The charming short (2 minute) video below uses kids to demonstrate the difference between going with your first idea and giving yourself enough time to come up with something more creative:
The charming short (2 minute) video below uses kids to demonstrate the difference between going with your first idea and giving yourself enough time to come up with something more creative:
A series on how to improve your life, 5 minutes at a time.
Today: Stop and ask yourself one question
Several times a day, stop what you're doing and ask yourself: "Is this the best use of my time right now?"
If it is, congratulations!
If not, figure out what IS the best use of your time at that moment and do it instead.
This is important because it's so easy to get distracted or to pay attention to the urgent rather than the important. Of course the urgent must be done, but is this the best moment to do it? It's not that we don't know what we should be doing, but that it's so easy to forget.
Of course it's also easy to forget to ask yourself this question, so I recommend setting an alarm on your phone or tablet or watch for three times during your work day. When the alarm rings, ask yourself the question and, if necessary, adjust what you're doing. If the alarm would annoy others, set it to vibrate.
Probably you already know the times of the day you tend to get distracted, so schedule the alarms accordingly.
TIP: If what you're doing is enjoyable but not the right thing at that moment, schedule it as a reward for finishing the thing that IS the best use of your time.
(If you're looking for additional innovative ways to be more productive, get a copy of my book, "Focus: use the power of targeted thinking to get more done." It's published by Pearson and available from your favorite bookseller.)
In the Early to Rise newsletter, Stephen Guise, author of MiniHabits, suggested a different way of looking at risk and rewards in order to change your habits or overcome avoiding things you'd like to do.
TWO KINDS OF RISK
One kind of risk involves the possiblity that something everybody would agree is bad could happen.
It would be fun to jump into that lake but you don't know how deep the water is. The risk is that you could break your neck or at least your leg. Clearly the reward is not worth the risk.
Or you can go to a casino and bet a year's wages on black or red. The odds are almost 50-50 (you get nothing if the ball stops on the 0 or 00). If you win, you can take a year off. If you lose, you might have to work two jobs for a year. Whether or not it's worth taking that risk is up to you but again there's a clear downside.
However there are also many things we avoid because they carry the risk that we will feel embarrassed or rejected if we fail. For these, Guise suggests attaching a reward to trying, not to whether or not you gain what you wanted.
WHAT REWARDS ARE EFFECTIVE?
The reward can be whatever you enjoy, ideally something you don't do or get all the time anyway. If Guise was drinking three smoothies a day already, having another one wouldn't have been a very effective reward. I don't recommend using food as a reward anyway, it's likely to lead to gaining weight and to forming assocIations that ultimately are not helpful.
I do find it difficult to think of non-food rewards; maybe I don't deny myself enough normally. So far the ones that come to mind are:
* 30 minutes at a cofee shop or in the park, reading for pleasure
* On DVD, watching an episode of a television show that I like (I'm a few seasons behind on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and two or so behind on 30 Rock)
* 15 or 30 minutes of checking out new music on Spotify
* A blended juice drink from Planet Organic (it's just down the street)
If you have any favorite rewards to suggest, please leave a comment.
ADD THE "TINY STEPS" APPROACH
You can combine this approach with dividing a daunting task into small steps. Figure out some small rewards and attach one to each step of the process. This way you reinforce making at least some progress every day rather than making the reward contingent on achieving the overall big goal.
This also fits in with the fact that research has shown that in training animals (and let's face it, that what we are, too) a reward works best when it follows the desired behaviour immediately.
HOW TO USE THIS FOR NEW HABITS
If you're cultivating a new habit it can make sense to break it down into component parts as well.
The second week you don't get a reward until you've not only gotten up but also have put on your running clothes.
The next week the reward comes only when you've at least left the house.
The next week only when you've run (or at least walked) a quarter of a mile, and so on.
Normally if we got up, put on running clothes, but then didn't run, we'd think of that as a failure. From this new perspective we see it as a step on the road to success and as such reward it.
How could you employ this method to your advantage? Is there something you avoid that you might reward?
The hot topic these days is quantifying aspects of your life: how far you walk, how long and well you sleep, how many calories you consume, your weight, your heart rate, and on and on. You now can record absolutely everything that happens to you with a camera you wear that takes a snapshot every time you move or somebody or something in front of you moves.
It's getting harder to separate the useful information from the narcissistic navel-gazing.
I confess to having a Fitbit that measures how far I walk but so far that's the extent of my participation in this trend.
