I have a strange love-hate relationship with deadlines.
On one hand, I like the structure and clear expectation. If you do what you need to do by this arbitrary moment in time, you’re good. I was raised to “get it done no matter what” and if that meant pulling an all-nighter, or sacrificing everything along the way, I did it. I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I get something done “on time”. Then I can move on to the thing with the next deadline. There’s a plan of action creation by a series of deadlines, albeit not necessarily created by me.
But on the other hand, the stress of a looming deadline and the shame I know I’ll inflict on myself if I miss it, is hard to handle sometimes. It’s ironic, because in education and as a musician, deadlines are often, and almost ridiculously, fluid. We have gotten in the habit of asking for things before they are really due, so that we have a window of time to keep moving the deadline back, until we hit the actual deadline. Sort of. I never know if it’s an actual deadline or a false one, and that’s stressful for me too. It’s a weird space. I never really feel like I am in control. And then there are firm deadlines in my life, like with grant applications or applying to perform or present at conferences which are absolutely firm. If you miss it, there’s nothing you can do.
Deadlines sometimes force me to get things completed, even if they aren’t perfect. That’s both good and bad. “Done” is better than “not done”. But the recovering perfectionist in me still doesn’t want anyone to see something until it’s perfect. I’m still working on that and frankly, this quarantine has been the perfect opportunity to acknowledge and work through some of those issues.
But there’s also something particularly awesome about working on a project slowly, without a deadline…and it’s probably pretty rare that ever happens. Oftentimes, when it does, we impose our own deadlines on things so that we can “hold ourselves accountable”. I think sometimes that’s good, but sometimes it’s not, and we need to figure out when we should make deadlines, when we should go with the flow, and when we should use a little bit of both.
Currently, many of us have found ourselves without deadlines. Deadlines in the form of auditions, concerts, playing tests, gigs, private lessons, camps, and jam sessions have disappeared or if we are lucky, moved into the online space. (Which presents other challenges, too lengthy to be addressed now, but maybe I can dig into them in another post.) So, what do we do without those deadlines? How do we stay motivated and focused? Or in my case, I have lots of motivation, but the focus has been harder to come by.
I think the first thing to do is acknowledge. So I made a list of 3-5 items under “My challenges”” and “My strengths”. And I didn’t think too hard about them or edit them, so I recommend you just let them come out, free of judgement. The thing here is to discover more about yourself at this moment and use that knowledge to help move forward. Here are mine:
Too many options
Fear of not getting it done quick enough (learning or doing too slowly)
Overthinking and Worst Case Scenarios - leads to avoidance
I can figure things out, don’t get frustrated when I don’t know how to do something
I have the ability to plan, think things through and see connections
Ability to ask for help - have “my people”
I can enter flow state and complete lose myself in a project
The second thing is to develop solutions that can help you stay motivated, focused, or both. These are four things that have helped me. They might help you, but if they don’t, it’s ok. Find what works for you. It may take a little trial and error as well, and that’s ok. (If you have no idea what you want to do, taking a couple of lessons can be helpful, because a teacher can pinpoint specific things for you to work on. Or you can poll a couple of friends and see what they are doing and join them. Maybe you all learn the same song one week and then get together on Zoom and play it for each other!) But it’s important to remember that we are all wired a little differently. Here’s my solutions:
Make a plan. Even if that plan is “pick up the tenor saxophone and make noise for 20 minutes” it’s still a plan. I also make short term, medium term, and long term lists of things I want to accomplish and how much time I want to spend each day working on them. That way if I’m “bored” (I’m never really bored) and don’t know what to do with myself, I can check the list and pick something. Some things in my life have artificial deadlines right now, but for the most part I have been avoiding caring too much if something is “late”.
Embrace the chaos, but check back in with goals. If your goal is to work on your sound and you find yourself sight-reading all the time and not developing your sound, you got off track. It’s ok, enjoy the scenic tour, but get back on the main trail. Sometimes, I discover new things to work on that I didn’t realize I needed or wanted and that’s a huge advantage of embracing the chaos. I also pay attention to the things that bring me joy, passion or excitement and circle back to them or incorporate them into my plan.
Share with others. This is really important. Any other time this would have happened organically through classes, rehearsals, performances, concerts and conversations at those things. Now we have to MAKE it happen. Whether it’s one person or your social media, or the Brave Musician Facebook group, make sure you let your people know what you are doing and celebrate progress, no matter how big or small.
Keep learning. For me this is in the form of actively listening to music, reading books, podcasts, and exploring things I’m really bad at. (Right now it’s songwriting, with words. I’m awful, but I’m really enjoying the process of learning.) It’s really important to me to keep learning, it really helps with the motivation and luckily, right now, I have more time than ever to focus on learning the stuff I want to learn!
I think the most important thing right now is to be patient, compassionate, and kind with yourself in regards to motivation, focus, and deadlines. It also helps to talk about it, so please reach out on social media or email at any time.