Play your solo: Three steps to overcome procrastination and overthinking

You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail. – Charlie Parker

Do you ever find it overly difficult to make decisions, or are you procrastinating something that just needs to happen?

I tend to pride myself on gathering data, weighing the options, and exploring the possibilities. It always seems like a good idea to learn more before you take action in order to make “the best” decision. Who wants to be impulsive and regret a poor choice when you could have been wiser?

There’s a subtle trap in this way of thinking, and if you’re finding it difficult to make a decision, or experiencing the consequences of procrastination, you might need to channel your inner jazz musician. I find it helpful to ask myself three key questions to help get the music going:

string theory

string theory

Is over-thinking this decision muting my own creativity?

We’re often so afraid of failure from making a poor choice that we lose the ability to “improvise” and be creative. We fool ourselves into thinking that it is possible to determine the best course of action, when there is little or no data to help us choose between multiple good possibilities. What if the best choice is to make a small decision now, based on what you know right now, and learn from it?

Am I remembering that waiting is also a decision?

In music, rests are just as significant as the notes. It’s easy to forget that waiting to take action is still a choice – it is the active choice to spend more of your life in the current state. Perhaps that is exactly what is needed! But many times the current state is actually worse than any other choice you could make. If you think about your delay or your silence as a choice to keep things the same as they currently are, do any of your alternatives become more attractive?

the other rockin' Buffett

the other rockin’ Buffett

How do fear and shame play into my difficulty?

It is often the case that “analysis paralysis” and procrastination are rooted in fear – fear of a particular consequence, of failure, of loss of reputation, etc. Can you name that fear? Can you recall a specific time when a decision you’ve made has led to one of those painful outcomes? If you find that you’re fear here seems surprisingly powerful, a very real sense of guilt or shame about a past decision could be holding you back. Get specific about what that is. Journaling, therapy, and other ways of “processing” these past events can be very effective in helping you be less encumbered by these experiences, and get you back in the flow of a creative life.

No matter how much or how little you think through your tough decision, you could still end up making the wrong choice. The key is not in a futile attempt to prevent all suboptimal decisions, but in learning, adapting, and continuing to play. Or as Miles Davis once said:

It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.

I’d love to hear from you: what helps you move past your own “analysis paralysis” and get playing?

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