I'm sure that some of the indicators of fitness and health will be very useful but in terms of being more productive and creative, what are the key things you might want to measure?
* Your output. For a writer that might be the number of words written per day or week. Obviously the ultimate question is whether what you write (or draw or create in some way) is any good, but often before it's good it's not so good. That's what rewriting is for. But even before it's not so good, it just has to exist, and that's where keeping track of quantity of words is helpful.
I do suggest using that rather than the number of hours as a measure; I know from personal experience that it's all too easy to justify a few hours of skimming articles as research that relates to writing...kind of.
* How much time you spend thinking, daydreaming, and reflecting. This kind of uniterrupted time is essential and harder and harder to achieve. Even ten or fifteen minutes a day can make a difference.
* How much time you spend stepping back from the everyday busyness to consider whether you're on the right track in the different facets of your life, whether some adjustments are needed, and whether you're taking care of yourself as well as others. An hour or so every month should suffice.
I reckon if we give enough time to these, we'll do pretty well!
The Zen Habits blog listed ten questions that can help you take action. In this series of posts I suggest how to apply nine of those specifically to writing more. You can easily adapt them to drawing or whatever other creative activity you'd like to increase.
5. Does the pain of not doing it outweigh the fear of doing it?
This question gets to the heart of the issue: usually it's not really lack of time or any external obstacle that stops you from doing what you care about.
WHAT ARE WE SCARED OF?
There are lots of fears, actually, but the biggest one is fear of failure. What if you try to write a novel and you fail? You have your choice of several failures to contemplate: what if your idea is no good, what if you run out of steam halfway through, what if you finish it but nobody wants to publish it, what if it gets published but gets humiliating reviews? What if people will think you're silly even to try?
The pain of not doing what you'd love to do is more subtle.
STAB OR ACHE?
Whereas fears are like stabs, the pain of not doing is an ache. But it's an ache that can go very deep, that can settle into your bones. I've met a few people like that. It made them bitter. They looked for excuses--they didn't have a good enough education, or the publishing world was stacked against them, or you had to be part of the Hollywood in-group. I have a feeling the nights they woke up at 4am they knew they had defeated themselves.
If you want to go for it but the fear is stronger than the pain you can address either side of the equation.
OPTION 1: INCREASE THE PAIN
You can increase the pain. Think about what you're giving up. Think about how long you've made excuses. Think about how you feel when you look at the things you intend to do "soon" and realize it's the same list you had last year and the year before and the year before.
OPTION 2: DECREASE THE FEAR
My preferred solution is to decrease the fear. Not by assuming failure is impossible but by looking realistically at the consequences of failing.
If you fail, will you die?
Will you go hungry?
Will a mob congregate outside your housewith pitchforks?
Will it make the six o'clock news?
Frankly, hardly anybody will notice. And who says not getting the result you want is failure? How often have you looked back at things that seemed like failures or catastrophes at the time and realized they weren't, or at least not totally. If you learn how to write a good screenplay by first writing a couple of bad ones, are those failures?
I believe if you you look at the fear of failure realistically you can knock it out in the first round.
The Zen Habits blog listed ten questions that can help you take action. In this series of posts I suggest how to apply those specifically to writing more. You can easily adapt them to drawing or whatever other creative activity you'd like to increase.
3. If you do this every day, what change will result?
If you write every day, what will happen?
Eventually you'll have a complete novel or screenplay or whatever you're writing, but beyond that, do you think the process will have taught you anything?
Will it give you more confidence to tackle your next project and maybe more confidence in yourself in general?
Will it show others that you're serious about your writing? (Maybe we shouldn't care what they think, but we do, don't we?)
Considering the cumulative results of small actions can help keep you going.
The Zen Habits blog listed ten questions that can help you take action. In this series of posts I'm going to suggest how to apply nine of those specifically to writing more. You can easily adapt them apply to drawing more, or whatever creative activity you'd like to increase).
1. Is there a small action you can take right now?
Here are eight small writing-related actions you can do right now:
* Read a page or two of writing by your favorite author (you can keep a copy of the work in question in the smallest room in your house...).
* Read a page or two of a good book on writing (for example, Your Writing Coach or Your Creative Writing Masterclass...I don't know why those two popped into my mind...)
* Jot down one thing about your protagonist's appearance, mannerisms, goals, values, or habits.
"There is this illusion that somehow
you can get to a stable place, figure it all out."
