books-that-motivated-me-through-lockdown

Books that Have Motivated and Inspired Me to Keep Going Through Lockdown

productivity, self-love

Before 2020, I never read anything that could be classed as ‘self-help’. I’m not sure why exactly, but I didn’t consider self-development books to be literature, at least not the Susan Sontag/Joan Didion type. I thought some people spent more time reading books about how to improve something than actually improving it. And I’m still weary of self-help books as a form of procrastination – none of this advice matters unless you practice it.

But in March 2020, when shit officially hit the fan, I found myself listless and disappointed, spending most days in bed in my childhood bedroom, messaging friends and curling up at night with memories of a life that had crumbled when I left London. London was life in fifth gear, and I had been going pretty hard for two years, without stopping to see where I was going. Somehow, I always found the motivation to get up in the morning and go to work, go to uni, go to gigs in the evening, and do it all over again the day after. I rarely crashed. But in March in Belgium, I couldn’t even get myself to go for a run. There didn’t seem to be much to work for.

I’ve always been an avid reader, though. So, while I wasn’t doing anything overly productive, I was still reading a lot. And one day, I stumbled upon Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’, and this beautiful passage:


“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”

While everything in the world was a big unknown, and everybody felt a little lost, this quote reminded me that all we need to do is take it day by day. And that gave me motivation to start a new project and another one, and to keep going. This was one of the books that gave me a nudge during lockdown and inspired me to keep creating and working towards something. But there were a few of them. Here are some other ones, in case you’re feeling stuck and need a little pick-me-up.


‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth

This book is all about how perseverance and hard work matter more than talent. Angela Duckworth was researching success, and what made people get up after they fell down, when she stumbled upon the concept of grit. The premise of the book is that it’s not the people that are the most talented or have the most potential that turn out to be the most successful. It’s the ones that keep going despite all odds. It was an encouraging read because it makes you believe that if you work hard enough, success will follow sooner or later. Through the book, she emphasises the importance of deliberate practice and honing your craft even when you don’t want to. She also talks about the importance of having a calling and how that affects your motivation and grittiness. Duckworth also does a great TED-talk about her research.


“Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. “I have a feeling tomorrow will be better” is different from “I resolve to make tomorrow better.”

Angela Duckworth, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”

‘Linchpin’ by Seth Godin

This is not the best-written book I’ve ever read by far. In fact, it has so much repetition sometimes it’s painful to read. But Seth Godin makes some valid points in his book, points that got me into gear during a week when I was feeling particularly low and highly unproductive. Godin talks about ‘the resistance’, how we’ve been taught to tow the line and follow rules that don’t make sense in today’s economy. The dream of clocking in and out and getting paid for simply being in a certain place at a certain time is dead.

Instead, Seth Godin urges us to become indispensable by throwing out the map, by carving out our own way of life. He stresses the importance of emotional labour – being there for other people, giving without any expectations, creating positive change – and being an artist who delivers. A big chunk of the book talks about our lizard brain, too, and how fear of failure and the unknown can hold us back. It’s a good read because it exposes the ways in which we rationalise our unhappiness and takes away the excuses we’ve been making for ourselves.


“When you set down the path to create art, whatever sort of art it is, understand that the path is neither short not easy. That means you must determine if the route is worth the effort. If it’s not, dream bigger.”

Seth Godin, “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?”

‘Business for Bohemians’ by Tom Hodgkinson

Tom Hodgkinson is cool. He’s who I want to be when I grow up. He writes, runs The Idler, a magazine about how to be free in today’s society, and is the founder of an online school that teaches philosophy, calligraphy, ukulele, and a lot of other skills that no one would consider essential. As is to be expected, his book won’t teach you how to make money or run a business, not really. But by letting a reader into his life – in a farmhouse in Devon, or struggling to keep open a bookshop/coffeehouse in London, he shows that other ways of living are possible and we’re not confined to the lifepath we’ve been presented with since birth. And he doesn’t do that in a naive, idealistic way. He hit me with a couple of hard truths a few times. Like this one:


“If you’re not very careful, your creative business, the very thing which you hoped would lead to liberty and riches, will instead trap you in a hell of hard-working poverty.”

Tom Hodgkinson, “Business for Bohemians: Live Well, Make Money”

‘Authentic Happiness’ by Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman is the founding father of positive psychology, and this book encompasses most of his findings. It talks about simple lifestyle changes which will make you live a more fulfilling life, such as gratitude practice, meditation, and more time with loved ones. But what interested me more was the part where he talked about what doesn’t lead to more happiness, such as money (once you have enough, you really don’t need more) and professional success. Those make you feel happy only for a brief period of time, but are not enough to give you lasting happiness. Purpose is. Love is. Family and friends. The book is also chockfull with tests about your key strengths, your loving pattern, how optimistic you are, etc. It’s like Buzzfeed quizzes on steroids.


“Authentic happiness derives from raising the bar for yourself, not rating yourself against others.”

Martin Seligman, “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment”

‘When’ by Daniel H. Pink

This book is interesting because it focuses solely on timing. When is the best time to exercise, the best timeslot for an audition, the best time for a break? The most important insight for me was that everyone, no matter if you’re a night owl or an early bird, suffers a dip in productivity about eight hours after they wake up, and it’s more productive to take a one-hour break than to power through it. Pink also suggests to structure your day around your productivity, and – unsurprisingly – your most productive moment is in the morning if you’re an early bird, and in the afternoon/evening if you’re a night owl. That’s the time for analytical tasks.

