This is a guest post by Sam Matla.
Sam is the author of the most excellent eBook/audiobook/video package The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. I totally love what he’s done with the guide. It’s important and well carried out and I think it deserves all the attention it can get.
If you like this post then you should check his guide as well. Now, let’s welcome Sam to Resoundsound and see what he has to say about focus. -Ilpo
The progress that’s been made over the last 20 years in the realm of digital audio software and technology is nothing short of incredible.
Nowadays, a budding artist-to-be can set foot in the world of music production with nothing more than a laptop and a pair of headphones. People of all ages and nationalities can make music in their bedroom.
However, while this increased accessibility is welcomed, we don’t pay much respect to it. We check Facebook while we’re coming up with ideas for a new track, we respond to messages while in the middle of mixing sessions, and let’s not mention the YouTube wormholes that deceptively lure us in for hours on end.
I truly believe that a large percentage of creative problems–writer’s block, not being able to finish tracks, etc.– are caused by a lack of focus. In this article, I’m going to first explain why I believe that, and then give you practical advice on how to focus in order to avoid such problems.
Finally, if you find this article helpful, you may get value out of my book The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity, which covers a range of topics like this one.
Why a lack of focus leads to creative problems
If you’re like 99% of other producers, you make music on the same machine you use to check email, talk to your friends, and watch YouTube videos. When you’re faced with a challenging task like music production, these distractions become more appealing.
We’re good at justifying distraction. We know that checking Facebook while producing is a bad thing, but we trick ourselves into thinking that it’s not. Ah, what will a few minutes do? I’m stuck with this song anyway.”
I’ve even come across some people who have Facebook, Twitter, or another potent form of distraction open on a second screen!
It introduces task-switching
One of the main reasons these distractions cause creative problems is that they introduce task-switching.
Task-switching suggests that as we switch from one task to another, we encounter cognitive delay; our brain takes time to “re-focus” on the task at hand.
An experiment performed by Alessandro Acquisti and Eyal Peer of Carnegie Mellon show that “multitaskers,” or the group of people in the experiment that were interrupted, had, on average, a 20% lower score in a cognitive skill test designed for the experiment.
While we don’t know exactly how long it takes to re-focus on a task, there’s plenty of evidence to show that multitasking, or switching from one thing to another rapidly, is not beneficial to any sort of work, whether that be creative, physical, or intellectual.
To put this into context, let’s say that you’re trying to lay down a few ideas for a new track. This is typically one of the more difficult parts of the production process. After 30 minutes, you’re just scratching the surface of some great ideas, until you decide to quickly check Facebook and respond to Dave about a highly unimportant topic that doesn’t require your urgent attention.
You spend 5 minutes or so chatting with Dave before returning to your DAW. In doing this, you incur the cost of task-switching, and find yourself frustrated at the fact that you can’t focus nor reach the same level of creative confidence you had prior to checking Facebook. The 30 minutes you spend leading up to the point where you were about to discover some great musical ideas has gone to waste, thanks to task-switching.
You trick yourself into thinking production is boring
When you’re completely involved in an interesting task, whether that’s having a stimulating conversation with someone, being on a date, or watching a great movie, you tend not to find ways to distract yourself.
When you’re partially involved in a task that’s not interesting, you’re constantly looking for ways to distract yourself.
However, the line between the two is blurred, and there’s a degree of crossover. If you’re partially involved in a task that’s somewhat interesting but rather difficult (like music production), and there’s no external pressure to not distract yourself, then, following the path of least resistance, it’s easy to be distracted.
The problem with all of this is that you start to act the same way during a highly involved task such as music production as you do when you’re bored or tired. You browse the net endlessly, looking for ways to entertain yourself.
It’s the easy way out.
Over time, this habit becomes so ingrained that music production passes from being a fascinating, enjoyable process into a frustrating, difficult, and boring process.
Can you see why a lack of focus leads to creative problems? Habitual distraction and the incurrence of task-switching makes any form of creative work an absolute nightmare.
How to focus
It’s not easy to break away from constant distraction and focus solely on music production, but it is possible.
There are a few key things that typically precede focus.
When you have no clear, overarching goal, it can be extremely hard to focus. You end up in a position where you’re just making music for the sake of making music, which isn’t always bad, but it means that there’s no measure of importance placed on what you’re doing.
Having a clear objective, and truly aligning with it, is the best way to become focused in your production session. It’s important to note the clear part in “clear objective.” If your objective is vague and uninspiring, e.g., Make a song, then you’re going to find it hard to focus.
It’s a good idea to set both an overraching goal and a smaller one for each production session. For example, let’s say you’re working on an EP. You’re overarching goal might be:
To produce a 3-track EP around the theme of X for distribution through label X.
