Years ago when I started freelancing I drifted from gig to gig, week to week. Months slipped by. I couldn’t remember exactly what work I’d done a month earlier, or even a week before.
I was scattered.
Does this sound familiar?
Finished a work week and can’t recall exactly what you’ve done? Field recording plans keep getting pushed back? Thinking about selling sound effects but the clips remain in a dusty corner of your hard drive?
I know the feeling. I had tasks lists that lasted for years. I’d complete one task then two more would appear. It seemed to take forever to get tasks done.
In fact, the Steam Train Collection I released yesterday on Airborne Sound was an idea I had for years but… just never got around to it until this month.
Then it changed. To my surprise I found my checklists were completing more quickly.
It wasn’t until this year that I realized that getting things done in sound comes from two methods: focus and action.
Lately I’ve been inspired by this idea and wanted to share it. It’s helped me record, master and share more sound effects than I originally imagined.
I’m hoping sharing these tricks will help others create and share more of their powerful and meaningful sound fx with the world.
So, this week I’ll write how focus improves your productivity and creativity, and helps accomplish your goals.
Next week I’ll discuss some concrete actions you can take to do the same.
The problem for sound pros: distractions
If you’re a sound designer, field recordist or editor you’re likely a creative person. It’s your best, unique asset. When your creativity thrives you accomplish strong work quickly and well.
The problem? Distractions destroy creativity. They’re so common that it’s easy to overlook them for the threat that they are.
Why are distractions so threatening?
Popular blogger Leo Babauta writes about focus on his blog, Zen Habits.
The idea is this: changes in attention interrupt your concentration. Creativity is disrupted. Have you ever been ‘in the zone’ while creating? Distractions kill this. Creativity is intrinsic to a sound pro, so once you have it you don’t want to loose it.
The other reason is that constantly shifting focus takes mental power. Each time we switch our attention between tasks we have to refocus and concentrate again. These decisions take time and energy. It’s a reason why it’s possible to be physically exhausted while working a desk job.
What are these distractions?
They’re everywhere. It can be a colleague stopping by your edit suite to chat when you have a deadline. It can be surprise text messages, emails or phone calls, news alerts or updating RSS feeds. It is struggling with complicated equipment or software at the expense of expressing your sonic vision in a simple, true way.
How do you avoid this?
When you focus you eliminate distractions. You get more done. It also means sounds pros are free to embrace, nurture and indulge creativity.
I’ve found six tricks that help me focus. Since I’ve started using them I’ve accomplished more. I also feel more creatively aware and connected.
I hope you’ll find them good starting points to help you create and share sound.
Six tricks to keep focused
- Choosing viciously narrow goals
Choosing goals is common advice. It makes sense: if you don’t know what you want, you won’t get anything done.
Here’s my twist: be viciously narrow. Set specific goals. ‘I want to be a field recordist’ won’t work. It’s too broad. The more precise the more you’ll get done. If your goals are unique it’s even easier.
- create the most immersive sound for 1st person shooter video games
- record the definitive water craft sound library
- edit sound for animated films (only)
- mix production sound for documentaries
- become an ADR recordist for foreign loop group
Here are mine:
- record evocative sound effects of people and places worldwide
- share these sound fx with others on the Internet
- help others do the same with writing
Why is knowing your specific goals important?
When you know specific goals it’s extremely easy to accomplish them. Decisions become simple. Does your current gig get you closer to your goal? Yes? Keep doing it. No? Stop and do something that will.
The more specific you are the easier it is to decide what’s in and what’s out.
Which leads us to our next trick: pruning.
When I first started working freelance I took most work I found. I figured, as most freelancers rightly do, that you never know when your next cheque is coming so you accept every gig that crosses your path.
Unfortunately these jobs don’t get you farther ahead. They just keep you treading water.
I no longer accept jobs solely based on cash. For every opportunity that enters my life I ask: does it get me closer to my goals? If not, I don’t do it. No matter how much money it is.
It’s a time suck. And time is the only real scarce resource that matters. While you’re working on a mediocre job you will be missing better, more fitting opportunities. (This is known as opportunity costs.)
Think about every client, gig or opportunity that comes your way. If it doesn’t bring closer to your goals you can’t afford to do it. There just isn’t time.
Pruning is saying no confidently. It’s rejecting gigs that don’t fit your goals, even if it hurts.
It’s counter-intuitive. It’s hard. If you have responsibilities like children, a mortgage or a partner it’s even harder.
It’s important to prune despite this. Pruning makes your work better. You’ll do more. Specializing makes your work focused and superior. When your work is superior, you’ll be hired more often.
This rule alone has been incredibly helpful getting tasks done. Making decisions is no longer an internal debate or a need to ‘sleep on it.’ Decisions are instant.
Pruning means you’ll have more time to focus on gigs, customers and goals that mean more to you. You’ll be more fulfilled. And you’ll get more done.
