Time Management for Musicians Part 2: Optimal Brain Time

By Miranda Wilson

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

Do you ever find yourself getting sucked into a necessary but boring task that takes all the time you wanted to spend doing something that means a lot to you? Did 56 new emails appear in the last five minutes, threatening to eat up your precious creative time? Does your music practice get pushed into last priority by all the other things you have to do? Are you angry and resentful about it?

So was I. Until…

… I came up with the Optimal Brain Time method for making the best use of my time to get my work and my family obligations and my leisure activities done, all without sending me into a state of hysterical exhaustion, hooray!

The Nature of the Beast

So much of what we do as professional musicians is inevitably time-consuming. Most of our teaching is one on one, plus our performing careers demand many hours of practice, rehearsal, and travel. Is it any wonder so many of us are in denial about our human needs for rest, socializing, and leisure?

The answer is to schedule everything that can possibly be scheduled, including leisure and rest, according to your own personal Optimal Brain Time.

What’s Optimal Brain Time?

We all have certain times of day when we’re most focused and energetic.  Some aspects of our day-to-day schedules aren’t flexible – school pick-up and drop-off, lectures, meetings – but everything else can be. You need to seize your hours of Optimal Brain Time and use them for the creative activities that mean the most to you.

For example, I’m a morning person, and the activities that mean the most to me are cello practice and writing. So I do everything I can to use my Optimal Brain Time on them, and I push anything that doesn’t require Optimal Brain Time – such as washing and blow-drying my hair – to a time of day that requires no brain. I call that time…No Brain Time.

Don’t Waste Optimal Brain Time

Optimal Brain Time is precious and finite. Mine goes from about 6am until midday, during which time I have to do a few things I can’t shift. If you use this time on email and vacuuming, you’re going to be frustrated and resentful.

The lucky thing is that we’re awake for a total of 16-17 hours each day, so there’s plenty of time for our less creative tasks. For most of us, the majority of our waking hours are Medium Brain Time. That’s when you aren’t at peak energy, but alert enough to teach, rehearse, read academic journals and books, attend meetings, and get administrative tasks such as email done. For me, that’s my afternoons. I schedule office hours in the afternoon because students seldom attend them, buying me some extra time for admin and class prep.

“Brain Fry” Time

The mental energy I expend at work tires my brain out, leaving me drained and in need of some mental down time. My body isn’t as tired as my mind, however, so I can easily perform repetitive tasks that don’t need much brain power. For me, that’s exercise, housework, meal prep, and other things that I know I have to do, but which don’t mean as much to me. I can also spend No Brain Time on activities that I love, but don’t need to be “on” for, such as reading for pleasure, watching TV, and just hanging out with my family and my dogs.


No Brain Time tends to calm me down and recharge me for a second shift. On the evenings when I’m not playing or attending a concert, I’ll go back to the office once my daughter is in bed so that I can rehearse and/or do some more work at my desk to prepare for the next day. Then I truly am tired, so I head home, ready to wind down. I spend some time with my husband, and go to sleep.

The Rules

The Brain Time method works remarkably well, but you do have to hold yourself to some strict-ish rules.

  1. Prepare everything in advance, and I mean everything. I’ll write more about this in a separate post, but it comes down to this: prep for classes and rehearsals, pick out clothes for tomorrow, organize your space, and stock your refrigerator. Most of this can be done during No Brain Time.
  2. Optimal Brain Time is sacred time. Put a Do Not Disturb sign on your office door, or if you’re at home, let your family know that you aren’t available to do things for them then. You will be fully present during your scheduled family time, but Optimal Brain Time is for creativity.
  3. Schedule one time-slot per day for writing emails, using Medium Brain Time. Be ruthless about this. Once and only once a day, or it’ll eat your life. But during this time, be fully present and respond to all the messages. Inbox Zero is an achievable daily goal.
  4. Spend no more than 15 minutes a day on housework, and use No Brain Time. In a future post, I’ll write about the organization strategies that make this possible, but to summarize, dishes plus decluttering plus one other task is all you need.
  5. Additionally, spend no more than 15 minutes a day on meal preparation, and don’t make things that create huge messes you then have to clean up. I’ll share my strategies for this in the next post.
  6. If you have a partner, there needs to be equitable distribution of domestic chores between you. Children, unless they’re truly too tiny, can pitch in too. You can even convince children that housework is fun (more on that later too).

Here’s a list of my Brain Time tasks. Green for Optimal, yellow for Medium, pink for No Brain.

Here’s how I arranged my day according to my Brain Time. I’ve added blue for the tasks that couldn’t be flexibly scheduled.

Reflection: How I Think I Did

On the whole, I’m pleased with this. I’d have loved to have more time for practice and writing, since they mean so much to me. Also, I didn’t update my social media that day. But I was really pleased that I managed to get all my emails done during my office hours, because if I hadn’t, I’d have had to do them after my rehearsal in the evening. I was also glad that I managed to spend a full 90 minutes of unplugged quality time with my family. We spent it most of it reading aloud and playing games. No screens, no distractions, yay! I’m also glad I exercised, since I’m good at finding any excuse not to….

I’d love to learn more about other people’s strategies for getting the best out of their Optimal Brain Time. What works best for you?

Further reading:

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


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