• Charles

Like timetabling weather

What is it about a musician’s cognitive wiring that makes logical thought so difficult? You’d think that creating a plan — a linear progression of tasks that follow on in numbered form, one from another — is absolutely straightforward. You list all the components of a successful project and begin winnowing them into a hierarchy of importance, shuffling them into an order of chronological action and occasionally cross-referencing against memories of past endeavours. But, in all kinds of inexplicable ways, it simply doesn’t work that way.

Every time I have tried to make a plan — and I do mean every time — something fairly catastrophic has rendered the entire planning part of the operation a waste of tea and biscuits, and usually at a distressingly early stage. What seemed like a pragmatic approach to listing and sorting events was in some way fundamentally misguided. Having followed through to a certain point, it then becomes impossible to undo previous actions, so you have no choice but to forge ahead anyway knowing it will be less than effective to do so — or, following a more sensible approach, to scrap the whole operation and try again. Imagine you’ve planned how to defend yourself against an angry badger with a toothbrush, and then you get there and find you’d forgotten there were actually supposed to be two badgers. And it’s only then that you can’t think of a single reason why opting for a toothbrush made sense at the time.

This isn’t to say that my projects themselves are doomed to failure. More often than not, a show or a recording or a badger attack turns out considerably more favourably than I expected, though perhaps in the early situations this has been indicative of excessive caution more than a tribute to ambition. The success, I think, rides on the fact the ideas were possibly reasonably strong, and certainly of interest to a broad enough demographic to catch on.

But when I have to quietly tip my intricate toothbrush-based battle plans out of the window and simply bring out a tank instead, I can’t say I’ve really learnt anything despite promising results. One of my prerequisites (and even justification) for lavish projects is that I have to have assimilated knowledge about ways of working which I can package up and employ again in my next project. To this end, fudging through a haphazard marketing plan is a woeful exercise in wilful degeneracy. So I needed to find a solution.

On the supposition that I’ve resigned myself to the knowledge that I can’t think in straight lines (or maybe they are straight lines but the geometry is tauroid, which would explain much of my periphrasis), how do I use the reams of advice and articles and mentorship I have sought? Do I simply defenestrate all of that as well, because then the pile of shredded paper will be big enough to turn back into a tree? Well no: the best solution needs to use the ‘cause’ of the problem as the basis for advantage.

If you think in a nebulous kind of way, trying to force ideas into a stream is as stupid as trying to chivvy a cloud of midgies to file through a straw. It’s plainly stupid. So another method trying is to set up a series of concepts, linked but fundamentally separate, that are as aquadynamic as an eel to slip through the turbulence and sticky viscosity created by ambiguity.

Part of this idea has origins in advice given by Patreon, the platform I use as the output for my work. Patreon implores its creators not to over-commit because, it wisely acknowledges, creativity is a rather capricious thing. It cannot be accurately timetabled or relied upon any more than the weather, or earthquakes, or Northern Rail. So using their advice, I intentionally kept my Patrons’ benefits vague and have signed myself up to only provide something original on a weekly basis. Over the month, this will include at least one original composition or an EP, a tutorial video, and probably a cover. Then commissions, blog entries like this one, and various extras can fill in the rest. All of this adds up to about eight to twelve disparate and diverse items a month which, my Patreon supporters have told me, is plenty, and of varied interest. I’ve certainly surprised myself with my own abilities to maintain this so easily alongside my other work.

In the process of planning out how my Patreon may look, I began to realise ways to structure and prioritise the rest of my work. I have always found prioritising exhaustingly difficult. There are always so many individual tasks, and I find I waste time in listing and prioritising because I get so confused about the importance and order of things. Ideas are immensely fissile, and thoughts zip through the cloud chamber of your mind constantly. You are led to believe that they all have equal importance until you are forced to try to sort them. This is tricky; how you categorise thoughts changes considerably depending on your angle, and in measuring up the relative sizes you have to remember to account for the parallax of procrastination.

Keeping up with multiple projects needs a pretty robust framework to prevent each of them from collapsing, which is why I didn’t get anywhere at all for the first few years of my career. But that amazing book, The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin, told us that being organised is about creating systems that absolve you from having to remember to do things.

So my solution is this: write everything down and identify what is worthwhile. This will then include your own projects and communication with friends. It will also boot out anything which is patently trivial. Then I set out to actually finish one specific part of one project every working day. Not start-and-then-leave-till later, but see through to completion. Tick off. Submit and forget about. Things still fall through the cracks, but because the order of jobs is less important (and so making procrastination less effective), it’s harder for tasks to simply get lost.

Usually, this system means I end up getting more done than I intended, (but with no pressure to complete it on that day, it stops me worrying about it). This reduces the debt of incomplete tasks and means I can fulfil commitments sooner.

There is also the issue of trying to do everything by yourself. I work with the editor of Artistic Echoes magazine, of course, and I have also very recently teamed up with another fellow musician, Yopo, who shares an equally coruscant motivation to get on with his career. We work on an online document and progress file, and occasionally meet in person or online to discuss our next moves and to share experiences. And, of course, to provide motivation by saying things like, “You really need to get on with this now”. It’s a kind of soft accountability based on a mutual interest.

As a result, I am now moving forward with my career faster than ever, and I and it’s easier to keep in touch with people. I’m really glad I had all this in place before the lockdown, too, because otherwise I’d still be sitting in a tree, miles from anywhere, going, “I’m sure there was something I was supposed to do this afternoon…”.

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