My Top Tools, Apps and Methods that Support Big Creative Goals

An empty tub of Northern Bloc Vegan Ice Cream

I remembered to defrost the fridge freezer today! Well… I was reminded by an app. The veg box arrives on a Friday morning so the best time to do it is when the fridge is empty on Thursday.

But there was some Coconut Ice Cream in the freezer! What to do? Eat it for breakfast, obvs – an organisational snafu… or was it?

I’m scoring a feature at the moment and there’s so much music to keep on top of that I had to up my organisational/project management game. So these are the apps and systems I’m currently using. Please note, it’s always work in progress and I’ll modify this list depending on what the work demands, now and in future.
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What’s the Best Way to Rest?

A Woman rests on a wall overlooking a busy street

Disclaimer – just my humble opinions and life experience here…

I subscribe to the mantra, ‘a change is as good as a rest’. Or, rather, ‘a change is the sameas a rest.’

Rest for me isn’t just about sleep, relaxation, meditation and quiet stillness. It’s about balancing out my work activities and daily obligations with their ‘opposites’ to support me in doing these activities and obligations whilst providing a whole bucketload of benefits that make life more bearable, enjoyable and worthwhile. read more

Ditching Social Media, Anxiety, Mental Health Apps and The Inner Critic

After removing social media from my life during the last two years, I’m slowly but surely reducing anxiety and my distractability. It used to be that I would read a paragraph or two in a book… my mind would wander and I’d realise I’d read several more paragraphs without a clue what it said. That doesn’t happen all that much any more. Result.

Looking for alternative dopamine hits

I still get bored and want to get rid of that boredom, and I’ve found myself recently clicking through YouTube and some other forum sites. I get a little hit of dopamine and a false sense of community and connection (I’m still a lurker – I don’t really engage in commenting as my inner critic will happily continue to assert that what I have to say is neither useful, witty nor pithy – what a bitch!); I can feel that old, familiar, background lure that I used to get with the big three (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) so I’m not out of the woods yet.

I find that my iPad is the worst culprit. My phone’s screen is too small for me to comfortably watch or read anything on it for any great length of time, and though I love it in the studio I really don’t want to be spending my free time on the system in there: that space is for working. The iPad is just the right size for reading and it’s so convenient of an evening if I’m a little bored or impatient with what I’m watching on TV or reading in a book. So I’ve given said iPad to John to hide! When I’ve done this before (and I’ve done it several times now to try and ditch this unconscious YouTube et al compulsion) it’s worked in the short term. I’ve come to the conclusion I might need a long term strategy though.

Mental Health Apps

To deal with the anxiety directly and the pretty annoying (and mostly unhelpful) Inner Critic, I’m trialling two apps on my phone (it’s an Android but there’ll be iOS versions or similar apps for other platforms). Pacifica is an all round mental health assistant, meditation app and habit tracker, and Unthink deals with the Inner Critic through a very simple CBT interface. I haven’t paid for either.

I like them both. If I’m feeling antsy or bored or anxious or stressed or even a little euphoric (it happens occasionally when the anxiety dissipates of its own accord), I can check in with Pacifica to log how I’m feeling and it’ll suggest meditations or actions I can take to help me make progress. Alternatively, for a super-quick fix, Unthink can help me take a more objective perspective on an unhelpful thought-chain and bring it around to a more realistic interpretation.

no technology either good or bad, but design that makes it so

I don’t think the internet, gadgets or even social media is inherently bad. I think platforms and applications deliberately built on addicting us to their dopamine hits in order to harvest our attention and data to sell to the highest bidder, and to convince us that we’re incomplete and faulty so we’ll buy things we don’t need or even want and get us to do things (like voting for certain things) that aren’t in our best interests are bad. I don’t want any part of that.

There’s nothing inherent in technology that precludes it helping us to be our best selves. To make our short existences on this planet more bearable. I choose emphatically not to use technology that isn’t in my best interest but to embrace wholeheartedly that technology which has been designed to treat us all in a compassionate manner.

My Inner Critic and her constant chatter

As an incredibly useful aside of using these helpful technologies, I’ve started to note how my inner critic is constantly commenting on what I’m working on, my writing, my work processes, how I analyse and make work decisions. It’s not just every now and then, during those times when I’m conscious of it and can happily ignore it; it’s all the fricking time. This is bad for business.

