The To-Do List Paradox


There was a time in music when being really good at one thing was enough to secure some form of employment. If you could talk to people in radio about new music and sound convincing, you could get a job. If you could hustle merchandise at shows and keep good records, you could get a job. If you understood how to find and contact music writers about new artists, you could get a job. As long as there was one thing you could show others you understood how to do better than they themselves could do it, you could find a job somewhere in music.

For better and worse, those days are now long gone.

In today’s music business, having a plethora of skills is key to securing employment more often than not. The budget for staffing is tight across the board in music, so employers are actively seeking individuals they believe can fulfill the needs usually met by a team of people. As a result, simply knowing how to do one or two things really well is no longer enough to justify the need for someone to give you a job. Aspiring professionals today need one or two strong skills, as well as several other skills or talents that can be applied to whatever role they seek. If you’re looking to do publicity for example, writing and sending clever emails is no longer enough. Those competing for publicity roles today are good at emails, cold calling, social media outreach, and they have a good ear for finding new talent because, more often than not, they started their own PR firm and have already worked with several small time artists they know through school or friends. These people are essentially unpaid professionals, and they have already worked on everything that a paying role would ask of them and then some. That is what you have to assume anyone competition with you for a job has already accomplished, and you need to make sure you do some of those things yourself if you want to even be considered for a role in this industry.

It wouldn’t be possible for me to outline everything you need to do in order to make yourself appear as a strong candidate for any job in the industry as the needs for each individual role will vary greatly from job to job. I can, however, help you make one change to your current behavior that will enable you to expand your skill set while still refining the skills you’ve already developed. To do this, you need to recognize that your current to-do list is a mess, and you should also understand most other people have horrible to-do lists as well because they, like you, expect to much. They seek to ensure they do everything they can to position themselves for employment, and through doing so create a list of tasks so daunting that completing the tasks can feel next to impossible. The reminder of how much remains undone eats away at you in time and, slowly but surely, you begin to doubt your ability to reach the next level of this business.

To fix this, not to mention simplify your life as a whole, throw out whatever to-do list you currently maintain and start creating today lists instead. By this, I mean creating a new list of goals each and every morning that outlines everything you need to do that particular day in order to be ready for the next morning. The amount of things you need to do in a week or month will not change, but the feeling you have toward what is left unaccomplished will because you won’t be looking at several days or weeks worth of work at once. Instead, your brain will see 5-10 things that, with hard work, can most likely be accomplished between sunrise and sunset on a single day. With each completed task, that already small list shrinks, and as you near the end of your daily to-dos your confidence in your ability to maintain this level of output over the long haul will grow.

But how does this help me find employment in the music industry?

Good question. Employers at every level are going to expect you to tackle multiple projects at once, and each of those projects will have their target completion date. If you tell yourself you can do it all at once you’re only going to end up frustrated and exhausted, but if you break down your longterm goals into manageable daily chores your ability to progress on each item from day-to-day will flourish. Your brain will stop worrying about the overall deadline and start concerning itself more with tasks at hand, which in turn will relax your mind enough so that you are able to think clearly and creatively amidst the chaos of this business.

I’m not going to lie to you: Finding steady employment of any kind in music today is next to impossible, especially if you’re just starting out. The competition for any job, big or small, is fiercer now than at any other point in the history of the entertainment business. This frustrates job seekers and complicates the selection process for most business owner, but at the end of the day it’s actually a blessing because it means only the truly talented and hardworking individuals end up working full-time. The people who find themselves in a position to influence real change not only know how to make change happen, but they possess the organizational skills needed to make the most of the opportunity they have been given.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.