This is the first in a short series of posts where I’m putting down what I would travel back through time to tell myself, in order to become a voice actor/voice over artist/person who talks in front of a microphone and gets paid for the privilege QUICKER.
Everything written here comes with a big caveat: it’s what worked for me, and it’s my answer so far. It may not work for you, and I may have an epiphany next Thursday that throws everything here out the window. If said epiphany comes, I promise to let you know.
This first post is about what I think is the first, most critical step to lay infrastructure down for moving forward as quickly as you can:
My background prior to starting a career as a voice actor is as a consultant and software developer in the IT industry, and I still have one foot in that particular camp. There’s a concept in software development called continuous integration, which I love. Essentially, with continuous integration you build, via software tools, an extra virtual team member who does nothing but rote repetitive tasks that are tedious, but crucial to success. A robotic assistant.
The recommendations in this post are one half doing that; looking at building an automated additional team member, and half training almost like an athlete to cut down on the the amount of time other tasks take. And this is all in the interest of saving the two key resources I’ve found to be the most critical and finite: time and energy.
While I might recommend specific solutions here, most of the the recommendations have little or no real cost involved, and the significant part is more the specific problem we’re addressing, rather than a given solution. You may not like the suggested tool, but the important thing is to find something that makes that particular task easier for you.
Ask Yourself: How Do You Work?
The very, very first thing you need to understand is how you innately prefer to work. When are you most creative, most energetic? When are you awake and alert, but not really able to do more than process tasks that don’t require much thinking? Do you need quiet, isolated environments to work in, or do you prefer a little chaos to get your creative juices flowing?
This is the fundamental starting point because you’re going to use it to structure the tasks in your day.
You may be aware of how you work best already, or you may have to experiment. Only you will know the answer to this. Reading about how other creatives manage their work schedules can help challenge assumptions here, and lead you to consider possibilities you might not have thought of otherwise. I’m going to talk about looking at other creatives at length in the next post.
If you’re starting out as a voice actor, you may be at the mercy of the job that still does the primary bill-paying, but there is guaranteed to be some time that is yours to control. Understanding how you work best will help you make the most of that time, and that’s an important focus initially; not expecting to pull more time out of a magician’s hat, but to focus on what you can control: how you use the time you have.
Personally, I’ve always been a night owl and a late riser, so I’ve fou\nd I work best if I sleep until 9 or 10 in the morning, and typically work through until somewhere between 2 and 4 in the morning. Once I started a pattern of exercising and snacking around 11PM, I’ve been able to manage that schedule using a lot less caffeine, too.
The other thing I discovered over time is that when I needed to write something, I was most productive away from the home studio. The studio is a great place to get work finished, but not to explore new ideas for me. I need that controlled chaos of being out in the world.
How did I find this out? Through years of trying to be more productive as an IT consultant, and reading reams of productivity websites. Of having the admitted luxury of being able to nudge my job in the direction of conditions that suited me better.
Ask Yourself: Where Is Your Time Going?
Next, find ways to monitor where your time is going. Just monitor and observe initially because this is going to tell you what you need to manage and improve over time. Ideally, this should be as simple and unobtrusive as possible. Programs like RescueTime can help monitor what you’ve been doing if you’re on a computer, including what websites you’ve been visiting.
I used to be a terrible procrastinator. I would spend as much time browsing random websites as I would doing work, then rush to get work done at the end of the day, stay late, and feel guilty about wasting most of the day, which triggered more procrastination. Stop me if all of that might sound familiar.
Without getting too woo-woo on you, one of the big revelations I had was that the idea of being stuck with a task until it was done was part of what lead to procrastination, because I felt trapped. No going anywhere until this long, tedious task is completed. I personally found that using a basic version of the Pomodoro system was a HUGE help, because I suddenly knew instead that I was only going to be with a task for 25 minutes, and then I’d have 5 minutes to skive off guilt free, and do whatever I wanted. The difference was huge.
Instead of down time being a junk food, guilt ridden experience, I could take a breath and enjoy myself. When I was working, it became a short sprint to see how much I could get done. If I wasn’t getting into it, I knew the next Pomodoro cycle was going to be better, and breaking the day into 30 minute blocks made it much easier to track where my time was going on particular tasks.
