This may be the most important article you read as an artist.
I don’t say that to over-sell what you’re about to read. I don’t say it to get your hopes up.
I say it because I believe it’s true.
You see, there’s a problem in the world of electronic music production. People think they don’t have enough time for music production.
And for a few select people, this is true.
But for most it isn’t. For most, they think they’re busy when they’re really not. Or they’re under the impression that they need 4+ hours per day to become a good producer.
Electronic music production is a modern craft. It’s gained popularity at the same time social media and other networking tools (e.g. smartphones) have. When a young producer tells me that they don’t have the time to make music or they can’t stay focused, I understand.
If this is you, I don’t blame you. Whether you’re truly busy and only have 60 minutes per day to make music, or you’re not really busy and spend most of your free time distracted–this is the article for you.
Hobby or profession – it doesn’t matter
A few months ago I posted a tip to Facebook (or Instagram, I can’t remember) about maximizing your time spent producing.
It wasn’t about optimizing production sessions with little hacks and systems and trying to make the process overwhelmingly efficient. I actually think that’s a bad idea (see above quote).
It was instead about adjusting your schedule to make more time for music production.
One or two people asked why it was important to do so.
Why is it important to spend more time producing?
After all, you have to enjoy life, don’t you? Isn’t it a bad idea to force yourself to spend more time making music?
Those who ask such questions and rail against the suggestion to spend more time in the studio will often say something like…
“I understand the importance of this if you’re trying to build a career out of music, or if you’re a professional. But what if it’s just a hobby?”
Before we get into the meat of the article, I want to address this point. Because for you, music production might be a hobby, and you might be wondering why on earth you need to “maximise” your time spent producing.
Creating is good for us
We’re generally more happy when we’re creating compared to consuming.
Don’t believe me?
Here’s a simple test: next time you watch TV for more than two hours straight, ask yourself afterwards how you feel.
Do you feel like you’ve achieved something? Do you feel like that two hours was a good investment of your time?
It’s good for us, as humans, to spend more time doing creative things. And the “I need to relax therefore I need to watch TV” argument doesn’t really work (unless your job truly requires you to work 16 hours a day at high-intensity, but then you wouldn’t be reading this).
So regardless of whether music production is a hobby or something you want to pursue as a career, understanding and implementing the ideas in this article is crucial to your journey as an artist and your satisfaction with your craft.
What this article covers
This article is a collection of various ideas and thoughts on the topic of focus, learning, and creativity. Some from myself, and many from others.
In particular, I must mention the guiding work behind this article. The book that led me to write it. It’s called Deep Work by Cal Newport, and you’ll see his ideas pop-up throughout this article.
Here’s my friend Budi Voogt talking about the concept in more detail.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- Why you don’t need to make music for 8 hours a day to become a pro
- How to pack more into less (without sacrificing craftsmanship)
- Why you need to develop intense concentration (and how to do it)
- How to minimize distractions, block out time, and make more music
- The unsexy truth about creative work
…among other things.
You don’t need as much time as you think you do
We like to tell people we’re busy. That we work long hours. It gives us a sense of pride and helps feed our ego.
This exists in the music world: you have a handful of successful producers telling the media how they spent 12 hours each day in the studio, and how they credit that to their success (read more about The Narrative Fallacy)
Don’t get me wrong, you do need to work hard in order to get to where you want to be, regardless of what that goal looks like (again, hobbyists and want-to-be professionals will differ in this regard). But blindly working for 12 hours a day because “it’s what everyone does…” is misguided.
One issue with the “long hours in the studio” meme being over-praised is that everyone who doesn’t have the luxury to log such hours–everyone who has a job or is a student–feels like they’re screwed.
And I don’t blame them. If 12-hour days are what artists are crediting to their success, then it makes sense to feel like you’re never going to make it.
But, as I said, this is misguided. You’re about to find out why.
The limits of high-intensity creative work
If you’re constantly being interrupted, distracted by social media, and you’re not structuring your time properly–in other words, not focusing–it’s easy to spend a full day in the studio.
The reason it’s easy is because you’re not fully engaging your mental muscles. You’re not giving yourself a workout, so you never get tired.
