Avoiding Avoidance

Do you ever dodge your creative work? Say, you plan to memorize a song in preparation for a gig, but when your practice time arrives, 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: a band member might wonder whether he’ll get a solo polished in time for a show; a budding songwriter might question whether she’ll have a lyric ready ahead of a workshop.

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, especially when we’re under pressure or working on challenging material. So we need to keep countermoves handy.

Here’s my anti-avoidance formula. I hope that it will help you stick to your practice schedule and achieve your creative goals.

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.