Now, Pomodoro may not work for you, but the important starting point is just being able to track where your time goes with minimum effort, so you can identify areas where it’s worth spending time to find better ways to do things, as you need to. Initially, the important thing is capturing that information. This then becomes the core of your meta-system, highlighting which approaches to your work need attention and optimisation.
Dump Information From Your Head
Find a way to dump information you find interesting from your head to structured storage you can search. Ideally, something that you can access wherever you are.
Find an interesting article? Dump it.
Notes about a project idea that’s in its early, exciting stages, and won’t quit buzzing around your head? Dump it.
The less you have to carry around conceptually – that is, the more you can place in a trusted store you known can be accessed reliably, the better. The more capacity you’ll have for either playing with particular projects, or just being present when you need to be. Your Brain At Work is a great read for thinking about how you think, with an eye to being more effective in whatever you’re doing, and making the most of the time in your day through some ultimately common sense approaches to avoiding mental pitfalls.
Personally, I’m in the process of shifting over to Evernote as my store of everything I want to offload, after being scattered across a number of different information stores. It’s searchable, allows me to organise information in a rough hierarchy, and has a number of workable client applications, along with a very generous upper limit for storage.
My problem of the moment is trying to sort out overlap between Evernote, Google Docs, Instapaper and Dropbox. Removing that overlap and confusion is my current next step in making things better, and I’m only bothering with it because it’s been a time/energy sink, having a sudden mental paralysis over where to store something.
Manage Your Calendar
Any firm time commitment should go in a flexible calendaring system that can remind you of appointments, and be accessible via whatever you carry around with you daily and use to access the internet. Bonus points if the calendaring system integrates with a variety of different applications.
The idea with managing your calendar is that you have a robotic version of you, reminding you where and when you need to be somewhere. Speaking of which, a great tip I totally stole from Merlin Mann: when you create calendar entries, write them as if you were sending someone else to that appointment, who has no context on your life. Include the full address for the location, and details for the person you’re meeting, including a number to call if you’re running late, and what the purpose of the get-together is. (bonus points for some reminder information about the person you’re meeting as well)
That way, you don’t have to carry that appointment around in your head at all. Instead, at the relevant point you get pinged by your phone, and told where to go and why. It might sound silly, but the more you can offload from your brain, even if you have an excellent memory, the better. Why use that amazing memory of yours to remember such droll information? Incidentally, while we’re talking about Merlin Mann tangentially, I cannot recommend checking out his stuff enough if you’re interested in productivity. Start with Back to Work.
In terms of calendar management, I use Google Calendar personally because it allows me to:
Share my calendar with collaborators, with complete control over what they can see and do in the calendar
Integrate my calendar with my iPhone easily
Remind myself via email and SMS of upcoming appointments.
For every calendar appointment, I get a reminder one week ahead of time (so I can do any preparation mentally for the appointment), one day ahead of time (so I can plan the next day’s schedule, including getting from place to place) and an SMS reminder fifteen minutes before the appointment. If my calendar was blocked full of appointments that might get annoying, but at the moment, I’m finding it more useful than distracting. I’m adjusting to life with a two week old daughter at the moment, and I’m finding that the more I write down in moments of clarity, the better things go when I don’t have the time or energy to think clearly.
Bonus Tip: Avoid Wasted Time
One final tip I picked up from Colin Smith, a very smart actor friend years back, for you:
Wherever you go, take something with you to do. Whether it’s just your smartphone, or a book, or a notepad. Ideally, you’re taking something productive with you. That way, if people leave you waiting, or plans go awry, you can be productive exactly where you are.
If you have the tasks you’re currently trying to get achieved stored somewhere, you can find something ideal for the block of time you have available. Those five or ten minute fragments of time can be ideal for a banal but short task you’ve been putting off as lower priority.
Now, all of this might sound a little strange. We’re talking about tips to be a voice over artist, and we haven’t gotten anywhere near a microphone. This is the early stage of a kung fu film training montage. These are all of the tangential skills that are going to be invaluable in helping you become a voice over Martial Arts Master, so stay hungry, grasshopper.
Next time around, we’re going to be talking about understanding and studying other creatives. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve talked about here, or even better, if you have particular tips you’d like to share.