You also don’t get much done. Or maybe you do, but it’s taken you 12 hours.
Anders Ericsson, the guy who came up with the theory of deliberate practice, wrote a paper in 1993 titled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.
In it, he notes that there’s a limit to an individual’s capacity to perform cognitively demanding work (i.e., creative work).
Cal Newport paraphrases:
“Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours–but rarely more.”
He goes on (shortened for brevity)…
“One of the studies cited catalogs the practice habits of elite violin players training at Berlin’s Universität der Künste. The elite players averaged around three and a half hours per day in a state of deliberate practice, usually separated into two distinct periods.”
Are these elite violin players spending 12 hours a day deliberately practicing?
Because it’s impossible for them to do so.
Remember, these are elite violin players performing a cognitively demanding task with intense concentration.
This means that:
- You can excel at your craft even if you have a full-time job, as 12 hours per day isn’t necessary.
- Deliberate practice and intense concentration is hard and is something that needs to be trained.
And if you do spend 12 hours a day in the studio, take time to reflect and ask yourself how much of it is distraction-free, high-intensity work.
What is focused work?
Cal Newport again describes it best:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Focused work is high-intensity work. It’s difficult work.
Not all production work requires this type of concentration. Preparing your project file for mixdown, setting up routing, and performing menial but necessary tasks do not require deep focus.
And you don’t necessarily need to work in a state of focus to finish music. This is made evident by the many producers who have Facebook open on another screen or their phones constantly buzzing throughout a session.
But just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean it’s ideal. We know that being distracted affects our ability to be creative, and we know that we can get more done in 2 hours of highly-focused work than we can during 4–6 hours of broken, distracted work.
The alternative to focused work–work that will ultimately propel you forward and help you make the most gains–is distracted work. Something Newport calls “shallow work.”
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Music production does not fit this definition. It is, for the most part, a cognitively demanding task, that isn’t logistical.
Yet many of us producers treat it as shallow work. We allow ourselves to be distracted. We make up excuses as to why we need our internet connection enabled or why our phones need to be turned on.
The true alternative is treating something that should be focused work (deep work) as shallow work. This is a waste of time.
It also leads to dissatisfaction because your hours of diffused concentration result in less output than you think they should (cue self-loathing: “I’m just not good enough… I’m not productive enough…”)
So why do so many of us follow this alternative? Why do we allow ourselves to be distracted?
Because it’s easier.
It’s not sexy, it’s hard
Focused work is hard.
A lot of people who read this will not make any changes to how they work. Some will laugh at what I’m suggesting. Others will agree with it, make an attempt to stay focused, and then relapse to old unproductive habits.
As a music producer, I’d argue that focused work is exceptionally difficult.
Because the general demographic of electronic music producers, judging by the analytics for this website, show that 50% of them are males between the age of 18–24 (with the next largest group (37%) falling between 25–34).
If you’re in this age group, you’ve grown up with the internet. The norm is to be distracted. It’s part of life.
To go against this is to go against ingrained habits. If you’re used to checking your phone every 15 minutes, setting aside a full hour (or more) to focus on something is extremely difficult.
And that’s why the idea of focused work is not sexy. It might seem brilliant when you’re reading about it like you are now, but when you actually sit down to start, it’s hard.
So why do it? Because it’s satisfying. Not only will you finish more music, you’ll also enjoy the process of making music much more than you would if distracted. You’ll be more present.
What’s wrong with checking my phone occasionally during a production session?
Let’s say you commit to a 90-minute focused production session. You set a goal (to finish the structure for your track), set the timer, and get started.
What’s wrong with checking your phone during the next 90 minutes? After all, it only takes a few seconds to click the home button, light up the screen and check to see if anything “important” has happened, right?
Well, those few seconds result in much more than a few seconds of diffused concentration – and that’s in a best case scenario.
What if you got an unpleasant message from someone you don’t like? Do you think the rest of your production session will go well?
In the best case scenario – as in, you only have one or two notifications that aren’t urgent, you’re still going to incur the cost of task-switching also known as attention residue.
