If you’ve spent your whole adult life dreaming of writing songs for a living, it seems odd that you would then find yourself constantly procrastinating and putting songwriting off when you are supposed to be doing it.
And yet, that is where I find myself.
Why? Why am I finding excuses not to do the very thing I supposedly enjoy more than anything else?
And, more importantly, how can I fix it?
In this article, I’m going to explore the various causes of my ‘songwriting procrastination’ and look for ways to overcome them.
How do I structure my day?
First, I should just explain the context.
One of the main reasons I went freelance about three years was to give me total control over my time. I wanted to work out the best time of day to write, and then arrange the rest of my work around that.
Where I am now is this: mornings (up until 12) are solely for my copywriting work. After I’ve exercised, done my music practice and had lunch, I can then move distraction-free onto my creative music work.
The single most important task I do in my week is write new songs. If I were to do only one thing over the next year, assuming I had enough money to survive, writing new songs would be the priority.
So from 2-5pm every single weekday, that’s what I should be doing. I’ve built my routine around it.
But the truth is this sacred songwriting time always gets taken over by other work.
There are a number of reasons – I’ll tackle each one in turn.
I never feel like I have my other work ‘under control’
As an independent songwriter, maintaining an online presence and finding ways to grow my audience takes a lot of time. (And that’s even assuming I have music to promote in the first place.)
I’m currently trying to maintain a regular stream of content across half a dozen platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, my website, Patreon, etc. Plus there’s the sending of emails to tastemakers and other admin to think about. So when the ‘music’ portion of my day begins after lunch, I can’t help feel like there are other things that need doing.
How to combat this?
There are two obvious steps here:
Firstly, I automate as much as possible – so Instagram posts are scheduled in batches, YouTube videos are scheduled in advance (see below), and so on.
Secondly, as far as I can, I produce my content well in advance. In practice, this means all my articles, videos, thumbnails, pictures, descriptions, etc, have to be ready to go at least one week in advance. That way there’s nothing that needs ‘urgently’ moving to the top of my to do list at any given time. If I dedicate weekends and Monday afternoons to producing all my content, I carve out 4 afternoons a week for songwriting.
But there are also a lot of tasks I can’t automate or do in advance – e.g. replying to emails, comments and social media messages. For those, I have set out a specific time slot – just before dinner each day – to spend on admin and messaging. I have a running list of people that need contacting, otherwise I pick up on any outstanding messages/comments that need replies.
‘I’m feel short on ideas for melodies (tunes) and this is putting me off writing’
Over the past couple of months, I have recently built two simple tasks into my routine:
– Every Monday, I start my afternoon by writing down 5 new song titles. For each one, I write 1-2 sentences describing what the song could be about.
– Every morning, as soon as I wake up, I pick one of these titles and spend 5-10 minutes writing whatever thoughts come to mind. This time period, before the rational mind has managed to wake up, is perfect for imagination à it’s my equivalent of what Julia Cameron calls ‘Morning Pages’ in her seminal book on creativity, The Artist’s Way.
Together, these two tasks have given me loads of ammunition for song topics and lyrics. They’re honestly game changing.
But I still struggle with coming up with melodies or tunes, or even guitar parts underneath them. This can hold me back as a feel disillusioned when I start writing and draw a musical blank.
So, what’s the equivalent exercise for music and melodies?
I’ve thought of two possibilities:
1) After I write my song titles on Monday, I should then force myself to come up with 3 guitar parts. Literally anything, they don’t have to be brilliant – just as long as I come up with 3 and they’re relatively different from one another. I just record them on my phone and then leave it and move on. If I ever start a songwriting session and totally fail to come up with anything to work with, I have a ready bank of guitar parts to play with
2) Every songwriting session, I could start off by listening to a random piece of music (or song) I’ve never heard before and pluck some idea out of it…
The purpose of either of these is simply to overcome what is often referred to as the ‘tyranny of a blank page’ – the overwhelming challenge of trying to create out of nothing, and the slippery slope it entails.
‘I have plenty of songs to work with already – I don’t need any more urgently’
I have so many unfinished song ideas, or finished songs that could be improved, that it’s very tempting, when I struggle to come up something new, just to recoil back into that back catalogue.
Obviously some time should be dedicated to this – some of my best songs have taken over a year and several rewrites to be finished – but this reworking should be reserved for only after I’ve tried to come up with something new for the first hour of songwriting.
My theory is that I’m still searching for truly brilliant song ideas and I’ll know when I see them – in the meantime, everything I’ve come up with already isn’t as good as what I could come up with next… so finding totally new ideas should be my number one priority within songwriting.
Again, this could be quite a simple fix – I can set myself a time limit, let’s say 1 hour, before which I am NOT allowed to explore any existing ideas, only come up with new ones.
‘I already have new songs, ready and recorded, to release over the coming months – I should focus on them’
This sounds similar to the first problem I discussed: that there are always other things to do and I never have them under control.
But it’s subtly different psychologically.
It’s partly a form of complacency – there’s no urgency to write new songs as I have plenty already recorded and so I have material to keep me going for months.
But also, I’m thinking that I already have new songs, any one of which could land really well if only I promote them hard enough. It’s sort of a songwriting equivalent to ‘a bird in hand is worth two in the bush’ – what I have already is greatly more valuable than something hypothetical I don’t have yet.
The solution? Once again I have to remind myself that there is still so much potential in my writing and the best song I can write is the one I haven’t written yet. That’s why forcing myself to develop new ideas for that first hour has to be sacrosanct.
I’m actually going to write these words on a piece of paper and stick it up in my music writing space:
My best song is the one I haven’t written yet
‘I still need to get better at recording demos – I should improve my Logic Pro skills’
[For those of you who don’t know, Logic Pro is a software used for recording – like a good version of GarageBand…]
This is just a typical form of procrastination: doing something fiddly and mentally easier because it ‘feels’ like work when actually I’m just putting off the real work. It’s what James Clear calls ‘motion’ (as opposed to ‘action’) in Atomic Habits.
In the same way that I’ve trained myself to CTRL+W close the tab if I open up BBC News or Facebook in the middle of the day – rather like pulling my hand away from a naked flame – so I should close Logic Pro if I find myself opening it in that first hour.
Thank you so much for reading these problems and solutions – I hope you find them transferable to your own creative work.
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