This is a particularly interesting topic for me to write about, because I too (along with almost every other creative I know) struggle to finish songs. Here are some things we might tell ourselves as to why the song isn’t done yet:
- ”It doesn’t stand up to the competition.”
- “There are still many improvements that could be made.”
- “I’m not in the right headspace to finish the song right now.”
- “The song needs a new plugin / synth in order to be properly finished.”
- “It’s not the right time of year.”
- “This other song I more recently started is going to turn out way better, so I’m better off spending my time on that one.”
I’m going to do my best to break down why these ideas we tell ourselves are actually lies rooted in fears, falsehoods, and irrationalities, and offer some strategies for overcoming them.
1 - CATCH YOURSELF
This is a seemingly simple task on paper, yet quite difficult to achieve in practice. Without getting too much into Neuroscience, most of how we get through our day is by performing series of automated actions, about which we think very little. As a matter of fact, we are barely even aware of them happening at all. Have you ever gotten into your car to drive somewhere, and then ”wake up” to find yourself at the destination, with no recollection of the drive? Our brain simply takes over with Autopilot getting us from Point A to Point B, informed by what it’s learned over the years, needing practically nothing from us.
Therein lies the problem - our brain is taking over with what it’s learned. But we’re trying to change things! To do things differently! So what our brains have learned is exactly what we don’t want to do! Our smart and complex brains are very well suited for some things, and the absolute worst at other things. For example, our brains are pretty terrible at assessing whether or not we are really in danger. Have you ever gotten anxious before doing something that had absolutely no real consequences regarding your immediate health and safety? Exactly…
Becoming aware in the moment and taking control away from Autopilot is an important first, huge step to take in order to begin doing things differently. By taking control and rewriting the habits into ones we actually want, rather than defaulting to what’s already there, our lives can begin to change via tiny actions that add up.
2 - IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH (OR THE BEST IT CAN BE)
Guess what? This excuse isn’t good enough! Assuming we’re constantly getting better at things by simply spending time doing them, this means that tomorrow’s version of anything will ALWAYS be better than today’s. Abiding by this formula, nobody should ever call anything finished, ever… What would the world look like?
It’s a given that something is always a “work in progress”, but ”in progress” does not mean that it can’t serve a function now. Just because your song isn’t as good as it theoretically can be, does not mean that there are precisely 0 people who would listen to and enjoy it right now. Do you want to prevent your listener(s) from access to your music while you make it better indefinitely? This certainly doesn’t serve them in any way, and more importantly, it does not serve you.
Sometimes we forget that the act, or skill, of finishing a track also takes practice. Most of our time is spent on building something, and very little time is spent on releasing it to the world. This means we’re very good at working on things and making improvements, but not so good at calling things done and letting them go. How can you get better at finishing? By finishing! Even when it doesn’t feel finished, calling it done is crucial. If you wait for the right feeling, you’ll be waiting forever. This is backed up by countless testimonials by successful artists of all kinds who discuss abandoning their works, referring to them as unfinished, etc. It’s a tempting trap, don’t fall for it!
3 - DIMINISHING RETURNS
This is a concept mostly found in economics. Why is it important here? Because as creatives, our commodity is our time. To define it simply, the law describes a situation in which investing more yields little-to-no return. Let me give a very simple example, using arbitrary numbers for the sake of simple math. Let’s say a song takes you 10 hours to complete, and you sell 1000 songs on iTunes for $1 each. Remember - your commodity is your time. So, what’s your hourly rate? $100/hr - not bad!
Let’s say it took you 7 hours to lay down the meat of the song and get the arrangement right, and then 3 hours to really tweak the mix. If you didn’t spend those 3 hours mixing, the song would’ve sounded very unprofessional, and many people who first came across your song would not have opted to pass it on to their friends. So, instead of 1000 sales, you only sell 400. Now, your hourly rate went down to $40. So it’s clear in this example that spending the extra 3 hours to get the mix sounding amazing really pays off.
In another example, it takes you 7 hours to lay down the song, 3 hours to mix, and another 5 hours to tweak and fiddle and obsess over every detail. Unfortunately, the majority of listeners can’t tell the difference between the 10-hour song and the 15-hour. Maybe some of your other musician friends can tell, and so they get excited and tell a few of their friends. Let’s just say that your sales increase by a whopping 10%… this would yield an hourly rate of $73.
Play with the numbers yourself. Think about how much time you spend on songs, and whether or not that time is making a real impact on the finished product. Listen carefully to other songs that yours will live alongside, and measure accordingly. And remember, my numbers were very conservative. We often spend a lot more time than what I’ve outlined, and the return is much smaller, if it even exists at all.
4 - MORE THAN ZERO
This concept ties all the other ones together, and directly addresses the excuses up in the beginning of this article that we tell ourselves. I learned this one from working in the publishing side of the music industry some years ago, and it came up specifically when deliberating over song splits. If I felt that someone was overreaching, a response I’d often get was “Would you rather 100% of nothing?”, of course implying that if I didn’t agree to the unfair splits, the song just wouldn’t come out at all.
There’s an important lesson to gain here. Every song on your computer is worth precisely zero. If it comes out, albeit “unfinished”, its worth explodes infinitely (forgive the math joke).
Something is always better than nothing. That goes for views, play count, listeners, shares, etc. And once something exists, you have a benchmark to beat for the next time.
I hope some of these concepts make sense, and help you move toward your goals. What are your strategies for keeping the Procrastination Demon at bay? How do you get yourself past the defeatist attitudes that may pop up in your mind? Or are you just a natural finisher? If so, share your secrets!
Have any additional questions or ideas to share? Is there a topic you’d like to see written about? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org