Tips for how to beat and stop procrastination before you practice music

By Ugo Onwutalu

As the beginning of my other article on practice says: “practice is a dirty word”. The realisation that you’ll have to put in the time (in particular, hours) to get the results you want to be a great , stop many potential great musicians dead in their tracks before they even set foot near their instrument. It gets all too easy to ‘do it later/tomorrow/in the coming days/week’ etc.

Before you know, what you should and could have done today becomes what you definitely should have done this WEEK, but as yet, you stll haven’t ‘got round to doing’.
Now many articles and tips on procrastination focus on ‘Just doing it anyway’ and I agree that forcing yourself to start is the best and fastest way IF you have the willpower. The problem is that from my experience many people can only muster the willpower on an occasional basis meaning that a lot of the time other pressing matters take precedence. Because of this, many may feel they have to constantly ‘push themselves’ to get the practice done and that’s a big ask if the requirement is daily. So how else can we get ourselves to practice, especially if we’re feeling lousy?

Tip 1: First, make the committment by setting aside a time in your day where nothing will come between you and practice your instrument
By making this decision, you psychologically tell yourself sure you really want to do it and are prepared to aportion time to get things done. It is a form of integrity whereby keeping your promise helps you to follow through.
Tip 2: Listen to music or watch videos for inspiration.
When you want to relax or have fun, listening to music will probably be one of the many things you engage in. Now when it comes to motivation, doing this reminds you of why you started learning your instrument in the first place. If you’ve ever had any favourite songs you dreamed of playing, it would probably have arisen from something you saw on tv/live or heard. This is were you have to be in order to rediscover the ‘spark’ that will get you inspired to get practicing. Whatever it is you like, listen to it and soak up everything you love about the music. 
Tip 3: Set a realistic goal and/or doable task
The next step is to go to your instrument with the sole focus of working on a particular area which will not overwhelm you. Too often, part of the problem is that you might feel what’s required to make progress is too much and therefore ‘not worth the hassle’. So you don’t so much procrastinate as simply leave it. Perhaps you hope the situation will improve by itself or you’ll feel mentally better and ready another time. All wrong.

Decide in advance that you will work on an area that’s been giving you the most difficulty but in a way where you achieve small victories. For example, you could be learning a passage in a music piece where there’s a scale. Instead of trying to tackle the whole scale at once, insisting on perfection, just break it down into segments and focus on getting comfortable with the best fingering on that area before moving onto the next part of the scale (again focusing on finger familiarity). Eventually, you’ll reach the stage where you can move onto bigger things and even put the whole scale together. However, focus on small things first as a way to get yourself to begin practicing.

Tip 4: Be aware of your thoughts
This applies to before as well as during practice. Your mind will start to have rationalisations for procrastinating as you think about beginning practice. It will give you seemingly strong reasons to change your mind and do something else. Be aware of this. Also once you do start practicing, it might not be long before your mind has urges to switch to another task. You might have urges to surf the web, look at your mobile to see if anyone’s texted you, make a call, check what’s cooking, eat etc. The distractions are endless. Notice these urges. The key thing is NOT TO MOVE. Notice your thoughts, but stay still, and let them pass. Your mind will fill up with reasons to stop practicing and these reasons will get so intense that you can easily give in. Instead, let the itch to break from practicing pass. Fight it in a relaxed way by being observant. 
Also, be aware of your self talk and body language when you begin practice. Don’t fall into the negative mindset with thoughts of “this is too hard/I’ll never get this right/progress is slow” etc. Resist sighing and poor bodylanguage that creates apathy (e.g. slouching, serious face etc). These all contribute to procrastination. Instead, develop a keener posture, more upright and think of how you would carry yourself when engaged in an activity you enjoyed. Replicate that, but with a smile/more positive facial expression rather than a frown.
Tip 5: Reward yourself
This has been mentioned before in various advice for taking action on things we don’t want to do but it does work. Just make sure it is justified and you kept to the standard you set yourself when practicing. Don’t let yourself off the hook or cheat in order to get your reward. The satisfaction only comes from knowing that you truly focused on and practiced what needed to be done for a length of time you should feel did you justice.
Finally, realise you have the brains, creativity and discipline to overcome many of your daily challenges already. There will come days when you just don’t feel like practicing and don’t beat yourself up if you really aren’t up to it. However, there is something to be said for self discipline and even courage in doing things you don’t feel like doing. It gives you a greater feeling of power and control over matters. After all, if you’re feeling great and motivated, it’s natural you will rush to practice your instrument. But think how much more rewarding it must be to make progress on something you were running away from for so song, simply because you took right action, in spite of how you felt beforehand.

Ultimately, by thinking of ways to improve your playing instead of all the ways not to practice, you can make greater progress than you imagined.

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