A Solution for Perfectionism: Becoming an "Agile" Composer / by Anthony Benis

Perfectionism has been — and always will be — a part of my personality. I draft casual emails like I’m writing a paper; I read through the introduction, acknowledgments and even the bibliography of all books and articles I come across; and I feel more uncomfortable with wrinkled, unfolded laundry than I care to admit. Just writing this blog post brings out the harshest critic within me, a nitpicky editor who has a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia always at the ready (he skimmed this sentence a few times over, I promise you).  While being a perfectionist does lead to higher quality work (generally speaking), it is not always a favorable trait, especially for a composer. I won’t stop editing my scores and MIDI data until the crescendo hairpins and expression envelopes are just right — however many hours it takes — and I’ve thrown out idea after idea because I felt like it didn’t sound “good enough.” Obviously all creatives want to put their best foot forward when sharing their work with the world whether it’s music or pixel art, but I don’t think spending hours stressing out about a single note or a single pixel is necessarily the best use of our time or our creativity.


The problem that perfectionists have essentially boils down to two words: time management. Instead of completing work that needs our attention, we are content with making that one note sing with the beauty of a thousand angels. Except we still have hundreds of notes left to write by the end of the week and our clients wants them all to sing with the beauty of at least a few angels. I’ve been in this situation too many times in school with papers, problem sets, etc. and I’ve always found a solution for each project, but I think I’ve failed to address the heart of my problem until I recently came across this enlightening article on Video Game Music Academy. What I realized was that I was not consciously aware of my priorities and I did not have the wherewithal to stifle my perfectionistic urges. As someone who has lost sleep over the little details for years, Ryan Davies’ description of an organizational system called Agile was the solution I didn’t know I was looking for.


Ryan applies Agile to the field of game audio, but I believe it has the potential to help people in any field under the sun. The essence of Agile is that it breaks down a large project into progressively smaller tasks. Not revolutionary by any means, but the key is that for each task you must assign it a priority and estimate how long you think it will take you to complete it. To explain the further nuances of the system, let’s use an example — say I want to release an album of original music. Where to begin? It seems daunting at first, but let’s break it down. For our purposes we can divide an album into three components: music, artwork and distribution. Getting into more detail, let’s say I want to write 10 tracks, make two pieces of album art, and release my album on Bandcamp. With this information established, let's go through three important questions:

  • What tasks do I need to do to achieve these goals? I need to brainstorm ideas for my tracks and compose, mix and master each one; I need to draft art ideas and hire an artist; I need to sign up for Bandcamp and research independent album distribution.
  • What are my priorities? I should probably start brainstorming as early as possible and contact an artist at the beginning of the process since art can take a long time to produce. On the contrary, I shouldn’t research album distribution until I complete a majority of the tracks since my commitment to the project may waver before I ever need to apply this information.
  • How long will my tasks take? I know from experience that mixing takes an ungodly amount of time, but mastering should be a breeze if I work on all my finished mixes at once (which also informs me of my priorities).


After determining my macroscopic goals and iterating through the above questions, I end up with a master list of tasks that could potentially add up to hundreds of hours. To make this list manageable, my next step is to create a realistic work schedule by estimating how much time I can commit to my album in a given time frame (called a "sprint," which Ryan recommends should be 1 - 4 weeks), and filling those hours with the hours of my tasks.


Voilà! We magically turned a huge project into small chunks of manageable work, and we even have a schedule to guide us in what order we should be completing tasks and how long it will take us to do so. If we're obsessing over a task and realize that it's not in our sprint or that it's very low in priority, all we have to do is take a step back and refocus on a task that is more important. The word "agile" is a bit misleading because working fast is not the method's purpose, it's the result. Tracking your work flow like an accountant makes you conscious of how you use -- and misuse -- your time, which will ultimately encourage more efficient and productive habits.


Though it's only been a couple weeks since I started applying Agile to a project of my own, an 8-bit album in the works titled Summerborne, I have already seen a boost in productivity after a single sprint. If you're interested in giving Agile a try, check out my Excel spreadsheet for an easy way to organize your tasks, log your hours, and analyze the efficiency of your sprints and accuracy of your time estimations. There are calculations that respond to color coding (green = complete, yellow = in progress, red = incomplete), so paste the text in this document to a module in Excel’s Visual Basic menu to get this functionality. Note that how I use Agile in Excel may not suit you or your project as my template is built for a composer/sound designer; customize the system so that it works for you.


So in closing, how do you overcome perfectionism and increase both your efficiency and output? It’s actually quite simple and I wish someone had told me this sooner: Write down your tasks, know your priorities, and devise a plan.


If you have any questions about how I use Agile or if you're a veteran with tips please drop a comment or reach out to me! I'd love to hear how other people are using this method.


I’ll leave you with the words of author Christina Scalise: "Organization isn't about perfection. It's about efficiency, reducing stress and clutter, saving time and money, and improving your overall quality of life."