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Free Time vs. Focused Time vs. Productive Time: They're NOT the same

I am a Suzuki violin teacher.  But I'm also a writer.  I've enjoyed writing since high school but I didn't really start publishing my work until late 2010.  Even then I only really considered writing to be a sort of hobby.  I wrote when I felt like it.  Which meant that sometimes I would have really productive months and sometimes weeks would slip by without a word written.

Now writing, just like playing the violin, is a craft.  It takes both time and effort to hone your skills.  As my writing projects/ideas started to pile up I realized that if I wanted to start seriously making a steady side income from writing, I was going to have to start approaching writing not as a hobby but as a business.

Which meant I had to start thinking about how I was using my time.  When I first started I wrote in my free time.   Free time is kind of a vague concept.  I think if we're honest with ourselves we actually have lots of free time but the only time it really registers with us is when we're bored.  Yes, bored.  Where you're sitting on the couch thinking, "Wow,  I've got the whole house to myself and nothing to do, might as well write/practice."  Technically, sipping coffee while browsing the Internet is free time but it doesn't register because we're not bored.

So then I got to thinking about focused time.  If I have a finite amount of time to write, it would make sense to try and sit down and write when my brain is focused.  I'm very much a night owl.  I've always been like this.  When I was tiny I used to stay up late watching Perry Mason with my dad, I never understood why other kids made such a big deal about staying up until midnight on New Year's Eve and most of my students have come to expect emails about upcoming recitals at 2am or so.

But even though I am focused at night, this is not necessarily the most productive time for me.  Usually if I'm going to spend time with my boyfriend or see friends/family, it's going to happen in the evening.  Which is fine.  I want to visit with these people.  But it's time that's not free for writing.

Which has all lead me to the idea of productive time.  If I am going to really hone this craft, it's not enough to just find a time of day where I'm focused and awake.  It must be productive time.  Which is why I usually write now when I first wake up and am sipping morning coffee.  I have actually scheduled a block of time on certain mornings to just sit down and write for an hour.  It's part of my weekly routine.

While I am maybe not the most awake during that hour, it doesn't matter to me because it's a really productive hour.  I can get a lot of writing done and if I happen to have some more free time later in the day, even better!

So the purpose of this post is not to brag about my wonderful and productive schedule.  It's just to point out something that I've learned about myself in the process of figuring out a skill that I have not yet mastered.  Between my own playing and what I've seen happening with students, I think there are definite parallels here to practicing the violin.

When practicing is something that is put off to "free time," it never gets done.  Trust me.  It may happen when you're first starting and you're excited about your instrument but as soon as the going gets tough there will be a million other things you can think to do before working a tough passage of music.

This inevitably leads to a feeling of guilt/frustration once you realize that you've showed up to lessons for months now without having practiced.   You say this has got to change all you have to do is find a time when you're focused!  When practicing with young musicians, when the child is focused is usually the number one priority for the parents.  Practicing has to occur in the morning or they just get too tired after school.

But is time when the child is most focused the most productive time?  Just because the child is alert doesn't mean that the siblings aren't running around the house causing ruckus and there's the pressure to finish practicing before everyone has to leave for school.  This makes the practice session almost completely pointless because no quality work was really put into the instrument.  Everything was done in haste.

Which means that concessions have to be made.  First, you have to make the time for practicing.  It won't happen on its own.  And second, you have to factor in the entire picture.  Being slightly less alert is totally fine if it means that 100% of your mind is focused on the task at hand.  It means that the work you do get done sticks with you.


  1. "Technically, sipping coffee while browsing the Internet is free time but it doesn't register because we're not bored."--->Unfortunate...but true!

    I like the way you're distinguishing between being alert and being productive. Especially in the early morning child practice example. I feel like this is a quick answer teachers give sometimes so practice just gets done. But if someone had done that to me as a kid, I would have been a zombie.

    Oh, and I'm also figuring out how to practice writing in my day (I'm a night owl as well). And that's like learning how to practice allllll over again.

    1. Haha! I know, right?

      I recently just started taking viola lessons again to help keep me honest about my own practicing. And it's totally like starting over. I play all day but I have to actually schedule in "me" playing time or it doesn't happen.

      With my new viola teacher I do monthly lessons instead of weekly and I'm really liking it. I would never recommend monthly lessons to a beginner but for me it gives me plenty of time to worth through the new material.

  2. Hi, Danielle,

    I enjoyed this post in particular. I have discovered the same lessons that you have. I am a night owl too (even though I try to change this tendency), so I may actually answer those late night emails!

    1. I figure I'm out of school and I have a job where I can set my own hours, so I have fully embraced the dark side (pun??) of being a night owl =)


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