In a recent article in Fast Company magazine, Pixar President Ed Catmull points out, "The underlying technology continues to change, successful people are always getting older and aging out, and everyone is drawing new conclusions about what works. There is no stable place. But there is this illusion that somehow you can get to a stable place, figure it all out.
People have their fear: they want to be told what to do; they want people to tell them what to do. And there isn't anything that can remove that underlying piece of human nature. It is when we try to avoid, stop, or control change that we get into trouble."
I think that creative people are less inclined to want to be told what to do, and less resistant to change, but we still have the underlying fear. The difference is that--at least on good days--we move forward despite the fear.
On the bad days, when the fear seems to be the one in control, it's good to remind ourselves that there are no victories from giving in to it. I haven't figure out how to avoid the bad days (in fact, I had one very recently), but at least I've learned that one day like that doesn't mean all days will be like that. Maybe that's about as much control as we're likely to get.
(For useful methods for getting into a creative mindset, generating ideas, and turning ideas into action, get a copy of my book, Creativity Now, published by Pearson and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
We all do it, right--procrastinate? I'm writing this blog post when probably I should be working on my tax return right now. I tell myself that at least I'm doing something useful in place of the most important thing, that's better than watching TV, right?
Well, up to a point. But when we do that for too long it catches up with us. When the most important thing we could be doing isn't getting most of our attention, we suffer the consequences.
I've written lots of posts about how to overcome procrastination and a fair share of the time I'm able to do it myself, but there's plenty of room for improvement. Here's what I've found that works:
1. Chunking down the big tasks into small pieces and committing to doing at least one small piece per day. Sometimes that results in momentum that carries you past your commitment. For instance, deciding you'll write at least 500 words in a session may get you into the flow enough that you end up writing two or three times that many.
2. Making a commitment to somebody to whom it would embarrass you if you had to admit failing to do the task. Right now the members of my Massive Action Day group and I have entered into a pact to choose one thing every day that we have been avoiding and do it--and tell each other about it (or about not doing it, if that's the case). I'm only on Day 4, but so far so good. (If you want to find out more about Massive Action Days and our group, see www.MassiveActionDay.com--if you sign up for the annual plan you also get 24/7 access to our group chat room 365 days a year.)
3. Keeping track of your success.
4. If you fail on one day, starting over again the next day.
That's it, there's no magic and the temptation to put off what is dificult, boring, or risky will never go away--but you can overcome it every day and reap the rewards.
(This article was inspired by a lifehack post. You'll find many creative ways to manage your time better in my book, "Focus: use the power of targeted thinking to get more done." It's published by Pearson and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
I read a fascinating post by novelist Lydia Sharp in which she described having what she calls Seasonal Writing Disorder. It's well worth reading the entire post, but in a nutshell she said she used to beat herself up because not only does she not write every day, she goes weeks without writing.
Then she realized that if she stepped back and looked at her ouput in the context of a year, she was just as productive as other writers, if not more so. Like me, she suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is characterized by depression and low energy during the darker months. I use a bright light in the mornings during the winter, which helps a bit.
Sharp is most productive in Spring--that's when she has written six of her seven novels. Spring and early Summer are also my favorite times and probably my most productive times.
Your cycles may be different. The point is that when you discover what they are you can work in synch with them rather than fighting them or feeling bad about not working in some supposedly ideal manner.
This doesn't mean that you can move forward only a few months of the year. The times during which you don't feel as inspired can be great for editing, marketing, and learning new skills.
Of course the same is true of getting in tune with your daily cycle, doing the most important tasks during the time you have the most energy. Especially if morning is your prime time, it's a shame to spend it on catching up with email, for instance.
It's in line with a sayig I like: "Make reality your friend."
(There are time management tips you can use all the year around in my book, Focus: use the power of targeted thinking to get more done. It's published by Pearson and avialable from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
When I first went to Hollywood I wanted to write all kinds of scripts: films, sitcoms, plays, animation, hour-long dramas. On top of that, I was drawn to several genres: comedies, dramas, thrillers, even Westerns. I wrote all kinds of sample scripts and got nowhere until a friend pointed out something that should have been obvious: if it's hard to break in to any one of these, trying to get into all of them at the same time is going to diffuse your energy and effort so much you probably won't break in to any of them.
I decided to focus on sitcoms, partly because I felt I had a knack for comedy, partly because there were lots of sitcoms using free-lance writers in those days. It worked. I got assignements writing for Benson, Family Ties, Too Close for Comfort and others.
