working smart

Most people can learn a lot more than they think they can.
— Elon Musk

Have you ever reached the end of a week's practice, and felt like you've worked hard but made no progress? If you ever feel like you’ve made even a little bit of progress in a week - then this is good and you’re doing at least something right. But if you really, truly feel you made absolutely none, well maybe time to stop punishing yourself, take a step back, and look at not how hard you’re working, but how smart you’re working

In the sixth of the Seven Deadly Skills, we’re going to forget about the familiar old rhetoric that's been drilled in to us since forever, which always seems to end up saying basically the same thing: "Work hard and you’ll do well in life". 

There’s something completely fundamental to our musical progress that more often than not is missed out among the abundance of talk about working hard. Something that, if you’re not thinking about, can basically nullify thousands of hours of your valuable practice time and stop you from progressing at the speed you are capable of. Worst case scenario, it can leave you feeling lost, lacking direction and ready to throw in the towel. Yes folks - I’m talking about the vast chasm, the gaping abyss, the colossal canyon, between working hard, and Working Smart


in this gap are the secrets exploited by the best musicians throughout history


Of course, if we truly feel we work hard in life we should be proud of this, but believe me in reality being a hard worker isn’t even scratching the surface of what it takes to get to the absolute top of our game. In our case: to get to the stage of being a regularly earning musician capable of paying rent or a mortgage and having a bit of a life outside music too. In 2017, extend what you feel about being a hard worker, and look more towards becoming a smart worker. It is implicit in Working Smart that, of course, you also work hard. Think of Working Smart as a critical extension of working hard



Has anyone ever made you feel like you’ll never be as good as someone else, because that person just has ‘something special’, some ‘god-given talent’, or some miraculous ‘gift’? Think about the people you look up to in life, who are your heroes? Anyone who has reached high esteem in their art form is not only a master of their craft, but they are a master of their time. This is a huge part of Working Smart: learning how to control your time to fit it most effectively around your skill's improvement. The great thing is, anyone can do this with practice. You can become whatever it is you want to become. It's just about learning the tricks of Working Smart

We can spend our time doing what feels like working hard, but while actually making very little progress relative to the hours we're putting in. Working Smart is about eradicating the sensation that the hours you're putting in do not correlate with the pace of your progress.

The day you think there are no improvements to be made is a sad one for any player.
— Lionel Messi


In our day to day lives, for most of us there are tons of tiny little gaps of time that we fill by doing things like playing with a smart phone, thinking about what we’ll have for dinner (maybe that's just me...) or scrolling through social media. These gaps are where the secrets lie to our brilliance. Learning to use them to do something useful can have a huge impact on our progress. Something that we’ve perhaps never even thought about, has been right there in front of us for our whole lives waiting for us to grab it, and take advantage of it


Time Logging

Be  honest  with yourself when logging your hours. 

Be honest with yourself when logging your hours. 

I’m going to set you a challenge; a concept introduced to me by drummer Benny Greb. It’s the most effective way of force yourself to step back on your day to day life, and see in front of your eyes what you are doing with your time. Holy crap it's boring to execute but the outcome is spectacular. You just need to go through the boring stuff sometimes.

What I'm talking about here is Time Logging, and it’s done in the following way:


  1. Create the spreadsheet I’ve shown here - email me if you’d like the template.
  2. Set a reminder on your watch or your phone to go off at the end of each hour of each day. 
  3. When reminded, write down exactly what you did during that hour. 
  4. Be brutally honest with yourself. Otherwise, there is no point.
  5. Fill in every waking hour over the period of one week. 
  6. If you lose track or forget an hour, START AGAIN until you’ve covered ever hour without fail.  



