Testing assumptions and breaking through resistance

Resistance is a nuisance. One of the hardest things in the world can be working out the best way in which to kill off resistance and destroy the excuses we make to not do things we really want to do. This week I discovered that testing assumptions can make an excellent starting point for doing just that.

I’m currently using my dayjob knowledge to explore a bunch of different options to discover how I can best use the internet to promote my music & that of other composers. I read a lot of stuff around this topic to give me ideas – marketing blogs, sales training, productivity articles and so on. Somehow I ended up on the list of Ramit Sethi, author of a book and website called I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Now, I have low expectations of what “rich” looks like to a classical composer, but I find that these sorts of blogs are often very good for productivity tips and marketing and can yield some real gems.

Last week yielded such a gem. Ramit linked to a post on testing your assumptions. His point was that assumptions can hold you back from achieving your goals (e.g. you don’t enter a competition because that ensemble only commissions [insert style you don’t write in] music).

And, golly gosh, he’s right! My work on Carrion Comfort has made me increasingly uncomfortable with my approach of only working on one piece at a time. I’ve been working on it for six months now, and at times it starts to feel like a bit of a chore because there’s no getting away from it. I wondered how my friends who have multiple pieces on the go most of the time manage it. I thought about why I’ve always been a compositional serial monogamist and I came up with the following answer:

I worry that if I’m not working only on one piece, my concentration will suffer and the music will turn out to be crap.

Right there: three big fat juicy assumptions sitting in front of my nose, blocking my way

  1. I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to focus on more than one piece at a time
  2. I assumed that what I created under such circumstances would be crap
  3. I assumed that it actually mattered if they were crap

Well, piffle!

  1. Won’t know until I try
  2. Won’t know until I try
  3. Doesn’t matter (unless everything I write if I’m working like this does turn out to be crap, but again – won’t know until I try)

There go all my excuses! So I am now resolved to get a second piece underway as soon as possible. I did try to jump right in but kind of failed – the film score that’s come back from the dead needs a different cut than the director’s sent me and he’s away; and the recorder quartet needs the catalogue of the Tate’s recent Miro exhibition to get me back into it but I’ve had to order it online and am still waiting… so I need to identify a new new piece and THEN jump right in.

What assumptions are holding you back right now? Think you can destroy them? Let’s take a leaf out of Ramit’s book: post your troublesome assumptions in the comments then let me know how you get on with blitzing them in the next couple of days!

Creativity/productivity: Improving creative workflow

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how the Pomodoro Technique helped me to overcome writer’s block. But half the battle with any sort of creative work – not least composition – is not the starting or the ending, but the continuing. It’s the bit where every day you go back to your work, pick up where you left off, and keep going in a consistent manner. Today I’m going to write about how the Pomodoro Technique helps with this too – via a neat little productivity trick called the Hemingway Hack.

Ernest Hemingway’s working habit was “always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next”. Don’t finish your thought, don’t even finish the sentence or the phrase – keep it for next time. And in between now and then, try not to think about it.

It seems like madness – if you’ve got a great idea, why wouldn’t you put it in place? Why would you run the risk of it evaporating between the end of one session and the beginning of another?

The answer is that by not putting everything down, by not finishing the phrase, the brain has something to quietly work on behind the scenes, ready for the next session. It doesn’t have to stress about thinking up shiny new ideas because it already has one that’s quietly maturing and spawning new ideas without you really being involved. And even better, when you make yourself abandon your work before you’re finished, it provides its own incentive to get back to it.

The Pomodoro Technique, with its structure of 25-minute blocks of uninterrupted productivity, separated by 5-10 minute breaks, is a perfect ready-made framework for testing out the Hemingway Hack because it works on two different levels. It applies between work sessions (so long as they’re not too far apart), but it also works in miniature between the individual pomodori of a single session.

My work session can be determined by how many pomodori I want to spend on my project rather than just working until the ideas run out. I’m more likely to feel great about the work I’ve done, rather than depleted and worried about whether I can come up with something tomorrow. And the best bit? I don’t need to decide “this is the bit I’m going to leave unfinished” – I stop when the timer says I should stop. And then I stop thinking about it.1

I find this a great technique for keeping work on a composition moving along. It’s very easy to implement, and works brilliantly if you’re trying to get into the habit of doing your work every day. Give it a go and let me know in the comments how you get on!


1. This bit is the hard part 🙂 Hemingway used to read work by contemporary writers after he’d finished writing. He says “If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day… To keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked I would read writers who were writing then” Hemingway on Writing, pp. 42-43

Overcoming writer’s block: Composition and the Pomodoro Technique

Long dry spells are hard for any artist to deal with. For ten years I struggled to overcome writer’s block – after finishing university, I lost my sense of where I was going, then got sidelined by a ‘real job’ and the music faded away. But I finally found a cure, thanks to a perceptive physiotherapist and the Pomodoro Technique.

A decade of writer’s block

In spite of not having written anything much in five years, when I moved to the UK I still thought of myself as a composer. One day I suddenly realised just how little music I’d been writing and I began to doubt whether I could ever compose anything worthwhile again.

Over the next four years I worked to try to understand why I was blocked and why even composing a simple two-part invention felt like trying to write the Ring Cycle. I’d find a little time. I’d force myself to try to compose something. And then I’d get overwhelmed by work, or just the sheer struggle of it all and stop again. And each time that happened the frustration and feelings of inadequacy increased.

From writer’s block to regular composition

At the end of 2009, I sprained my ankle very badly. I started seeing a physiotherapist but I wasn’t making much progress and after a while – and a lot of lovely chats – she sat me down and told me that she thought the frustration I was feeling about my composition was holding back the healing process. She decided that I should compose as part of my treatment.

Even thinking about music had come to feel rather like standing at the edge of an abyss, but as I’d just started experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique at work and was seeing good results from it, I thought it might help. I started with reading – just one pomodoro a day: a chapter of Richard Vella’s Musical Environments, then some reading related to a set of songs I’d been struggling to finish for a couple of years.

After a few days, I decided that in my session for the day, I’d just listen to those songs and get to know them again. Before I knew it, I’d tweaked this and adjusted something else. I didn’t even realise I was composing until the timer rang to mark the end of the session. Without the pressure I’d been putting myself under, I saw where things needed to be and just put them there without really thinking about it.

Using this technique, I gradually finished the Three Whitman Songs and moved straight on to an arrangement I’d been having terrible trouble with. Pomodoroed that one and started composing a new piece, which ended up as Deconstruct: Point, line, plane, the most ambitious and (some have kindly said) the best thing I’d ever written.

25 minutes to make composition a habit, not a hobby

Working in short, focused blocks showed me that I didn’t need large chunks of time to do good work. It’s not hard to schedule 25 minutes a day, and it’s long enough to get some real momentum going. Even if you’re tired, 25 minutes is doable – set the timer and just do the work. Nine times out of ten, if I could make myself start one pomodoro, I’d get so involved that I’d move on to a second when the first was done.

The Pomodoro Technique helped me not only to overcome writer’s block, but to stop playing at being a composer and start working at it. That’s an overused phrase, but the difference is vast once you work out what you need to do – and then the work feels more like play than the play ever did. I don’t need my timer that much now for composition, but I know it’s there for those days when it all seems too much like hard work.

What’s your experience of writer’s block? Tell us how you overcome it in the comments!