This book is more than a time management manual, though. It also has some insights about life – about why we remember an event based on the ending (which is why beautiful endings matter!), why poignancy makes happiness more authentic, why synchronicity boosts happiness (hence why we should all join a choir). This is also the reason I’m mentioning this book instead of ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen, another classic that I read this year. It’s worth a read, too, but really does mainly talk about time management and organisation hacks.


“The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead, they produce something richer—a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we need.”

Daniel H. Pink, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing”

For those of you who are interested – I’m releasing a new song on 5 March. You can pre-save it here. I appreciate it so, so, so, so much.

what-to-write-about-in-lockdown-songwriting

What I Write About When All There Is to Do This Year Is Stare Out of the Window

creativity, productivity, songwriting

A couple days ago, a meme of Bart Simpson staring out of the window at the grey sky outside started circulating on my Instagram. In Berlin winter, it was strikingly fitting, considering how that was exactly how my friends and I spent most of our days. Writing this, I’m looking at the sky and trying to remember what the sun looks like, but all I can see is a grey nuclear cloud enveloping the city. Even without corona, this would have been a depressing sight, but knowing that I can’t go to a bar or a club, or spend the night singing songs with my musician friends, makes this time even more unbearable.

But another problem is starting to affect artists. I was talking to a friend the other day, who remarked: “I have never had this much free time to write, but what the hell am I supposed to write about? All I do is sit at home and drink tea.” It was a good question. Songwriters often pull from their own experiences, writing about the people they meet or the places they see. If all there’s left is your apartment and the people you see on Netflix, what stories do you still have to tell?

A while ago, I talked about keeping an inspiration journal and how that prevents me from having creative blocks, but even an inspiration journal has its limitations. Poems, photos, quotes from films are all great sources of inspiration, but sometimes, what we crave is to write about something we care about and feel, more than what just sounds good. And with this pandemic, the main thing we care about is getting through it. Songs about love, connection, hope are harder to write because we feel less of those things.

Maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, but I prefer writing songs about speed-walking to a concert while eating noodles, about frantically trying to rub off a curry stain off my new jeans on my way to a party, or about fumbling with someone’s leather belt in the dark. I feel like I’m close to exhausting the repertoire of “I went on a date and we greeted each other with an elbow bump” and “I had coffee with the only friend I see every day but she had come over the day before so we mainly just talked about how good it is that we at least have each other”. There’s only so much in real life that’s worth writing about at the moment.

For most musicians, writing and performing are the only ways to stay sane at the best of times. Since performing was no longer an option, most musicians had turned to writing and recording their stuff. But a year into this pandemic, and several months into lockdown, even writing seems to be slowly sliding off the table.

I’m better off than most because I get to see friends outside, I still meet up with a select few, and Berlin isn’t as bad as some parts of the world at the moment. But even I have to read through my diaries, go on poetry rampages and listen to more new music than I thought I was capable of consuming to come up with relatively new ideas. Here are some of the things that still inspire me despite this shit show, but it’s Bart-Simpson-style staring out of the window most days for me, too. Also, check out this Instagram reel by Simeon Hammond Dallas about how to write songs during lockdown because if anything, it might at least crack you up.


1. I go through my old diaries and journals.


When I feel stuck, I go through old diaries in the hope that a story will turn up that I hadn’t told yet. I don’t always strike out, but it’s nice when I do. Sometimes, I also come across a line that sounds good enough to turn into a lyric.


2. I listen back to my old voice memos in the hope that I’ll find something secretly brilliant.


Most of the time, I don’t finish songs when I think they’re absolute crap. But I always record everything, so once in a while, I revisit old voice memos to see if maybe I’d missed something. When I’m in a shitty mood or too tired to write for more than ten minutes, I often abandon music ideas that could have turned into something good. Now that it’s harder to stay inspired and motivated, it can help not to have to start with a completely blank page.


3. I learn new chords, fingerpicking patterns, etc., and use them in my music.


It’s hard to write new songs when you’re working with old building blocks. I started learning a new cover every week, and now, I often end up lifting chords, strumming patterns, or fingerpicking styles from other songs and incorporating them into my own stuff.


4. I go on dating apps to remind myself that lockdown is probably a blessing in disguise.


When all else fails, I download Bumble or Tinder and spend an hour talking to strangers that remind me that this introspective lockdown thing is not the worst, and then jot down one or two lines I’d been texted to use in a lyric about why I hate dating.


5. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if I have nothing to say for a while.


I don’t have to be writing all the time, though. If I skip a couple days, or a week, and don’t come up with a new song – it doesn’t matter all that much.

deliberate-practice-matters

Why I Started Incorporating Deliberate Practice Into My Daily Routine

artist, music, productivity, songwriting

This is me putting on a circus show for my parents. I spent weeks (or maybe really just a week) learning how to juggle, teaching my cat tricks, and mastering the magic of the disappearing thumb. Then I dressed up and made my parents watch me and applaud my endeavours. My dad sent me this photo this morning, and it made me chuckle and think about how much I’ve changed. He replied: “Actually, you haven’t changed at all.”

It’s true. I still get a kick out of people watching me perform. I would probably still rock a synthetic purple glitter blouse. It made me think of other ways I’ve stayed the same. A couple days ago, I showed a friend a video of the first song I’d learnt on guitar. My mum diligently videoed all my performances until I moved away from Belgium. After that one video, I started scrolling down and looking at the rest: me at twelve, at thirteen, at fifteen… But what struck me was how small the difference was between me at fifteen and me now.