This simply means that you’ll be thinking about that notification for several minutes after knowing about it, and this affects your concentration.
How to cultivate intense concentration as a producer
So you know what it is, and you know why it’s important. But what are some strategies for actually getting better at this?
After all, if you care about your craft, you should care about getting better at it. And there’s no better way to improve than increasing the time you spend in a state of deliberate practice.
Here are 3 strategies for cultivating intense concentration.
1. Reduce inputs & minimize distractions
Inputs and distractions lead to attention residue and break your focus, so get rid of as many possible.
- Turn your phone OFF and put it in a place where you won’t be tempted to turn it back on.
- Turn your internet connection OFF. You don’t need it.
- Put a Do Not Disturb sign on your door if you live with other people.
- Handle any loose ends (phone calls, message replies) before starting a session.
- Clear your workspace. Physical items can be distracting.
2. Start small
If you’re new to the idea of intense concentration/deep work, then you might be tempted to launch into four hours of non-stop focused music production.
If you do this, you’ll probably fail. I say that from a sympathetic standpoint because I’ve tried this many times myself.
The ability to concentrate is a skill. It’s something that needs to be developed. So don’t feel like you need to start off at the highest level. If anything, you’ll probably burn yourself out.
Start small. Try to spend one hour per day focused on music production. If you find it exceptionally hard to do this, start even smaller (15 or 30 minutes).
3. Block out time
Adding structure to your production sessions is helpful, and one easy way to add structure is to use a time limit.
I like to use a timer in tandem with blocking out time in my calendar. This does a few things:
- It’s harder to avoid. When something’s in your calendar, you’ve made a commitment. If you set aside 90 minutes to produce, that’s sacred time.
- It provides a clear goal amidst ambiguity. A lot of music production is ambiguous. It’s easy to spend some time producing and come out the other end feeling like you haven’t really done anything. When you block out time, you’ve got a clear goal (sit down and try to make music for 90 minutes).
- You focus better. If you’re just producing on a whim – say, for a few minutes before having to go out, then you’re not going to focus well. When you set aside time, it allows you to focus on nothing but music production without feeling guilty for doing so (because you’ve made the commitment).
Give up the small stuff
If you’re struggling to find time to produce, one of the most effective things you can do is reduce the amount of other stuff you’re doing.
This doesn’t mean you should quit your job and produce full time. That’s not realistic unless you have a long-term vision and strategy (it’s certainly achieveable, and if that’s what you want to do, then I encourage you to do so).
What it does mean is that you should focus on nothing else but what’s essential. Aside from work, family, friends, your health, and any other hobbies you may have – what’s essential is making music.
Not trying to market yourself. Not trying to build your social media profile. Not spending time downloading new plugins.
These things are helpful in isolation, but they are not things that will make you a better producer. They won’t move the needle.
But Sam, what if my goal is to build a career. Shouldn’t I focus on marketing?
You should, but if you’re short on time, the best way to increase your chances of future success is to hone your craft.
If you’re great at making music, marketing is a peripheral task. The product (music) matters most, so that’s what you should focus on. Otherwise you’ll have a short-lived career that lacks the deep satisfaction one gets from investing time and effort into their craft.
So, next time you find yourself asking whether it’s worth using that new social media platform, remember that the only way to make leaps and bounds is through concentrated effort on your craft.
Conclusion & Further Reading
If you’ve read this far and haven’t just skimmed the article, then let me congratulate you.
You now know that:
- The distracted age we live in is NOT conducive at all to creativity.
- Taking practice/concentration seriously is important regardless of whether production is a hobby or profession.
- Focused work brings the most value, both in terms of skill development and quality of output.
- Focused work is also unsexy and difficult, but worth it (more satisfying than distracted work).
- Cultivating intense concentration is necessary and attainable.
- Giving up the small stuff – the unnecessary peripheral stuff – is paramount.
If this stuff interests you, then I encourage you to read more on it. This article is really just an overview.
Here are some books I recommend:
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance by Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi
- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
- Mastery by Robert Greene
Finally, if you found this article helpful, please share it with anyone you think needs to read it.