However, the desire to write lots of different kinds of things never sent away. Probably I would have had more success (at least as conventionally defined) if I'd stuck to sitcoms. I didn't want to do that, and I was able to branch out and also wrote TV movies, feature films (mostly script doctoring), one-hour episodes, animated shows and more. The genres included thrillers, drama, comedy and a Western TV movie that was going to be made for CBS until the executive who'd commissioned it left and his replacement threw it out.
I also wanted to live somewhere different--namely, London. That's REALLY not recommended if you want to continue to write for US television and film. I was able to keep up the connections and the assignments for a couple of years but then, probably inevitably, the connections loosened and eventually disappeared. Fortunately I was able to find lots of work in Europe.
I think if you are drawn to expressing yourself in a variety of ways that's an important part of who you are. You can put it aside for a while, and it may be wise to do so, but eventually it will come back. I believe the trick is to embrace it rather than resist it, and to accept that there may be a price to pay as well. If you handle it strategically you can minimize the cost.
One advantage these days is that there are so many channels through which you can express your creativity. If making money with everything you do isn't essential you can, for example, focus on one type of writing for your income but do others as a sideline and share those via your website or YouTube or Facebook or Pinterest or other forms of social media.
Or you can get together with some fellow creators, hire a space for a night or a week and screen your films, hang your paintings, recite your poetry, do your comedy improv, or whatever it is you want to do.
Occasionally that pays off in an unexpected way. I just read in the Los Angeles Times how a couple of animators who created a short cartoon film just to show at some local screenings were contacted as a result by a network who has commissioned a series based on the characters in that short film.
Sometimes the things we make for fun benefit from not having deadlines or the baggage of expectations and lead to the more traditional type of success; other times they just help us keep our sanity.
In an article in the Sunday New York Times psychology professor David deSteno points out that there actually are two yous involved: the one in the present who intends to do something in the future--exercise more, eat less, make time to write, etc.--and the future you who may decide in the moment that sleeping another hour is just as good for your health as going to the gym, that one little dessert isn't gong to make any difference, and that it makes sense to watch TV instead of writing because the show might inspire you.
When we make promises to ourselves we are in a different set of circumstances than when it comes time to deliver on the promise. Temptation is much stronger when it's in front of you than when it's an abstract notion.
Also, we are experts at rationalization, as exemplified by the excuses in the example above. That allows us to still think of ourselves as basically trustworthy...but on some level we do know that we're not great at sticking to our intentions.
DeSteno's suggestion for improving our chances of sticking to our intentions is to use technology, like apps that remind you to exercise or ask you to record everything you eat, for instance. One smiple app for this kind of reminder is a web tool called Joe's Goals. If you want to have an element of social reinforcement, 43 things is a good choice.
Reminders are good but can easily be ignored or rejected with the same kinds of rationalizations we're used to employing.
More powerful are the tools that include a penalty if you don't do what you said you would. For instance, you can specify that a certain amount of money will be donated to a political party or cause you don't like if you don't deliver. One of the most popular tools for this is StickK.
If you really want to ensure that you follow through and don't fib or rationalize, it's best to put the judgment of whether or not you complied in the hands of someone else...tricky at best, as it's easy to imagine this leading to arguments and broken friendships.
Here are some addiitonal tips that might be helpful:
* Tackle one thing at a time. Will power is limited and while today it might seem noble and exciting to start reforming three or four aspects of your life tomorrow, tomorrow it won't seem nearly as attractive.
* Apply the same chunking strategy that you may already be using to overcome procrastination. For example, if having a healthier diet is one of your goals, start by deleting one unhealthy snack from your diet. Once you're used to that, choose another small modification. (Note: there are some people who are more motivated by making a big change and find this works better for them--try one approach; if it doens't work, try the other one).
* Use cues to remind yourself of what you have promised yourself you will do. As well as using web tools and apps you can put notes to yourself on the fridge, or put your gym bag by the front door, or leave your manuscript file open on your computer so it's the first thing you see when you fire it up next time.
* Ask for constructive support from friends and family. Ask them to remind and encourage you to stick to your intended behavior.
Gotta go, I intend to spend the next couple of hours working on my novel...
(You'll find a lot of practical help in my book, Focus: Use the power of targeted thinking to get more done, published by Pearson and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
There may be more tips in his forthcoming book, The Truth About Trust, although I confess I think it may turn out to be another book that actually would be a better long article.