I would (understandably) prefer to be as objective and have an interpretation of events that is only ever helpful and, hopefully, accurate. When I interpret the worse, my reaction becomes fight or flight. Once we’re in flight or flight mode, our creative options decrease as the ancient parts of our brains attempt to get us out of danger as quickly and efficiently as possible.

A more meandering and experimental option for dealing with the situation just isn’t on the table – unfortunate, since this is exactly what’s most effective in my line of work. It’s also this meandering, experimental part I enjoy the most.

The option to fail is possibly the most essential tenet of creativity. Without the option of failure, we play small, safe and certain. Or we can be risk-takers, fail and yet still survive to play another day, to learn from these mistakes and as a result go off on unexpected and wild creative tangents (and ironically, these experiences lead to more dramatic and exciting dopamine-hits than receiving any number of likes on Facebook or Instagram).

I need my Inner Critic to stop equating the failure of my first draft to fit the brief with certain death! Silly thing. I can see her do this and ignore her, or I can work to reason with her. Eventually she might start to chill her beans and allow me to live my life without having to compartmentalise and suppress anxious reactions. I just won’t have them all that much. That’s the idea, anyway. We’ll see how it works in practise.

There are times I don’t realise that the Inner Critic is presenting an unhelpful or downright incorrect interpretation of events. However, these apps are helping me to recognise those feelings and associated thoughts and to continuously challenge them. It’s quite hard work, to be honest. Nevertheless, the difference in both how I feel, and how effective I am in the world, makes it worth it.

It’s nice to feel ok more often than not, and to feel empowered to do something about making it so.

Image: Flickr

Don’t wait for Creative Inspiration to Get Work Done

Glowing brain

Inspiration – it’s a fickle beast. We all know that. Sometimes I’m inspired, sometimes I’m not. Still have a deadline though, still need to get paid. One of my big priorities and motivators though is also to enjoy the experience as much as clients will (hopefully) enjoy the music I’ll compose for their film or play. Though it’s quite a nice bonus, that feeling of creative inspiration, of having ideas spring into mind as if from outside of us, isn’t really a prerequisite to said enjoyment.

Enjoying your work comes from autonomy, mastery and purpose says Daniel Pink in Drive; I know for me this is so so true – they were all factors I found intensely important for my work and life, even before I read his book. However, autonomy, mastery and purpose all take work to make happen, in and of themselves.

=&0=& asks that you structure your own time and/or way of working and requires discipline. Resistance and procrastination are ever present threats.

=&1=& requires years of focussed, deliberate practise, experimentation and learning from your mistakes. It takes grit, determination and a somewhat obsessive drive. Or just… discipline.

=&2=& requires thought, introspection and interrogation. The why of what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s obvious; often it’s not, and needs work in itself to get really clear on. What is your reason for doing the work? Be honest…

  • is it for the money (that’s ok, it’s high on my list, I gotta eat)?
  • is it in service of a joint venture to create something bigger and more awesome than you could do on your own (ooh a big juicy yes)?
  • is it to make your clients happy – and maybe get some much-needed ego validation (maybe the basis of the entire media industry)?
  • is it to work with people that you like hanging out with (guilty as charged)?
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    Why I Quit Twitter (and you might want to, too)

    Blue + Bird by John Verive

    I’M A QUITTER. A serial quitter. I like quitting things. Things I’ve quit: coffee, owning a car, dyeing my hair, wearing high heels, most recently some social media including twitter… I quit because I get a kick out of it – a sense of clarity and relief. Maybe it’s my catholic upbringing (you know, all about the suffering and sacrifice, that religion). It’s tired cliche, but it’s a cliche because of its universal truthiness. It’s as if an enormous weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and that, finally, now I have time to concentrate on the more important things in life.

    Unfortunately it wears off, that feeling. Or, more likely, I get accustomed to it. Hedonic adaptation. So then I go looking for the next thing to quit, to trim, to declutter, to scrap, to refine. And do you know what – I never regretted any of the quitting. It’s brilliant. I just fill the time with more interesting stuff, drink a more varied beverage menu, get around by bike or train, let my greys twinkle and walk further in flats.

