It’s not that Christmas and Hanukkah and the rest are oppressive, thought for some they are. We have the joy of the season, but there are some amount of blues that come along with cold air and holiday music.
Our job is to keep shifting those feelings into our work. Once anything is a part of your process, whatever you’re feeling is your new platform. Stand there and make the new thing.
You won’t be able to tell, looking back, the days you were tired and the days you were energized. The days you felt organized and the days you felt scattered. The times you were uninspired, lost, unsure and the times you were abuzz, on-track, confident.
Just something every day, and it comes together in the end. Whatever it becomes, eventually, there’s no point in waiting to get that chunk of it done because the pieces don’t care how you feel in the transitory moment, they care how they fit with each other as a permanent whole.
It works. It’s probably faster. But it’s not much materially you couldn’t learn on your own with the help of some books and instructional videos.
But art school, like many degrees, leads to a network of fellow artists. If you’re lucky, a few want to be curators—or publishers—and they like your work. I don’t regret at all the time I spent inside mine. But it should never be a reason not to start doing your thing, nor a reason to disparage where you are. School will almost always have the advantage in keeping your disciplined and on a path, even if that drifts and veers, sometimes along the way.
Lots of artists have done the academic thing, and lots have figured out their own way outside it. What matters is keeping it up, moving forward.
You may think it’s a race. There’s a lot of pressure on us to perform and achieve and produce. You’re looked down on a bit if you aren’t concerned with improving your productivity. To see the flood of self-help business books is to know there’s a relentless push to get more done.
But there are two ways to approach the problem of not working on your thing, or finishing work. One is to let productivity gurus sell you on another system, new tricks to slash work time and grow the done pile. It’s fine if that appeals to you. But it’s stressful, and leads to burnout.
And it distracts you from just plainly doing the work, which is certainly what often suckers me into the shiny new system.
The other way is easy, because you need nothing extra: establish a daily habit of uninterrupted creation time and get a little further along finishing a project. It really does pile up faster than you think. It’s less stressful and unpretentious, but it lets you end a year with the done pile impressively high.
I spend a lot of time watching videos and listening to podcasts made by other artists who have long passed by the same shores I’ve started walking. Looking back, it seems like I’ve been walking a hell of a long time, but the paths wind, double back on themselves, and take wild liberties with direction. They don’t often stay close to the water. Throwing aside that soon-to-be-tortured metaphor, I don’t plan to stop sharing videos and shows that inspire me. Secrets are revealed! Tricks are exposed! Methods are explained! But they can easily take the place of doing your own work, and you let fear take the helm—oop, new metaphor alert!There has to be a limit on advice and tutorials and demos. As soon as possible, and for as long as possible, you have to make some stuff. You need to shove your hand-wringing monkey ego aside and deliver unto us your crappy, clumsy work. Because it’s only when you can show stuff to people that you’re able to build on it and become uncrappy. Videos are amazing. We get to hear and see brilliant, insightful creators tell us how they do their thing. But we have to shush them up and nudge them aside when they become just another way to avoid doing what we’re listening to them for in the first place.
Speaking of failures, I’m still spending way too much time reading news, political analysis, and random minutiae online, despite a redoubled effort to shift my attention to creating stuff and reading books.
Distraction is easier all the time. Setting out to write this post, I have opened Spotify, messed with battery settings, checked text messages, started to read emails twice and realized what I was doing—it’s really endless.
I’ve learned how to circumvent this monkey mind dopamine loop—MMDL in the literature, I’m pretty sure—pragmatically: make your to-do list he night before, stick to it in Pomodoro segments, start early. It’s still always there, and it’s always a fight. Habits of distraction built up over years, as my social media and information overload have been, are really really hard to break.
I don’t have any real advice, here, maybe just an ongoing reminder that almost nobody knows what they’re doing and is muddling through it all just like you. Unless you’re effective and prolifically productive. In that case, teach me your ways, kind stranger.
A few things I’m learning, because school is never completely over while you can breathe, are as follows:
Despite ambition, drive, ideas aplenty, and opportunity, I am still very, very, very good at procrastinating. If I could market that skill, I’d be CEO of I’ll Do It In A Minute Just As Soon As I Look At This One Thing, LLC. (Market cap: $1.4B)
But two things are helpful in overcoming that trait—Pomodoros and doing the hard stuff first.
If you aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, here’s a short overview. Basically, you work on tasks in 25(ish) minute chunks and take a 5(ish) minute break in-between, then a long break after 4 of those cycles, of 15–30(ish) minutes. Use a timer. This helps keep you focused during work periods and builds in a recess. Our minds need both concentration and free play to make connections and build memories efficiently. It’s the same with bodies, working out needs sufficient rest to build and strengthen. For me, at least, it helps to know there are breaks coming at specific intervals so I can trick myself into starting and staying at a particular task. One note: I’ve tried to do this just watching the clock, no timer, but I end up going way outside the time blocks. Usually with breaks. Timer.
Making a to-do list before bedtime is working well for the getting more stuff done, and for keeping up with the blog, particularly. Getting started on the hard bits first, I’m noticing better attitude, less sulking, and less angst when I’m not working on things.
And sleep really is, really is, the best component of physical and mental health. If you’re in school, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get your 7.5 hours, I know. But keep it at the forefront of any health concerns. No more midnight oil burning outside of major research papers and final projects, seriously. Putting everything to the side for bedtime has been better for remembering what I’m learning and improving the stuff I’m making.
I did writing practice a lot just out of high school. Writing practice, if you’re not familiar, is a concept I got from Nathalie Goldberg and her book, Writing Down the Bones. The idea is that you should have a timed session every day, maybe 15–30 minutes, where you write without stopping the whole period. No matter what, your hand—she wrote longhand, so feel free to make that plural—never stops putting words down on paper.
Many were the mornings I started with, “I don’t know what to write, this sucks, why am I even doing this?” But as anyone who’s done a regular practice of any kind can tell you, it doesn’t last, the blank befuddlement. Ideas come to you like they do all day long, visions and phrases and memories. If you stay disciplined and keep doing the thing, your mind is soon distracted by its own wild meanderings, and you’re there to describe them.
The point of practice isn’t to produce beautiful, finished work. It’s to get used to how it feels to do the thing it’s referencing. Practice is the stand-in for the real thing. It hones your instincts, builds muscle memory, encourages your mind to flow freely and build up a store of concepts and understanding.
Maybe it works with anything. Basketball? Practice ticks at least the first two boxes, and there’s a tangible benefit to having a kind of library of moves at the ready when you play the game.
Habit is to build a body of work over time in steady, small increments. But implement a practice routine, and you can be ever more ready to work on your novel or painting or team sport.