“You’ve definitely learnt how to strum better,” my friend said. Which, by the way, I don’t think is true. He just hasn’t heard me strum yet. But everything else was pretty much the same. I was always slightly embarrassed about my fingerpicking style (I learnt one pattern when I was fifteen and decided that was enough) and spent years justifying my laziness by finding examples of successful musicians who weren’t great guitarists. What I didn’t realise was that by doing that, I was standing still.

I have always been proud of having started performing early – my first gig was when I was twelve and I’ve gigged regularly since. But I haven’t spent much time over these ten years practising – most of it was spent writing songs, singing songs I could play already, and doing everything other than playing the guitar. A while ago, though, I read ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth, where she wrote that hours spent doing something didn’t always translate to mastering a skill better. And then she wrote this:


Without effort, your skill is nothing more but what you could have done but didn’t.

‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, Angela Duckworth

I realised that if I didn’t put the effort in, becoming a musician would also be something I could have done but didn’t. That effort was called deliberate practice.

Two months ago, I started practising every day for two hours. I want to say without fail, but of course the holidays became a two-week Netflix binge. I’m back on track now, though. I started playing scales, learnt Travis picking (fucking finally), learnt one or two covers a week (and this time, didn’t skip the solos and the intros), started reading more about music theory, and doing ear training exercises. For the first time in ten years, I also started doing vocal warmups.

I’m still getting the hang of deliberate practice, but I’ve made peace with the fact that it’s not always fun. It’s supposed to be hard and make you sweat just enough so you still have the courage to come back the day after. And it’s worth it – I’ve grown more as a musician in these last two months than I had in all the years of gigging combined.

Of course, when I wanted to show off my great new skills to my friend who had encouraged me to practice more in the first place, I choked and fucked up. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not getting better. It just means I have to keep practising.

Here are some resources I use in my deliberate practice sessions and some talks that have inspired me to keep going:


Talks


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | Angela Duckworth

The famous TED talk by Angela Duckworth about work ethic, effort, and consistency.

Music Lesson – How and What to Practice on Your Instrument

Rick Beato talking about how to structure your practice routine.

I practiced 10,000 Hours in 6 Months

Again, Rick Beato, bragging about how much he used to practice in his twenties. Whatever.


Guitar Resources


Scales

The ten essential scales you need to know. This website is generally good for guitarists who want to improve and includes tips on practice, books to read, exercises, etc.

Fingerstyle guitar lessons for intermediate guitarists

LicknRiff is a Youtube channel with guitar lessons for intermediate and advanced lessons on fingerpicking. It’s geared towards those who play a nylon string. The guy who teaches it offers tabs for free as well, and his videos always feature his two dogs, which is almost an unnecessary bonus, really.

Laura Marling tutorials

I’ve been going on about these for ages. But it’s Laura Marling. Herself. Teaching her own songs.


Ear Training and Music Theory


Ear training exercises with Rick Beato

Some general explanations on how to improve and a series of seven ear training exercises you can do daily. Rick Beato’s channel in general is great for music theory explanations, so have a look around. I’m kind of obsessed, but maybe that’s also because I have a minor crush on the man.

Teoria

A great website on music theory with ear training and theory exercises you can do. You can also select how advanced you want to go.

learning-musician-online

Online Treasure Troves for Musicians

creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

2021 didn’t get off to the start we had all envisioned. Corona didn’t magically disappear at the stroke of midnight. We are still isolating and self-medicating with Netflix and junk food. Glorious times. I have done a fair share of wallowing in the last few weeks, but since my New Year’s resolutions included not watching Netflix, I have been wracking my brain about what to do with all the free time I now have. Turns out, there is a lot to learn online. For free!

If I can’t get out to perform and make music with friends, I can at least use this time to come out of it all as a better musician. So, I have done some research and ended up with these online treasure troves of information:


Websites that offer free music courses


1. The Musicians’ Union


The website is underrated, but it offers a plethora of information for musicians, including free Feldenkrais Method workshops and guided meditation for artists. Also worth mentioning is that the Musicians’ Union offers FEU Training for Freelance Musicians for free if you are a member and you can become a member for the first six months for only a pound! The training equips you with everything you need to know if you’re a self-employed musician.


2. BerkleeX


Berklee Online offers an interesting selection of online courses ranging from music business to vocal recording technology. They’re free unless you want a credited certificate. I took one in Songwriting and in Music Theory when I was just starting out, but there are also more adventurous courses on offer, like Music for Wellness that includes circle singing exercises and music techniques for awakening.


3. Alison


One of the biggest learning platforms, Alison offers a range of free music courses that go in-depth into topics like film scoring and making electronic music.


Youtube channels


1. Swiftlessons


Swiftlessons is my go-to channel to improve my guitar skills. Rob Swift makes great cover tutorials, explains basic and more advanced licks, talks about music theory, and makes genre-specific videos ranging from Gypsy Jazz to Classic Rock. The man has 40 videos with The Beatles lessons.


2. Pat Martino’s The Nature of Guitar


When I fancy myself a better guitarist than I really am, I watch these videos. Pat Martino has an incredible feel for composition, rhythm, and theory and – being one of the greatest guitarists in the world – has incredible nuggets of wisdom to share. Sometimes, he just makes me feel stupid, though, but then I just read the comment section and that lifts me out of my funk.


3. Rick Beato


Rick Beato is an absolute music theory genius. He has guitar videos, too, but that’s not why I visit his channel. It’s for his sassy commentary and humour (he has a playlist called ‘Rick’s Rants’), the clarity with which he explains complex concepts, and his ear training videos.


