for however long I happened to be horizontal, and then when the alarm went off, I would be instantly ON. Awake, alert, cogent, ready to go.
Now I need half an hour to open my eyes and take a sip of coffee…so that when Mose wakes up at dawn and his first words are, “Ready to tell a story?” I can actually respond with language.
Parenting doesn’t take vacations! And neither do bills.
And you don’t have to be an independent musician/songwriter, married to your partner in your insanely uncertain career, to have way too much to do every day. We all juggle more than we should have to, and most of us yearn for a slower/simpler life.
Since we’re not going to get one anytime soon, what do we do? Well, here are a few things I do. (Or at least TRY to. I definitely don’t succeed at this all the time—but when I do, I am noticeably happier, more chill and less anxiety-ridden.)
- Every two weeks, have a big calendar session. It takes about two hours, and Brendan doesn’t like doing it, and we have to because the alternative is to miss deadlines, run out of money, and shrivel into dried-up husks of our former selves. Make big project headlines with each area of responsibility (our latest included: JUST GETTING GOOD, KICKSTARTER, SHACKLETON, BEAUTIFUL POISON, MOSE, HOME) – and then the important things that need to get done in the upcoming weeks for each one. Assign next steps to each person and estimate how many hours each thing will take. Then, since I am routinely horrible at guessing how long things take, I DOUBLE that number of hours and put those into the calendar. (For us, this usually adds up to more hours than we will actually be awake! So then we just put in as many as will fit, and hope for the best.)
- Put in yoga and other workouts for each of us. IN THE CALENDAR. This helps a lot; even if we have to cancel sometimes, the default setting is exercise. (This is known as the “default effect” in psychology: we are ALL inherently lazy and will take the default option whenever possible, so the idea is to make the default option the one you actually WANT. Set up routine systems for as much as you can, leaving your feeble, finite willpower/decision-making muscle available for important creative things that actually require decisiveness.)
- Each evening, put together a short (SHORT!!!) list of the things to be done the following day. This will include the smaller things that didn’t make it into the calendar (grocery shopping, phone calls, specifics of what music to practice, etc.). We like the online task manager Asana (asana.com) – because if you use it right, it will keep you OUT of your email as you work on other stuff. This is good and bad; as I write this, I am woefully behind on my email…but the kickstarter is going great guns, and we had an excellent SHACKLETON showcase Monday night. (I keep thinking of something my friend Georgia once joked about having as her epitaph: “Here lies Georgia—she answered a lot of emails”…and I choose to be okay with my priorities.)
- Even if you can’t have the BIG intervals (write a musical, go to Hawaii), make sure you have as many SMALL intervals as possible. Sprint instead of marathon: work in short intense bursts of 25 minutes, with a timer, and then take 5-minute breaks. DO NOT FLIT. The unhealthy part of multitasking is the continual veering around from thing to thing (and it is SO TEMPTING to check Facebook or email every five minutes! GAH!); so I do my best to chase the elusive “flow” state even when time is limited…and the only way to get there is to focus single-mindedly until the timer goes off. I try to make work time sacred, not chatting with our housemate or answering the phone or otherwise letting myself be pulled away during those short bursts.
- When you’re done working for the day, be DONE. (I am not good at this. I am very very Type A. But I try.)
So I guess my philosophy on multitasking comes down to this: if you PRE-PLAN it to allow yourself to dig into each project over several intensely focused short bursts of time, and set up your default options to be in sync with your larger goals, then you’ll be able to switch gears effectively instead of mentally meandering, having to figure out from moment to moment what is important enough to merit your overtaxed attention.
I am far from the poster child for serenity, or cheerful fearless creativity. I am frequently riddled with doubt, panic or decision fatigue (or all three); but I know I’m not alone. Constant multitasking (and my concomitant desire to be a singletasker) is one of the few certainties in this mostly/completely/utterly uncertain, ridiculous, wonderful life.