Over the past month I’ve been working on a commission to write the musical score for a new childrens play by a local playwright. This involves composing 14 musical numbers of various lengths, making rehearsal scores, demo tracks and probably some further workshopping down the track.
I got the call about this project just after the start of lockdown. With the vast majority of my work grinding to a halt, I had just packed up all of my worldly belongings, stuffed them in my car, moved out of my flat, stored everything in a friends basement, left my car with another friend, booked an extraordinarily expensive flight out of Auckland, and flown down to Nelson. All in the space of two days.
I took a week or so to recover from those two days of madness and in early April I was ready to start work on the project. But it wasn’t as simple as that.
Everyone is responding differently to this global pandemic and to being confined to their homes. It’s not an experience many of us have faced before. I say many instead of any because those who are chronically ill, and people who have been on home detention, may have faced a similar confinement before, pandemic excluded.
Some people have jumped into lockdown projects that they finally have time to do -- making a new garden bed, deep cleaning the car, sorting the junk in the basement. Good for them! Other are dealing by curling up in a ball and watching Netflix all day. Totally fine, everyone copes in their own way. Some people, I’m sure, have been diligently continuing with their usual work -- whether it’s from school, university or their employment.
However many of us have been struggling with a certain aspect of life in lockdown, particularly students, particularly those who are now working from home. So that brings to me the question I’ve been trying to find the answer to for the past several weeks…
How do you be productive during lockdown if you really need to be?
How do you block out the stress and anxiety pervading social media, news media, and the planet in general, and get to work? For me personally the main struggle how does one engage in creativity not just for pleasure, but because it’s actually your job?
The following are some general guidelines that I’ve forged for myself over the past month in an attempt to overcome productivity guilt during this unusual time.
DON’T FORCE IT. Some mornings I would get all set up at my desk, switch on my keyboard, bring up the lyrics in front of me and struggle, struggle, struggle. My brain was fuzzy. I was staring at the screen. Nothing was happening. Okay, I’ll try guitar instead. *grabs guitar* ……. nope, still nothing. Well, nothing good. This is my cue to stop, and go do something else for a while. Bake some biscuits. Go for a walk. Maybe I’ll try again after lunch, and if that doesn’t work, then I’ll try again tomorrow.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF. As a perfectionist with high expectations of myself at the best of times, this is one of the most important reminders for me right now. Don’t hate on yourself for trying and failing to be productive. Firstly, at least you tried. Secondly, we’re in a global pandemic. It’s okay if it’s hard to focus, or get into a creative headspace. Thirdly, you can try again this afternoon. Or tonight. Or tomorrow. Or the next day.. or the next day.. and so on. Because we may be in our homes for a while.
REWARD YOURSELF. Hey, you know what? It’s 3pm and I’ve made demos for two songs today. I can tell that I’ve reached my limit of creativity and productivity for the day. Now I’m going to go get some snacks and lie on my bed reading for the rest of the day.
CREATE AN INTENTIONAL SPACE. My work space has to be immaculately tidy and organised or I get distracted from my work. You might not have the best setup at home but make the best of what you have. I recently decided I’d had enough of working at my desk, and shifted all my gear to my bed instead. Do whatever works to get you in the zone. If you’re stuck, try taking your laptop to another room, or outside, and see how different environments influence your headspace.
TAKE INSPIRATION FROM OTHERS. I get heaps of creative inspiration on Youtube, particularly from music channels like Stories and Pomplamoose who post amazing, innovative covers. During lockdown I’ve been enjoying live streams from rad musicians like Allen Stone, Tori Kelly, Jamie Cullum, Alec Benjamin, Charlie Puth and tons more. I also like listening to podcasts like Off Camera with Sam Jones and Armchair Expert, both of which dive deeply into the personal journeys of successful creative people as they’ve navigated their way through life and their own careers.
STRUCTURE YOUR DAY. You might not stick to the structure, you might not tick everything off the list, but at least it’s there as a guide. I usually write out a to-do list the day before, and put it in the order that I want to do each task. I use the app Teux Deux on my phone and it’s sooooo good for organisational nerds such as myself.
I found this video from Thomas Frank on how to plan your day while working from home to be super helpful. Sometimes we can have so much on our to-do lists that we don’t know what to do first. The kitchen metaphor from the video really stood out to me as a way of structuring what needs to get done:
- the back burner: things we don’t need to focus on right now, but will have to get to at a later date
- the vitamins: things you do every day like replying to emails, checking your on track with your project timeline, etc
- the front burner: the most important stuff, that we need to get done in a timely manner
- the oven (timer): scheduled items that happen every once in a while backing up our files, checking website stats, things we can’t forget about
I’m pleased to say I’ve nearly finished the initial writing phase. Just a few songs left! I’m sure I could have done it quicker but I’m not going to beat myself up about that. Life is nuts right now. I’m grateful this opportunity came at just the right moment and I’m proud that I’ve been able to get to this point given the circumstances we’re experiencing at the moment.
Soon I’ll be starting phase two of this project: finishing up the rehearsal scores and creating final demos for each song. I’m nowhere near working at full productivity and I’m still working to strike that balance between pushing myself to get things done and letting it happen naturally, but I’m definitely in a better rhythm than when I started. I hope that the above tips might help you if you’re struggling with productivity guilt while working or studying at home.
Sending virtual hugs to all of you, wherever you may be. Hang in there everyone.