"As life goes by, you get a little more carefree or distracted by other things and you have to really police yourself I do into sitting down and doing something that pleases me," the 63-year-old rocker said. "Plus, I'm trying to do things that I haven't done before and not go over the same ground."
The writer behind such hits as "American Girl," ''Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "I Need to Know" will accept the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers' Founders Award on Wednesday in Los Angeles. Previous honorees include Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Billy Joel.
"It's very nice to get an award for songwriting," Petty said. "I'm duly impressed."
His process is much the same as it's always been: Sit down with the guitar and see what comes. When inspiration strikes, "it's a very real magic," he said.
So magical, in fact, that he hesitates to examine it too closely.
"It's really hard to explain because I don't really understand it myself," he said. "I know that when we have time booked, like when we set aside time to make a record, that's when I usually get pretty I guess I get on the job as far as making sure I have enough songs, you know."
He sits and plays, recording bits here and there. The next day, he listens to what he did and either develops or scraps it.
Touring takes him out of the songwriting groove: "It takes me a few months after a tour to get back into the headspace to write songs."
Petty and his band just finished their latest album, "Hypnotic Eye," set for release this summer. That allowed time for him to check out Jimmy Fallon's recent duet as Petty with Stevie Nicks.
"I was amazed by how well they did the Heartbreakers," he said. "It was brilliant. Very funny."
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers also signed on as the headliner of the Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco this August, along with Kanye West.
The musicians haven't yet met, but Petty said, "Everybody loves Kanye West, right?"