Over a decade ago, I left college with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music. Untested and honestly, quite naive, I spent the next three years using money from designing websites freelance to ineffectively tour as an artist around the country, gigging myself into thousands of dollars of high interest credit card debt.
Embarrassed and defeated I stopped writing, I stopped playing music, and I took the first job I could get which, metaphorically appropriate, was designing gravestones... but that's another story.
Fast forward to today: I own and operate 12South Music to help musicians and businesses understand that a failure is not a death toll. Since my days designing gravestones I've learned how to balance my checkbook (most important life lesson ever), self-funded numerous recording projects, toured the nation independently and with acts like the Stone Temple Pilots, and helped countless other artists and music-based businesses understand that the words "band" and "business plan" aren't contradictions.
How did I turn it around?
Let me show you my 5 steps to simplify your life.
About every six months, I use this system to revitalize and redefine my goals and work-flow as an artist, as a business owner, and as a human being. Most of it is common sense, and perhaps that’s why many people never use it; they don’t realize they already have the tools.
These 5 steps and guidelines are the main reasons for my success today.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
STEP 1: Minimize
Chances are if you’re a human being you’re doing too much. You have a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat account, and maybe more. You may not even realize it, but you find yourself wishing you’d start that business, try for that dream job, or make that record… and you don’t because of “obligations” or “responsibilities”, or worse yet, simple “lack of time.”
I’m with you. I’ve been there.
Unfortunately for us as humans, this doesn’t get easier as we grow older and add families or children to the mix, so it’s best that we learn how to handle it now. No more excuses. It’s time to trim the fat.
In my early 20’s, I found myself devoured by a freelance design business that demanded constant attention with little return. My assumption that making my own hours would instantly give me the flexibility to do music wasn’t exactly true as the constant search to find work became a full-time job of its own. My solution? Take a 9-5 position at a local design firm. While this might sound counter-intuitive, it actually freed up a large majority of my time by eliminating an entire proposal and client management side I used to have to deal with and provided me with the means to invest in my music career for the first time. I had time to write better songs and money to get things moving.
While this may not be the exact first step for everyone, I believe minimalism is key. I challenge you to examine what you do on a day to day basis, and for each activity, ask yourself:
- Do I actually enjoy doing this activitiy? and...
- What would happen if I just STOPPED doing this?
What are the consequences? What is the worst-case scenario that could happen if you just dropped that activity today? What would the benefits be? What if you only used one social network and built your audience there? Would you suddenly find yourself with blocks of time available to dedicate to your passion or audience? I certainly did.
Each activity that you enjoy or that have dire consequences if you stop, keep on your list for now. The rest can go to the chopping block.
This step applies to people as well as activities. You know who I’m talking about — the ones who seem to disappear until they have a favor to ask of you. Though removing yourself from unbalanced relationships may have its difficulties now, the rewards in time and creative energy down the road are exponential.
STEP 2: Automate
Does anyone still pay with cash all the time? Do you remember having to thumb through a stack of bills and change to find the right amount, then possibly receiving change back and having to count or organize it? Along came Debit and Credit Cards, and with them slews of systems to make the process of a transaction more efficient.
What if you could use similar automation to get out of your own way? Well you can, and I do every day.
By running myself through these 5 steps numerous times, I began to notice systems develop each time a similar activity was identified. Maybe all my reoccurring payments could be pooled to one credit card that I auto-pay once a month? Could all my booking emails be funneled to an auto-responder that followed up for me and sent a press release?
As these systems began to develop, I would ask myself one simple question: Does automating this task make it too impersonal? If the answer was no, I’d set the system in place.
Through the years I’ve done this for my finances, 90% of my email, my processes for monitoring ROI for my company and our clients, and numerous content marketing techniques.
The results? I have more time to spend with my wife, write, make music, and live life than I ever have before, and I find myself far less worried about “did I do that?” I don’t have to think. It’s already set to go.
Now, I can understand some people being a bit wary doing this with their finances and I could probably write an entirely separate blog on how to do this. However, for a great run down of how to do this successfully, I’d suggest Ramit Sethi's “I Will Teach You To Be Rich.”