Music podcasts


1. Switched on Pop


This is by far my favourite music podcast. Musicologist Nick Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding talk about the making of popular music, put it in a context, and explain why we love it. They delve deep into songwriting techniques, influences, production, and artist personas. My favourite one was on Fiona Apple’s ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’, which was named the album of the year by Pitchfork.


2. Song Exploder


This is a classic one, but it’s good. On the podcast, artists break down one of their tracks, explaining how they wrote and produced them, and talk about what inspired the song. I loooved this one by Laura Marling. And, while on the subject of Laura Marling, she also recorded some guitar tutorials of her songs for Instagram.


3. Broken Record


I was recently pointed towards Broken Record by a friend and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before. Rick Rubin, Michael Gladwell, and Bruce Headlam interview every songwriter from Bruce Springsteen to FKA Twigs. They talk about songwriting, personal reflections, life. Jeff Tweedy even gives a songwriting masterclass.

new-years-resolutions-2021

My Hopes and Dreams for 2021

artist, productivity

I remember getting on the doubledecker bus in Battersea with a LIDL shopping bag with Captain Morgan’s, a bottle of coke, and a bag of Doritos. I was wearing a new pair of jeans and was still sweaty from the 8-hour bus ride from Belgium earlier that day, but that didn’t matter because we were ringing in a new year: 2020, and I had great things lined up. I had a placement at ‘The Guardian’ in summer, I was selected for a promoter support scheme by PRS, and I had started gigging with a new cellist. It was all finally falling in place after two years of living in a hostel and practising in the basement next to some empty kegs.

Of course, none of that happened when 2020 hit. I’m grateful every day that I’m healthy, my family members are safe, and I don’t have to worry about where my food will come from tomorrow. Even though my plans got messed up, I’m one of the lucky ones. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not hoping that 2021 will be a better year, and I have been dreaming and scheming like everyone else, so I thought I’d share my plans for 2021 if only to hold myself accountable (and maybe offer some inspiration for everyone out there to set their plans and ideas to paper).


1. Take an online marketing course.


I’m gonna take an online marketing course, purely because musicians need marketing skills almost as much as they need to be good musicians. I’m shit at self-promotion, but I’ve found some free courses offered by Google and Hubspot that might help. Both offer certifications, so if I complete them, I will use them for part-time work outside of music, too.


2. Stop watching Netflix and use that time to read and write.


I wonder how many people have ‘stop watching Netflix’ on their list of resolutions. But honestly. I’ve watched ‘Gilmore Girls’ three times already. This madness has to stop.


3. Release several singles throughout 2021.


I haven’t been sitting on my ass all of 2020. Some of it, I spent writing and recording stuff. So, if everything goes to plan, I will be releasing several singles over the course of 2021, and I have written up a release strategy for how I would release the songs in my ideal world. I will try and follow it for once.


4. Work on my guitar skills.


When I started performing eight years ago, I started stressing out about not being a good enough guitarist. For some reason, though, I decided it would be easier to obsess about being shit instead of working on getting better. This December, I started playing guitar for an hour or so almost every day, and I noticed that I finally didn’t suck. So, I’m gonna try and maintain that habit into 2021.


5. Learn German.


I am moving to Berlin (or London? Or Berlin? Fuck, I don’t even know anymore myself), so I have to learn German at some point. I promise I will actually try in 2021. The alternative is to tolerate angry stares in supermarkets while I try to explain what I need for another year.



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how-to-be-okay-with-not-getting-the-perfect-take

How to Be Okay With Not Getting the Perfect Take

artist, music, productivity, self-love, songwriting

I’ve been struggling with that one myself for a while. My experience with recording has always been rocky. I did my first recordings in the attic with my dad, using a badminton bat with a nylon sock as a pop filter. I’ve taken recording very seriously and not seriously at all. I’ve released songs that I knew I’d done a half-assed job on and I’ve been proud of others. I never listen to my recordings once they’re out. Recording is a big part of who musicians are and having fits of anxiety over getting the perfect take is just not an option if I don’t want to die of a heart attack at 35.

I had two ways of accepting that fact – the first was to pretend I didn’t care about getting a perfect recording because no one was going to listen to it anyway. I’d probably forget it was coming out at all (and I did forget it when my first EP came out). The second option was to obsess about the recording because if people were gonna listen, the song needed to be fucking perfect. I’m an all-or-nothing type of girl.

Last week, I figured, there must be a third way. I came home from Berlin to get my dad’s sage advice on my songs and for him to press record and sit in the room while I played. Usually, those recording sessions are quite boring and stressful, made somewhat bearable by my dad’s jokes. But I had become spiritual in Berlin and I started to believe in detachment, visualisation, and the Universe. So, this time was going to be different.

I lit cedarwood incense and scented candles, said a quick prayer to my creative genius, and started playing. And God, it was a fucking struggle. I could hear my dad sighing from the other end of the room as I wrestled my way through the first song. I recorded songs in full takes, so after every mistake, I had to start from the beginning. Two hours later, we’d only got halfway decent takes of two songs. My dad called a break and we went to the kitchen for hot toddies.

We spent the whole day recording, and despite the incense and the candles and the prayers to the gods, I felt paralysed. It was the old second way all over again – if it wasn’t perfect, it was because I was shit. I went to bed feeling dreadful. The morning after, my hands shook as I listened back to the recordings. “Feels like a struggle,” I wrote in my notes about one of the songs.

