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Student Blog: Time Management Tips for Multitasking Musicians

SFCM’s student blogger Helen Wu on how to find a time-management strategy that works for you.

February 27, 2023 by Alex Heigl

A few years ago, the term “slash generation” became popular, especially in China. It refers to those who enjoy having multiple work identities and are good at multitasking and time management. Today, more and more people choose to live this kind of multifaceted life, including musicians who are also festival organizers/teachers/writers/etc while playing concerts. This does not only happen to life after school; if you’d like, while in school, you can be a slash person as well. But no matter where, when, and what you do, time management is always the key.

I, like many students here, have more than one identity at SFCM. Besides being a chamber major pianist with two regular chamber groups per semester (each with a two-hour coaching session every week plus rehearsals) and monthly chamber major duties (with an intense four-day rehearsal schedule leading up to the Chamber Music Tuesday Concert), I am also a Graduate Assistant in the chamber department, piano department and my teacher’s private studio. You might as well realize while reading this: I am also a student blogger.

People have asked me: “how do you manage to do that?” I wish I could say: “I have 30 hours a day!” Sadly, I don’t. But just as the famous Chinese author Lu Xu said, “time is like the water in a sponge; there will always be more if you squeeze it.” We can always do more than we think we can do and be more productive. But multitasking, time management, and life-work balance are such highly personal and creative topics that if I list my schedule and say: “hey, this is what works best for me, so you should do it as well,” at some point you might find it a waste of time. So I would rather share my thoughts on the topic in a more general sense.

Know yourself

The first step of making a plan is always to know yourself: what works for you and what doesn’t. I find it helpful to try analyzing my way of working/studying from a perspective as objective as possible, like how a doctor would deal with a patient. If I was asked to examine myself, would be my diagnosis: "I’m not a procrastinator (most of the time), but I have problems focusing for more than one hour or so."

Based on that, here is my treatment: "I’d better start a project ahead of time (since that’s not a problem for me) so that I have enough days to spread out the working process. In that way, I don’t have to focus for three to four hours a day on the same project to finish on time.

However, people can be drastically different. One of my friends tends to work in the completely opposite way: She only starts focusing after working on a project for a certain amount of time. She can’t quite focus until having practiced for a half-hour or more; after she manages to focus, she can stay focused for quite a long time.


Using tools

It is more difficult to keep yourself on track without having some useful tools. There are many different kinds of tools to help you plan ahead: monthly/weekly planners, bullet journals, to-do lists, digital calendars; these can remind you what you need to do today/this week/this month. There are also mobile apps that can help keep you focused and away from using phones while working, such as Forest and Tomato To-Do; apps like Simple Time Tracker are useful for reviewing and summarizing how you spent your time each day.

The more important thing is how to plan your day based on your way of working. For a person like me, who needs to shift gears almost every other hour, the best way to plan my day is to divide it into many one-hour blocks and fill them in with different tasks, so that I always have something else to switch to. And of course, don’t forget to budget in your break time!

Prioritizing is key

With too many things at the same time, the same question always comes up: What should I do first? The simplest answer is: prioritize whatever is due the earliest! But the due date is not all. Normally, people concentrate better in the morning and experience more and more mental fatigue as time passes in the day; if that is the case for you, then you might consider getting up earlier and scheduling in the morning whatever takes the most mental effort and energy, whether it's practicing or writing essays.

Also, you might consider trying to avoid prioritizing tasks that do not take a large amount of time. You will always have a chance to do them, even right before the deadline, since they're easier to get your hands on and complete.

Have a regular daily routine and good sleep habits

Leisure activities are great choices for the break, but for weeks that are fully packed, I prefer sleeping, having learned from experience.

Four years ago, as an undergraduate, I was stressed out because of a competition. The solution I came up with was to watch a TV show before bed to relax. The relaxation was successful at first, but the show happened to be so addictive that I stayed up until 3 a.m. every night and kept doing it for almost a week. I woke up every morning with a terrible headache and could not focus in class. That also led to insomnia that I had never experienced in my life up to that point. I thought I was relaxing after a long day, while it was actually depriving me of my “recharging” time.

Above all, the most important thing is to acknowledge that human beings have limits. It is okay to say “no” to invitations or requests if you feel your schedule is overpacked. Also, after a long day or a busy week, when you find yourself unable to concentrate, it’s important to know that this is completely normal and fine. Have some rest and a happy break; tomorrow will be a brand new day!