Don’t let the unfortunate title fool you, he’s not full of crap. In fact, the book’s a New York Times best seller and is full of very plain and simple financial advice that even a scatter-brained 20-something musician like myself could understand enough to turn around his financial downfall.
I’ve used common sense from this book along with Dave Ramsey’s “Debt Snowball” plan to automatically budget for my goals and make it near impossible to not get them funded.
STEP 3: Delegate
While the term “independent” in the music industry generally refers to running your own career, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it alone. This is one part of the puzzle that I find many creatives miss. I know I certainly did.
The beauty of being an “independent” creative is that you’re suddenly the boss of your own career; the CEO and founder of your creation, and it’s your job to build a team under you.
So how do we do this? If you’ve followed step #1, you should have already eliminated anything that isn’t necessary to do. If you've followed step #2, you've automated anything that doesn't require human interference. With what’s left, ask yourself if it’s necessary that You specifically do the task, or if someone else could do it for you, possibly even better than you.
Side-note: I don’t generally suggest delegation or automation of creative work or items you enjoy. If it’s work that you personally need to do, (for example, communicating with your fans) I move it onto the next step. Otherwise, I find a way to delegate it.
Real life example: During my bachelor days, I dreaded cleaning my house. Because of this, it took me twice as long as any normal person to perform the task. However, if I hired someone to clean my house for me, it cost me money, right? Here comes the magical logic: I use a time vs. money ratio to make most of these decisions and apply it to everything from life tasks to business work. Take a look:
- First, I take my last year’s income and come up with a (rough) hourly wage for myself.
Rough example from my bachelor days:
$36k divided by 52 weeks a year divided by 40hrs a week = $17.30/hr
Your mileage may vary on income, hours, and weeks (I hear people take vacations sometimes, right?), so back into your own number here.
- Next, I’ll take the amount of time it takes me to do a given task, multiply it by my hourly wage, and come up with a task price. So, say cleaning my own house took me 8hrs...
8hrs hating my life X $17.30 = $138.40 - i.e. my "task price"
If I could find someone else to do this task cheaper than my “price” OR at a faster rate than my begrudging 8hrs, I consider it a matter of savings! In reality, I could literally double my savings by using my newly saved time to do work that would generate the revenue I just spent. In the end, time is money, and what we’re looking for are ways to stream-line the busy work and free more time for connecting with fans, other creatives, and doing creative work.
“But I’m a starving artist / startup founder? I can barely pay my rent. How do I find the money to pay someone else to do something for me?” - said 90% of people I've ever spoken with...
Do you have a parent / friend / significant other who believes in you and wants to see you succeed? Can you ask them to take on a very small task part time to help you get a leg up? What about a college intern? Do you have experience you can offer up or teach them in return for some “free work”? You don’t have to go from starving artist one day to cash-flowing business the next, and taking small steps like this will teach you how to better delegate before you start paying for it.
“Okay Michael, I get your example, but do you really weigh this for everything in your life? Even in your own business?”
When I founded 12South Music, I was still busily touring as an independent artist and putting out a new song once a week. Even after minimizing my life I had ZERO available hours, so I hired two Nashville based assistants, a Los Angeles based Virtual Assistant, and a Virtual Assistant from the Philippines.
These people helped me book entire tours, gather contact information, build websites, schedule meetings, run my finances, make phone calls, and even plan strategies for creating new music.
By taking time to find the right people and trusting in their abilities, I was able to more than double my creative output and, in the end, build a business that now employs a team of 6 full-time and has served hundreds of happy clients.
What was the tipping point for me? If you haven’t yet read “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss, pick it up now, today, this second, and read his chapter on outsourcing. Think what you may about the rest of the book, but this chapter alone has invaluable strategies for creatives on how to get out of your own way.
STEP 4: Prioritize
“The key is not to prioritize your schedule but to schedule your priorities.”