A large part of Working Smart is conditioning yourself in to a new way of thinking about your work

It's a way of thinking that goes way beyond “Well, I did 5 hours practice today, so that’s me done!”. It’s a way of thinking that transcends the practice room - a way of approaching your work that extends to your way of life, far beyond the hours your put in simply ‘working hard’. Working Smart is to be unscrupulous, uncompromising, to train yourself to have exquisite attention to detail in every one of your undertakings, and to not only work hard , but to ensure that absolutely every second you put in to working hard is used in the best possible way it can be. Really, give Time Logging a go. This is an unbelievably helpful tool to realising how effectively you’re using those precious gaps in time that otherwise go unnoticed. 


use the focus, luke

An extremely effective way of boosting how smart we are working, is to practice becoming increasingly aware of our Focus. Increasingly aware of our ability to concentrate on one specific thing at a time, without allowing our mind to wander elsewhere. Focus is the most valuable resource we have today for our musical and business development


Think of the focus in your mind as the same focus in a camera lens. There’s a reason the word ‘focus’ is used for both instances: it describes the same thing. Really, we can’t seriously improve at any of the Seven Deadly Skills without it. While there are countless great things that the technology of 2017 has brought us that can aid our practice, there are also more things than ever geared toward drawing our focus away from what we’re actually supposed to be doing. We need focus to learn new songs. We need focus to practice. We need focus to have meaningful conversations with people. Can you think of a time when you've been speaking to someone and they've just started texting mid way through your conversation? Or been met with a hand shake while their gaze wanders elsewhere? It’s not a nice feeling to be on the receiving end of this; give people your focussed attention and they appreciate it! 


Think about how your mind felt last time you practiced. Was itcrystal-clear-epic-landscape-photofocussed?

Or was it2007-IPhone-accidental-photo-of-your-shoefocussed?



So how do we improve our Focus? We gear our environment toward promoting it. This means giving yourself everything you’ll need to use your time most effectively. A few ways to improve your environment are:

  • Avoid taking your phone in to practice. If you absolutely must, get it on airplane mode or 'do not disturb' mode. 
  • Have a music stand, and have a ‘bits and bobs’ stand. The physical act of organising your items before practice helps gear you mind up and get it in to ‘focus mode’. Our brain likes little rituals and repetition, so responds well to things like this. 
  • Give yourself regular breaks. The subconscious digestion on all the stuff we cram in to our minds during conscious practice is just as important. Body builders need time for their muscles to repair - it’s the exact same for our brains. 
  • Have some healthy snacks within an arm’s reach. Nuts, fruit, drinks etc. We need those vital electrolytes to feed all the new connections we’re making in our brains and keep our bodies happy. 


Hard work / smart work


Let me put this is to context. 

Ted and Ralph are both hard workers. They've both just finished their music degrees. Ted got a 1st in his degree and is super pleased. Ralph got a 2.1 and is also super pleased. In the months after graduating, Ted gets a job at a bar to pay his rent. He practices at night, getting out to jam nights after he finishes his shift. Ted's getting by financially, but he's constantly exhausted from working all day and his practice time is becoming increasingly compromised by how tired he is. His Focus is loosening. There is no denying however that Ted is a very hard worker. 

In the final year Ralph's degree, Ralph started advertising himself as a private guitar tutor. He picked up one student after investing £50 in online ads, which was paid for after two lessons. He did a good job at teaching, putting in only two hours a week to building his name. After 12 months and graduating from university, Ralph now has 5 students, and earns £200 a week from them. Ted needs to work 25 hours to earn this, Ralph needs to work 5. Relative to Ted, Ralph now has 20 extra hours a week in which he can either have focussed practice, build his business contacts, or get out there and meet people. 20 extra hours in which he can practice the Seven Deadly Skills. Ted needs to squeeze all of this in to 5 hours a week. 

As musician's we already have a skill we can generate good revenue from, by teaching it to others. This is more than a lot of people can say. We have expertise in a skill that others will pay money to acquire. So start Working Smart and use it! 


ted is a hard worker. Ralph is a smart worker.


in a nutshell

Working Smart is simply about learning how to most effectively use your time, and being brutally honest with yourself in assessing how you use it. Got a spare ten minutes waiting for the bus? Go through your scales / rudiments. In the airport gate for an hour? Send some emails and connect with people. Waiting for your partner to get ready to go out? Learn some new songs. 

I'll leave you with this thought: Time is a finite resource, more valuable than anything you will ever come across in life. Working hard is easy. Working Smart is a whole different ballgame; many people loose track of which is which. So…get out of bed and get to work!


Once again thank you to Hugh Huntingford for the stunning graphics. 

Thank you to Freepik for the lens image.