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Want to Get More Done? Get Better at Setting Deadlines for Yourself

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If you’re anything like me, there’s probably a million things on your to-do list right now. They might range from big work deadlines and upcoming songwriting sessions to something as small as updating an event page with correct set times or remembering to do a weekly face mask. It doesn’t matter what’s on your list if you feel like a slave to your own productivity.

It can feel overwhelming, debilitating, and frustrating. How do you make sure everything actually gets done, and without sacrificing your own enjoyment in doing these things? Deadlines.

And how the heck do you set those? Well, considering we here at Soundfly help musicians of all types reach their goals every day, I have some thoughts on the matter. So here are my eight best tips for setting, and sticking to, deadlines.

1. Figure out what’s going wrong.

For starters, it’s important to figure out what has gone wrong in the past. Where were you in your plan when things started to go awry?

If you’re trying to change your pattern, the solution will depend on why you didn’t get things finished in the first place. Most often, people say that it tends to be one of three reasons: they get overwhelmed, they start procrastinating, or they didn’t give themselves adequate time (or manage their time) in the first place to complete their goals. Try to self-examine your tendencies if you want to start getting real about tackling the root of the problem.

2. Write a to-do list.

So maybe it’s you, maybe it’s not you; either way, you’re going to have to get organized!

I used to rely entirely on my weekly planner. More often than not, I ended up being overwhelmed by how many big projects were looming over me in school for example, and often ended up cramming things together last minute or doing nothing at all. I’ve since switched to daily to-do lists.

Writing down everything you’d like to accomplish on a whiteboard or chalkboard helps so you can always stay focused on the larger goals and missions, but keep a daily list of smaller, easier-to-complete tasks in a notebook or on post-its, so you can keep yourself on schedule without feeling overwhelmed. Breaking large goals down into smaller, actionable steps is scientifically proven to boost productivity and curb emotional burn out.

But the thing is, this doesn’t only have to incorporate your goal-oriented tasks, it can include even the most routine parts of your day: going to the gym, calling your mom, sending an email to Bob in the accounting department, reading the latest article on Flypaper, whatever!

3. Be realistic about how long things take to get done.

Once you pen your to-do list, it’s time to get real, y’all.

If it usually takes you a week to finish tracking your demos, then you should give yourself a week to finish. It’s only going to stress you out and contribute to a growing lack of confidence if you give yourself two days for something that you should honestly be spending more time on.

This goes for how you break your list items down, too. If today is Monday and your impromptu deadline falls on next Sunday, then think of what little things you can tackle each day or night in order to make that deadline feel much more manageable. As long as you’re realistic about your personal abilities, you’ll have everything checked off on time with no added stress.

4. Keep a daily schedule.

Finding time to breathe can be a difficult thing in the 21st century. If you’re always juggling work, social lives, and personal creative projects, you may feel like there’s no time to achieve all the responsibilities on your plate.

But now that you have a to-do list, turning it into a schedule will help you maximize your available hours and minutes even further. Even if it’s just a few 10-minute time slots, being organized about breaking up your day between important tasks and fun ones (e.g., planning my dinner recipe for tonight, posting to social media, emailing an old friend), you’ll notice yourself being more productive with your time than if you hadn’t scheduled it out.

5. Create a designated workspace.

Okay, let’s switch gears for a second. Studies have continually shown that a designated workspace can change your mindset and increase your productivity. Just like how insomniacs are often instructed to treat their bed as a designated place for sleep and nothing else, the brain will begin to associate certain activities with certain spatial attributes. Therefore, when you go to work on something music related in your “music space” (like a home studio or even just a certain desk you use to mix and nothing else), you won’t have to convince yourself to start working, you’ll just automatically get into it.

If you, like so many of us musicians, lack the space or the resources to isolate and designate a certain spot as a work area, that’s okay. First of all, that can be a longterm goal you aspire to. But there are always things you can do to make your life a little bit easier. For example, create a “pedalboard” of sorts, with all of your most commonly used gear pre-plugged in and organized the way you like it, but packed up in a suitcase in a closet — so that when you want to use it, you just take it out, connect the gear to your workstation, and get ripping.

It may not be the same as designating a space, but optimizing your set-up time will change your mental relationship to work in a similar way.

6. Boost productivity (by slacking off).

Studies have shown that after an hour of continual focus, your brain begins to shut off. Specifically, after something like two hours of productivity, our mind requires a 20-30 minute break. It may sound counterintuitive, but pre-planned breaks do help you make better use of your time leading up to them.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time-management method that makes use of an actual timer, whereby instead of doing long stretches of productive work, you give yourself smaller increments of about 25 minutes and take more frequent five-minute breaks. This keeps your mind fresh, and because you have less time in each interval, you end up working quicker naturally.

7. Treat yourself.

Sometimes a light at the end of the tunnel can be an excellent incentive to get you working hard to complete your projects. Rewards — whether taking the evening off to hang out with friends at that new bar you’ve been meaning to check out, or cracking open that cookie jar — are great incentives to motivation. Don’t underestimate the productive power of a cookie.

8. Hold yourself accountable (or have someone else do it for you).

Are those 30-minute breaks turning into two-hour naps? Or is that single YouTube video turning into an entire season of a show on Netflix?

Obviously, this stuff happens. And you know what? It’s okay sometimes. We need to unwind and let our brains power down. Don’t work yourself to the bone for the sake of a home-recorded demo. But also remember that we can be both our worst enemies and our strongest allies when it comes to meeting deadlines.

If you’re having trouble holding yourself accountable to finish the work you set out for yourself, you have two choices: one, go back to the top of this very list or, two, get a mentor or a coach to hold you accountable and raise the temperature of your burner a little bit. If this project really is that important to you, start to think in higher-stakes terms. If you really want to break your negative habits (and we all have them, trust me), that sort of harsh honesty with yourself must be realized.

Everyone has individualized needs; completing and sticking to deadlines looks different for everybody. But these methods have been proven to help almost every personality type make progress, so try them out and be honest with yourself. And once again, if you need a bit more assistance, Soundfly can probably help you out.

New to Soundfly?

All of our mentored online courses come with six weeks of 1-on-1 professional coaching and feedback on your work. It’s like having a personal trainer, but for music! Share your goals with us and we’ll find a course for you, or create a custom mentorship session with a pro musician, engineer, educator, or music industry veteran, to help you achieve them. 

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Sammy Hakim
Sammy Hakim

Sammy Hakim is an up-and-coming young songwriter based in New York City. In May, 2018 she graduated from Berklee College of Music with a Major in songwriting and a focus in music business. These days she spends most of her time in songwriting sessions with artists all over the country.