Now, to achieve that overarching goal, you’re going to need to spend a fair bit of time producing, which is where your session goals enter the picture. You sit down to spent 90 minutes making music, but before you do so, you set an objective for the session that aligns with your overarching goal. For the first session (and the first track), it might be something like:
Write a basic chord progression, melody, and bassline that I can iterate on and improve in following sessions.
With this clear objective, you know exactly what you need to focus on. You’re not fumbling around in the dark trying to make sense of everything, instead you have direction.
Session objectives, by their very nature, lead to more optimized and productive production sessions. If your objective is to write a chord progression, melody, and bassline, then anything else (sound design, mixing, arrangement) is unimportant in that session, and so you avoid it. This leads to less internal multitasking, and thus less task-switching (yes, task-switching can occur inside the DAW).
2. Be enthusiastic
If you start a production session in a state of frustration, or you view it as a chore, then it’s incredibly hard to become focused and stay focused.
You must be enthusiastic about making music. Trick yourself into being enthusiastic if necessary – fake it till you make it.
If I’m not feeling enthusiastic about making music, but I know I need to spend some time doing so, then I listen to a playlist of my favorite music for 15–20 minutes. Another strategy for generating enthusiasm is to listen to new music that you haven’t heard before. You’ll almost always come across something that makes you say That’s **king awesome. I’ve got an idea.
3. Multitask as little as possible
Something I elaborate on in my book is the power of separating production processes.
Few producers actually do this, largely to their detriment. They try to work on everything at once – sound design, composition, arrangement, mixing.
Some can pull it off – typically those who’ve been producing for many years and have an intuitive sense of exactly what to do and when to do it – but many can’t. If you struggle to stay focused, it’s a good idea to separate production processes so that you’re primarily working on one thing at a time.
It might look something like this:
- You start with the composition stage, jotting down musical ideas. You use a basic preset or piano for this to avoid venturing into sound design.
- You then progress to the sound design stage, finding the appropriate sounds for your already-made ideas.
- Following that, you arrange your ideas and sounds to represent a full track.
- Once your track is fully arranged, you mix it down.
Note:You will inevitably need to multitask. For example, if you’re in the sound design stage and you come across the perfect preset, but it’s too loud or contains too much low-end, you’re going to adjust it accordingly. You shouldn’t avoid doing this, but you should try and separate the production processes on a macro-level.
4. Embrace failure
It can be hard to focus when you’re faced with a challenging or daunting task, especially when it’s something you haven’t tried before.
Often, we distract ourselves because we don’t think we can do what we set out to do. We might not consciously think this, but deep inside the crevasses of our brain, we do.
It might be that you’re trying to write a memorable melody. Granted, writing a great melody is challenging, but it’s not impossible. If you sub-consciously think that you can’t write a good melody, then you’re simply not going to focus, because you know the effort is futile.
To counter this, you need to embrace failure. You need to cultivate the trial and error mindset, because that’s really what music production is – trial and error.
You need to realize that it’s okay to try 10 times to write a good melody, and finally get there on the 11th attempt. Professionals understand that failure is an essential part of the process. They welcome it.
5. Leverage momentum
It takes a while to get focused, and when you are focused, it’s a good idea to stay there for as long as possible.
If you catch yourself being focused, you need to realize that you’re at peak productivity level, and to take a break or distract yourself means that you’ve wasted the last several minutes trying to become focused.
Leveraging focus produces results. You can work extremely quickly and get a lot done when you’re focused, so make the most of it, and produce for as long as you can when you’re “in the zone.”
The state of flow
Flow is generally defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. Flow follows focus.
You’ll have experienced flow before. It’s where all sense of time goes out the window, and the only thing you’re thinking about is the task at hand. You don’t care about your bank balance, the fact that there’s a raging storm outside, or that it’s 3AM in the morning and you’ve got work at 8AM.
Here’s what visionary and serial entrepreneur Peter Diamandis has to say about flow:
“We call this experience flow because that is the sensation conferred. In the state, every action, each decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.”
Why should we care about flow?
Flow is what leads to the greatest results. Ask any professional athlete, musician, composer, or inventor what led to their breakthrough and they’ll tell you that it was the times of extreme focus/flow where they made the most progress and eventually reached a “eureka!” moment.
Not only is flow beneficial in the sense that it allows us to work quickly and get a lot done (have you ever produced a song in 3 hours? It’s an amazing feeling), it’s also incredibly enjoyable. A good production session in which you enter into flow can often rekindle your passion for music production if it’s wavered.
