There are plenty of places to go to get advice on overcoming procrastination, and that’s nice to have. We do need to get work finished. But I think we sometimes casually accept a rather oppressive standard for making things, or getting stuff done. That’s the metaphorical idea that if you start riding, and you fall off the horse, you need to get back on ASAP and start riding again.
And so there’s a value in that idea, specifically that it tries to get us not to give up easily, and further that it’s easier to start again or keep going on a thing or a task if you immediately try again. That’s probably true. But maybe unnecessarily demanding. We aren’t given much room for having missed targets, or just plain failing.
I’ll propose a preliminary action: give yourself a minute. It’s really easy to beat yourself up for failing, for missing, for not quite getting to the goal you set. It’s okay that you didn’t. You don’t have to feel bad about it, or try to push aside your emotions. Feel your feelings. Pause for a sec.
I think it makes it a bit easier to do the necessary thing and start again.
It’s not pretty, this idea you should try to fail. Our culture in the U.S. in particular hammers the meme they everyone should desire materialistic success. It’s pervasive. We’re urged to be ambitious and driven, that modest desires aren’t enough, that hard work is the key to success. And so, get used to failing, embrace failing! You’ll find success quicker, goes the trope.
But I think that loses sight of what made us want to try at all. Failure isn’t fun.
I agree it’s important to try again, but not just because you weren’t successful. More so because it’s both not a big deal to fail, and because success comes in bits, almost never all at once, in blinding flashes of glory. The glory is piecemeal, the gilding takes years to apply, the lightning builds on itself until it seems like it’s always been intense.
Little victories are sometimes all you need. If you love creating, what matters is that you have enough ambition to continue. What matters is that you start again if you fall. The path is still where you spend all your time. Not the pedestal or the victory stage.
Rather, I got busy, with a changing schedule that finally caught up with me post-holidays. So I missed a daily post yesterday after a rare night shift. But that’s as may be. Life isn’t a factory where you set up processes and systems and they run on a timetable. Bits of it, maybe, but not everything.
Your art is the same. You’ve got goals, ideals, and maybe you’ve made resolutions to create more stuff in the new year. And—maybe—you’ve stumbled or missed. It’s okay. This is a year to be kinder to yourself about your work.
One of my goals in 2019 is to gently encourage, rather than berate, myself about mistakes and dropping various balls. Positive reinforcement is a hedge against so much toxicity and anger out there beyond your skin. C’mon. It’s time to be your own kindest critic, at least for a while.
There are a lot of moments in art where I have an idea for a project or series of things, but I don’t know if it’ll result in anything fully realized or not.
Creative life is full of false starts and failures. Sometimes there are successes. You need some of the former to discover the latter. I remember thinking a particular series of paintings I was working on in art school were going to be received well and progress in a predictable path. But then they ended up not going anywhere, or the execution didn’t match my vision. Sometimes, a project that became one of those little triumphs or breakthroughs wasn’t much of anything until there were two of them.
You just have to trust your instincts and your dedication, and keep moving forward, that’s all I can gather. And then you see where it’s gone when it seems like it’s finished.
NaNoWriMo has come and gone. For the second time, I haven’t finished my novel. I have failed to do something.
It’s really no big deal. I fail at a lot of things I try. So does anyone who attempts anything big, or beyond their comfort zone, their routine. Unless you were all talk, it matters that you didn’t just say you were going to do something, but that you actually tried. The important thing is to recognize you broke out of the regular day and leapt.
There are always lessons to learn in any creative attempt. The things we learn today can be applied to what we do tomorrow. They help make those things easier, and there will be successes based on everything we know and have learned. And, often, we had fun! There was joy in making things we didn’t know how to make.
The more we try these new things, unfamiliar things, harder and deeper and more demanding things, the more we learn about life, ourselves, and creativity. The more we do them, the less importance failure has on our existence, and the easier it is to try something else that’s new, or that we know better how to complete.
The fact that I fell down isn’t as important. Getting up and keeping moving forward is.
Losing it is a big deal for most of us, at least while we’re in the midst of it. Let’s talk a bit about it.
While failure is nothing to be ashamed of—I mean I’m in favor of it—and it’s only human, anyway, losing it is us coming to a compromising emotional state over it. Either we court it directly as an end in itself, because we’re despairing or self-destructive, among other things, or we obsess on it and bring ourselves to despair.
I’m not sure there’s an easy way to cure such a tendency long-term without professional guidance, should you find you’re a habitual self-sabotage, say. But there are two things that can mitigate it. Wait, three things.
Physical exercise: get out, away from your workspace into the outdoors. Walk around. Be brisk, breathe deeply. Stay out for a while.
Keep working. Just do the daily piece of whatever you do, even if it seems futile and terrible. Inevitably, creators who look back at what they’ve done can’t tell when the good days and the bad days are by what the stuff they made is like. Step #1 has an all-purpose steadier: breathe deeply, in. Out.
Be kind to yourself. Remember you have tomorrow and today’s piece is only a small part of the whole. As in #1, breathe.
Picking oneself back up is the perennial topic of any number of motivational speakers and books. It’s rare you’ll be a person who can consistently and sustainably get yourself to the creative task you’ve set, day-after-day. For the rest of us, we just have to realize we’ve not done work for a bit and get to work again.
I write on this a lot, but I think it’s because I need to remind myself over and over: it doesn’t just fix the problem to know about it. Greater than knowing you’re going to slip up, though, is the idea that it doesn’t matter. There’s no real world penalty for missing a session or two in the studio—substitute wherever you do your work for the word “studio,” here—while you’re distracted by shiny things on the internet or plain old daily life. No one fines you for not working on your paintings or album. You’re just one day fewer without something done.
But, again, it doesn’t matter. We all fall short of our most lofty ideals at some point. It’s part of being human. We spiral around again, we trip over the same stupid crack in the sidewalk. But what isn’t often discussed in the talk of our failings is the corresponding attribute of our successes. Nobody’s going to glorify your completion of the next piece of the artistic puzzle you’re figuring out. But we spend collective hours and miles of text lamenting shortcomings. It doesn’t have to be of any more significance, in my not at all humble opinion.
You failed! But everybody fails, every last one of us. You’ve got to let go of that harsh voice and be kind to yourself. It matters that you don’t let it get to you, beyond that initial disappointment. You’re still alive, you have one more day to pick up where you left off. Once you finish a thing, that’s the time we should be all appreciating you, acknowledging you made that thing and it’s done. Maybe it isn’t perfect, that’s also not important.
If you have the urge to make things about and for the world, all you have to do to rise above our darkest emotions and harshest contempt is to start again.
There’s a longtime meme circulating in the business world, to the effect that one should fail fast, because we grow and learn more from failure than from success. At least, from early failure, or in many cases, testing raw ideas and methods. In creative circles, this has been labeled “fail faster.” It means we shouldn’t try to make things perfect up front, we should try out ideas and concepts to see what will best fit. The quicker we weed through our early failures, the more likely it is we’ll find the best elements of the thing we’re working on and succeed with the final version.
If the idea seems at first counterintuitive, there’s some other research suggesting why. Researchers published a paper last December that links social anxiety with a preoccupation of making mistakes. If further research holds this up, we have insight into the fear. Some of us don’t want to interact with each other because we’re afraid we’ll do or say the wrong thing.
But in art, there isn’t much that’s “the wrong thing.” You need to be better at trying new things, different things, crazy things than you were the day before. It’s openness to experimentation that knocks work into a new realm, a higher level. Make mistakes. Make them faster.
And if you fail, so what? That thing needed failing. It means you’ve got a clearer path to the work that will, well, work.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.