Less grinding, more flowing: How to work well without the hustle


Illustration: Michael Haddad

Despite the past year of forced slow down (or in some instances, halting), hustle culture remains prevalent in the music industry.

Who can blame anyone when they have bills and tuition to pay or people to support? Sometimes, working less isn’t an option. However, I believe that a simple shift in how we approach work can lessen the anxiety and intense sense of competition that are so prevalent in the entertainment industry.

Every idea or concept covered in this article will look different for everyone. I reflected on people who care for another, those who work salaried jobs and in the service industry, full-time career musicians, hobbyists, and the music-makers in between. Some of these concepts might contradict each other. Take what resonates; leave what doesn’t.

Embrace the seasonality of your work and life

As a freelancer, I’ve learned when demand for my services is low or high, when clients take vacations, when budgets are being finalized, and so on. I call this the seasonality of my work. I try to schedule my life around these seasons to the best of my ability and control. I’ll travel when work is less busy and I try to budget and save when I know a slow season is coming. I can reverse engineer these seasons too. If I know I want to travel in the fall, I’ll work with my clients to complete projects in the summer.

Some professions and niches will have an easier time identifying seasons. If you compose music for commercials, films, video games, etc., you might notice a pattern when clients are coming to you most often, like six months before the holidays, for example. With time, you’ll learn the lifecycle of a project and when you can expect a team to pull you in. Then you can schedule other work, play, and budgeting around those seasons.

If you’re a touring musician, there’s obvious seasonality to your work. There are typical touring seasons and other times, artists are usually writing, recording, or promoting their next thing. If you work with a booking agent, they’ll likely encourage you to book during certain seasons, and of course, summer is all about the festivals.

Consider how your mind, body, and creativity react during a specific season. Are you one to hunker down and scribble away in winter? Or do you need to get out and move, and tap your inspiration when the spring blooms come?

Do you have to do things the way they’ve always been done? If you like to write and record when the days are long and the weather is warm, maybe you can tour in the winter (or vice versa). Perhaps you take shorter touring cycles and supplement your income in other ways to give you more time to write. What are your goals, really? Do you want music to be your single source of income, or do you simply need the outlet?

For me, thinking in terms of seasonality offers a sense of routine or ritual in distinct segments. I like to switch it up, and seasons give me a reason to do so.

I like to think of seasonality beyond natural seasons. I think our bodies and minds have times when they need to work, when they need to play, and when they need to rest. You could be in a season of caring for your family, which could be followed by a season of focusing on your art and own health. High five to those who can balance it all at any given time. I don’t know many of them, which is why I like to remind my friends that they’re in a certain season and it will pass. Creativity will come.

Figuring out seasonal cycles and workflows takes time, experimentation, and an effort to remain adaptable. It’s also not for everyone. If it sounds like something that could work for you, a good place to start is saving a small financial cushion if you can, just in case things don’t go quite as planned.

Book suggestion: How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (a must-read)

Craft a residency program within daily life

Artist residencies are awesome. There’s great value in removing ourselves from our everyday distractions to focus on our art, research, or planning for a pre-determined amount of time. There are countless ways to approach a residency, but many artists like to have at least a few loose goals in mind before arriving and build their days around those goals. Because they’re somewhere new, a lot of times those routines will include nature time or exploring the town they’re in, or doing something with fellow residents.

Not everyone can break away from home or afford a paid residency, and the funded ones can be competitive to get into. So how can musicians develop their own residency and work it into their daily lives?

Visual artist Amy Tavern recently posted on Instagram about this. She managed to squeeze 30 hours into her week for a self-imposed, one-month residency at home in addition to working a full-time job. I’m not necessarily recommending doing that, but I hope her post can serve as inspiration to get creative with your own at-home residency.

Can you carve out one day every week as a ‘residency day’ dedicated to one project? Or, can you find a couple of hours in the mornings and afternoons for research or inspiration and another one or two hours in the evening for creating?

Find a particular space in your home, office, or studio you reserve for your residency project. Write down your goals for the project beforehand and identify any categories you want to focus on. Are you gathering inspiration for an EP? Are you tracking instrumentals or writing lyrics? Have a general idea of your flow and create a plan before getting started. Be precious with your time and also have some fun with it.

The hope is that by creating the space and time to focus on the projects you feel called to, they won’t loom at the bottom of a never-ending to-do list or lurk in the shadows of sleepless nights. Knowing that you’re working on something just one step at a time can help fuel your motivation in other areas of life as well.

If you need some inspiration to create the ideal space, Stephanie Diamond shares “How to make your home and workspace fuel your creativity” in The Creative Independent.

