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Avoiding Avoidance

Do you ever dodge your creative work? Say, your practice time arrives, and you race off to do some chore. It might be a chore that you detest, but now it calls to you. Then, instead of refining your music, you start cleaning the house or doing whatever.

If that scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Artists of every sort contend with avoidant behaviors. Why do we sidestep doing what we love? The answer often stems from the nature of creativity.

When we practice, write, or otherwise innovate, we stretch our limits. We strive.

But striving takes us into the unknown, and that brings uncertainty. We question whether a lyric will fly, a promotion will succeed, or a solo will be ready in time for a show.

If the uncertainty of creating unsettles us, then, to escape the discomfort, we might seek refuge in a mindless task: “This really needs doing,” we’ll congratulate ourselves as we reach for the mop.

Fortunately, there’s an antidote to avoidance.

First we have to notice an avoidant thought before we fall under its spell. Next we must act to do what we intend.

For instance, not long ago I was heading home to practice a demanding piece, and as I neared my front door I spotted some overgrown bushes: “I should put on my boots and cut those back,” I reasoned. (By the way, I loathe yard work.)

A moment later, as one part of me was sizing up the shrubbery, I caught myself. I recognized the avoidant thought for what it was. I then renewed my passion for the music I was tackling and dashed to my studio and tuned up my guitar. Avoidance avoided.

As I see it, we’re all going to have avoidant thoughts, so we need to keep countermoves handy. Here’s my anti-avoidance formula:

Counter Avoidance
1. Notice an avoidant thought.
2. Dispute it. (Laugh at yourself or just say “no.”)
3. Replace it with an affirmation: “Music feeds my soul.”
4. Act with full intention.

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

For more creativity-boosting strategies, check out the following sections in my book The Musician’s Way (Oxford, 2009): “Fueling Motivation” (p. 105-109), “Committing to the Creative Process (p. 109-113), “Boosting Creativity,” (p. 309-314). Related content propagates at the book’s free companion website, blog, and newsletter.

Gerald Klickstein is Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and an active guitarist, author, and arts advocate.

Reader Comments (21)

I like this post. In my experience, many musicians avoid proper practice, writing, creating and innovating because it requires hard work and thought. That notion alone can scare some musicians into deciding to watch Avatar for the 14th time instead of creating and developing themselves.

January 11 | Registered CommenterChris Bracco

A great solution for this problem is marijuana. Seriously. Upon inhaling a small amount, pretty much the only thing in the world I want to do is music. So much so that I never use it unless I've got the spacetime for some creation.

January 11 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

check "The war of art" by steven pressfiled!

January 11 | Unregistered Commentergrosskopf

can certainly identify with this. i always find it hard to knuckle down initially but then it only takes being in a task for a few minutes before im completely immersed in it - then hours go by without even noticing. im always a little scared of that too!

January 11 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Yeah this thing happens with me everytime with me, as I plan to write some music or learn some new effects on the software, my mind shift to listening to music, rather than doing that stuff!!!

January 11 | Unregistered Commentersiddhesh sardesai

@Justin Boland

Smoking pot and become a useless dope fiend robbed me of the most important decade of my creative life (late teens to late twenties). From my perspective, smoking pot is about the most DE-motivating and creatively debilitating thing you could possibly do.

My advice to everyone else is, if you have to do drugs, save it for AFTER you've got the rock 'n' roll part sorted out.

January 11 | Unregistered CommenterSam K

Here's what I find even worse than doing using unrelated chores to avoid creative work.

Any artist these days has to be multi-disciplinary to some extent. Playing multiple instruments, writing lyrics, doing production in a home studio, management and promotion, etc.

What's worse than avoiding creative work with non-music work is when you put off aspects of the creative effort that you aren't good at in favour of the ones you ARE good at.

You know what I'm talking about. When you're writing that 17th killer guitar riffing track but the 1st one is still languishing with no lyrics or vocal melody to go along with it. Or your spending ages tweaking the mix on a new track when their are management tasks that desperately need attention.

It's worse because it's easy to tell yourself that you're still doing important and useful work on your project, but really it's only as strong as the weakest link.

January 12 | Unregistered CommenterSam K

Thanks for your comments, everyone. As all of you point out, avoidance pervades artists' lives and takes many forms. But it's up to us to set goals, say no to procrastination, and work productively.

In my view, our ability to handle avoidance represents a key aspect of our facility with the creative process. And, as Sam K makes clear, avoidance can be insidious, and it's not easy to be honest with ourselves and notice when we're dodging the work that needs to be done.

Still, we can take charge of our creative work, and we must. Creativity adds essential meaning to our lives, and the world desperately needs the healing power of music.