Of course it's great to have a period of two or three or four hours of uninterrupted writing time, but here are ten things you can write when you have only ten minutes or even less:
1: A haiku. In case you've forgotten the details about this Japanese form of poetry, the pattern of haikus in English is three lines, the first with five syllables, the second with seven, the third with five.
Traditionally they are about images or feelings relating to nature, beauty or an important moment but feel free to add your own variations. For instance, if you were to write a haiku about your project, what would it be?
2: A description of a character in a book, script, or story you want to write. You can focus on the physical for one session, the emotional for another, the childhood and family for another, and so on.
3: The kind of glowing review of the project you're working on that you hope to see when it goes out into the world. Be specific--what makes it so wonderful? This can serve as a guideline for you when you create and refine it.
4: A thank you note or email (a note is better) to someone who has inspired you or who gives you moral support for your creative activities. Is it your spouse or partner, or a parent, a sibling, a friend? Do you think 'oh, they know already that I apprecate them.' Are you sure?
5: A note to yourself about what you need to do next to help bring your creative idea or project to fruition. If it's a big task, break it down into a list of smaller steps and the order in which it makes most sense to do them.
6: A list of at least ten things you've achieved in the past despite initial doubts. Keep it handy for days when you doubt yourself.
7: A description of one place you were in the past 24 hours that might be a good setting.
8: One memory that makes you smile.
9: One memory that doesn't.
10: One thought about a story you might want to write in the future. If you do this in a notebook you carry or a notes app on your phone, over time you can accumulate lots of ideas.
Some of these might fit into a particular projects, some won't, but all of them can keep you exercising your creativity and developing your writing skills.
Is one of your goals writing more, or writing more regularly? If so, establishing some simple rituals may be helpful. Many writers do have a ritual and sometimes they’re pretty strange.
Truman Capote said “I can’t think unless I’m lying down.”
Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame while nude (so he wouldn’t be tempted to leave the house and do something more enjoyable instead). He did allow himself to wear a large shawl against the cold.
Maya Angelou liked to write in hotel rooms, “a tiny, mean room with just a bed and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin.”
Obviously the answer is to write in a hotel room in the nude while lying down and drinking a lot of coffee. Or maybe not.
And there are a few probably best avoided, like Friedrich Schiller’s trove of rotten apples. His wife said he could write only when stimulated by that smell.
Some writers have a ritual that gets them started. It’s a way of separating everything else in the day from the time to write. This can be moving to a particular location. Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evenings sitting at his kitchen table. Thomas Mann worked in his study between 9am and noon.
The location itself can also become associated with being productive. Vladimir Nabokov liked to write in a parked car.
Another ritual is reading something before you start writing. John Milton, who was blind, had someone read to him from the Bible for 30 minutes before mentally composing lines that a helper later would write down.
Linking writing with another activity also works for some. Wallace Stevens wrote his poetry while walking. He used slips of paper and later had a secretary type what he’d jotted down. Not a bad idea for us mostly sedentary types!
Some writers swear by using a particular kind of pen—probably now supplanted by using a particular software program or specific font.
John Steinbeck always kept a dozen sharpened pencils on his writing desk.
Andre Dumas used different color papers for different types of writing (fiction on blue, and when he ran out he felt his fiction was not as good).
It can also be useful to have a ritual or practice with which to end your writing session. This can be as simple as recording on a chart the number of words or pages you wrote, or putting away the pen or pencil you write with if you write longhand, or setting a timer for your writing period and stopping when it buzzes, even if you are in mid-sentence (Hemingway advised stopping mid-sentence so that you always had something to start with the next day).
Obviously the best rituals are ones that don’t take much time. You could put on a particular bit of music or read a couple of pages of inspirational prose. Or you could put on a cap or hat that you wear only when writing. If you have a ritual that works for you, feel free to share it here.
(For lots of useful, practical advice from the great writers including Dickens, Twain and Austen, get a copy of my book, Your Creative Writing Masterclass, published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
One of a series of quotes for writers and others that you might find useful in thinking ahead to the new year: "Get that dream clearly in sight, start thinking weirdly, be committed and confident, use pressure as your energy bar, and practice laser-like focus. And, like all great performers, learn how to get into the trusting mindset routinely. Above all, be an artist. You have nothing to lose but your mediocrity." - John Eliot, in his book Overachievement.