The artists and musicians I know fall into one of two camps. They either have a strict daily routine for when they are going to practice, teach, eat and do admin work, or they just go with the flow and do whatever they are inspired to do at that moment. Each group will swear by their method, but I’m here to tell you that the 2nd group might benefit from learning a few things from the first.
As Daniel Pink writes about in his latest book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” Every one of us has our own unique daily rhythm, and that means that we have a consistent period of the day when we are able to get our most focused work done. For me, that is between 8am and 1pm. For someone else? That might be from 8pm-1am! The trick, you see, is to figure out what that peak time is for you, and then plan on getting your most important work done then.
On a normal day (ie anything other than a travel or a performance day) I know that I need to exercise, practice, do some admin work, write, teach, social media managing, and eat lunch and dinner. If I were to prioritize them in order of how much focus and energy I need to complete each task, I would list them like this:
Some of these things schedule themselves. I mean, I can’t eat both of my meals at the end of the day. I get hungry in the middle of the day, so lunch goes there. And teaching? Well, other than homeschool and college students, those lessons need to be taught outside of school hours, which means between 3:30-7:30pm. As for the rest of it?
I generally prioritize my practicing over writing because I am more a cellist than I am a writer, so practicing gets my peak focus period, which is roughly from 9-12. Exercise happens earlier in the morning before I am fully awake enough to understand what I’m doing. After that, I have some coffee and knock out some emails and a bit of social media stuff, and then start practicing at 9. By then, I am awake, alert, and focused. After lunch, I knock out the rest of that day’s admin tasks, and then I teach. To see it another way:
Of all of the decisions I have to make each day–from which Bach Suite I should program on a recital to which flight I book, to what I make for dinner–when I am going to practice is NOT one I need to make. Like Steve Jobs and his iconic black turtleneck. The more decisions we can eliminate from our daily lives, the less stress we have.
Before I had this routine set, I would have to have the same daily argument and motivational pep-talk to get myself to practice as I had when I was 12. “I need to practice” battling it out with “I’m not in the mood to practice”.
Guess what. A secret of being an adult, professional musician? Very rarely is ANYONE “in the mood to practice”. That’s not a thing. Practicing is just something that you have to do in order to play the good stuff, and more often than not, it can be a somewhat enjoyable experience.
I do it at 9am. There is no point in arguing with myself about it.
My phone doesn’t light up much between 9 and 12. The people who know me, know that I’m practicing, and they don’t bother me. When someone asks me to do something between those hours, and it’s something that could be scheduled for another time, I simply tell them I’m not available. They don’t need to know that I’m in my house, in my pajamas, playing Brahms, they just need to pick another time.
I have a couple of good friends here, and between traveling, kids, and long work hours, it has long been made very clear that the only time we can all get together is for breakfast on a Monday morning. We don’t do it often, but every couple of months, it’s scheduled.
Because I have a clear sense of the rest of my schedule, I know ahead of time that I’m losing out on an hour of my practicing that day. Depending on what I have coming up, I might just practice until 1pm that day and have a later lunch and a bit less time for admin stuff or I might just say—eh, that’s cool. I’m good. But I probably won’t schedule a breakfast date when I ALSO have some sort of mandatory event happening on another morning that week.
So, on one hand, I’m all for saying “not today” but my routine makes sure I’m not saying that day after day after day.
Concert travel just makes life messy. It’s just a fact. But by sticking to a routine when I’m at home, it’s like I’ve put money in the bank, and during travel weeks, the money is there to cover the withdrawals.
Sticking to whatever part of my routine I can when I’m traveling does help a lot in terms of stress-reduction. If I have a morning off, and I get up and go for a run, have some coffee and then practice? Or if I have a morning rehearsal and then some afternoon time free, I might try to find a café and do some admin work.
That rhythm feels so familiar to me. It’s comforting, and it helps to make sure I’m not returning home to 500 unanswered emails.
I used to worry that my gravitational pull towards having a routine meant that I was somehow less creative, less of a musician than my flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants peers. That in order to be a truly great artist, you had to stay up all night working, sleep until noon, have a messy house and an even messier head (because, obviously, you were so engrossed in whatever musical endeavor you in the midst of…)
Now we know that that is utter B.S. The day of the “tortured artist” has passed. Most of those “tortured artists” never got around to writing that great book they had inside them, or they were getting slammed by critics because they weren’t practicing enough and their playing slipped. Some of them (the ones who were successful) actually DID have a routine. Even in his legendary cloud of chaos, Beethoven had a fairly strict morning routine and was known to count out exactly 60 coffee beans for his morning coffee!
Science has shown us why. Your innate level of creativity isn’t about your schedule, but by scheduling your day around your body’s natural biological rhythm, you can use your peak hours of focus and energy to enhance your level of creative output.