    A serial, addicted, quitter. Konmari-ing was a DREAM.

    Back to twitter. Late last year I had around 2500 followers and was following somewhere around the 500 mark. Check out that ratio, would ya! *Smug face*. But I’ve been on the site since 2008 so there would be something wrong if I didn’t have a fairly decent number of followers, and at the start of my twitter journey I would spend hours a day chatting and cementing ‘relationships’ (yeah, bit of a stretch of the definition there). Every notification was a lovely little dopamine hit. I reeeeeally enjoyed it.

    Fast forward just under 10 years and I’d fallen in and out of love with the site a good few times. Then, in late 2017, I read Deep Work by Cal Newport and subsequently many, many blog posts and articles and news op eds that recommended dumping twitter and other social medias. It gets in the way of your life, they said. You’re addicted to it, they said. It makes you anxious (along with Facebook and all the other social medias), they opined.

    So I dumped it. You know though, it’s not like when you deactivate Facebook (which I have, obvs). On FB you can deactivate and activate again and back again ad infinitum without punishment. All your content will still be there. I’ve taken to logging on and deleting a bunch of posts (I still can’t work out a quick way of doing it) sporadically. And then deactivating again. I find messenger super useful for arranging my real world social life (such as it is) so I’m not going to completely ditch Facebook any time soon. Unless they can completely separate the two, which,  of course, isn’t going to happen.

    Back to twitter. I deactivated then reactivated around 3 weeks later, starting to think maybe I’d made a mistake… and I’d lost 500 followers! Yikes. It was then I realised that I was actually pretty gutted. But why? Because I was addicted to that little follower count, that social proof of my worth. Never mind how many people had hidden me from their feed. And how few people I interacted with or responded to any of my posts. I might as well have been following 10 people.

    With this in mind, I re-deactivated and all those thousands of posts of mine were removed from twitter’s servers (I kept a back up of the inanity I’d spouted for those 10 years, I’m not an idiot). And the remaining followers GONE. And I do feel free. And less anxious (though Facebook was more of a culprit for that). I’m still an information addict, like most humans, and I’m seriously considering ditching my Instagram relationship right now (OMG Heather it’s not a chuffing relationship). I’ve just signed up for Vero (that limited-time free offer hooked me in, I’m not proud). The Guardian website gets more hits than I’d like from me per day.

    What I needed was a replacement activity. So I’m getting back into New Scientist (free as an e-magizine from my local library), I’m reading tons more real books (currently making my way through all the award-winning or -nominated women sci-fi authors) and learning German with DuoLingo – I completed Spanish a year ago and though I really could do with a refresher there’s a usefulness to learning a language that is multiple powers ahead of my barely curated, opinion-as-fact, scatter-shot twitter feed. What’s more, between my basic Spanish and John’s GCSE German we managed to get by on a Spanish holiday where somehow we’d managed to stay in a place where English wasn’t spoken at all in either shops or restaurants, but Spanish and German was. Phew again. USEFUL.

    Utility is my go-to metric for whether or not I spend time energy or money on something. I get joy-sparks from usefulness, aesthetics and comfort a joint second. I guess that’s why I like writing music for other people’s projects, rather than just producing tracks and hawking them on Bandcamp. I need to feel useful. Ugh. ANYWAY.

    Twitter may or may not have been useful. It put me in touch with Premiumbeat that has kept me afloat in some lean times. I’ve had nice chats with nice people. But it gets in the way of making music. It’s a distraction at best and makes me less useful at worst. So out it goes.

    On saying that, I’ve reinstated my @hethfen account just to retweet blog posts. It’s automated. I rarely check it. I you want to tweet me, email me instead.

    Edit May 2018: I’ve deleted my account again, along with Facebook (not just deactivation but proper deletion), Instagram, LinkedIn and Google Analytics. Let’s see how long this lasts…

    Image: Flickr

    2017 – The Year of Getting Out Of My Comfort Zone

    Golf Course In The Fog Simon Harrod Flickr

    I think my theme for 2017 might have been 'getting out of my comfort zone'. I said YES to bunch of opportunities I perhaps wouldn't normally have gone for. Sometimes it worked really well for me, sometimes it... didn't quite turn out as I'd hoped. I learned a LOT about how, why and when to 'get out' of said 'comfort zone' for maximum value...

