It happens to all of us. Your cache is full, you’ve got about ten dozen tabs open, and you’re not sure if you’re staring at the spinning beach ball of death, or if it’s staring at you. How are you supposed to regain your focus when there is so much to do?
It’s time for a hard reset.
I’m sitting in my shiny new office at my shiny new job, in front of a huge, blazing-fast, new Mac. I have been away from the studio, from my workplace, all summer, and I have five courses to plan, an essay to write, most of a comic book to draw, a whole bunch of correspondence to write, and a blog post to finish. This blog post. I should be focused.
So what the hell am I doing browsing mini fridges on Amazon?
The thought sequence that led me here: I like to drink tea. And in my tea, I like to have milk. In order to have milk at hand, I need refrigeration. I work on the 5th floor. The closest refrigerator is on the 3rd floor. I will never go to the 3rd floor just for milk.
I catch myself in the middle of the act of Amazon-ing, and a wave of disgust at my lack of focus sweeps over me. I’ll open a document and stare at the words I’ve already typed. Flipping to my email, I’ll answer a couple short things, skipping the hard ones. I get up to organize my books.
Later that week, I read Charlie Gilkey, in his newsletter: “The basic idea is that the longer you’ve been out of your routine, the longer it’s going to take for you to transition out of and into it again. If you’re gone longer than 30 days, you’re likely into a new routine altogether; in short, you’ve developed a new normal, and getting into your “normal” home routine is going to take some adjustment.”
This gives me some perspective and gets me out of the self-blame trap. Not only have I been out of the studio for 8 weeks, I bought a house, I got a job, I changed countries. There are reasons that I’m so out of whack. And it’s not like I didn’t see this coming a year out. Moving overseas, getting a job, setting up a new life, these things don’t happen by accident. They take a hell of a lot of planning, and I knew it would all be disruptive. I even planned time to be off-grid. But in the end, that didn’t matter: the actual process of getting back in the rhythm, a new rhythm, is long and painful, and filled with self-loathing.
I’d been telling myself: “I’m finally back in a house. Sure, it’s a new house, but at least I sleep in my own bed every night. I should be dying to get back to work.” I told myself, “Really it’s just that I have to commit to think.”
…Like it’s just a matter of commitment, of wanting it enough.
If that were true, there would be a lot more people out there making their life’s work, instead of just dreaming about it.
It is not just a matter of commitment. Yes, you’ve got to commit. But willpower alone will not get you back on that horse. That feeling that everything is happening all of the time (and all at once!) doesn’t leave you much room to regain your lost focus. You need a methodology, something to hang on to when you feel like you’ll never, ever, be able to focus again.
For me at least, there is no black-belt level of regaining creative momentum. It’s hard, every time. And it hurts. I hurt myself by thinking that if only I were smarter/better/more in control, I wouldn’t be feeling this way.
Procrastination is caused by anxiety…and procrastination causes anxiety. It’s a cycle, a filthy trick.
Self-blame: not useful. Action is useful.
I needed to restart.
Regain your focus.
I feel like end of summer does this to almost everyone: you take a vacation, go to too many barbecues, stay up late too many nights, and then before you know it, you’re completely thrown off and behind on your creative work, and this is especially/doubly true if you need to set your own deadlines and be self-motivated. If you have kids, they go back to school, and you’re suddenly thrown into a new, intense schedule built around drop offs and lunches and pickups.
But whether you’ve been off your rhythm for a couple weeks or…years…there are a few things you can do to try to regain your focus and control of your time.
Reclaiming your creative focus: an ops manual
Step 1: Self-forgiveness.
When you’ve got a tidal wave of undone stuff bearing down on you, you may feel helpless and overwhelmed. You may feel like there’s nothing good in your life, like you’re worthless. That feeling is contributing to the problem.
Step back and assess where you’re in control.
Look at all the areas of your life and figure out: “Where am I really in control, where is it that everything isn’t collapsing around me? What’s working? What am I proud of?” Inevitably you’re handling something competently.
