There are some differences in procrastination between traditional workers, such as salespeople, and creatives, like musicians. There is a darker side to procrastination for creatives.
Creative work requires an open mind and, often, a playful spirit—but this makes it easy for pointless procrastination to masquerade as creative practice. To achieve an actual output, you need to realize when you’re suffering from pointless procrastination.
Take practicing an instrument as an example. Deliberate and challenging practice is the only thing that matters when it comes to improving your craft as a musician, but you can’t just “play” an instrument for 10,000 hours to becomes expert. Fooling around on your instrument isn’t enough, but it might seem like it if you are not mindful.
A salesperson could never get away with that same sort of procrastination because their productivity, or lack thereof, is easier to measure. Managers can measure productivity by the number of sales the person makes or, at the very least, the number of calls made. If you don’t make X amount in sales or X number of phone calls, you might be invited to pack up your things and drop off your personnel badge on the way to the door.
It’s easy to spot procrastination when outcomes are easily measured, but for a creative, it’s an entirely different scenario. For an artist, the “employee” and “supervisor” are usually the same person. Also, the measurement of the outcome is often a gray area. Is articulation of your vision enough, or do you also need critical or commercial success?
To be more productive, we must not only stop pointless procrastination but also start measuring our creativity. If there’s anything that creatives loathe, it’s the world of metrics, numbers, and results. It seems better to wait for inspiration and tweak your art until it reaches perfection. Unfortunately, neither of these desires are realistic. You must grab inspiration by force and release your art once it’s done—not necessarily when it’s perfect.
How do you overcome procrastination? Stick to deliberate practice, become better at your craft, and over time, release enough creativity into the world so that you find your place.
50 Songs in 12 Weeks
My friend Joe Gilder, an audio blogger, achieved the incredible task of writing 50 songs in 12 weeks. In a typical 80/20 vein, he figured that out of 50 songs, 20 percent would make for a really good album. (Spoiler alert: He was right—it’s great.)
How Joe achieved this is an excellent example of how to overcome procrastination.
Get It on the Calendar
Joe’s a smart guy, so he realized that to achieve such a task, he needed to plan for deliberate action. One of the easiest ways to do that is to put your tasks on a calendar. For a lot of us, if it’s not scheduled, it won’t happen.
Making sure you take time out of your schedule and allocate enough time for your creative activities is key. If you have time every day to work on songs but don’t schedule a block of time to sit down and focus, that time will inevitably get lost in the sea of other distractions.
Practicing your craft, whatever it is, is a prime example of important but not urgent work. Help yourself out by scheduling practice to make it more resilient to the urgent (but usually not important) things that come up.
Prioritize Your Creativity
Joe also knew that if he wanted to succeed at his task, he needed to prioritize it over all other activities. Therefore, he made his songwriting hour the first one of every day. Nothing was more important during his songwriting season than using that hour every day to write.
Now, creatives have a reputation for not being the best morning people—the time of day isn’t important. It’s the mindset of carving out a specific time each day where you force yourself to focus, eliminate distractions, and create. Give it your best hour. Whether that’s 9:00 in the morning or 9:00 at night is irrelevant as long as you honor this creative contract with yourself.
Don’t Expect Perfection in Every Draft
That’s why they’re called drafts! Joe’s 80/20 thinking preempted his neurosis for perfection. He went into the project knowing that not all 50 songs would be good. He expected some to be outright terrible.
But terrible songs serve a purpose.
Think of your creative output as a conveyor belt filled with your creations. One by one, they come out, in order. You don’t get to go into the warehouse and pick the ones you like; you have to wait for them to come out.
Unfortunately, some of your creations coming out on the conveyor belt are terrible. Especially if you just started working at something, it seems like everything coming out is pretty awful. You may even feel somewhat ashamed of your output. However, you kind of like this gig you’ve got at the Creative Factory, so you hang out for a while and keep at it.
Eventually, your creations start looking a little better, and some are real gems. They start developing a style, and you like each one more and more. The occasional awfulness still comes out, but overall you feel better and better about your work.
That’s exactly how creative output works. You have to create the garbage to get to the great. Look at every bad piece of art you’ve created as part of your learning process to improve.
That’s what Joe did. He wanted a good 10-song album, so he wrote 50 songs for it, knowing full well that some of those songs would be shit.
So, don’t expect every piece of art you create to be perfect. Your first piece of art won’t be featured in the Met, your first song won’t win a Grammy, and your first novel won’t become a bestseller. It’s the body of work that ultimately counts.
How to Force Creativity in 25-Minute Bursts
Tim Pychyl talks about the concept of your past and future self in How to Use Psychology to Solve the Procrastination Puzzle.
Think of your future self as the successful version of yourself. The only way to become this person is to mentor yourself every day with constant creative work so you can become your future self.
For boosts of focused creativity, I recommend using the pomodoro system.