I was confused. What was it that I was supposed to do to make recording fun? I’d tried the spiritual stuff, and that didn’t work one bit. So, I kept experimenting. And here is what worked:


1. If you can’t get a technically perfect take, get a heartfelt one.


I called one of my friends when I was at a recording low point last weekend. “You sound so depressed I’m legit worried,” she said. I felt stupid because even though I felt like shit, I am also lucky and grateful to be making music and I am aware of that. But what I said was: “Yeah, I think I’m a terrible musician.” My friend was quiet while I told her about my recording struggles. Then she said: “Well, who cares if it’s a perfect take? There’s always gonna be something you wish you would’ve done better. But if you put real emotion in the song, you give the recording something more valuable than technical brilliance.”


2. Have someone else in the room.


My whole phone conversation with her was full of useful gems. She also said that it’s really hard to do anything alone. And sure, I had the one recording session with my dad, but I spent hours afterwards recording by myself. “You need someone who tells you when it’s time to move on, and when you’ve done a good enough job. We’re always much harder on ourselves than we need to be.” I stand by recording on my own because it allows me to sit with my emotions and feel less self-conscious, but after 10 takes of the same song, it might be worth sending a couple takes to your friends to get their opinion. And more often than not, that weird lisp you keep hearing is just in your head.


3. Go for a walk.


Sometimes, you just need to step away. When I keep missing the same note time and time again, it’s more often than not because I need a break. Get out of the house. Stretch. Have some green tea. Laugh. Call a friend. I noticed that good recordings only come when your mindset is right. If you’re in a downward spiral of self-hatred, get out of the house. Reset.


4. Ask yourself if you’re self-sabotaging.


I spent three days telling myself I sucked. But then I stopped for a minute and asked myself why I was saying that at all. Did I even believe that? I know I’m a good musician, I know I love writing. I know that, for better or for worse, I’m true to myself and my music. But I was afraid to fail, so I was making excuses for not having to try. Yes, I might put out songs that no one will listen to. Yes, other people might not like them. But does that mean I should give up before even starting? Figure out the reason for your negative self-talk. You need to understand your fears before you can conquer them.


5. Write down what went well.


And if none of that helped, and your recording session still sucked, and you’re going to bed with a heavy heart and a deep feeling of incompetence, get your journal out. I keep talking about cultivating a gratitude practice, and how it puts things into perspective. And after any kind of bad day, that can help. But after a day of self-deprecation, it especially helps to remind yourself of what you‘ve done well. Write down three things. Don’t tell me you haven’t done three things well that day because I know you have. And you should know too.

time-management-kaia-vieira

GUEST POST: Structure and Flow: The Artist’s Guide to Time Management (Pt. 2)

artist, productivity, self-love

Part 2: Finding creative freedom in the grid 


1. Bullet point journalling to prioritise


The phrase ‘bullet point’ may not resonate with your freedom-seeking inner artist, but hear me out. I’ve found (again and again) that when I have a lot scheduled for one day, some stuff slips through the cracks. I used to berate myself for this, but I’ve learnt to accept that I just have mad high expectations for myself. Prioritising the most important goals for the day and letting go of the rest has become essential. 

I came across bullet point journalling in a low down of Tim Ferris’s morning routine I found on YouTube, in which he bullet points his ‘3 Main Goals’ for the day, letting himself know if he does these three things, he’s crushed the day. I started trying this, and it generated SO much more focus and follow-through on accomplishing my most important tasks, and SO much more peace at accepting the things that I didn’t manage to do that day. Your head needs some space and leeway to celebrate the wins instead of obsessing over the losses! And space creates freedom.


2. Honour the present, it’s all we have 


The great thing about time management, and time blocking in particular, is that it sets out certain amounts of time for you to let go of everything else and focus on ONE thing because you know this is the allotted time you have to commit to it today. But this won’t work if you’re fretting about that appointment you have to book after your practice time or are pissed off because you couldn’t get your ass out of bed on time. Not being present, when you become aware of it, is actually the cause of much of your distress, because you’re resistant to this moment, now. 

Eckhart Tolle, the king of presence in New Age philosophy, explains: “Your entire life only happens in this moment. The present moment is life itself. Yet, people live as if the opposite were true and treat the present moment as a stepping stone to the next moment – a means to an end”. I’d fully recommend having a read of one, if not all of his books (I confess, I’ve only read “The Power of Now”, but after the spiritual bombshells it brought, the rest are now on my ever-growing, neverending reading list).


3. Accept that the ‘perfect balance’ is a myth


I came across this gorgeous book “First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety” by Sarah Wilson, in which I found this quote:

“Women have got it into their heads that they should be able to do it all, and in perfect balance. And this has resulted in more stress, and less happiness. I speculate that men are feeling the same, but it’s just not reflected in the research yet. In response to these findings, UK pop researcher Marcus Buckingham investigated, inversely, what the happiest women were doing differently. And his conclusion was this: they strove for imbalance…These happy women, he said, realised that balance was impossible to achieve, and trying to do so caused unnecessary anxiety… Instead, Buckingham found these chilled, happy women tilted toward activities and commitments that they liked and found meaningful, amid the chaos. They didn’t wait for the chaos and the commitments to get under control. I loved this idea: tilting – it’s when you’ve so much to do, and you could list it all, and try to prioritise, or you could just sit in the everythingness and lean towards stuff as it arises that feels right.”

Sarah Wilson, ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety’

I was initially attacking my struggle with time management from the standpoint that if I were to find the ‘perfect balance’ across different areas of my life, I would be fulfilled, and my anxiety would lessen. I discovered, however, that this ideal continually eluded me. It was only when I shifted my focus from needing complete control to simply enjoying every day as much as possible (tilting towards activities that I like and find meaningful) that I found much greater fulfilment and, paradoxically, more balance.


