The Art of Plate Spinning (or How to Find Time for Learning).

“So, what do you do?”

I still get this question as an ice breaker at a party or gathering.  It’s like: “Name, rank, and serial number please?”.

Even though I have always had a fun answer to this question (I’m a trombone player, I’m a musician, I’m a Professor…whatever) I have never liked it.  Sometimes the person you are speaking to is genuinely interested in you, but most times I find that it is a way of them asking:

  • How much money do you make?
  • What is your socioeconomic status?
  • How do I compare to you based on the above questions?

I’m not into it.  At all.

Either way, these days the question is almost impossible to answer.  I mean, I do a lot of freaking things, and explaining them takes a while.  However, once in a blue moon I get down to discussing my life, so then their question turns quickly to:

“How in the world do you have the time for all of this??”

We all “spin plates” to one extent or another, even if it is taking care of several aspects of one job we have.  I have quite a few jobs, some side hustles, some hobbies and passions, and a family.  I’m not going to kid myself and think that I have this plate spinning thing down by any means (because I don’t), but at least I will lay out the theory of how I got here and the basic time management system I use.  The subject of time management will be covered in many of my future posts for sure.

Until I was 28 years old I wasted a ton of time.  I was clueless as to how to manage it (what a shame…).  I got stuff done, but if I knew then what I know now, yada yada yada….It’s always been my goal to teach my kids and my students the management skills I always wished I had at that age.  That will make my failures more worth it, at least!

As soon as I started teaching public school, the fear of losing my skills on trombone caused me to carve out 2 hours a day to practice.  Oddly enough, this was more than I practiced on a regular basis ever in my life so, lo and behold, I got a lot better (what a concept!).  My increased skill on trombone led me to better trombone jobs (University work, etc.).  Remember this 2 hours I just “reserved”, it is a recurring theme.

Basically, in my mind I now had 22 hours in the day to get done what I needed since that 2 hours of practice was spoken for.  As time went by, I started attending conferences and other professional development opportunities, and then I started taking school credits. Bye-bye 2 more hours a day!  The 4 hours a day I carved out has been “on reserve” for the past 10 years of my life, meaning that I have become accustomed to using these for my “extra” projects I take on.

7 years ago, I moved to NJ, thus creating a 3 hour commute per day to and from Brooklyn (I shudder just thinking about it!).  Now, this 3 hour stint in the car did not cut into those 4 extra hours I previously carved, because I woke up 2 hours earlier and went to bed 1 hour later.  I started waking up at 5am and went to bed later.  To maintain energy I ate a little better and became more mindful of taking care of myself emotionally.  Leo Babouta of Zen Habits has a great post on learning to wake up earlier here.

During the horrible commuting years, I found a job that I desperately wanted in my home town, but learned I had to take 18 college credits in one year just to be considered for the interview.  This was the challenge of all challenges, and I’m not going to lie: my family life suffered.  The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was huge, though: no commute and a job I wanted…3 hours of my life back from no driving!!  I finished the credits and got the job.  To this day I feel so lucky…after that crazy year I feel like I can do anything.  I didn’t “give back” those 3 hours by going back and doing nothing; I made them into productive hours.

All said and done, 7 hours of my life had been “reserved” over time for extras: commuting, school, practicing, etc..  In the meantime, I had to make sure every minute of my working life was productive so that I could bring a minimal amount of work home and I could maximize the impact of the work I did while on the job.  These days, my practice is down to 1 hour a day religiously (unless I have a big performance coming up, then it’s more), so there is quite a bit of time to still:

  • Spend quality family time
  • Read and learn
  • Write
  • Exercise
  • Rest
  • Take on new projects if I choose
  • Run my non-profit
We all have the time.  Trust me.  Take this week to be mindful of your time.  Write down what you do on a daily basis and for how long; it’s a good start.  Wake up an hour earlier and do something new to see how it affects the rest of your day.
By the way, my answer to those who ask how I do all that stuff?
“Hey, you only do this once….may as well go for it!”
How have you fit in the “extras” you do?  I would love to compile a list of time management ideas.  What is your answer to “what do you do?”



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