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Process vs. Workflow: What’s the Difference and Does It Matter for Musicians?

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People often use the words “process” and “workflow” synonymously. But that’s not quite accurate. They actually mean different things entirely, although they invoke a similar state in the creative experience.

Here I’d like to breakdown the differences between these terms, but also explain why I think these distinctions matter to producers and songwriters specifically.

The Difference Between Process and Workflow

Let’s start with how the terms process and workflow differ.

  • Process describes the steps taken to achieve a result.
  • Workflow describes the efficiency of that process.

A quirky trick I sometimes use is to remember that “process” is how the “pros assess” and execute achieving a goal, “workflow” is how your “work flows.”

So for example, you’re talking about the process if you say, “This is how you record a song: do steps X, Y, and Z.” But you’re talking about workflow if you say, “Within the constructs of X, Y, and Z, I use this specific technique to record a song faster or better.”

So two producers may take the same basic steps to record a song (set the BPM, record the featured instrument, make a beat, layer in supplemental instrumentation, etc). But their workflow might be very different (the order of the basic steps, how many takes they do for each instrument, even custom keyboard shortcuts they’ve set up).

Why Does This Matter for Musicians?

Why am I splitting hairs over definitions? Because it can actually be helpful to think of these two things as, well… two separate things.

“Process” is synonymous with learning a new skill. “Workflow” is bending the rules of what you’ve learned to make it flow smoother for you.

It’s important to realize every musician can have their own workflow, even if they’re using the same process. You can learn someone else’s process for writing a song but then alter it (or flip it upside down) as you find your own workflow.

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How to Learn a Process

There are two main ways you can learn the process of something. The first way is the most obvious: via the internet. This is when you read a blog post, watch a video, or take an online course. It’s the most common way you probably learn new skills.

The second main way to learn something new is directly from others. Examples of this could be taking instrument lessons, learning from your musician friends, or getting paired up with a mentor or coach.

Both of these methods for learning a process work, although I recommend you combine them. I learned guitar this way: my brother and uncle showed me some basics, then I would practice for hours in my bedroom, looking up how to play the chords of different songs online. Then I’d learn something new from another guitarist, and so on.

I learned the basic process of playing certain chords based on the names of the strings and the notes (i.e. the process). Then, over time, I developed my own workflow for learning the most efficient way for me.

How to Improve Your Workflow

Here are a few tips for making your workflow as efficient as possible…

1. Do Only One Thing at a Time

There’s no way you’re going to get better at a process if you do more than one thing at a time. You can’t multitask; and that’s not my opinion, it’s science.

Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, explains that we’re never really multitasking, we’re just quickly switching our focus from one thing to another.

“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time,” Miller says. “But you’re actually not. You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”

So if you want any hope of improving your workflow, focus solely on your workflow. If you’re recording a song, don’t also be scrolling through Instagram. If you’re practicing your stage presence, stop texting your girlfriend until you’re done.

2. Make It Fit Your Resources

Let’s say you want to learn a new skill from a professional producer but your equipment isn’t as fancy or expensive. That’s fine — you can still learn the process. Even if you have mediocre recording equipment, beginner software, and little time, you can execute the process with whatever resources you have.

This is exactly where you start to develop your own workflow. You find ways to do a process in the most efficient way you’re able to. That’s the definition of workflow.

3. Revisit the Basics

In order to make your workflow more efficient, it’s important to remember your roots. Every once in a while, revisit the basics of a process you’ve learned. Refresh your memory of how it all started.

In other words, keep learning. Never be too proud to go back to the basics. It will help you improve your workflow.

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Caleb J. Murphy
Caleb J. Murphy

Caleb J. Murphy is a songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX., and the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog that helps part-time musicians succeed. He's been self-releasing music since 2009 in various bedrooms, basements, garages, and closets.