As mere human beings, we’re heavily susceptible to decision fatigue and ‘analysis paralysis’. It’s the reason that top athletes, performers and business people have set daily routines and rituals. You have a limited number of effective decisions each day, and if you’re too busy wasting these on what to wear or what to have for breakfast, you won’t be able to give your music the level of cerebral energy that it requires. The same goes for anything in life.
I’ve always been aware that I have a limited number of effective decisions in any given day, and I’ve noticed the effects of this on my ability to create and engineer. Think about it – what is music production, if not a focused series of decisions? From selecting a major or minor key, to which kick drum frequencies to push or duck, to how much of a square or triangle wave you need in that lead sound. Each of these seemingly small decisions requires creative energy and, you guessed it, can lead to decision fatigue.
It’s useful to apply a simple analogy. Each day, you carry with you a bucket of decision tokens. Each decision you make, depending on the size, costs you a certain number of these tokens. Once they’re spent, they’re spent, and your capacity for effective decision making has been reduced, resulting in decision fatigue. This is when we make poor, irrational or ill-informed choices…or none at all.
If in doubt, go minimal
Research has shown that judges in court make more favourable decisions early in the day than later on…scary isn’t it? It’s also why the average person vegetates on the sofa every night after work, watching reality TV and eating microwave food. They’ve been overwhelmed by decisions throughout the day and clarity of thought has all but disappeared.
It’s pretty obvious why Steve Jobs seemed to wear the same outfit every day. Same goes for Zuckerberg and Obama. Their daily routines have already been decided in advance. It’s an unnecessary waste of energy to think about which shoes to put on or what food to eat when you have so many other (much more critical) decisions to make during the day. We can all incorporate these simple techniques into our lives to increase our productive power.
Prior planning to prevent decision fatigue
Make as many decisions in advance as possible and get organised. Furthermore, know yourself. Do you work better at night? After exercise? When is your mind clearest? When do you feel best? Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is key – once you’re self aware, you can work around your weaknesses and play your strengths to your advantage.
Diarise specific times for specific tasks. For example, you may need a whole day to really get creative – I certainly do. I tend to write, record or mix on the weekends when I have more freedom. That doesn’t mean I can’t progress during the week – I just know that I won’t be very energised in the evenings so I perform less ‘creative’ and more ‘engineering’ type tasks, such as project organisation, sampling and sound design. As a drummer, I find that writing rhythm parts flows quite naturally, so I can normally produce drum and bass parts without difficulty.
It also helps to make the big calls straight away. For example, if I’ve set aside a whole day to mix, I make all of the key decisions from the get go. Listen to your track once or twice through first thing, no more than that. While listening, use a notepad and write down the biggest issues, bugbears, things that need to be added, things that need to be taken away, and so on. You should have a pretty decent list, which then forms your plan for the day. If there’s not much on the list, awesome! You’re almost done.
This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many of us still fall foul of this often easily solved issue. Out of respect for the craft, we owe it our full attention. Most of us take advantage of social media to engage with friends, fellow musicians and promote our work, however it’s the ultimate distraction. Not forgetting constant emails, videos, updates and so on. These are all energy-sapping activities that will eventually lead to decision fatigue.
Now that you’ve diarised your tasks, try turning off your internet during these times. I admit, this is somewhat shocking and drastic, but it works. Simply turn off your WiFi connection and put an end to the ultimate enemy of concentration. Don’t forget your phone’s WiFi, or any other device for that matter. Alright, you can keep your satellite signal in case of an emergency, let’s not go too mad.
Limit your options with templates
Depending on your genre and writing style, you can be certain that, at least for most of us, there are a certain number of commonalities between all of our productions. The type of instruments used, the synth sounds we create, the drum samples we end up reaching for when inspiration hits, and so on. For this reason, templates can be extremely useful in increasing our workflow.
Choosing your instrumentation ahead of time won’t inhibit creativity, it will help to develop your ‘signature’ sound. Set up auxiliaries with your most commonly used effects. Don’t reinvent the wheel unnecessarily – take your favourite tracks and copy their structures…I won’t tell.
Templates aren’t ‘cheating’, and they certainly don’t lead to every track sounding exactly the same, if you use them in the correct fashion. Nor do they limit creativity – if anything, they enhance it. Once our minds are rid of this burden of choices we’re free to concentrate on what matters. When we’re not worrying about sound design, or being distracted by that honky 700 Hz in the guitar, we can get on with jamming out melodies and chord patterns and, ultimately, avoid that pesky decision fatigue.
I recently wrote a post about how to create and properly execute templates – you can check it out here.
Grouping certain types of tasks can supercharge your productivity. As mentioned earlier, you may prefer to ‘create’ at certain times of the day or week, and maybe you’ve got your engineering cap on during evenings or first thing in the morning – whatever works.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Likewise, it can be overwhelming to stare at an arrange window, full of possibility, missing sections, frequency issues or out-of-tune vocals. It’s a waste of time. Break the problem down into its constituent parts. Maybe you’re busy Monday night, but you could nail the drums on Tuesday. You’ve got Tuesday, and Tuesday only, to complete the drums, then it’s time to move on because you’re writing bass on Wednesday.
You can even forget writing whole tracks for now. Why not start by writing 10 chord patterns – just 10. Now take one of those 10, and write 3 variations. Now do the same for each of the original patterns. That’s 30 patterns without much effort at all, and at least 10 places to start full arrangements.
Or, if you’re not quite up to chords this evening, why not try building a preset on your favourite synth? Now alter the ADSR settings and save that as a separate preset. Now add some modulation and save that…and so on. In less than an hour you could have a whole host of sounds depending on how much detail you’d like to go into. Now you’re on a roll. All of this up front work will pay back in dividends when it comes to writing, and decision fatigue won’t be an issue.
Commit to your decisions
Above all, finish what you start. How many tracks have you started, never to return to? How many projects do you have sitting on hard drives, resting in closed drawers? If you’re frustrated that you’re yet to have a certain technique down, it’s probably because you haven’t made 100 versions that start by totally sucking, get a little better and are eventually almost acceptable.
Once you’ve decided upon something, follow it through to the end. If you come back to it another day and it doesn’t work, you’ll know why and you’ll have learned a valuable lesson or technique. Maybe a particular element didn’t work for this track, but it might be perfect for something else – save it for later and move on! Don’t let frustration prevent you from finishing. Persevere, bash on regardless and, one day soon, you’ll surprise yourself with a breakthrough.
These concepts should help you towards eliminating the dreaded decision fatigue. Remember: ‘done’ is better than ‘perfect’. After all, ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist. If you need help or would like to talk more about this concept, get in touch with me via email and let’s discuss solutions to prevent your decision fatigue.
Finish Tracks Fast
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