If you want to get better at a thing—your thing, let’s say—you have to get out of any routine where you’re comfortable. It has to hurt a little, be annoying, a bit hard. The muscle metaphor is spread around a lot regarding this principle, by any number of experts in motivation or self-improvement: no pain, no gain.
But I’m not talking about being so sore you can hardly move. I just mean a small amount of discomfort. See, I don’t think you have to push your limits all the time. Steady progress can be had with the smallest nudge against your present abilities.
What matters is that you notice. That you recognize breaking out of easy routine, or you look ahead to where you’d like to be with your thing, your work. It can be discouraging to hurt a lot, even if you know the gains will come faster. I’m for whatever keeps moving you forward, and outside of the gym, it’s perfectly fine to go slow and get better in very small steps.
It’s still getting better.
Reassessment Is Almost Never a Waste of Your Time, but We Don’t All Have the Same Amount of It
Evaluating your potential for the work is a good periodic activity. It can tell you whether you feel you’re doing your best, or if you’re spinning your wheels and it’s time to move on to try something different. But beating yourself up because you didn’t get enough done that day or week is a self-abusing trap, and you’re better off without it.
I’ve been thinking about a truism that’s both obvious and insufficient. It’s any variation of “we all have the same 24 hours.” I’ve used it here, even. But it’s not an equitable truism. Some of us are more limited by circumstance than others. Some have a part time job and a short commute with no children. Some of us have twins and a sick partner and family obligations. Our free time is unique to us. We may be able to carve out the slices at the edges, but we don’t all get the same range.
So we do what we can with what we have. It’s time, here in 2019, to reject the alienation, fear, toxic rage, and impotent social feeding of the past. It’s time to be nice to ourselves and become encouraging, more so than critical. It’s time to be honest about our resources and recognize that starting a thing, a creative project, is worth a lot. It’s a foundation, a place to build from, and our pace will—at least at the start—be what it is, slow or fast.
The Long, Slow Grind Out of the Valley of Winter, Where Hopes and Dreams Are Concerned
The rush of fresh year ahead of you is enough to get you started on new habits. But it doesn’t last. What matters isn’t how you start the year, it’s how you keep going when late January looms and you don’t feel like doing anything.
It can help to keep in mind that these concepts are just things other people made up. In reality, nature knows no months, it just goes through the regular cycle around the sun, perigee to apogee, and the 182.625 days in between are mirrored by the same number on the backswing around to the solstice.
Every day is a new start. No matter what, when morning comes, it’s yours to do with what you like. Start a daily habit or continue one, everything is always in motion. You might as well join in.
We need time to think. Time to ponder and choose directions. It’s easy to put on earbuds and get lost in sound, or binge a few series in our off time from work.
But you’ll benefit for knowing where you want to go next, both in life and your work. And you can’t hear your own thoughts about that if you don’t just sit with them, alone. I used to do this on drives, my commute was 30–45 minutes. Now that it’s 15 minutes at most, often shorter on the bus, I do it while walking. Doesn’t have to be a big thing, but it’s good to have a direction and finalized decision-making.
The Process Can Be as Important as the Result, and Meaningful
I feel as if I’ve said this before. Which is a strange thing for me to mention, because I know I’ve repeated things a few times on the blog, but it’s really a foundational idea about artists: the way you work is meaningful, and it’s worth thinking about. You want to craft and build in a way that supports the finished work, because in grand zen tradition, the journey is the reward, and the teacher, not to mention the greater part of your time.
And time is the most important thing you own. It’s going to be spent. Make sure you spend it in ways that support you and your work. If it doesn’t, time to change something.
I’ve Been Obsessed With This Song, Since I Tend to Obsess
For the past couple days, all I can hear in my internal soundtrack is Kacey Musgraves’s “Slow Burn,” from Golden Hour.
It’s a terrific album, on many Best of 2018 lists, and for good reason. There isn’t a bad song on it. But this one in particular feels very close to me. Late bloomers and older artists can tend to get caught up in negative spirals of feeling like we aren’t getting anywhere, that our time has passed. But it’s always possible your time hasn’t yet come, at least where recognition or attention of some kind that will expose you to a new audience or group.
It’s a precious message: it’s okay to do you own thing and let whatever’s going to happen, well, happen in its own time.
The thing to concern yourself with in the moment is that you’re doing your best work and it’s filling some need within you. You need to be okay with slowly burning while you wait for the fire to spread.
Upping and Downing Is the Normal Course of Life…and Art
We like to think of our progress as a diagonal line moving ever upward. But that not how we experience change and growth. There are plenty of moments we regress, stumble, forget, and falter. Looking back over a long series of projects or experiences, we can see we’ve come a long way from where we started. But if you get into the details of the actual days—even weeks or months!—there are some plateaus, sometimes backslides, and occasionally valleys.
Those times, we feel like our work is stagnating or moving in the wrong direction. The insight or breakthrough happened and then, for a while, it’s like we got worse again. This is normal.
Try not to sweat it. The important thing is to keep going. You can only really see the massive improvements you’ve made when you look back at a big section of what you’ve done and where you’ve gone.
Desocial-Mediafying Is One Way to Get Further Into Your Creative Habit
There are a number of people I know of—and friends I know—who are either decoupling from the endless social media feeds completely, experimenting with vacations away from them, or moderating down their use and intake of the same. It’s probably healthy to do one of those things if you find you’re not doing the things you think you want to, or feeling gross after scrolling feeds. John Green, no less, is taking a year off social media completely:
He takes time to point out the good things about social media, too, but overall, wants to spend some time being better at the things he wants and needs to do.
Similarly, Wheezy Waiter (Craig Benzine) and his wife, Chyna Pate, quit the internet entirely for a month and vlogged the results:
I think even if we don’t go the radical route, there’s a lot of food for thought in these vids, and tangible utility in understanding the brain hacks of social media and how we might benefit from circumventing them.
Everybody Talks About Rest, But You’ve Still Got to Do It
Don’t forget that breaks are your work’s second-best friend, next to habit. Before inspiration, before beauty, before structure.
If you don’t have time to step back and consider, or time to absorb new ideas from elsewhere, there’s going to be too much intensity or not enough—something.
You can fix things later, and there’s almost always time to, after the thing is finished, but you’ll have a better base and scheme for whatever it is if you’ve given consideration to a little rest between work sessions.
It seems like it’s become fashionable to make the amount of work we spend on a project the important part. If we’ve burned the midnight oil through and finished in one go, so much the better! But my experience is that a steady pace with time off between chunks of making is better for both artist and art.
Seems simple, but rare enough for those of us who are still trying to reach master status.