Several people have said to me that they appreciated the Restart handout from last week’s article, where I guided you through gathering and identifying all your projects, and highlighting what really must be done right now, and what can legitimately wait for your attention, in order to help you calm your anxiety and focus.
Some, though, came to me with a new question: once you have those “Must + Now” things under control, what the heck do you do with that daunting pile of “Would Like To” projects? That’s where you probably had to put all the things that feel really important, things like, “Finish my novel,” “launch my webcomic,” or “edit my audition reel.” And you may have lot of things in that category.
Some things in the Would Like To category are simple, concrete jobs—“organize kitchen drawers,” or “donate clothes”—and frankly, those are the things you’re more likely to get around to than your ambitious creative projects.
I’ve written before about Idea Debt, and if you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you know I think it’s probably the concept that gets closest to defining what stands in the way of actually making the work for most creative people. So if you are gazing at your list of Would Like Tos in despair, I’d like to introduce you to someone.
I met Michi when she joined the first Creative Focus Workshop. Then, she presented herself as an inveterate procrastinator, unable to get control of any of the self-generated projects she cared so deeply about, and deeply suspicious of the ability of any kind of system to help her.
If I schedule slots in my diary, I manage to forget/ignore them; I’ve created a detailed notebook with the Get Things Done approach and then never looked at it… this is just to say why I’m somewhat hesitant about more programmes, as I seem to be strangely resistant.
But as of today, Michi has completed and published two projects, one of them a 44-page self-published book she’d been mulling over for at least 15 years.
There’s more than one takeaway in Michi’s story, but the key lesson for me in Michi’s ongoing success is the power of attention.
Like a lot of people I encounter, Michi felt really burned by her attempts to work on her big projects.
I had lots of ideas, but was getting very little finished. I’d amassed three projects I wanted to get printed, but had no real concept of when. I’d even joined a 100-day online programme on Facebook earlier this year and chosen one of those projects as my goal, but it wasn’t enough just to receive encouragement to keep working on it every day. (That’s the project I eventually got done here!)
I asked Michi what her work process had looked like before she started the Creative Focus Workshop:
Ha! Process? I would come up with drafts, but not get much further (unless for paid commissions, in which case they would get done because there was a deadline).”
This is an incredibly common problem, and it stems from feeling obligations to other people more deeply than to yourself.
What turns that reality around? I still find it hard to define, but there are a few key elements that helped Michi:
Notice, none of this is actually butt-in-chair working. This is about taking a calm and nonjudgmental look at your work process, and making conscious decisions about it. Butt-in-chair is also part of the formula, of course. But that part comes after making some rational observations and decisions.
Speaking of formulas, going through the Creative Focus Workshop did not turn Michi into a neatnik organizational nut. It’s clear that she still doesn’t like rules, even actively resists them. Michi includes a certain level of chaos in her mix, and she feels more comfortable that way. That’s an incredibly important thing to recognize, and that also comes from paying attention to how you work best.
I’m still not very good at using any sort of new planning system; I’d gone for the Bullet Journal option, adapted it quite a bit to the point of not even using it every day (!), and have settled on trying to make much more regular and consistent use of my own custom-made diary. This isn’t the only thing I “failed” to achieve properly in the CFW segment, but it seems it’s still possible to carry on and get vastly more done than ever before, regardless of not managing all the tasks.
I love the calendar I use because I can see at a glance exactly what I’m doing. And I’ve combined that with the Bullet Journal idea. It’s kind of a hybrid, a bastardization.
The basis of the Bullet Journal is that you number the pages in your notebook, and then you put everything into an index at the front, so you can find stuff. If a project takes several pages, if it’s on page 11 and it’s on page 14, it doesn’t matter because you can find it all. I find that quite good. So every time I get a comic idea or I’m working on a draft for something I need to do next month or whatever it goes in there I’ll find it again now. But I look at this journal as a place where I think things through, not where I put tasks that need to happen.
I put specific appointment slots in my calendar, but I don’t do a daily to-do list because I’d just be copying it over and over again. I don’t think about “today” so much as what needs to be done this week. And it can slide around.
Unlike a lot of people, who really need to have day-by-day task breakdown, for Michi, all she really needed to do was break down where she needed to be week by week, or even month by month.
That breaking down stuff is really good. In fact, one of the pages in my journal, was breaking down the book. The end goal is the finished thingie, and those are dates by which I had to have each step.
I figured out when it had to go to the printer. I figured out I had to do about 10 pages a month, so that gave me an idea of how much I had to do by day. That was really useful, sort of like a mind map or…a flow chart. I like flow charts.
Breaking the book down to steps, and thinking through when the steps have to be done to get to the goal was really really useful.
First: A 12-page proof of concept for a web-based science quiz comic called Up, Down, or Stay the Same?
Then: Just a Normal Day?, a book she’d wanted to create ever since her (now young adult) children were in primary school.
It’s a “Choose your own direction” story about everyday life with small kids while being self-employed. I just thought it would be nice to do this and give copies to my friends who were in the same situation. This was my real life, trying to get on with stuff, and trying to make breakfast when there’s no food in the house, and all the things you do.
I started thinking about it 15 years ago, and I started illustrating it 4 years ago. Once I started making comics a few years ago, I reworked the whole thing as a comic.
My deadline was inspired by the ArtWave exhibition—an artist open house—in August. People will be coming to the house looking at stuff I’ve done as well as by four friends of mine.
I’ve been trying to think: What has actually made the difference? When I did the first course, I didn’t do any of the exercises. I felt like I was failing at all the tasks, and just felt like, oh, I can’t do this. I can’t even block out an average week, because my weeks are so variable with this band or that band practice.
Didn’t I mention? Michi is a musician, too.
I don’t have a schedule, I can’t define how much time I have. But nevertheless, something’s happened.
These Idea Debt objects just sat on the shelf, for years, collecting dust.
Until—I guess it’s just a change of mindset—believing it’s possible. Just deciding. Yes, I will actually do it.
Clearly, a lot more than a simple change of mindset contributed to Michi’s success. But what this quote says to me is that the real change came almost without her noticing it. By deciding and then putting together a simple system that mirrors how she works best, Michi went from unable to finish anything that wasn’t ruled by an external deadline to this:
Focus your attention like a laser on a singular goal, and you’ll start to see some of the same changes in yourself.
Michi Mathias is a UK-based illustrator and cartoonist, drawing in the old-fashioned way with pen & ink and watercolour. After a distant past of trying to draw properly, her work has veered toward a somewhat quirky wonkiness whilst still retaining a bit of accuracy and detail, which is a lot more fun. She especially loves making complex concepts clearer through drawing.
P.P.S. Guess what showed up in the mail today??