- Smothering intrusions
My biggest leap in productivity was when I smothered intrusions.
It wasn’t always that way. I used to work at a sound company where the policy was to have instant messenger always open. Email refreshed every minute. Everyone was CC’d each customer service email, which would arrive with a ‘bing’ sound. Everyone had a VOIP phone at their desk. Getting things tasks done was hard.
Part of this is unavoidable. No matter what you’re doing – editing, field recording or designing sound – interruptions happen. They’re constant: Twitter, Facebook, email, RSS feeds, text messages and phone calls. Sometimes from friends, at other times from clients.
My idea is to condense communication into smaller focused windows, say, a few times a day. Give it your full attention at those times, ignore it any other time.
This is tough at first. We’re accustomed to constant communication. We’re afraid of missing important messages. After trying this for two years I found it wasn’t a problem. Most messages can wait a few hours between your communication blackouts. Five-alarm disasters could reach my emergency mobile.
Why is it important to smother intrusions?
With few intrusions you’ll work better during the non-social windows. And, during your socializing time, it improves your responses.
You can justify this to clients by showing that your work improves when you’re uninterrupted and can concentrate better.
Eliminate intrusions and you’ll get more done. Your give your creativity more opportunities to expand.
- Embracing rhythms
When I first started freelancing I worked all the time. I would force myself to get tasks done all day. Then I would burn out.
I worked really hard then didn’t work at all. Inspiration and creativity yo-yoed.
Then I noticed a pattern. I was inspired and creative first thing in the morning. I would get up at 0600 and churn away for hours. Then, in the afternoon, well, not so much.
I think everyone works at their own rhythm. The work world functions on a fixed 9-5 schedule. That’s fine, but for creative people it isn’t the best idea: force creative people to work outside their rhythm and the work suffers.
Embrace your own rhythm. Some are morning people. Some are night owls. Work when you feel best. Don’t force shoddy, uninspired work at other times just because you feel you should be working.
This of course is easier for those who work on their own.
Your rhythm may be the way you work. Maybe you can’t cut without coffee or other comforts. It could be software or gear. Hate the way Sound Devices products work? Prefer the DEVA? Learning new methods can help you grow, sure, but if you create more comfortably using one brand of boom pole over another recognize that and embrace it.
You’ll do more, better work if you welcome your natural rhythms.
- Crafting tasks lists
Most sound professionals have a handful of projects happening at the same time. How do you keep things sorted? Me, I’d be lost without my lists.
Tasks lists help focus. How?
- They’re visual. They’re referenced quickly. This removes decision-making (that was done when the list was made). You don’t have to think, you just do what’s on the list.
- They create a commitment and an expectation. It moves you one small step closer from concept to completion.
- It frees your mind to keep creating. Once the tasks are on a list your thoughts won’t be cluttered remembering everything.
- They help you prepare. You can see future tasks approaching. This means less stress. It also gives your work scope.
Use apps like Things, Clear or Evernote to manage lists and stop them from exploding.
I keep my lists short. I do 2-3 tasks a day but focus and do them well. Having a dozen tasks on a list can feel defeating if you don’t complete them.
I also plan them the night before. That means I wake up and know immediately what I’m doing.
A nice bonus of having a task list? Seeing what you’ve previously accomplished on old lists is incredibly motivating for the future.
- Trick yourself with rewards
Sometimes despite focus getting work done is hard. It’s tough to maintain focus, especially if you’re tired or bored. Sometimes you need anything to keep going.
Dreading designing the monster fx in reel three? Avoiding cutting the 12 Gb of clips you recorded last month? Reluctant to get out and record ambiences on a cold, bitter winter day?
To get around this I use a trick.
I make deals with that nagging inner voice that’s telling me to stop. I promise myself that if I finish the work I will reward myself. This gives me motivation to continue.
It doesn’t matter what it is, really. It can be food, buying something or indulging in a guilty pleasure.
The point is that the promise of a reward keeps you productive despite temptations or lack of focus.
It also doesn’t matter how much work you complete to earn the reward. It’s the method that’s important. The trick creates an exchange for productivity.
It has an interesting effect of creating an addicting, Pavlovian sense of achievement. Getting the work done to earn the reward becomes easier the more you try this. And once this becomes second nature, you’ll find yourself needing fewer rewards and tricks to keep going.
It’s more of a cheat than cultivating deliberate focus.
Focus tricks are often more difficult than actions (which I’ll get into next week). Often it involves changing perspective, which isn’t easy.
It’s also important to mention the tricks evolved over time. What worked for me may not fit for you. That’s great! Draw on the ideas and create tricks of your own.
The idea is to find ways of wrestling with the creative and practical yin and yang of working as a sound pro so you complete more fulfilling work.
Okay, passive, mental tricks help to focus and be productive, but what about actually doing the work?
Come back next week! I’ll have six more suggestions on what actual steps you can use to create and share more great sound.
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