Growing Gills - Jessica Abel

Cover of Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You're Drowning in Your Daily LifeGo from overwhelmed, anxious, and stuck, to consistent, clear, and in control of your creative life.

Growing Gills

How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life

by Jessica Abel

If you feel like you’re floundering in the deep end (Not waving, drowning!), and anxiety over the complexity and enormousness of your creative projects overwhelms you, stop scrambling to fit everything in and feeling stretched thin.

Dive deep and swim

Sustain the energy you feel when thinking of how awesome your projects could be.

Value your own creative work as highly as work you do for other people.

Build a reusable structure and process that will consistently get you to the finish line.

Blast through your stuck-ness.

Focus. Finish. Move on to the next project.

What they’re saying about Growing Gills

“Abel delivers a motivating productivity guide for people who have trouble finishing creative projects…[Her] plan of attack is as thorough and astute as the assessment questions, providing practical and detailed actions that target problematic habits.”
–Publisher’s Weekly

“Abel’s book is one you “do” instead of just passively reading. If you follow her exercises, you can clean out the cobwebs of your goals and processes and find the clarity to drop the nonessential and focus on the art you want to make more than anything else. With Growing Gills, readers pin down the specific obstacles that are preventing them from getting their work done, make clear-eyed choices about what they want to devote their attention to and build a system that will get them across the finish line.”
–Professional Artist Magazine

“[Abel’s] writing voice is very confident, very capable, very conversational, but not sloppy. You always feel like she’s in control of her voice. It doesn’t have to be that well-written because the advice is all very good, but it’s such a pleasure. I was really impressed.”
–Sonia Simone,

“If you have creative work but have been unable to make it happen, I highly recommendGrowing Gills. It is practical and down to earth, and it is realistic. Whether you are blocked by illness, disability, job, money, fear, or family, this book will help you take an honest look at where you are, where you want to be, and chart a path between the two.”

“[Growing Gills is] about prioritizing creative processes over all the other stuff that can get in the way of success, in pinpointing priorities in the creative life, in time management, and in taking the steps needed to bring big, beautiful projects to fruition.”

You’re a creative person.

Even if you have a hard time calling yourself a “writer” or an “artist” in public, making your creative work is core to who you are and how you see the world. You may be harboring a big, ambitious idea for a project. Possibly a lot of them.

And it’s killing you.

You lie awake thinking about it…and hating yourself for not doing more to make it real. And then in the morning you’re exhausted, and you can’t believe you “wasted” more time on this stupid idea. Who ever told you you were creative anyway? You try to shove your idea away, to forget it. But your creative work is what keeps you sane. You can’t not do this. So you live with guilt and anxiety all the time.

You’ve tried, oh how you’ve tried, to carve out the time and attention you need to devote to your creative work. You’ve made ambitious goals, you’ve written lists, you’ve scheduled calendars…you’ve installed shackles on your desk chair. But chaining yourself to your work only seems to make you more distractible and more miserable. (And those unsightly leg sores!)

Maybe you’ve even tried to borrow time-management tips from the business world. Get things done! Build seven habits! Eat that frog! But following business-minded productivity systems just doesn’t work for you. The issue isn’t simply getting “things” done, it’s allowing yourself to devote precious time and attention to the vital, self-generated creative work that builds toward your vision for the future.

The problem is, the life you’re living is already full. You’ve made a lot of promises, to yourself, your family, your friends, and your community, that you’ll be there for them. You probably have a job; you may have kids. You may well have many competing ideas for your creative work. Where, exactly, can you find that mythical Creative Focus Unicorn?

In Growing Gills, you’ll discover that the power is already within you to make your work.

The biggest obstacles to your getting your important creative work done lie in the unknowns you’re facing.

Growing Gills takes you step by step through the process of pinning down exactly what’s stopping you from finishing your beautiful, inventive, and potentially game-changing projects.

Using the power of conscious decision, you’ll build your own unique system for fitting creative work into your existing life, taking into consideration how you work best.

Like a custom-designed, powered exoskeleton, your personal system will bolster and support your creative practice day in and day out, so that you can grow up and grow old while continuing to make your creative work…without chucking out all the other connections to your family and the world that make your life rich and worth living.

GROWING GILLS: Breathe in the deep end.

What’s inside


My mission with this book: For you to come to value your creative work as the oxygen that it is to you, and then to figure out how to make room for it in your real, messy, overfull life.


You want to be making creative work, and something is stopping you. Maybe a whole array of things is stopping you. Getting to where you feel in control of your creative work is a matter of figuring out what, exactly, those things are, and what you can do about it.


