Designing Your Primary Workflow: Productivity Deep-Hacks for Musicians, Part 1

Photo by: Alex Ruban

This post is the first in a series of four about productivity. In this and each the next four posts, I will share with you one productivity hack that has helped me to bypass all of the distractions and really increase my productivity this summer.

Introduction: Deep Work

I just came out of a long summer of being in "monk mode" writing a research article.

I am at the tail end of writing a scholarly article telling the story of how P. T. Barnum helped Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, become the biggest musical touring success of the 19th century—through branding her for American reception (more on that in another post). 

The work was long and hard, and it pushed my productivity skills to the limit. There were three special characteristics to this kind of work that made it very challenging:

  1. I was managing myself—no one was waiting on me to do my daily work.
  2. The work took deep and intense concentration for long periods of time.
  3. The goal could not be accomplished in a day, but took consistent work to progress over time.

As I reflect back on the summer, I have realized that this type of long, consistent, challenging scholarship work is very similar to what we do as musicians and entrepreneurs. We spend day after day in the practice room, perfecting our skill, or day after day working on our business, getting gigs and clients. Day after day cultivating inspiration. It's deep work.

As Cal Newport has recently argued, our most valuable work is often the deep work that is becoming so rare in this distracted world. This book is a must-read, and I highly recommend it.

Ask yourself: are you doing the most valuable work that you should be doing, today? Don't judge, just notice. Consider your list of things to do today. How does it stack up against the three characteristics I listed above?

  1. Are you managing yourself, or reacting to the agendas of others?
  2. Are you prioritizing work that takes long stretches of deep concentration and skill?
  3. Are you working toward your most important long-term goals?

Maybe you could use a reboot, just like I needed at the beginning of the summer. I want to tell you about four productivity strategies over my next four posts—not surface tips or tricks, but real strategies—that have really helped me. 

You too can tame the chaos and spend more time in a deep state of flow adopting and adapting these same strategies.

Deep-Hack #1: Design Your Primary Workflow, Then Build an Infrastructure Around It

The first way to aid flow is to design your workflow and remove predictable friction points. Think of the activity you do when you are doing your most valuable work. Perhaps that is woodshedding the pieces for your next recital or gig. Perhaps it is writing marketing copy for your music studio or your upcoming album release. Perhaps it is clearing space to do the most difficult and necessary work of all: surrendering your will and being caught up in making art

For me, this summer, it was deep-diving into the pool of ideas, research, and argument. But I found that my tools were getting in the way. My research was scattered across several applications, plus 3x5 note cards. My writing was captured in several different apps: Scrivener to draft, Pages to fine tune, and Microsoft Word to share with colleagues.

I felt like I spent more time hassling with software than actually organizing and composing my thoughts. So I called a time out and designed my workflow. That is, I created a process to apply to my most valuable activity, and then I created an infrastructure around it. The freedom it brought, and friction it removed, was amazing, given the short time it took to set up.

Here's how to design your own primary workflow. I'll use my activity of writing an article as an example.

1. Determine the phases you typically go through during your primary activity.

For my writing project, here is what I came up with:

  • scheduling my time
  • capturing and managing action steps (task management)
  • taking notes and capturing ideas on the fly
  • research collection, evaluation, and organization
  • organizing my argument (outlining)
  • drafting the article
  • revising the article

2. Put the phases in order, following the natural flow of your work. 

Note that the order of these steps is not random, but follows the natural flow of work:

Scheduling time: Everything starts here. Be sure to schedule large blocks of time in your calendar and treat them as sacred. Blocks of 1 to 2 hours are ideal. Shut off all distractions during this time, and don't check email or social media.

Task management: This must allow me at any time to capture a task that I realize I need to accomplish. This section of the workflow must be accessible at any point in the activity, not just at the beginning.

Capturing notes: In contrast to tasks, this phase is for capturing ideas on the fly in a way that is immediate and effortless. I have had too many ideas dissolve into the ether because I didn't have a place to put them when I needed to.

Research: This, and the tasks below, are more specific to my task of writing. This phase handles the searching, acquisition, and organization of all research materials I will need for the project.

Organizing my argument: This is the beginning of the actual writing phase. Organizing an argument, pulling resources together, and crafting a new contribution is perhaps where the deepest work occurs.

For composers, this is where the concept of a piece is born and kindled. For performers, this is where the true message of your performance is determined. For teachers, this is where your teaching philosophy grows and develops.

Drafting the article: Once the hard work of organizing an argument is finished, this is the long slog of getting a first, complete draft of the article.

For composers, this might mean drafting a version of a composition. For performers, this would be putting together and trying out the contours of your interpretation in performance. For teachers, this would be translating teaching philosophy into instruction design.

Revising the article: In this stage, I'm not only revising, but I'm also engaging with colleagues to get feedback. Feedback is crucial when what we are trying to accomplish is ultimately communication. This is true of an article, composition, performance, or lesson.

3. Choose dedicated tools for each phase.

Your next step is to choose a tool for each phase, and use it consistently. Here are the tools I chose:

For scheduling time: Google Calendar

For capturing my tasks: Asana

For capturing my notes: Evernote

For managing my research: Sente

For the entire writing process (organizing argument, drafting, and revising), I chose one single app: Scrivener

If you're interested in knowing my rationale for choosing each of these, let me know in the comments—I'm happy to elaborate. But the main thing here is not what tool you choose, but that you choose the tool that's best for you and stick with it. This choice will really produce dividends over time, when you can reliably know where to find any aspect of the project you are looking for, in any phase.

4. Build an infrastructure around your workflow.

Once you have designed your workflow and chosen your tools, you are ready to build an infrastructure around your workflow. This summer, I decided to completely reorganize my phone screen and computer desktop around the workflow I outlined above. Here's why: 

I've always used the dock in the way that Apple suggested by default, that is, to house the phone and messages and email and other "connected" apps.

But guess what I realized: those are exactly the apps that distract me and keep me from doing deep work! Why would I want to make them easily accessible?

I needed to get those apps out of my dock, and fast. But what should go in their place? Well, exactly the apps that I chose in the previous step, of course.

iPhone Setup: As you can see from the two screen shots below, I placed the four apps that I will use most in my workflow on the iPhone in the dock. From left to right, they correspond to my workflow: Google Calendar, Asana, Evernote, Sente. Because I do little true drafting on the phone, I left the Scrivener app out of the dock. But it's nearby if I absolutely need it.

Macbook Pro Desktop Setup: Before reorganizing, I had over twice as many apps in my dock. Now I've removed all of those that aren't in my workflow to make them just a bit harder to get to. It's not perfect, but in general the apps move along the workflow, with a couple of extras: Finder, Calendar (it's linked to my Google Calendar), Spotify for writing music, Evernote, Sente, Scrivener, and Safari. Asana is a web app only, so I linked it just on the other side of the divider (the globe icon). Then I have my master Scrivener file ("All Academic Writing"), downloads, and trash.

My iPhone home screen, with workflow design in the dock.

My iPhone home screen, with workflow design in the dock.

My Macbook Pro desktop, with workflow design in the dock.

My Macbook Pro desktop, with workflow design in the dock.

Taking the time to sort out your workflow will bring you a sense of control and trust in your own system. There is nothing like it for getting into a state of deep work flow. 

Now it's your turn: In the comments, share your most valuable action, and the typical phases you go through to complete it. What tools can you not live without?

Posted on September 8, 2016 and filed under Arts and Entrepreneurship, Productivity, Writing.