    Social Media is screwing with my ability to focus so I’m probably going to quit it. Maybe. At some point.

    A woman holds a note that says 'focus'

    Focus is sometimes… challenging, isn’t it? I sometimes think I used to be better at it. Then I read an article that said I’m probably right:

    “In fact, paying attention involves two separate functions: ‘enhancement’ (our ability to focus on things that matter) and ‘suppression’ (our ability to ignore the things that don’t). Interestingly, enhancement and suppression are not opposites, they are distinct processes in the brain. The latter becomes less reliable as you get older.” [my emphasis]

    A Recipe For Undeniable Creative Success

    A wooden sign in a green field points to 'creativity'

    Time is short and I’ve still got work to do. Rather than curl up in denial under the duvet with Netflix and a bottle of Belvedere, this is how I try to approach a challenging amount of creative work, such as the epic beast that is Flood.

    Accept it. Don’t fight it. It’s going to get done. Have faith in yourself. If you don’t, who will?

    Prioritise. Cut out all the chaff. Remove extraneous work and social obligations – anything that can be postponed, do it. What’s the most urgent music to be written? On this project, I had several songs to write for choir, so these were written first so that the performers could get to learning them as quickly as possible.

    Schedule. Break all the work up into smaller bitesize chunks. Take a reasonable amount of time to plan your time so that you can…

    Concentrate on today only. Worrying about what you have to do tomorrow, the day after, next week is a waste of your energy.

    Focus. Turn off email, twitter, let the phone go to voicemail. Go offline. Work hard and jealously guard your time against anything less worth your while. This is important. No-one is going to write this music (or whatever work it is that you do) but you, and no-one else will get blamed when deadlines are missed. Work hard, whilst remembering to…

    Communicate. Keep everyone in the loop who needs to be. On this project that meant the director, the writer, the sound designer, the producer, and a number of others at different times and in different ways. Whilst it’s important to get the job done, it’s also important to get the right job done, especially on something as fluid as new theatre. Scripts get re-written, budgets get squeezed, new technologies have their unforeseen quirks. Plans change, and you’ve got to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

    Recharge. That amount of music cannot be written and still remain top quality when you’re running on fumes. Factor in at least a day or two every week where you step away from the  mac/piano/manuscript paper and do something else. Anything else. Get your head out of the game. Your subconscious will continue to work on the problem and you’ll find a miraculous pool of ideas are ready for you to dip into when you’re back at work the next day. Trust me on this, it really does work. I work anywhere up to 5+ times faster that morning after a day off. It’s truly bizarre if you’re not used to it. 🙂

    To recap…

    Accept – Prioritise – Schedule – Concentrate – Focus – Communicate – Recharge

    A recipe for undeniable creative success.

    This is a retooled post from 2010 when I was working on Anthology with Slung Low for the Liverpool Playhouse. I was far busier back then with work besides composition, including violin teaching and performance. Now I’m solely a composer, the method still holds true – so I thought it was worth another share.

     

    It Happened Here and Writing for the Sake Of It

    A Map of Holbeck, a Pen and an MP3 Player with Headphones on a Bench
    It Happened Here is a Slung Low audio/installation adventure set in Holbeck, Leeds, which opened in August 2016. 

    It Happened Here was a surprisingly freeing project to work on; usually my work is underscoring dialogue or action, either as live theatre or onscreen, and synchronisation with these events is a high priority – synchronisation of tone, emotion, pace, volume and complexity. This synchronisation can be quite strict, as in the case of much of my animation work, or fairly fluid in the case of promenade theatre. Nonetheless, there are always ‘sync-points’ to hit.

    In It Happened Here, there were spaces in the script where music happened; however, the only brief for each section was simply a title, and sometimes a little description from one of the characters on how they felt about that particular title (attempting not to give away any spoilers here!).

    Even the durations were deliberately left quite vague – for all but one movement of music, they were somewhere between 1 and 3 1/2 minutes for each.

