As musicians, one of the most insidious obstacles we face to working on music is procrastination: the irresistible desire to do anything other than the task in front of us. This is the case even though we’ve chosen to pursue music—presumably because it’s something we love and want to invest our time and energy in. In fact, because we care about it so much, procrastinating on our music causes us to feel additional distress. Fortunately, there are some big-picture strategies we can deploy to mitigate its impact on our musical lives. This includes retaining intrinsic motivation, following a clear, concrete, and manageable plan focused on the right material, and learning to embrace discomfort.
Author Cal Newport has coined the term “deep procrastination” to describe a phenomenon he witnessed in students—especially those at elite schools—who would “...delay important work to an excessive degree….No matter how dire the stakes, starting work becomes an insurmountable prospect.” Cal attributes this extreme form of procrastination to a few factors: being extrinsically motivated, having highly difficult material or an intense workload, and a lack of believability in the plan and material selected to reach a particular outcome.
If your only motivation to make music is extrinsic—coming perhaps from a parent or a teacher—it will be difficult for you to justify the time and effort it requires. The remedy is to instead operate from a place of intrinsic motivation—where you are doing the work for yourself, to serve your own interests and goals. Take the time to figure out your “why”—the reason you have for making music in the first place—and get clear about the musical direction you want to head in. Don’t study a particular style of music just because you think you should. Do whatever it is you feel most called to, and put your energy and attention there.
Once we know what we want out of music, we can then select practice materials and projects guaranteed to get us where we want to go. As Cal explains, if our brains don’t believe in the efficacy of our plan, we’ll likely experience procrastinative urges. These impulses are meant to save us from potentially wasting valuable cognitive energy. To ensure you’re working on the right things for what you want to do, your best bet is to schedule a lesson with a teacher who has expertise in that area. If this isn’t possible, taking a course or getting a book can provide guidance as well.
Procrastination may also be a sign you’re overwhelmed with the amount of musical material currently on your plate. Carefully consider how much you take on at any one time, finding a balance between consistency and variety that works for you and your schedule. It’s better to work on fewer things at a time and to do those things at a higher level than it is to do too much and stretch yourself thin.
When it comes down to it, even when what and how much we’re working on is aligned with our goals and best interests, we might still struggle to practice or work on our music. It’s tempting to conclude in this case that we’re simply being lazy, or we’ve failed to manage our time well. But Adam Grant explains in his book, Hidden Potential, this is not the case. “When you procrastinate, you’re not avoiding effort. You’re avoiding the unpleasant feelings that the activity stirs up.” When we’re pushing ourselves beyond our current abilities and understanding, or are facing doubt and uncertainty with a project, we experience discomfort. Often, our initial impulse is to avoid this negative feeling—opting instead for whatever is easier. But by doing this, we rob ourselves of the growth discomfort brings. Adam argues that we need to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. “Comfort in learning is a paradox. You can’t become truly comfortable with a skill until you’ve practiced it enough to master it. But practicing it before you master it is uncomfortable, so you often avoid it.” By learning how to embrace discomfort, we put ourselves in a better position to face the challenges making music and mastering our craft brings.
While there is an endless array of helpful tools and strategies available, designed to help beat procrastination in the moment, often the best place to start is by looking at the bigger picture. By pinpointing where our urge to procrastinate originates, we can make larger shifts in our direction, choices of material, and mindset that will make getting to work a less arduous feat over the long run.