Book suggestion: The Piney Wood Atlas series by Alicia Toldi and Carolina Porras (an excellent resource to learn about lesser-known residency programs and tips on how to best approach residencies)

Set boundaries for you, your technology, and your loved ones

As a freelancer or person working a job that’s not defined by the nine-to-five schedule, your time can get consumed by non-work or non-creative projects fast. Communications from friends and family, the allure of social media, and the errands that need running can all throw a wrench in your flow, making it more difficult to accomplish your tasks for the day. This can lead to stress and guilt, and at least for me, a springboard of distractions.

Some suggest turning your phone all the way off when working (or working on a creative project). However, some people such as caretakers can’t do that. In that case, try to communicate with your family about when you’re available for non-emergencies and when you need work time. I personally don’t answer the phone if I’m deeply focused on something.

If your distractions are mostly internal (I can relate), create boundaries from whatever pulls you in. There are tons of social media and internet blockers and time-limiters for your phone and computer if you need chunks of time to focus. You can limit your time on certain apps in the settings of an iPhone. Some people even revert to a box that you can lock your phone in for a certain amount of time.

None of those strategies have worked for me, personally. Getting a dog helped me. I know that I need to walk or give him attention at certain times, which gives me pockets of a few hours to focus. I’m also a big fan of making plans and motivating myself to get my work done before I can go adventure in nature or have coffee with a friend. I feel like this approach is also a lovely reminder that not everything is about work. Life can revolve around the other things you love while work still gets accomplished.

The trick is to also put your work away when you’re spending time with loved ones or doing the other activities you like to do. There are always exceptions for emergencies, but going for a walk without your phone could do wonders for your approach to work later.

Book suggestion: How to Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price

Find and add what you value outside of work and music

I’m more refreshed and inspired after I’ve spent time in nature, visited a museum, or shared a meal with friends. On the flip side, I find myself resenting any form of work or even screens in general when all I’m doing is working and taking care of the basics.

Our brains need breaks and our bodies need rest (and water). Maybe you like doing ceramics or painting with watercolors as a way to relax. Or, perhaps you’re a long-distance runner. Don’t push those passions aside for music only. They will keep your brain sharp and help make space for your best ideas yet.

When you’re creating your pockets of focus time, consider scheduling them around other activities you’re passionate about. If you need a friendly reminder to take creative breaks, try daily (or weekly, etc.) gratitude lists as a sort of forced reflection on the things that bring you joy. Or, put them into your calendar or weekly to-do list.

Book suggestion: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (a classic workbook), also on ThriftBooks

Experiment with routines and systems that work for you

Of course, it’d be ideal to find time for work, play, and rest in daily life. Depending on your situation, it could be possible within reason. There are many articles and studies about circadian rhythms (our internal clocks that tell our bodies when to get up, eat, and sleep throughout 24-hour cycles) and how to design a routine around yours to maximize energy and productivity.

For me, I try to give myself 10 – 15 minutes of reading time in the park with my dog in the morning. Then, I hyper-focus on work for a few hours, exercise (or go to the springs for a dip), eat lunch, hyper-focus on work for three to four hours again, go for another walk or see friends, and wrap work up before making dinner.

There are times where I work early in the morning or late into the night, but they are few and far between (and are typically for pro-bono work). In terms of creative projects, I dedicate two of those hyper-focused time blocks to a project instead of paid work per week. The trick for me is to prioritize the work that feeds my soul along with the work that pays my bills.

I know that despite my best efforts, my brain doesn’t fire on all cylinders on Mondays. So, I use that day to do admin work, answer emails, reconcile my books, and do smaller tasks. I let myself get a late start and take some extra time to read or journal in the morning. By Tuesday morning, I’m ready to hit the ground running with my bigger projects. I’ll also work Saturdays and use Fridays as my errands and cleaning day instead. Breaking things up like that takes the pressure off of squeezing all of my life to-dos (I call this ‘life admin’) into the weekend. Plus, I avoid crowds that way.

If your current routine feels like a slog or like non-stop work, identify a small change you can make and monitor how your mind and work are impacted. Try some breathing exercises for three minutes in the morning or turning your phone all the way off while you eat lunch. I think you’ll find that more often than not, anything that happens while you’re logged off can wait.

Book suggestion: Brains: Transform the Way You Work and Live by Elizabeth Markie (an excellent intro to neuroscience, how our brains work, and how to use that info to manage stress and anxiety)

What’s preventing you from tackling a music project or making you feel like you have to always be working? Or, if you’ve found a balance, please share your insights in the comments below!

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May 14, 2021

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.