Filling the units

Many of us have been spending a lot more time Netfix-and-chilling these days, and yesterday I came home from my walk to my husband watching the 2002 charmer “About a Boy” (last week I found him watching “Contagion”. He’s pretty hardcore.)

The main character, Will (played with floppy-haired perfection by Hugh Grant) is happily unemployed and living off of the royalties from a famous Christmas song written by his father, and to organize a life unencumbered by responsibility or schedule, he’s figured out a system for himself:

“I find the key is to think of a day as units of time, each unit consisting of no more than thirty minutes. Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching “Countdown”: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully dishevelled: four units”

About a Boy

I was FaceTiming with some friends last night who were bemoaning the suddenly unstructured time they had as they were forced to work from home, and it brought to mind those units of time, and how as musicians, creating these structures are often a way of life. Let me explain.

I like using colors…

Many conventional workplace norms involve imposed schedules and coherent deadlines. Team meetings take place every day at 9 am; the feasibility study is due in April; the client is expecting the design draft by EOD Friday. One operates in response to external requirements.

It’s a bit different for musicians. On one hand, there are definitely coherent targets; any given performance is on a specific date, and we need to be prepared. And for those who work for larger organizations (orchestras, opera companies), rehearsal periods themselves are scheduled months ahead. In a larger sense, musicians have deadlines.

On the other had, being prepared for those scheduled deadlines is far more nebulous. A huge amount of any musician’s time is spent practicing – soloists may do so for hours a day. It’s something that’s done on one’s own schedule, so the first task is to set aside units of time daily (you can’t just do all your practicing in, say, one 15-hr day, as neither the human body nor mind really works that way!). That requires an understanding of one’s own learning process, how difficult the music might be, how much practicing is actually feasible in a single day and how many days/weeks of preparation before the performance/rehearsal might be needed.

Then there’s the whole notion of when you’re “ready” for a performance. There’s no empirical benchmark; at minimum you need to be able to play the notes on the page, but there’s nuance even in that basic concept, never mind what it means to be “comfortable” with a piece of music or to have “mastered” it. It all lives in a grey space.

Which is all to say that as musician we are required to master not only an instrument, but also time management, personal goal setting, self-discipline and accountability to oneself (which feels really different from accountability to something/someone else). Which, in a strange way, is what’s required of all of us trying to figure out how to organize stuff and get things done as we are stuck in our apartments all day.

I’ve found that identifying goals for each day, giving myself time limits and holding myself accountable to outcomes gives me a sense of dominion that is entirely lacking in these uncertain times. And having even that small sense of control, at least over my own actions over a single day – or 48 units according Will – keeps the worst of my anxiety at bay.

For many of us it’s important to establish a sense of routine even if our normal patterns of activity have been utterly changed. And I think it might be interesting to break out of the notion of hours and minutes (and the baggage that those very words may bring with them) and reframe our day in terms of units, to see if it can help us map out our lives.

So, my question for the day: what would a unit of time be for you? And what would your day look like if you organized it around the principle of units?

I forgot to write about my task yesterday, which was to make sure our elderly neighbors were stocked up with groceries (they were) and if they needed us to get them anything (“vodka”, they said with a smile). (done!)

My task today: go through toiletries/products/makeup and toss out things that are expired. I have 3 sets of everything (one set at home, one kit that is with me when I’m traveling, and a 3rd that’s sitting in the suitcase that’s packed for the next week) so it’s more comprehensive than you might! Might take more than the two units that I’d planned…

2 thoughts on “Filling the units

  1. “What would a unit of time be for you? And what would your day look like if you organized it around the principle of units?” My answer is intertwined with my comment in your blog called C-. I must use the time that we’re all using to deal with our reality otherwise it would be the free for all. Serious scientists still do not understand what time is. Some say that time is an illusion. Past, present and future are not separated and are part of in infinite flow of space and time. This is a complex issue that we try on our own to deal with.
    n.b.: I still don’t know how to include a photo or a text inside a comment in wordpress.com. I would have included a little post (text) called time is an illusion.
    Stay safe, Sarah and all your family.

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  2. Wayne Zelenak says:

    It seems that Sylvain has been reading Hans Meijer who said “Time applies to everything that is temporary. Beyond this, time does not exist. Just as there are no miles and pounds, there are no hours or minutes. These concepts are just tools to measure distance, weight, and change, respectively.

    So, there is no such thing as time. We just experience it because we ourselves are temporary. We are subject to change, which we can measure, thanks to the concept of time.

    These are deep thoughts difficult to understand but one thing is certain that the universe is constantly changing including each one of us. I find it fascinating to be aware of these changes and consider them Sarah’s Japanese word “Shouganai,” which means things beyond our control. We need to focus on what we can change and what we can’t and be comfortable with both.

    For me, the world is full of wonder and interest and I am just an observer captured in awe with creation. Science is amazing to study.

    If Sylvain wants to continue this topic, I’m on FB Wayne Zelenak.

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