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I’m a musician to make music, I wasn’t born to plan stuff, right?

I used to take things as they came and frowned at people having a calendar. Dull people, I thought. Then reality punched me in the face! When I realized I was wasting my potential, forgetting stuff, stuck with incomplete tasks and always feeling busy, I went on a quest to be the most organized person in the music business.

Lack of Organization, Productivity, and Planning skills is one of the most common reasons we see artists fail in their music career.

In this article, you will be introduced to a gold mine of insights:

  • How to avoid the busy trap.
  • The art of stress-free productivity.
  • Reduce stress from workload.
  • Get more accomplished with much less effort.
  • The best Productivity and Planning tools we know about.
  • Making a simple release plan.

Planning is really a natural and simple process. Please don’t waste your potential by lacking this skill. It’s really nothing more than advanced common sense. However, so many people are not doing it at all. That’s why we have dedicated a really long article to this topic.

We know that this article might seem a little intimidating, especially if this is the first time you are thinking about productivity and project planning.

However, we encourage you to take the time necessary to get to know the concepts. Who knows, it might change your life!

Let´s get started!



Avoid The ‘Busy’ Trap

Planning is not about getting more work to do. It’s about being more relaxed and getting more things accomplished with less effort. I believe efficiency is a good thing. Even though you are doing useful or dull work, efficiency will help you either get more out of your time and energy or go to the next thing as fast as possible.

Efficiency does not equal being busy! You’ve probably heard a lot of busy people telling you how busy they are. Crazy busy! So busy!

People are getting more and more stressed in the world today, for good reasons: Cell phones, notifications, social media. You are reachable every single second if you don’t manage your privacy. You are supposed to deal with more work with fewer resources. If you don’t have a system to cope with your workload, you will be busy.

When I hear someone being crazy busy, I just translate it to ‘I’m really bad at prioritizing’ and ‘I don’t know how to manage my work’. So should you.

This article is not about making you busy, it’s about being as productive as possible by being as less busy as possible.

If you would like to educate yourself further in the ‘busy’ trap read this famous New York Times article.

Don’t be busy!

Key Principles of Planning and Productivity

Most of the stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept. You’ve probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them-big or little—is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you. These are the “incompletes,” or “open loops,” which is basically anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is.

Open loops can include everything from really big to-do items like “Finish my next album” to the more modest “Book studio session” to the tiniest task such as “Change strings on the guitar.” It’s also likely that you have more internal commitments currently in play than you’re aware of.

In order to deal effectively with all of that, you must first identify and collect all those things that are “triggering your alarm” in some way, and then plan how to handle them. That may seem like a simple thing to do, but in practice, most people don’t know how to do it in a consistent way.

Your mind is not made to store things, it’s made to be creative. Imagine if you opened all software on your computer at the same time. It would be really slow and nothing would work. However, if you close all programs and only work with one at the time, it will run fast.

How to manage commitments

Collection habit. If it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a “collection bucket”, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.

Clarify the commitment and next action. You must clarify exactly what your commitment is and then decide what needs to be done next.

Keep Reminders in an organized system you trust. Once you’ve decided on all the actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them, organized in a system you review regularly.

Why Things Are on Your Mind. Most often, the reason something is “on your mind” is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet:

  • You haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome is;
  • You haven’t decided what the very next physical action step is; and/or
  • You haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust.

Getting control of your life: The five stages of mastering workflow

The core concept of doing stress-free work are these steps:

  • Collecting
  • Processing
  • Organizing
  • Reviewing
  • Doing

You collect all things that crave your attention, process what they mean and what to do about them, organize the results and review the options for what you’ll do.

Most people, when sitting down to “make a list,” are trying to collect the “most important things” in some order that reflects priorities and sequences, without setting out any real actions to take. But if you don’t decide what needs to be done about your next studio session, because it’s “not that important” right now, that open loop will take up energy and prevent you from having a totally effective, clear focus on what’s important.


Everything that you have any commitment to and is on your mind needs to be collected. Big or little, minor or major importance. Many commitments are already being collected for you: Email, messages in voice mail.

There are also many things we’ll call “stuff” that are not being collected for you in your environment: Old Magazines on your TV table, unopened mail, FB messages that you forgot about. As soon as you attach a “should,” “need to,” or “ought to” to an item, it becomes an incomplete.

In order to manage all you incompletes, you need to capture them into ‘containers’ that will hold them until you have a moment to decide what to do about them.

If you are a modern human, you are probably interrupted quite often with notifications from your phone, Facebook messages, calls, emails and so on. The idea with the collection buckets is to put all the commitments on hold for later until you will decide what to do with it. You could say that your collection buckets are your focus shield.