4. Regardless of all your time blocking, follow your inspiration when it comes!


Regardless of your well-intentioned structure to BOSS it daily, when inspiration comes – follow it! First and foremost, before any of this structure, YOU ARE AN ARTIST. Be prepared for a whole day’s pre-scheduled activities (or a night of sleep) to be thrown out of the ballpark. If the idea is demanding it be born right here, right now, let it come. Everything comes when it’s meant to. Accept it as part of the artistic experience and don’t lose any sleep over it (aside from the sleep it claims)! It’s okay to wipe out a whole day in service of our creative flow. Just get back into a rhythm the next day or two and accept that life is about honouring both the structure and the flow. At the end of it all, the ultimate goal is creative expression. The kind that moves through us like another entity in itself. So, when it comes, embrace it and jump onto the ride.


5. Mercy for yourself (and in turn the rest of the world)


Any kind of self-development without self-nurture, self-forgiveness, and self-love, can quickly become a **** show of self-harm. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Big Magic”, and one of my favourite humans outside of my real-life ones, puts this idea across as developing mercy for yourself, and in turn the rest of the world. In her 2014 blog post “MERCY. Dear ones…”, she says:

This is perhaps the strongest argument I have for learning how to come to peace with yourself — for healing your wounds and learning how to regard the softest and weakest and most shameful parts of yourself with gentleness and compassion. If you can practice mercy upon yourself, then gradually that mercy will radiate outward to the rest of us. And that will be the end of Judgment Day, every day. 

All of which is to say: It is not selfish, to learn how to be loving toward yourself: IT IS ULTIMATELY A PUBLIC SERVICE.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

I noticed in my own journey as I began to treat myself more kindly, my judgements of others’ weaknesses softened. I began to see how my vigilant, aggressive self-discipline was having an unintentional ripple effect on my relationships, holding others to the inhumane standard I was holding myself. I didn’t want to be that person for my friends, my family! I end on this because despite all of your beautiful, honourable intentions with any kind of personal development, without self-mercy, you can quite easily and unintentionally begin to become a person you don’t like. So, do it with love, do it with ease, do it with compassion, every day. Try and try again, but accept the failures as necessary stepping stones and give yourself a break, MANY TIMES OVER.

Other than that, you got this, you crazy little hyper-controlling entrepreneurial boss of an artist.

time-management-kaia-vieira

GUEST POST: Structure and Flow: The Artist’s Guide to Time Management (Pt. 1)

artist, productivity, self-love

I want to introduce this blog post with a big fat disclaimer: by no means have I mastered the art of meeting deadlines and being a thoroughly accountable, high-performance entrepreneurial expert that will get you managing your time like an Elon Musk spawn. I say this as Erika, whose blog I’m writing this for, drops me a message the night before the deadline, and I panic, having only written the first draft of this article.

I confess my struggle with deadlines because I want to be clear: time management for artists is different from time management for a left-side brainer. Saying that, I’d like to note that I believe (thanks to Julia Cameron’s teachings in ‘The Artist’s Way’ – FULLY recommend) that we all have an inner artist. Here, when I say, ‘left-side brainer’, I’m either talking about someone who genuinely thrives in a more analytical, left-brain field, or those who haven’t yet discovered their inner artist. I’m talking about the individual who doesn’t get quite as tempted to follow a rabbit hole of inspiration at 2 A.M. or has a relentlessly defiant inner rebel that appears every time the alarms of *imminent deadline* creeps up (seemingly out of nowhere). 

As much as us artistic folk want to master our time management, it seems almost paradoxical: the very nature of our work (and the core of our being) relies heavily on the nature of responding to unexpected bouts of inspiration. So how can we be free to flow with such waves when adhering to a rigid, predetermined structure? I’ve struggled with this heavily on my own journey. But, like the balance in all of nature, there is a place for both. If we practice the art of improvisation within our time management just as we would with our instrument or canvas, the balance between both can be a joyful, continuous dance. 

I’ve split this article into a 2-part list: the first collection of bullet points focuses on the management, left-brain side of this dance, and the second on the creative, right-brain side. They’re structure and flow, yin and yang: they need each other. And, since this is time management, we also need bullet points. Not to mention, my OCD nature gets a thrill out of categorising these for you.


Part 1: The building blocks of time management


1. Health first

“To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep the mind strong and clear.”

Buddha

I discovered yoga at eighteen, at a time when I needed a self-care practice, badly. I was a spiralling teen, using drink and drugs to a dangerous excess to numb and escape my turbulent childhood. I always had high ambitions for my music career, but my complete lack of self-care wasn’t sustainable and was certainly going to destroy any promise of fulfilling my dreams. I started to awaken to this realisation through yoga and haven’t looked back. 

If you haven’t got into an exercise or meditation routine, or developed healthy eating habits, addressing these things can feel daunting. But every tiniest step in the right direction is as valuable as the next and you can gain momentum by focusing on small, short-term goals. It’s 100% a journey. 

I now have a morning routine of journaling, exercise, meditation, affirmations and visualisation, and I follow a plant-based diet, but I did NOT build this up overnight – this is the result of 6 years of trial and error! And though I recommend any one of these elements, I’m not saying any one of these are exactly what you should do (including the plant-based diet, no vegan pushing here). They’re simply what I’ve found make me feel best, in body and mind.

When I feel clear and energised, I show up for my day in a much better way than when I rush out of bed in a hurry. Making the time to nurture your body and mind before the demands of the world come rushing in isn’t a luxury, it’s essential.