You’re going to build your resilience and resistance to the temptation to procrastinate, and you’re going to make conscious choices about what in your real life you want to build up, and what you want to break down. In short: You will take control of your priorities and your decision-making, and you’ll align your activity more closely with how you really want to be spending your days.


The tricky thing when it comes to systems is not building them, it’s actually using them. You’ll identify how you’ve worked best in the past, how you can apply that knowledge moving forward, and how to build flexibility and understanding of your multiple life roles into your creative system. You’ll implement creative routine into your life. And you’ll build in a robust review process that will consistently realign your daily activity with the lodestar of your larger creative and life goals. With these pieces built into your process, you’ll build trust with yourself and design a creative life that will sustain you indefinitely into the future.


I know from experience there are things that will stop you that have nothing to do with making lists. I wanted to make sure we talk about a few of those things in this last section, and to give you a few more tools to tackle some of the big issues we all face.


Building a flexible, balanced, joyful, sustaining creative practice is a craft, not instinct.
It takes time and thought. You can change who you are, and you don’t have to be resigned to how things are working in your life. But you do have to take action, not just think about it, in order to change anything. You act into thinking; you don’t think your way into acting. You can’t change anything until you’re actually in motion. And the only thing standing in the way of being in motion is inside your head.

Cover to the Growing Gills Workbook, a 70-page hands-on activity book for Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You're Drowning in Your Daily LifeYou know that just reading Growing Gills, without working through how you will implement changes in your creative life, will not give you the results you crave. But it’s tough to do this all on your own.

That’s why, included with your copy of Growing Gills, is the free downloadable Growing Gills Workbook.

With 23 activities and worksheets over 70 pages, the Workbook is a step-by-step guide to implementing your conscious decisions about how you will change your creative life.

Jessica Abel has been featured in

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Facing Your Dilemmas (How to uncover the specific obstacles that stand in the way of your achieving your creative goals.)

Chapter 2: Drowning in Idea Debt (How and why we hold on to too many creative ideas and plans, and how that can stop you from finishing any of them.)

Chapter 3: Open Loops (Identifying and gaining control over the many commitments you’ve made to yourself and others.)

Chapter 4: Self-Forgiveness As a Productivity Tool (Embracing self-compassion instead of self-blame.)

Chapter 5: Authenticity is What You Actually Do Every Day (Acknowledging and gaining strength from what it is that you truly care about)


Chapter 6: Prioritize: One Goal To Rule Them All (How to grapple with your many creative ideas and priorities.)

Chapter 7: Saying No (Coming to terms with the necessity of knowing what your highest priorities are—across all areas of your life—and aligning what you actually choose to do with those priorities.)

Chapter 8: Saying YES (Choosing your highest creative priority, and saying yes to finishing.)

Chapter 9: The Black Box (Breaking down giant, scary projects into small, achievable steps.)

Chapter 10: Your Ideal Week, Next Week (Creating a responsive and effective schedule based around your real daily life and needs.)


Chapter 11: There Is No Finish Line (How to look at your creative practice as a part of your overall life rhythms in a sustainable way over the long term.)

Chapter 12: The Big Creative Rhythms: Being a Parent, Being a Partner, Being a Child

Chapter 13: The Value of Routine (Embracing creative routines as the source of inspiration and joy in the work)

Chapter 14: The Key is the Trust (Creating a robust review process that will keep your creative work on track long term.)

Chapter 15: Planning Backward (Developing a working plan for a creative project with a deadline.)

Chapter 16: The Long View (Finding the long-term vision for your creative life.)


Chapter 17: The Dark Forest (Why and how we go through creative crisis in the midst of big projects, and some ways to get out of it.)

Chapter 18: The Resistance (Facing and overcoming your own resistance to making your work.)

Chapter 19: Restart (Getting back on track when you’ve gotten derailed.)


About the author

Cartoonist, author, and educator Jessica Abel is the author of the graphic novel La Perdida (winner of the the 2002 “Best New Series” Harvey Award), Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars,  as well as two collections of stories from her omnibus comic book Artbabe. She and her husband, the cartoonist Matt Madden, were series editors for The Best American Comics from 2007 to 2013. Together they’ve authored two textbooks about making comics, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics. Her book (and podcast), Out on the Wire, is about how the best radio producers in the world use story to keep us listening.

Jessica is the chair of the illustration program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Both within and without PAFA, Jessica helps creative people with big ideas to get past procrastination and anxiety, and get on with the business of making their potentially transcendent, game-changing creative work real in the world.

Jessica lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her husband and their two children.

Stop dreaming and start making with Growing Gills.