Tell me if this sounds familiar:
When I know somebody is waiting to get my work and there is a deadline, I always deliver on time. But when I try to do some personal work, it hardly ever gets beyond the development stage.
I lose excitement, I get bogged down with research, I get distracted, and some other project seems so much more exciting. Then a commission comes along and I am completely focused on it. All thoughts about the personal projects disappear.
Sometime after I have completed the commission work, I remember something about my earlier plans, leaf through my notes and sketches. Sometimes I can get some of the excitement back and the cycle repeats, sometimes I just file the notes and sketches away for later completion, which probably never happens.
Have you been through a similar cycle?
Here’s the twist: the speaker of those words is Michael Wittmann, a lawyer who works for the Austrian government. Despite having a demanding full-time job, he’s “always done some art on the side,” which, for him, has meant three European-style comics albums, 13 years of weekly illustrations for the long-running sci-fi novel series Perry Rhodan, short strips, and caricatures. He’s no Sunday painter.
Yet even Michael, who had juggled a serious professional art career alongside his very non-trivial day job, felt completely out of control when it came to his personal work. So when he came to the Creative Focus Workshop, his aims were really quite modest. He simply wanted “to learn to be as dependable and productive for my own creative work as I am when somebody else gives me an assignment and a deadline. How to keep a schedule I set myself.”
That’s a beautiful goal, and it sounds so simple.
Yet finding a way to be self-motivated and pursue goals that no one is imposing from the outside is one of the hardest things we do as creative people.
To commit to doing work purely because you want to is a profound statement of trust in yourself and your judgment. It means you have to get way out on the wire.
Michael knew that making art was essential to his well-being.
This job with Perry Rhodan, it gave me a structure, it gave me deadlines. I knew I would hit my deadlines, and do some art. And although sometimes I thought, My first love is comics, I should do comics sometime, I had no time for it.
When Perry Rhodan didn’t give me any more commissions, I kind of fell into a big black hole. I had to give myself some structure, some deadlines like I’d been used to, and I didn’t know how.
I always knew I needed to do some art. When I don’t do art for a long time, I get depressed. And that’s not good.
But when Michael sat down to try to make the longer-form comics he loved, he would lose focus, get off track, and then fall down a guilt spiral.
I felt desperate. I would not produce anything without an external deadline. And even with a deadline? I usually did not manage to finish anything more complex than illustrations or single-page comics or cartoons. For years I have aborted all projects of multi-page comic stories.
The Wittmann Method, or, How do I get things done on time?
1. Think thoroughly about your tasks. Consider all aspects. (Hm, I should do something for the next issue of Klein&Kunst.)
2. Make a list of all the working steps.
3. Edit your list to consider all aspects.
4. Did you consider the deadline? (This is an important aspect.)
5. Think about starting to work. (I might consider further aspects before the deadline.)
6. Panic. (Arrgll! The deadline is tomorrow!)
7. Do the rest.
Know your next steps
Michael’s biggest takeaway from the Creative Focus Workshop was laying out a project over time, breaking it down to stages, and then tracking weekly.
It’s great: I know exactly what to do in the time I want to spend on making art. There’s always something specific to do. You don’t have to wonder and get lost in it.
In the past, when I got more intensely into one project, and it started to feel like work, very quickly other ideas would come up which seemed so much more exciting, and so I didn’t get anything done.
This system with the Bullet Journal and the six-week tracking, it gives me a direction.
His Bullet Journal tracking system is his constant companion.
I couldn’t do without it. It’s always in my book sack, I’m always carrying around with me. I’m a commuter; I spend 2 hours a day on the train. That’s where I do my scheduling and planning.
Achieving smaller goals paves the way for larger ones
Michael’s One Goal for the Creative Focus Workshop was to complete Rotkäppchen—a 10-page version of the Little Red Riding Hood story—done in a classic Jack “King of Comics” Kirby style. (Get a PDF copy of Rotkäppchen in English on this blog post!)
Last spring, I read more than 100 issues of Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon [itself inspired by Kirby]. It made me wish to do my own Jack Kirby homage. And then I heard that the next anthology of Viennese comic book artists would be on the theme of fairy tales.
In the midst of work on his project, Michael wrote his thanks to the Creative Focus Workshop community for helping him make progress towards his goal.
Yesterday I did some character sketches, bits and pieces of dialogue, narration, and panel designs for my Little Red-Riding-Hood-as-a-Jack-Kirby-homage project. As usual, my mind started to tell me how silly this whole project was. I worried I will make a fool of myself, that I am not good enough to draw a decent Kirby imitation, anyway, and any other project on my Idea Debt list would be so much more worthwhile than this one.
Three weeks ago this would have stopped me, but thanks to the Workshop I could take it as a good thing and just continue my work.
Amazing! I feel so powerful at this moment, it is unbelievable. Thank you so much.
Reader, he finished it.
I finished my Comic in time. It is part of the anthology “Fairy Tales” published by the Viennese Comic Artists community “Tisch 14”.
It’s amazing, the progress I’ve made. Months ago when I chose my One Goal, I pushed to make it the most ambitious thing I could think of. And now I’ve done it!
Once he knew what he was capable of, the next question was what to take on next. To think that through, Michael came to an online workshop I offered on goal setting and worked through his 5-year vision for his creative life.
This was a vision for the very long range. In the workshop we had the 6-week cycle. And now, we’re imagining what might be in 5 years, that’s a whole different range. Having done the workshop and the 6-week tracking thing, I knew what was doable and could extrapolate for 5 years. I realized, Hey, the dream I’ve had for a long time of having an anthology of my own, and contributing stories to other publications, that’s within the range of the possible!
My goal is to get back into the habit of reading fiction (I have not read fiction—other than Comic books—in years) and preparing to write stories. (Writing a story is still a terrifying task for me, so I’ll take this slow.) At the end of my current 6-week-plan I expect to have an outline of a new story in terms of premise, theme, characters and action.
My long term goal (as seen in the Vision Quest process) is to regularly create and publish short comic book stories, to contribute to anthologies, and to publish an anthology of my own.
If you’re committed to pursuing creative work in big way—as a pro or not—you can’t be happy if you aren’t moving towards your vision.
Check out the Creative Focus Workshop and get on track towards meeting your creative goals.
More about Michael Wittmann:
Born in 1959 in Vienna, Wittmann is an Austrian comic book artist and illustrator with a predilection for humor and the fantastic. He illustrated more than 300 sci-fi pulp novels (PERRY RHODAN) and contributed to comic art magazines from the late 1970s to the present.