2. Time blocking: the groundwork for all time management


In 1958, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British historian, invented the infamous Parkinson’s Law: one of the groundworks for time management. The law states, “work expands so as to fill the time of its completion”. This means, whether we give ourselves two hours, one week or a year, we will subconsciously find a way to fill the time we’ve allotted for it. Saying this, the law should not be used to set unreasonable deadlines (of which time tracking can help with in Step 4).

By time blocking, you set fixed amounts of time to focus on a given activity, and then schedule these blocks into a schedule/calendar. This practice revolutionised my ability to see how I’m balancing my time across the whole week, and in turn, creates urgency to show up each day.


3. Schedule breaks and unscheduled time just as you would any focused activity


It can be hard at first to create estimates for how much you can REALISTICALLY fit into any given week, but trial and error is the greatest teacher. My kryptonite was always being overly ambitious and obsessive at the expense of my well-being, but I hit a turning point during lockdown that I can’t stress enough: SCHEDULE BREAKS. As mad as this may sound to some, I predict that if you’re reading this, you’re an ambitious artistic entrepreneur that struggles with making enough time for yourself. But it’s as essential to block out time for rest as for any focused activity.

Breaks fall under two categories: 

  1. Regular breaks between focused tasks
  2. Daily/weekly blocks of free, unstructured time

Regular breaks between focused tasks:

The ‘Pomodoro Technique’ (another groundwork of time management) is a method that uses a timer to break work down into intervals with focused productive time, followed by a small break. Traditionally, the method advocates 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break, but you can change that as you see fit (50m/10m is my personal favourite). The idea is that when the focus time is longer, so is the break. As artists, this can feel quite rigid when we get into a creative flow, but there’s a hefty amount of research to back up how beneficial this is for your brain.

Another point that needs to be stressed is that a break is NOT the time to check your phone, consume TV, or engage your brain in any other stimulating way. A break is a break from all activity and can include (some of my favourites): making tea, doing a few stretches, meditating, closing your eyes and listening to some music, or people watching from your window. 

Brendon Burchard, author of “High Performance Habits” (recommend for you self-development junkies out there), stresses that regular breaks are crucial for sustainable high-performance. He has an interesting “release tension, set intention” meditation technique:

  1. Close your eyes, scan your body, releasing any tension you notice
  2. Set an intention for your next block of work/activity

Daily/weekly blocks of free, unstructured time:

This is VITAL. In my self-research, I discovered I need at least 1 day completely off, and preferably 1.5 (i.e. Saturday off from the afternoon, after a productive morning, and the whole of Sunday off). This was alien to me for the first two years of London life, but I’ve accepted I need it as much as I need focused time. We’re not robots – we need freedom from our schedule, especially when we’re highly ambitious and most of our week is regimentally structured. 

Scheduling it ahead of time allowed me to let go of a HELLA lot of guilt I would put on myself if I had an unplanned day off. It gets you to be more intentional and creative about how you could make the most of this day (go on an adventure in the city or country, organise a meetup with mates) as opposed to numbing yourself with Netflix in an attempt to have a break. As much as Netflix and Prime Video are one of my go-to’s for some time out (I might be obsessed with productivity, but I’m human), research has shown that binging doesn’t give your brain much of a break at all and is actually extremely energy-draining in comparison to energy-generating time with friends or in nature.

One more note: schedule a couple of hours each day to have unstructured time too, preferably 1-2 in the afternoon, and a couple in the evening before bed (minimum). Having everything structured for even one day can result in you rebelling against your own schedule. Daily free time helped me feel more human: having the space to go outside for a walk, connect with my loved ones, or even just regain the freedom to CHOOSE what I want to do in the moment.


4. Use time tracking to find out how long it ACTUALLY takes you to complete tasks


Research about task completion times conducted at the University of Waterloo in Canada found evidence that “task completion plans normally resemble best-case scenarios and yield overly optimistic predictions of completion times”. Yep, we’re crap at accurately predicting how long it’ll take us to do anything, and never seem to want to take into account any unforeseen circumstances, which can be a problem if you want to manage your day. Enter: time tracking. 

For the next week, I suggest you get a super cheap, tiny pocket journal (or do it on your phone, Gen Z-ers) and track every activity you do. This helped me to learn how much time I need to feel truly satisfied with a practice session (anything under 1.5 hours feels rushed) or to be more realistic about how long it actually takes me to get ready in the morning, accepting more and stressing less. This will also hold you accountable for time you wasted scrolling through that influencer’s Insta account. When you see it written down, it makes you think twice the next day.


5. Habits and routines


Habits and routines are GOLDUST for efficiency. My morning routine sets me up, primes my mind, and generates energy for the day. If I ever miss it, I feel like a slug. One book I’d highly recommend getting your hands on if you’re interested in setting up your own morning routine is “The Miracle Morning”. Author Hal Elrod proclaims that “focused, productive, successful mornings generate focused, productive, successful days – which inevitably creates a successful life”.

Once habits are set into our daily routines, they become consistent patterns that we don’t have to think about. When they become instinctive, they eliminate ‘decision fatigue’: a psychological phenomenon coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. Decision fatigue suggests we each have a finite store of mental energy for decision making, and so self-discipline outside of a routine is much harder than one that’s set up by automatic habit. Once you get through the first month (the time to set a habit is constantly up for debate, but this is a widely accepted rough guideline), you’ve paved your way to save all that energy for the rest of the day. And, positive habits will look after you like a well-trained coach, giving you more energy to focus on your creative work.

Written by Kaia Vieira


Pt. 2 will discuss creativity within time management. Coming this Friday!

nanowrimo-songwriting-november

NOVEMBER SONGWRITING MONTH ANNOUNCEMENT

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

Hi everyone!

