Time Management for Musicians Part 1: the Priority To-Do List

By Miranda Wilson

This post is the first in a multi-part series on time management for music professionals.

Becoming a music professor was my goal from the first magical minute I stepped on campus as an undergraduate more then 20 years ago. What could be more blissful, I thought, than living the life of the mind and making great music while you’re at it? I imagined myself delivering passionate lectures, fixing bow-holds, writing essays, and travelling all over the world for recitals and festivals.

What I pictured myself doing, in other words, was the fun part of being a music professor.

And it is fun. It’s the part that looks effortless, like a duck gliding serenely across a lake. The part that people don’t see is the duck’s webbed feet swimming away furiously beneath the water’s surface. In that murky metaphorical lake water are a crazy schedule of early starts and late nights, constant travel necessitating constant makeup lessons, a neverending stream of administrative tasks, and a to-do list the length of a novella.

This gig is fun, but it’s not for sissies. Burnout, stress, and anxiety are epidemic. And then there’s email. Ah, email.

And yet, I love it all and I want to do it well while still allowing time for a happy life with my family, my pets, and my hobbies. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve gotten pretty good at this, and I decided to share my ideas in a new series of blog posts on time management strategies that work for me. I hope they’ll work for you too.

I present to you my Priority To-Do List. I make one every day. I order my tasks in this easy-to-use chart, deciding what I’m going to do first so that I don’t get bogged down in non-urgent projects at the expense of imminent deadlines.

It’s easy. Columns go in order of urgency. Urgent is for things that can’t be put off any longer. Important tasks still need to be done today, but after the deadlines are met. Upcoming is for things that will be urgent in a few weeks, but only need a little planning now so that they don’t take me by surprise later. Lastly, Daily Maintenance is for things that aren’t strictly urgent, but need a little time each day.

Next, I order the chart in terms of the things that are most important to me in my workday. For me, teaching and research (performing and writing) are always closest to my heart. Next are the administrative tasks essential to a well-run studio. Last, because I sometimes struggle with being a grown-up, are the things that will stop my home looking like an episode of Hoarders and my car from grinding to a halt in the middle of the street.

Here’s a real-life Priority To-Do List for a day in my work week this past May.

How it went:

The things in the Urgent column all got done that day, hooray!

For the Important column, I ended up running out of time before I could consult the NASM handbook…and to be honest, that’s the sort of thing I tend to procrastinate over. But I did end up reading it at home that night, bribing myself that if I did it, I could drink hot chocolate while I read. (Emergency strategy for getting things done when you don’t want to do them: combine them with rewards.)

Upcoming: I did very little of each task, but a little was all that was needed. I was grateful for my rough program drafts a few weeks later when they got moved up to Urgent.

Daily Maintenance: while it’s tempting to skip some of these, the “little and often” philosophy tends to be all you need so you don’t have to do some giant all-day email binge later.

Want to try my Priority To-Do List? Click on the link below to download a free PDF template.

What works for you when it comes to managing your time?

Further Reading:

Time Management for Musicians Part 2: Optimal Brain Time

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