There are several tools, both low and high tech, that you can use to capture 100% of your incompletes.

Capturing Tools

  • Physical in basket: Such as a Wire tray
  • Writing paper and pads
    • Collecting ideas, things to do, input.
  • Electronic Note taking: Such as Computers, iPads, Phone
    • All kinds of input
  • Auditory capture: Such as the Voice Memo on iPhone, Voice Mail
    • When you are on the fly
  • Email
    • Incoming email and files

Success Factors

  • Take every incomplete in the collection system and Get it all out of your head. Write it down, record it or put it in any of you trusted collection buckets.
  • Minimize collection buckets and decide what buckets to use.
  • Empty the buckets regularly by processing (described below).


By separating the steps to Collect and Process you are creating space for yourself to be able to actually do uninterrupted work.

When you have time you should process all of your stuff in your In-basket and ask the question: What is it? And then: Is it actionable?

Then follows a series of procedures described in the graph below. For further explanation, keep reading.

Let’s say you booked a studio session and you want to give the engineer/producer some references for a guitar sound. So, what’s the task called? “Contact studio about guitar references”.

Then we have a list of choices:

  • Is this an item you can do something about (actionable)? Yes.
  • Is there more than one step to complete? Yes: You have to look up the bands/recordings that will give the engineer an idea of the sound you want; then you have to send an email or make a call.
  • What’s the successful outcome? The engineer/producer will have a clear reference to what the guitar on your recording should sound like.
  • What are the steps to achieve it? (Be as obvious as you can, this usually helps you find out stuff you hadn’t thought about) Let’s see:
    • Go to YouTube and search for the references you have in mind
    • Write down what kind of gear or other resources they’re using in order to make the guitar sound like that
    • Contact the studio

But let’s say you don’t have access to WiFi right now. Then what’s the next action?

  • Check YouTube when you get home.

Because this task takes more than one step to complete it, we’ll call it a project.

Will this project take less than two minutes? No.

What do you do then? Defer it.

How do you make sure you don’t forget, or better yet, how do you make sure you won’t start thinking about this right before falling asleep? You collect the project on your system and follow the steps mentioned earlier. The next phase is organization. We’ll come to that later.

But for now, let’s sum it up

First, you define what the task is and name it. Then:

Is it actionable?

  • No
    • Trash
    • Incubate –> (someday/maybe)
    • Reference (Archive)
  • Yes
    • Is more than one step to complete?
      • Project
      • Whats the successful outcome?
      • Make Plan and break down the steps
    • What’s the next action?
      • Less than 2 minutes? Do it
      • Delegate it
        • –> Communicate the delegated task
        • –> Add it to ‘Waiting for…’ list
      • Defer it
        • Do the task need to be done a certain date? –> Calendar
        • To do as soon as I can –> Context list
  • Do it all over again with for the next item in the collection bucket.


So you know what the task is, that you can do something about it (e.g. it’s actionable), and that you can’t do it right now (e.g. you “defer it”). Where do you put the task? All you need is lists and folders. Simple as that.

But hold your horses! You can’t just grab a napkin and “write napkin lists” on a daily basis. You need what we’ll call “hard edges”: Defined categories for your tasks, so that you don’t mix up “buying food for the dog”, “looking up music blogs to pitch” and “call mom” on the same list.

You’re probably familiar with calendars. They serve a good purpose, but if you use them like the napkin above, they’ll probably have similar (stressful) results. So what is the actual purpose of a calendar if you’re using it within this system?

Calendars are collection buckets for TIME-SPECIFIC tasks. Stuff that you *have* to do on a specific date or hour. ONLY TIME-SPECIFIC tasks.

Ugh, so many calendar apps, so many notepads apps, so much time management stuff to choose from! You’ll say. You actually only need a Project Management Tool and a calendar. That’s all.

Here are some project management software suggestions:

Project Management Software

  • Trello
  • Asana
  • Podio
  • Omnifocus
  • Basecamp

Organizing action reminders in context

Now what is all the buzz with categories, you might be wondering. Well, if you group tasks by what we’ll call “context”,  you’ll save tons of time by executing them in batches. Let’s say you need to buy a new MIDI keyboard. But the next day you remember you also need replacement pads for your headphones. Then during the band’s rehearsal, the bassist goes, “dude, I need a new E string”. Wouldn’t it be easier to gather all these different tasks in the same category to avoid placing a dozen orders to the same music store?

The most common categories of action reminders are:

  • Calls
  • At computer
  • Errands
  • In studio/rehearsal studio
  • At home
  • Agendas
  • Read/Review

The Waiting for list:

Stuff other people need to do before the task can be completed.

