Recently, I wrote about how common it is to feel the impulse to undermine yourself and get derailed just when things are going well.
It’s great if you can identify what’s happening in time, and pull back from the brink.
But what if you’ve already managed to drive your project into a ditch, and you’re feeling stuck, unable to get back into it?
This brought to mind a discussion with a Creative Focus Momentum System group.
Kathleen struggled to maintain momentum on her work for a few reasons, but at the root, it came down to the fact that essentially, she was between projects, and not quite sure what she was going to do next.
She was facing the blank page.
When you’re in the middle of something, you’re in conversation with yourself. When you put your work out in the world, you are in conversation with your audience. But blank pages are awful. You can’t build a conversation or a relationship (that’s how I think about my projects in the growth phase) with nothing to bounce off of and spark the next move..
I feel resistance and terror with every new project, even with something tiny, like writing this post. (OK, it wasn’t “terror” today. Discomfort, for sure.) It was a blank slate. There were no handholds for digging into it. Even though I was already talking about this idea of derailment last week, in the intervening days, I was still feeling stuck, like I’d lost the thread of the conversation in my mind.
So, what did I do? I went back to my systems. I reminded myself, where was I? I reread last week’s post. I opened a document where I’ve saved ideas for articles. I let that percolate a bit. I went off on a tangent (that will be useful for some blog posts I’m planning in the future). It took longer than I wanted it to. I’ve been at this for over an hour and haven’t gotten halfway through yet.
But in the bad old days, starting used to take weeks.
At the beginning of a project, I’d feel depressed, like nothing would ever work again. As I learned to pay attention to things that help, and created systems around creating my work, that horrible waiting time got shorter. Depending on the scale of what I’m setting out to do, it could be days, or half an hour.
No matter how short, though, during that time, I’m in a terrible mood. I’m horrible to people, and I feel bad. So I am motivated to get through it as fast as possible.
Here are some things to try:
- Do a focus session. If you have a notion what you want to work on, but you haven’t figured out what form it will take or how to start, sit down over a coffee or beer with someone curious, and talk it out with them. Record, and listen to yourself later, taking notes. This works for me because it kickstarts my internal conversation, causes me to recall threads I’d dropped. Conversation grows out of call and response. Even if the person knows nothing, you have something to bounce off of.
- Make a mindmap. If you haven’t tried this technique, it’s essentially a visual brainstorming method, where you start with a key idea in the center of a piece of paper, then associate ideas with that, building a network of concepts. Again, you’re making a list of thoughts and drawing connections in a way that will feed your inner conversation.
- If you’re not sure what your next idea should be, schedule a bunch of meet ups with friends, and talk about whatever you’re interested in. Then pay close attention to what you keep bringing up. I wrote an article about this one: “Pay attention to your attention.”
- Write a rant. What do you hate about what people are doing in the creative field you’re in? What do other people do wrong? What are they not paying attention to? What do you hate when people say it to you? Now, what would be the opposite of this? This is a great technique for figuring out what you stand for, what matters to you. Until something exists, there’s no way in. Anything you can do to give yourself something to react against, or for, will help.
- Related: put anything down on paper/screen. Make something truly crappy. As soon as you put texture on that canvas, you can say yes or no to it. When it’s blank, it gives you nothing. Don’t worry: you can be cranky about it and say a lot of nos.
- Build a ritual, and trust it. Get into the work mindset. What actions and objects indicate that it’s work time to you? Put on certain clothing, or a hat. A particular coffee cup, or pen. Doing a timed session of sketching and free writing. Checking in on the phone with collaborators. There may be caffeine rituals, or water. Specific music, or noise-cancelling headphones. Are there certain places that help you get your game face on? Plan these small rituals into your day.
Permission to write literally anything: granted.
As you try these techniques, take notes. If something is effective, add it to a list of systems you can consult when feeling stuck. Then, all you have to remember is, check your list.
Derailment is part of modern life (and maybe part and parcel of the creative process?). Feeling stuck happens all the time. We have no choice but to learn to deal with it.
By the way, all of these techniques also apply if you’re already well into a project when you get derailed…only in that case, you have the advantage of already having a conversation with the work in your head…you simply have to remember what you were saying.
P.S. I wrote an article about restarting in general a while back. Check that out here.