I have always been a massive fan of NaNoWriMo, where writers commit to writing a novel in a month, but it recently occurred to me that there was no such thing for songwriters… This is why I spent the last couple weeks putting together emails with songwriting prompts, writing inspiration, and interesting links. The idea is that if you sign up for the November Songwriting Month mailing list, you’ll receive a dose of daily inspiration to help you achieve your songwriting goals for the month. And if you’re in dire need of a songwriting community now that this pandemic has scattered us all over the world, there is also a Facebook group where you can share your stuff and give others feedback.

Happy writing!

Erika x

inspiration-journal-songwriting

Why I Have an Inspiration Journal

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

In Belgium, I had a mystery drawer with Post-its with ideas and words that I like. On my bookshelves, I had dozens of dog-eared books with index cards between the pages, writings in the margins, and underlined sentences. I had cutouts of articles I’ve read, poems on my walls, photos of places and friends, and postcards with my favourite paintings. My childhood bedroom was a shrine to creativity. Maybe also a hoarder’s paradise.

When I started moving around, it became hard to acquire stuff – index cards got lost, books were too heavy to cart around, and I didn’t have walls to decorate with paraphernalia anymore. My bedroom was never as over-the-top as Florence Welch’s house, but looking around always filled me with inspiration. If I was feeling stuck, or couldn’t get past the terror of the blank page in my songbook, I could always start from a picture on the wall or a word in someone else’s poem.

I came up with a new system when I moved to a hostel in London, though calling it a system is probably overselling it. I started writing down phrases from books I liked, copying poems, and drying flowers in between the pages of a journal. After a while, I started taking leaflets from galleries and cutting out drawings to paste into my notebook. And in between the art I admired, I wrote my own songs, that had started from a line in a poem or an idea I got from a quote. I called it my inspiration journal.

A blank page is always daunting, but having an inspiration journal, or an inspiration nook where you keep some poetry books and lists of interesting rhymes on hand, can give you a starting point to write from. It can also encourage you to read more, go to museums once in a while, and watch more films. It can make you a better listener and reader, as well as a better songwriter. Here are some ideas on how to fill your journal and what you can do with it:


1. Fill it with poetry and interesting sentences.


Read poetry, listen closely to lyrics, study fiction. As songwriters, we are always on the lookout for beautiful turns of phrase, and unique metaphors. I find autobiographical essays a great source of inspiration, too – some of my favourite writers are Joan Didion, Deborah Levy, and Olivia Laing. But don’t just write down stuff that sounds good. Write down the words that spark your imagination. For different songwriters, that will mean different things. I’ve written down quotes about lightbulbs that didn’t work and turmeric in the kitchen because I wanted to use similar details in my own lyrics.


2. Make lists of words.

As a folk songwriter, I like telling stories in my songs. But to make them come to life, I need descriptive, meaningful words. Most of us can make do with the words in our current vocabulary, but as writers, we need to do better than that. We want to be in a place where we can choose from a pool of words that might mean the same thing, but roll of our tongues in different ways, leave a new taste in our mouths. Jimmy Webb even goes as far as to suggest we read a dictionary back-to-back.


Few of us are naturally inclined to sit and read an entire dictionary (like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate for example, at fourteen hundred pages) but I will advance the argument that a writer who attempts to write prose, poetry, song lyrics or automobile advertising without a vocabulary of suitable depth is entering a tournament of wits unarmed. I will go one step further and say that if there is any intrinsic merit in curiosity then we should read at least one dictionary from aardvark to Zwolle (a city in the Netherlands).

Jimmy Webb, “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting”

I have not attempted this yet, although I intend to read a dictionary someday. I do keep lists of interesting words I come across and original rhymes I see or think of in my notebook, though. I use them for writing lyrics, for moving the story plot along, finding unpredictable rhymes, etc.


3. Cut out paintings, paste in photographs, let a friend draw in your journal.


Writing from an image is a valuable exercise for songwriters in a rut. It can provide a change in your current songwriting process, bring imagery into stale lyrics, or evoke emotions that will make you think of a brilliant melody. I don’t often use this method because I’m not much of a visual person, but I have friends who swear by it. I recommend cutting out photos of paintings from museum or gallery leaflets, pasting in photographs, and even letting friends draw in your notebook. I have let friends do that before who weren’t good at drawing at all – it doesn’t always have to be serious, sometimes a good bit of fun is what you need.


4. Keep newspaper articles that hit a nerve.


I struggle with writing songs that are not about me, and for most people, songwriting can be a narcissistic endeavour. To challenge myself, I sometimes write about events on the outside that affect me in some way – climate change, racism, sexism, there’s enough out there to pull from. My songs about big issues often sound like pretentious crap and don’t see the light of day, but it’s the exercise that counts. I’ve found that referring to newspaper articles helps, especially the ones with personal stories that bring humanity into these grand narratives. Not long ago, I started stuffing them in my inspiration journal to use details from them in my songs. I’ll keep you updated on how well it works.


5. Write down your ideas. Obviously.


Inspiration doesn’t always come from outside. Sometimes we get our own great ideas. The thing with our brain is that we forget them. I often write something down believing the idea is so good that I will remember it forever, to read it back a week later and see it for the first time. So, keep your inspiration journal at hand and write down the great lyric or the original song idea when it comes to you. Or keep index cards in your bag that you then paste into your journal. Whatever works.


This works for me, but I know that all creatives have their rituals, so please let me know if you have any other ideas!