Projects List:

Remember, a project is anything that requires more than one step. If you make a list with clearly defined projects, all their related “loose steps” will be easier to gather and do. Examples of what can go on your Project List: “Make a budget for the tour”, “Photography session”, “Finish writing the Christmas song”.

Project support material:

All the stuff you need for completing your projects. Places to share and store your files, for example. The golden rule is sticking to one tool.

Tools: Dropbox, Google Drive, One Drive


Checklists are creative reminders, or “recipes of potential ingredients” you’ll need for a project, event, etc. If you’re gonna repeat the same type project in the future, a clear checklist might come in handy.

Examples: Before a studio session, Before a gig, On Rehearsals, Pitching to blogs.

Organizing Non-Actionable Data:

We’ve talked a lot about “actionable” stuff. But what happens to items with no related actions? There are two types:

Reference Material: Such as contracts, chord sheets, manuals for electronic devices, etc.

Someday Maybes: Like books to read, places to visit, artists to make collaborations with, etc.


One final thing is really important for your system to work as expected: Reviewing it regularly, preferably on a specific day. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a bucket of open loops and the resulting stress.

The answer to these depends on the categories for your tasks.

What to review, and when?

  • Begin with your Calendar
  • Proceed to Action Lists

Make sure to give a review at the right time and place, e.g. “context”. If your release is on peek promotion, you’ll probably do daily reviews. Other things can be done once a week or once a month.

Example of Weekly Review:

  • Loose papers
  • Process notes
  • Previous calendar data
  • Upcoming Calendar
  • Empty your head
  • Review Projects
  • Next actions list
  • Waiting For
  • Relevant Checklists
  • Someday Maybe


After all the planning, now comes the fun part: Actually doing the stuff. But how do you decide what to do first? There are four criteria that will help you with the decision:

  • Context (see above)
  • Time available (If you only have 30 minutes, maybe you shouldn’t start with a task that takes 45 minutes to complete)
  • Energy Available (leave repetitive, mindless tasks, like changing strings, for when your physical and mental energy are not at their best)
  • Priority (what’s important vs. what is urgent? Important = things that align with your music career goals)

So now we have talked a little bit about how to organising your workflow.

Let’s get into Project Planning:

Getting projects creatively underway: The five stages of project planning

There are 5 stages to naturally plan a project:

  • Defining purpose and principles:
  • Outcome Visioning
  • Brainstorming: What do I need to do, and how, to achieve it?
  • Organizing
  • Identifying next actions

Whenever you have a larger project going on, it’s usually a great idea to start going through the steps above.

Defining Purpose and principles

Why do you do this project?

Let’s say you are creating an album, what is the purpose of that? You could have any reason why you are creating a new album, only your own purpose matter.

For example, I would like to be able to play my new album for my friends every time they come over.

The purpose is defining the later stages, priorities and outcome visioning.

Outcome Visioning

What will this task/project look like when it’s completed?

Try to describe what great success would mean. Visualize it and write it down.

For example: When this project is done I can hold a physical Vinyl of the Album in my hands. All my friends are really enjoying the songs on the album and the design of the artwork.


What do I need to do, and how, to achieve it?

A blank piece of paper is good enough if you are brainstorming by yourself, a whiteboard is great if you are a group of people planning.

The result could be a mind map or notes on a paper that you can use for organizing:


Set up the priorities, what do we need to do, in which order, in which context should we do it to accomplish the outcome?

This is when you add tasks to your project system or making lists.

Next Action

What’s the next couple of actions to get this project underway?

What is included in a typical record label project

This is how we structure the projects with our signed artists.

1. Planning: Here we are now, at the planning stage. This is where you follow the 5 stages of project planning like described in the previous section. You should have a good overview of what is needed from you, when and which dates things need to be accomplished.

2. How are you unique: You figure out how you are different from anybody else, defining your artist identity and what makes it stand out among similar profiles.

3. Who is interested: Based on the above, you figure out who could be interested in your music and defining your target audience.

4. Music Production: This when you create your new music. You find a producer/engineer that understand these aspects or do the production yourself if you have the skills. You complete the recording, mixing and mastering.

5. Visual Production: Now it’s time for the things beyond the music. Choosing a photographer, video guy to communicate your identity the best way possible visually.

6. How to reach out: Promotion. You create a clear strategy for reaching your target group.

7. Reach out: You promote yourself and hopefully get help from other parties like record labels or promotion companies in order to take action on your strategy made in step 6.

And that’s it!

Fully grasping the system might take a while, so be patient if you don’t immediately get it to work as expected. For more info on how this type of management system helps creative people, you can listen to this podcast episode.

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