Habitual Composition – commit to writing one measure of music every day

Since deciding to become a composer my sophomore year of college, back in 2010, composing consistently has been a pretty constant struggle for me. Every break, be it spring, winter, or the several-month summer break (even long weekends), I’d tell myself, “Alright, this break I’m going to compose more than ever!”

Spoiler alert: it never worked.

Breaks are supposed to be times of rest. They’re there to take some time off to be with family and friends, lay off the gas pedal of life a little, and give your head a little space before getting back to the grindstone of work and/or school. And taking breaks is good and necessary! But they’re not so conducive to getting work done. Work and breaks are mutually exclusive.

Even not counting the breaks, trying to write music every day can be an enormous challenge. Traditional goal-setting will tell you to aim for the skies; I’ve heard of folks that have successfully written a piece of music every day for a year (we’ll get back to that one later…). To uber-positive motivational speakers, that’s proof right there: if they can do it, so can you! They say that even if you aim for the moon, you’ll land amongst the stars. But I say it’s also possible you’ll explode before even leaving the atmosphere.

So how do we, as composers, set up a habit of composing every day when the traditional advice doesn’t work? Well, it might seem counter-intuitive at first.

I recently read a book entitled Mini-Habits by Stephen Guise. It’s one of those silly “productivity” books I like to read and write about. This one was a little bit different, though. It didn’t take itself so seriously, it used some good data to back its ideas up, and most importantly, its methods actually work.

The basic tenet is this: if you want to form a habit, start with a stupid-small version of that habit and commit to doing it every day. For me, that stupid-small habit was writing one measure of music every day.

I know what you’re thinking. “One measure of music? How will you ever make progress on your sonata/symphony/thesis/dissertation/film score?! Won’t it sound really disjunct if each measure was written a different day? What good is that?” I asked the same questions myself, but as I read, I realized there might be some substance to this seemingly mad idea.

To make a long story short, committing to just one measure of music makes the barrier to entry much, much easier than setting a huge goal. Let’s do a little thought experiment as an example: imagine your worst day ever. You fall in a puddle of mud on the way to your school/office. Your sandwich has moldy bread. You fail your latest report/exam. Your significant other breaks up with you. You twist your ankle walking home. And to top it all off, the vending machine outside your apartment complex is broken. Also your wifi is down.

Now imagine you’ve still gotta write an entire piano sonatina. Not. Gonna. Happen.

But what if you just had to write one measure of music? Piece. Of. Cake.

Even on your worst day, the stupid-small version is easy to get done. You could be in bed ready to fall asleep and realize you haven’t done it yet, grab some sheet music, compose a simple little 1-measure ditty, and head back to sleep. And committing to doing this every day sets up a routine of taking small action on your goals every day, which strengthens it as a habit, strengthens your willpower, and brings you a little bit closer to finishing your big piece.

Not only that, but it’s so easy, on the good days especially (and even on some of the bad days!), to start by writing one measure of music, and before you know it, that entire transition section that had been giving you so much trouble is finished, and you’ve written closer to 200 measures of music and spent several hours composing.

Personally, whenever I would take a break from composing over a long weekend, or get caught up in other responsibilities and not make the time for writing, it would always take me a lot longer to get back into the piece I was writing than if I had composed even a little the day before. That guy who wrote 365 pieces in a year? I’m betting he had already built up a habit over time of writing a little bit every day before he got up to writing an entire, complete piece of music every day.

So now, I challenge you: commit to writing one measure of music every day. Or, if you don’t write music, whatever other habit you want to develop, start with the smallest possible unit you can finish in roughly a minute. Don’t commit to more than that. Don’t commit to one measure on paper, but in your head imagine you’ll write 30 measures every day. This will only make “failure” that much harder when it inevitably comes. Give this a shot for a month! Chances are good you’ll come out a better, more consistent composer.

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