In the abstract, you know that you want to make music. But the actual process of doing it sometimes feels like torture.
You know that working on music can bring moments of bliss: When the work is going well, the music sounds great, and you’re in a state of flow. But there seem to be as many or more moments of agony. Despite our best intentions, there are lots of reasons why we sometimes procrastinate, including fear of failure, fear of success, and simple laziness.
In the chapter called On Work, we discuss the inevitable reality that working is the only way to actually make progress. But here is a tip for actually getting to work.
If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you’re not alone. Many creative (and non-creative) people suffer from task aversion and can find any excuse to avoid getting done the work that really needs to get done. One strategy for overcoming procrastination that’s commonly used in the software development world is known as timeboxing.
Timeboxing simply means setting a fixed amount of time for a particular task. The amount of time you choose is up to you, but it should be short enough so that it’s easily manageable by even the most determined procrastinators. For example, you might decide to spend 20 minutes on sound design. Next, set a timer, work only on sound design, and stop when the timer goes off. Finally, take a short break (five minutes or so). Then repeat the process, perhaps with another unrelated type of task (e.g., drum programming, arranging, etc.). After four or five stretches of this timed work/break combo, you might want to take a longer break.
Short timeboxes work because they break apart intimidating, open-ended tasks into easily manageable chunks; no matter how painful creative work is, anyone can do it for 20 minutes. It’s important that you really work during those 20 minutes—intensely and without interruption. But it’s equally important that you stop at the end. No matter how productive you are or how close you feel to entering a real flow state, stick to the timebox. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, if you’ve finally managed to trick yourself into enjoying the process, doesn’t it make sense to run with that as far as your attention span will allow? But the reason this is dangerous (at least at first) is because it runs the risk of setting you up for a long work session that eventually becomes frustrating or disappointing. When this happens, your memory of the session will be that it was both bad and long-lasting, which may further reinforce your procrastination tendencies. On the other hand, if you stop even while it’s fun, you’re more likely to be energized and ready to move forward again once the break is over.
After you spend a few days sticking to a systematic timeboxing routine, you may find that your latent procrastination starts to feel less overbearing, and you feel the urge to just do uninterrupted work. At this point, you might first try using longer and longer timeboxes. Eventually, you may find yourself able to focus without assistance at all and can then consider your procrastination cured. And if you find yourself slipping back to your old work-avoidance habits later, simply try using the timer again.