How to reach flow
There are numerous triggers or “preconditions” to flow, many of which are irrelevant to the field of music production and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
However, there are three main triggers that you should know about in order to reach flow (or at least increase your chances. Flow is somewhat elusive and random).
1. Clear objective/goals
I touched on the importance of having a clear, overarching objective as well as individual session objectives. If you want to enter the state of flow, these are absolutely essential.
Clarity leads to certainty, so that we know what to do and where to focus our attention.
2. Instant feedback
As a music producer, you don’t really need to worry about this as electronic music production always gives immediate feedback. If you place a wrong note, or EQ a sound in a less-than-satisfactory manner, then you’ll hear your mistake.
3. The right difficulty
If what we’re doing is too easy and there’s no sense of challenge, then we stop paying attention. If what we’re doing is too difficult, then we get frustrated.
One’s ability to reach the state of flow varies with skill level. A new producer may find it difficult to achieve any sort of intense focus simply due to the fact that they aren’t comfortable in the DAW and are not sure what to do. An experienced producer may find production mundane unless they push themselves.
You don’t need to consciously think about the difficulty of each production process, and I would, in fact, argue that you shouldn’t. After all, reaching flow is not the end goal – making good music is. However, it’s important to note that in situations where you’re forced to do extremely easy and mundane work, or incredibly difficult, challenging work, you probably won’t enter the state of flow, and shouldn’t be upset because of that.
The other day I recieved an email from a producer who asked me when he should take breaks, or, how long should each production session be?
There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. It depends entirely on what you’re working on, how long you’re planning to work, and your ability to focus on something.
Optimizing break times is not something you can learn from a blog post. It requires experimentation. I will, however, detail some approaches for you to experiment with.
The natural break strategy
The natural break strategy involves taking a break when you feel you need to take a break. That is, when you start experiencing a bit of fatigue (or ear fatigue for that matter), or when you start to become uncomfortable in your chair.
This is a controversial approach, mainly because it opposes medical/health experts that suggest taking a break at least every 45 minutes. The benefit to it, however, is that you can stay focused and/or in flow for long periods of time without forcing yourself to snap out of it. You take a break when you exit flow.
I personally use this approach during the early, purely creative stages of the production process. Later on when I’m doing more mundane, mechanical work, I’ll structure my break times in a more rigid fashion.
The pomodoro technique
The pomodoro technique, traditionally, involves 25 minutes of work with 5 minute breaks. There are many variations out there, but 25/5 is the popular ratio.
I’ve used this extensively and I think it’s great when you’re working on an unusually difficult part of a project which uses up a lot of mental energy. I don’t recommend it for the early stages of a project where flow and focus are essential.
After years of experimentation, I’ve found that 90-minute sessions work best for me. There are a couple of reasons why I think this is the case:
- Assuming it takes around 30 minutes to get focused, you’re left with a good hour of productive production time.
- It’s just short enough to not experience major fatigue or lose focus.
- You feel you’ve accomplished something afterwards.
If I’m doing multiple sessions in a day, then I’ll take 30 minute breaks (at least) between the sessions. It’s not a good idea to sit down for 90 minutes, take a 5-minute break, then sit down for another 90-minutes.
Take active breaks
This should be self-evident, but for some people it isn’t.
When you take breaks from production, your breaks shouldn’t consist of sitting at your desk browsing the internet. Get up, eat some food, walk around for a bit, and go outside if the weather is nice.
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” – W. H. Auden
For many, the word routine implies boredom. For some musicians and producers, it encompasses everything contrary to creativity.
Routine is not anti-creativity, it’s extremely helpful for creativity. Routine enables the difficult to become easy. It keeps us focused over weeks and months. It helps us progress.
If you truly want to stay focused, and be able to focus consistently, then you need some form of routine. The sporadic production session once or twice a week is not going to cut it.
Most of you reading this can spare 30 minutes a day to work on production, and if you want to be able to focus and constantly progress as an artist, then that’s what you should do.
Where to go from here
Hopefully having read this article you have a better understanding of why focus is so important, and how to achieve it during production sessions.
However, this article means nothing if you don’t put anything into practice, which is why I want you to do two things:
- Set aside 60–90 minutes as soon as you can for a dedicated, focused production session. When you enter into this session, make sure you have a clear objective, and make sure you’ve eliminated any potential distractions.
- Create a daily routine that contributes to your development as a producer and also improves your ability to focus. If you can only spare 20–30 minutes a day, that’s fine. An example could be to write a melody every day.
Finally, if you want to learn more about creativity and workflow, specifically: how to finish tracks, come up with great ideas, and progress as an artist, then check out my book The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity.