The weird thing about a daily habit, where you add something to whatever you’re in the process of making every day, is that you rarely have to start something, you just need to continue it.
What I find hard, though, is deciding on the next thing to do. There are a thousand possibilities, and one grand thing doesn’t necessarily present itself just because I’m ready for one. It might be a consequence of being generally scattered and disorganized, but it could be just something that naturally falls that way. I don’t have any prescriptions for this, all I can do is trust that the process can carry forward, that the need to do something outweighs the multiplicity of choice.
It’s possible this fear is overthinking how process can take over as a guiding principle. Without a focus on outcome—bearing in mind that finishing things is still important—all we have to deal with is one simple day at a time. Trick yourself, reward yourself, cajole yourself, as long as you get started in any small way, you’re back in it.
You’re still running out of time, but the culprit isn’t your motivation, it’s your schedule—how can you keep working on your thing if your work hours change every week? It happens to your humble chronicler, and has for years.
You’re going to have to schedule your creative time. Not at regular times, but around your job hours.
It’s best if you can get work in—and when I say “work” in this context it’s about the important stuff: art—before you head off to the job. Ideally the first thing you do when you get up in the morning. After the gym or morning exercise, if you do that, might be best, since I find I’m more lucid and motivated to get stuff happening then, rather than before when I’m still a bit groggy. Conversely, if you’re a poet, it might help the imagery to have the cobwebs of some dreaming hanging about. Try both.
An hour is great, two is better, but even 20 minutes a day is a couple hours a week, and it can pile up just like anything else. Get it on your calendar, shove your tantalizing social media and video services to the side for your work time. Tell yourself it’s just for a little while, you’ll get to it in just a bit.
This isn’t easy, but it can help establish a habit, and you can use the nagging itch to work on stuff to your advantage, because everything else in the world is conspiring—unwittingly—to distract, divert, and transfer your attention to literally everything else that seems easier and more fun. The world offers you endless ice cream. But your soul can’t survive on that, and in the long run, you get a lot more life out of the bread you bake yourself from scratch.
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.
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.
Marking a significant life event is only natural. It’s uniquely human. Birthdays, anniversaries, achievements. It’s that last one that can seem arbitrary or trivial, sometimes.
But an arbitrary milestone can make you feel inspired or motivated. Picking something small and celebrating it bestows importance. That’s what you want as you make your artistic practice an essential part of your life. It should feel important. Modesty is rarely a bad instinct, in a social sense. If you trivialize your work early on, however, who’s there to counter that disparaging voice? The last thing you need is less impetus to keep working on your stuff.
So here’s a small, arbitrary milestone: this post makes 100 in a row since I missed in late January, just a bit before I was due to hit the first 100 in a row. Yay! Woo! I couldn’t have done it without you, truly.
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.
I’ve been missing having so much time with traditional art tools since I graduated and started practicing up my digital ones. But there’ve been recent rumblings about the real stuff and I’ve begun questing for some quality pencils to go with the paper I’ve set aside to make my next sketchbook (Strathmore 400 recycled, if you’re in the market).
Writing and drawing—not to mention cartooning—with physical tools is as much hearing the graphite sizzle across the page as it is constructing sentences. We’re forced to slow down, be deliberate, get our fingers dirty.
Changing up tools is resetting your habits and breaking the ubiquity of screens and electronic devices we’re surrounded with. That can reconnect us not only with the past, but with slightly disused brain pathways.
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.
Today, or at least tomorrow, let’s think about the things we say we want to do, or want to have done, or have always wanted to do.
Why haven’t we started doing them? We can, of course. It’s like everything creative I write about here: find a starting point and do something more every day until it’s done. Or until you don’t need the thing anymore, like say, this blog. Who knows? Maybe I’ll decide in two years, ten, twenty, that one thing I should be doing every day should take its place, or obviate it.
For now, though, it’s either The Thing You Do daily, or it’s one more of the things you do. Creation is most heartily served by a daily habit, and it gets easier to do as you go along.
So how do you find the starting point? It’s not always obvious. The good news is that it doesn’t matter that much. You can always take it on faith that if you start, it’ll soon become clear you should backtrack, or back up, or skip back a bit and continue from there. I’m sorry if that sounds cryptic, I’m trying to think of it universally, art wise.
The idea is that you can’t let fear of not knowing if you’re beginning in the right place get in your way. Imagine the point if you have to, pretend it’s the right one. You’re always free to change how you do your thing.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.