January 12 | Registered CommenterGerald Klickstein

@Sam K

The problem was not marijuana, the problem was you. I'm sure you'd agree if you looked at it honestly. Humans find a way to abuse any given substance, from food to the internet itself. That's because of internal wiring, and blaming it on external factors is the kind of dishonesty that keeps the cycle of addiction going.

There are millions of highly motivated and successful marijuana users in the United States alone. There's also millions of apathetic losers who turn to drugs for entertainment...they watch too much South Park, too.

January 12 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Then again, maybe I've got the demographics of Music Think Tank wrong. I'm assuming it's mostly adults here? If I'm recommending pot to a couple thousand teenagers, I really do need to STFU.

January 12 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I notice when i have a tidy bedroom/studio i accomplish much more.. Less mind clutter!!!!

January 12 | Unregistered CommenterSKOPJE

Great post on a vital topic! A strategy I have found very helpful, from Effortless Mastery, by jazz pianist Kenny Werner (amazing book), is to commit to only practicing for FIVE MINUTES.

Sounds crazy but actually works literally saying to yourself you will sit down and practice for only five minutes, it overcomes the hesitation of starting a long practice session - I may have stopped once or twice over the years, but invariabley am into it and passionately continue.

Try it and see if it works for you...

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

"Smoking pot is about the most DE-motivating and creatively debilitating thing you could possibly do"

Clearly so for you, Gerald, you discovered that for yourself. Others, like Justin, have discovered that they experience the opposite result..

And not just musicians. I know an entreprenuer with muktiple business entities, who uses weed occasionally to either push through from a 14 hour day to 18 or more - providing focus and energizing motivation. Or for turning it all off for late night visioning and strategic brainstorming.

"Humans find a way to abuse any given substance, from food to the internet itself."

Wow - that sure says a mouthful, Justin - indeed!

There is no one path...

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

Dg. - Thanks for contributing. I'm gratified to know that you resonate with my post. BTW, are you misattributing one of Sam K's comments to me?

I heartily concur that there is no one path, neither in terms of lifestyle nor creative process. And what a fantastic ride it is to make a life in music and continually chart one's own way. Nonetheless, we all must learn to counter avoidance if we're to be productive.

I think that the 5-minute practice strategy you mention works for many artists because it involves choosing small, achievable aims. Similarly, I advocate setting incremental goals (see my Dec. MTT post "Getting Started"). Smaller goals are more likely to generate motivation rather than anxious avoidance. And as we attain one goal after another in practice, we further stoke our motivation.

For me, manageable objectives, a consistent work schedule, and self-awareness help me keep my productivity rolling.

January 14 | Registered CommenterGerald Klickstein

It's strange how true this is, yet once you get in that zone of musical intention, you can't believe you ever thought to avoid it. It's kind of like going to the gym, same result. Once there, you can't believe it was like pulling teeth to just get there. I find that it helps to turn off all media: phone, tv, computer and to have a specific space dedicated to music. The less clutter & outside interference, the better. Also, I will make a cup of tea and give myself that 1/2 an hour to relax, let it cool, and drink it down while saying in my mind: "After this tea is done, I'm going to practice." That often works. Also, it's OK to practice for 10-15 minute stretches of very intensive and intentional practice (as opposed to an hour or two of watered down unfocused practicing). Consistency is important as well as realizing how much joy it actually provides to do something creative for the sake of being creative (not everything has to become the master work of the century).

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterEllynne

I can honestly say I've never "suffered" from this avoidance issue. I have avoided as much as possible having an ordinary life, so that I can simply play guitar all the time.

I can't honestly say that it has worked out better than if I had followed a more traditional career path, bought a house raised a family etc...but playing music soothes my soul and nothing brings me more pleasure, I would never avoid it.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterTaz Taylor

Gerald, thank you for the correction on mis-attributing Sam K's quote - I'm truly sorry and will pay better attention for that in the future!

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterDg.


The 5-minute practice seems like a serious gem. I've added that to the writeboard, I want to start working that in ASAP. Thank you.

January 15 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

This really helped! I've been wondering about that very thing lately....if music is what I love why am I not playing, singing, writing all the time instead of doing laundry, etc.?!
Thanks for the reassurance and the inspiration!

January 19 | Unregistered Commenterang

Seth Godin calls the avoidance "the resistance" in his latest book, Linchpin. I highly recommend it.

February 26 | Unregistered CommenterNick

thanks for the comments..for me, I 've beenmore productive since I let go a lot of ego around whether I practiced or not. I found when I didn't get so emotional about it, I got a lot more work done. Having a certain routine helps ( I have my set up away from the tv so that I dont get distracted and if I do, at least I am intentional about it)...

February 7 | Unregistered Commenteranthony

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