    So… the music was to last as long as I (or the music, I’m still never quite sure) wanted.

    I haven’t written like this in years. Even when I sketch themes for work in advance of a show or in pre-production for a film based on the script or a director’s brief, each sketch will be under a minute in length, and it’ll get to the point pretty quickly. None of this developing of motifs or gentle building atmosphere that you often need to do under dialogue or onscreen action.

    Part of me was a little wary of having such a free brief. I like to bounce and push against the boundaries of a specific project’s requirements – those restrictions force a level of creativity that really gets the grey matter firing in quite an addicting way. It’s a problem solving exercise – how do I fit the music into a specific time frame, synchronising to specific moments, whilst still creating something that could still be described (sometimes in the broadest definition) as a coherent musical piece. And I do love a problem solving exercise, I think it’s just how I’m wired…

    In summary – those sync-points are a handy little crutch, a pre-arranged structure on which to hang the tunes. It Happened Here was different – no crutches at all (apart from one little bit of underscored dialogue towards the end, but… spoilers! Sorreeee.).

    I wasn’t surprised (after the first day of writing some really dire stuff that will never see the light of day, essential part of the process and all that etc. etc.) to find that I really relished the opportunity to just write.

    One of the most common question I get asked is whether I write just for myself; not for a brief or a project or a commission but just for the hell of it, I’ve-got-a-tune-in-my-head-that-I-gotta-get-down situation.

    I don’t. I wonder if that’s sad sometimes… I used to when I was younger – in my teens and early 20s, I’d write violin duets for my sister and I, and pieces that might make there way onto demo CDs… but even for these two random examples there appears to be purpose. This music had a function outside of existing just for its own sake (violin duets = social, demo music = finding work), so maybe I’ve never just written just to write – an interesting revelation to me just typing this out.

    In chatting with a lovely new friend very recently, he suggested that it’s because I might prefer to be involved in (or at least instigate) something bigger than just myself and my tunes, and that it was more rewarding to me to have the piece be in service of, and add value to, that bigger thing. Maybe he’s right.

    Anyways, less of the psychoanalysis and back to It Happened Here – it was chuffing glorious to write with such a free brief and I enjoyed it immensely… making me think I could seek out similar opportunities in future, something with a purpose above and beyond itself – in this case working with my fave people, the promotion and inclusion of an oft-overlooked part of Leeds, and entertaining a wide, diverse and on-going group of people – but with a much looser requirement for synchronisation. Maybe. We’ll see.

    It’s designed to be listened to whilst wandering the environs of Holbeck so, if you’re ever at The HUB for a show or whatever, do add in an extra hour or so before to do the tour.

    Alternatively, you can listen to it elsewhere and it’ll still make sense. Download it to your phone or mp3 player of choice and listen at your leisure…

    The lovely John Hunter wrote it, the quiet technical genius of Matt Angove recorded and sound designed it, and logistical organisational heroes Alan Lane and Sally Proctor produced it. Direction was a magnificent all-hands-on-deck scenario on this occasion and I received brilliant notes and feedback from all concerned (big thanks you guys 🙂 ).

    I took the pictures. Please don’t nick them. Not that you would, obvs. See more of them here.

     

    Rest, Reset, Regroup, Recharge

    National Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

    The evening concert for the National Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme on 1st of July went to plan and was well-received. Phew!

    So right now, for me, is all about taking the time to rest and recharge the batteries. To be honest, I took a couple of days off directly after the show finished before going back to work. I thought that would do the trick. Boy was I wrong! Though I did get through some work – a pitch for a cartoon miniseries and a budget for another little thing, it was more of a slog than it should have been. I’ve bitten the bullet and given myself this week off to see if that helps.

    After powering through the last couple of months on the Somme project, fatigue snuck up on me and the creative well is running a bit dry. Politics, world news, the state of the climate… Right now, the world is travelling a touch too fast for me to keep up. I need to pause and regroup for just a little while longer so as to return ready for the next adventure!

    Though I still find myself at the computer, pottering in the studio, attacking that mountainous paper pile of receipts. It’s quite hard to do just… nothing. Hopefully this slower pace with do the trick though – focussing on things other than what the next note or rhythm or modulation should be. Maybe a change is as good as a rest?