~ Stephen R. Covey from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
Our society has ingrained in us that busy is better; that multi-tasking is a necessity, and that Facebook deserves your constant attention.
What does deserve your attention are your goal-driven, well-defined priorities. It’s time to separate yourself from the noise.
If we’ve already dropped the collective mass of unnecessary items from our lives, automated our repetitive tasks, and delegated out anything that doesn’t specifically require our input, then all we have left are things that actually need our attention. You are now the CEO of your life and career. Congrats! Now it's time to act like one.
This is the step where I see most people (and myself) lose focus. I personally suffer from “do-it-all-now!” syndrome, so I can relate, but doing what deserves your attention at the right time creates momentum, and our goal is to feed that energy.
I start this step by taking all of the tasks that I need to do, i.e. I can't minimize, automate, or delegate. Once I have my list, I’ll give each task a weight based on its urgency, my desire to see it to completion, or the length of time it’s been on the list (longer gets higher priority).
Now, the magic comes in making these priorities simple and actionable. My 5 top weighted priorities I'll break down into small steps.
For example, if I have “Make a new vlog” as a priority, I’d break it down into:
- Decide on the topic for the vlog
- Write copy or talking points for the vlog
- Schedule time to shoot the video
- Shoot video
- Edit & Post
Suddenly, I’ve got easy steps to reach each of my priorities.
Next? Do step one TODAY.
Setting your priorities in motion is the easiest way to guarantee they stay a priority. Then, continue in sequence scheduling up your week or month with these actionable steps to accomplish your goals.
Also, as a general rule, I try to give myself no more than 3 “to-do’s” per day. Seeing a giant list of things that need to get done tends to send me into a coffee-drinking panic, and in general, is not super conducive to freeing yourself creatively.
Savor the coffee. Make time for your priorities.
STEP 5: Create & Engage
This is it, folks. This is what you’ve saved up so much time and energy to do. In my personal opinion, this should always be priority and step #1, even if you do use the first 4 steps to clean out everything else. This is what drives and motivates you.
As an artist or content creator, this is what will actually make or break you in the end. As a service-based business, this is what drives your bottom line, your sales funnel, and your success. This is what you should be pouring the vast majority of your time and effort into as it feeds your authentic ability to connect and engage your audience.
For musicians, my favorite metaphor for this comes from Bruce Wahrla’s article about a 3 legged table. It’s a quick read and worth your time, but in summary it suggests that your career is built on 3 legs: Songs (Content), Magnetism, and Business… and that out of these, Songs is the one leg that can bring down the entire table if it isn’t strong.
Take this to heart. Spend your time developing your talents and creating quality material & content. While it may not be the first thing that brings you financial success, it is the strongest piece that connects you to your fans and builds a relationship that can last your entire artistic or business career.
And personally, I think that should be quite a long time.
**SECRET STEP 6: Take Big Calculated Risks
This last piece I include as a small tidbit to chew on.
At least once a month, I challenge myself to try something outlandishly big with my career or business; to do something that scares the hell out of me or toss a Hail Mary with no real assurance that anything will come of it, as long as I've already identified and studied the worst case scenario. Though sometimes these amount to nothing, they’ve also accounted for some of my greatest successes and built relationships that I would’ve never dreamed possible.
Real life example: Being in Nashville, I’m often close in proximity to some of the greatest music industry veterans of all time… but proximity only matters when you do something with it. As a long-shot, I reached out to the Grammy Award Winning engineer for one of my favorite records of all time (Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers”) to master one of my earliest solo records. To my surprise, a few days later Richard Dodd responded back happy to work with me and within my budget. My Hail Mary turned into a superb collaboration and I couldn’t be happier with how the record turned out.
The easiest way to motivate myself to take these risks is merely to consider the worst-case scenario. What is the absolute worst thing that could happen by taking this risk? Often, I find even the worst scenario lands me only mildly out financially and more often than not, only back in the place I started.
Here’s to simplifying your life to spend more time doing the things you love... and doing them boldly!
Think you'd like to run yourself through my 5 steps? Go ahead and grab the same template I use below!