I am a big fan of the pomodoro timer. It’s a great tool to get yourself focused and in the zone. It’s kind of like high-intensity interval training for your brain. Basically, you commit to 25 minutes of heavy, focused work. Then the timer goes off, and you take five minutes to rest before diving in for another 25-minute session.
Twenty-five minutes is a relatively small commitment—not really long enough to stress out about. If you can just get yourself to think, “Oh, I guess I can do one 25-minute pomodoro session,” then you’ve already made strides in your productivity. You’ll end up tricking yourself to focus, and you’ll get so much done in the next 25 minutes that you’ll have overcome the procrastination hump of simply getting started. At the end of the session, the task you’re working on will likely look more exciting than all those other distractions.
There are multiple ways to approach the pomodoro method:
- Think of every 25-minute pomodoro interval as a coaching session to become your future self. Your future self needs help, and you’re his only hope. Do focused creative work that produces a body of work that your future self can rely on to become successful.
- Alternatively, delegate menial tasks to the five-minute breaks. This is technically the wrong way to use a pomodoro timer, but it might just be the creative solution to making tedious tasks more bearable.
For instance, I’m teaching myself how to play the piano in the typical guitar-player fashion of playing chords and singing from so-called fake books. This might not be the fastest way to learn the piano, but it is fun. I still learn how to play chord progressions in the right inversions, so I don’t have to jump all over the keys.
However, I also know I should play scales to be more proficient in creating melodies and chordal motifs with my right hand. By using the pomodoro timer, I work on fun songs by skidding the line between procrastination and practice in 25-minute intervals and use the five-minute breaks to work on the boring stuff.
Using this system to jam on the piano for two hours a day would advance your skills a lot by exercising both your creative and theory muscles. You end up with 20 minutes of those annoying scale exercises and theory practice every day without really noticing it. Your brain might not even register the boredom, because the time spent on the fun creative side goes by so fast.
The Creative’s Unique Adversary
For a creative person like you, whether you’re an aspiring writer, musician, or painter, you’ll feel the pull of procrastination. It’s what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance in his book the War of Art.
However, procrastination is not the most powerful villain of the story. Procrastination is just a thug. Procrastination is a lowly henchman and a goon to keep you from your true potential.
A more insidious adversary is Impostor Syndrome.
The Procrastination Thugs throw all these external things at you, like your Facebook feed, your favorite TV shows, and your email inbox to keep you off track. These external distractions are designed to hide the real reason you haven’t become your future self.
But the real battle is within yourself. Eliminating your distractions is just the first victory. You must vanquish your Impostor Syndrome long enough each time to release the creativity you have within you.
If you suffer from imposter syndrome, you have real achievements but are unable to recognize them as such. You may feel like a fraud or a fake and fail to release your work because of your fear of being exposed as such.
The Irony of Being Celebrated for Your Creativity
Salespeople don’t have the same flavor of impostor syndrome that creatives do. Salespeople can more easily shrug off rejections because they are ultimately not responsible for the creation of whatever it was they were selling.
But creatives have to pour their heart and soul into their art. Because of this, those rejections sting a lot more. It’s not about a random widget that failed to sell; it’s about their work of art, a part of themselves.
This can make it harder for the creative to release things into the world. You can fall prey to the fallacy that everything has to be perfect, and you neurotically assume everybody should like what you create.
But this is impossible. Every great creative has created things people don’t like. I would even argue that the better known you are, the more likely it is that there is a large, vocal group that hates your work. Ironically enough, to get to the point of having haters, you have to create enough material to build a following of fans that truly like you.
If you want to grow as an artist, you must overcome your fear and let your creations go. You have to release them into the world and see what people think about them. Otherwise, those creations do not exist.
Think about it the same way we reflect on the question of the falling tree in the forest. If a tree falls in that forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? You can argue the same thing about creativity. If you don’t have anything creative for people to enjoy, are you a real artist? If your songs exist only on your hard drive, your paintings live only in your closed studio, or your stories exist only in your mind, do they exist at all?
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It
If you are a creative person, you will have felt these tugs of procrastination—in the form of fun distraction and in the form of fear.
To overcome them, use the tactics discussed above:
- Schedule your creativity.
- Prioritize your creative work for the time of day you’re at your best.
- Trick your brain into creative 25-minute bursts of work.
- Think in terms out output and drafts instead of perfected pieces of art.
- Release often, and accept that you don’t need approval from everyone for your work.
Your mission isn’t to create fun things for yourself. Your mission is to build things that make the world a brighter, truer, and more livable place—by developing your art to its fullest potential. Therefore, your goal should be to keep deliberately practicing to keep procrastination at bay while releasing your works into the world with courage.
Measuring output in artistic work is difficult. But putting some structure around your craft through deliberate practice will help you overcome the unique problems of procrastination and reach your creative goals.