ICON Instructor Malachi Mott shares five ways musicians can overcome procrastination and improve productivity in the studio. Learn why you feel the urge to put things off and how to refocus your mind when it happens.
How to Overcome Procrastination
On the path to being an artist, many obstacles get in the way. One of the most notorious is procrastination. It’s the elephant in the room that we usually put off addressing. Well, not today. Here is what I do to overcome procrastination around my art.
1. Stop talking about your “work-in-progress”
2. Create goals and set deadlines
3. Find an accountability partner/system
4. Make a realistic plan
5. Work like your boss is watching
1. Stop Talking About Your “Work-In-Progress”
I know dozens of musicians who talk about songs they are working on but never release anything. It pains me to hear about their new projects knowing that may have given up on the last one they were excited about. It’s like when a friend always has a new significant other every time you meet up for the holidays. They boast, “now THIS one is the real thing!” On the surface you’re hopeful, but deep down, you know that they will have a new lover to introduce next Christmas.
Work hard in silence, let your success be your noise. Frank Ocean
I’ve discovered that part of the reason I wasn’t completing my songs was that I was telling everyone about them while still working on them. The problem comes in the way the brain works. It can’t distinguish what you’re doing from what you’re talking about doing. Look at how excited everyone gets when they are filling you in on their newest project. That genuine excitement seems to be caused by the brain releasing dopamine (the reward chemical) into their brains. This makes them think that they are actually sharing their art with the person.
The more you tell people about your projects, the less exciting it becomes to work on them. You can also become more frustrated when you feel that the project isn’t living up to the hype you’ve built. Moreover, telling people details about the project early on makes it harder to be flexible when some of the details need to shift.
Bad boys move in silence. Notorious B.I.G.
Keeping a project a secret builds a lot of anticipation for the finished release instead of just the creation of it. This tension will also aid you in staying focused on completing the project because you won’t get any reward chemical until the project is completed and released.
2. Create Goals and Set Deadlines
An artist’s biggest enemy is the idea that the art will ever be ‘ready.’ No angel is going to float down from heaven to congratulate you on completing your work. Also, no matter how you feel about it today, you’re likely to feel differently about it tomorrow. So, using your opinion of art as a gauge can often be a waste of time.
A goal is a dream with a deadline. Napoleon Hill
Set a release date and work on your art as your career depended on your making that deadline. You’ll be surprised how focused you’ll be if you know that there’s no backing out. Furthermore, be sure to also set intermediate deadlines between now and the final deadline. This way you’ll have a chance to test your art out on the market and make any necessary tweaks. Lastly, your work getting bad reviews or feedback should not be an excuse to not releasing something on time. Set your goal and plan ahead.
Art is never finished, only abandoned. Leonardo da Vinci
3. Find an Accountability Partner/System
Now that you have a goal and a deadline, figure out how to force yourself to stick with them. A tough and honest friend is always an excellent resource in this area. Let them know what your goals are and give them permission to check in along the way to make sure you are on track. Bonus points if you find someone who has overcome the specific areas that always stop you.
Accountability breeds response-ability. Stephen R. Covey
Along with recruiting people to hold you to your word, it also helps to build a system or two that forces you to meet your deadlines. For example, I went from releasing six songs a year to releasing one a week just by creating #MalachiMondays. For this project, I release one song or remix every Monday and then live stream to show them off. This system also makes me sweat every Saturday after realizing I need to have something ready soon or people will ask me about the song. I don’t want to let everyone down. That pressure is enough to ensure that I have something finished every week.
Accountability is the glue that ties commitment to results. Bob Proctor
4. Make a Realistic Plan
One thing that helped me step up my production game was to stop thinking about it as ‘songwriting’ and start thinking about it as ‘song building.’
Imagine if you needed to build a house. If it collapses shortly after you finished building it, it won’t matter what color it was or how many square feet it had. The most important thing is making the house strong and resilient. After building a solid foundation with good insulation, you can then decorate it however you like.
Failing to plan is planning to fail. Alan Lakein
Songs are no different than houses. Yes, they are expressions of the designer, but they also have to perform and stand the test of time. To do this efficiently, it’s important to come up with a plan to create, innovate, and complete each project to a high degree.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening my axe. Abraham Lincoln
One tool that I use to create a plan is listing out all of the tasks that I don’t know how to do (and/or don’t want to do). It could be mixing, musicianship, sound design, or even marketing. Once I have a comprehensive list, it’s easy to see what could potentially derail my song. I then take responsibility for these parts of the project by learning them or outsourcing them. This approach removes any surprises. Also, having no surprises down the line means that I’m less likely to get frustrated enough to put the song down.
5. Work like You Have Someone Looking over Your Shoulder
I can’t tell you how many sessions I’ve worked where people became distracted with other stuff instead of being useful to the process. If you go into a session with the mindset of “I cannot wait to have fun,” then you’re probably going to have a hard time overcoming any tough obstacles that may come your way. However, if you go in thinking, “I cannot wait to work,” then you’ll be more prepared for anything that may trip you up.
You can’t have a million-dollar dream with a minimum-wage work ethic. Stephen C. Hogan
Furthermore, treat your studio like you would treat an office space. Remove any distractions (including the ability to surf social media) and install anything that will help to motivate you along the way. Be honest about this part. If you had a boss that was watching you all day, what things would you do differently?
One thing that I do to stay on task is setting time limits. For example, I know tuning vocals is a tedious task – one that’s boring enough for me to keep spacing out. So, I’ll say to myself, “this task is only worth 30 minutes of my time” and then set a timer for 25 minutes (not on my phone). When the timer goes off, I have five more minutes to complete that task. Being under the gun like this turns the process into a game rather than a chore. I’m also able to finish something in half an hour that used to take me half a day.
Business before pleasure. Letitia Elizabeth Landon
Another way to ensure that you stay on track is to alternate between something you dislike doing and something you love doing. If you love doing vocal chops, let that be the reward you get for doing a mundane task like organizing your session. Looking forward to the fun task is often enough to force you to finish the lame ones.
Regardless, overcoming procrastination is a monster you’re going to continuously fight in the pursuit of your dreams. The moment you accept that procrastination isn’t going to leave you alone is the moment you become a producer in your industry.