Have you paid your bills on time? Check. Are you fed? Check. Taking showers? Good for you. Maybe you clean when you’re procrastinating, and your house is sparkling. Kudos. Maybe you just make sure to get to work on time. Whatever it is, pat yourself on the back and meditate on it for a while to help change your point of view.
- If you feel comfortable with the “What am I grateful for?” question, this is the time to write down answers to that one. I am still too much a cynical punk at heart to go there, but I’m trying.
- When your Should Monster rears its ugly head and says you should be working, and if you’re not, you’re a piece of crap and will never dig out of this hole ever…just put a box around that and tell yourself, “This is normal. It’s not true, but it’s normal to feel this way. Everyone does. Even Jessica.” That will help.
Step 2: Survey the lay of the land.
When you get back from a break, whether voluntary or involuntary, there’s a drag effect on your ability to regain focus on several levels.
- On the one hand, it’s literal: if you’ve been away, you’ll have more stacked up tasks.
- And then there’s the fact that you’re simply out of the habit of concentration.
The first drag will resolve itself after a while, and get back to whatever your normal level of chaos is. The second drag is actually the harder of the two to deal with (though when resolved, it will certainly help with the first!)
You need to take stock of your commitments, to yourself, and to others. The pieces are scattered all over the place. You’ve got to gather them up. What have you explicitly or implicitly promised to do?
When you don’t know the answer to this, everything feels urgent.
>> Clean your desk.
…Whatever your “desk” is, even it’s a backpack. Include all the places you’ve done work or left notes or messages to yourself: your kitchen table, refrigerator magnets, table by the door, coffee table. Clean it up, and each time you find something that calls out to you to deal with it, write down what you’re supposed to do with that thing. Cleaning can feel like procrastination (and it might be!) but I give you permission, if you need it, to do this first.
>> Categorize your list.
Divide Must from Would Like To, Now from Can Wait.
This is not quite the same as the urgent-important matrix (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry, I’ll write more about that one at a later date). This is emergency triage.
Before you go further, be honest: does everything in the Must bucket really belong there? Or is your Should Monster telling you things you really would like to do are Musts? Even really big important creative projects are often “would like to.” And that’s important to acknowledge, because it means that when we devote time to that work, it’s a positive choice. And when we don’t do it, that’s a choice as well, not victimization.
Congratulations: You’ve now effectively slashed the number of items your anxious brain needs to bounce around all the time.
- Anything that’s in the Can Wait bucket, you can safely put off, and temporarily ignore.
- Anything that is in both the Must + Now buckets, just do that stuff. (Easier said than done. Read on.)
For things on the Must + Now list:
>> Calendar the small stuff.
If it’s small, get it on your calendar, and make it so. Usually, this part of the list—if you’re honest—is not that long, or if it is long, it’s mostly made up of petty admin tasks: emails you need to answer, paperwork. Annoying but easy tasks.
>> Reset deadlines where possible.
If there are items on this part of the list that involve collaborators or clients, assess whether you can push back the deadlines. Communicate with them about your schedule as early as you can.
>> Break down the big projects into doable tasks, as small as you can manage.
If some of the list items are large and unwieldy, they are probably projects, not tasks. So make sure to break them down into the tiniest steps you can imagine and then add them to your schedule individually. Check out this blog post and worksheet for help with the process of breaking down projects into tasks.
>> In general:
Use every trick you know to make yourself start for even 15 minutes.
Then: take walks, take breaks, allow yourself not to think about it for a while. Time your breaks, and get back to short sprints of work.
You’ve been out of focus-shape, and you’re building up your focus-muscles. Forgive, forgive, forgive. It will take time.
For the Must + Can Wait list:
Allow yourself to forget these for a few days. In order to calm your anxious brain, and reassure it that you will deal with this stuff in good time, set a planning date with yourself (on your calendar) in the near future to schedule and break down these items.
When it comes to the Would Like To + Can Wait list, this is where things get really tough.
This is probably where your dream project is sitting, and, I know: it makes you feel like a loser not to put it on the schedule right now, today.
I’m telling you: You can do the big dream project, you can make it happen. But get warmed up first. Get the panic-inducing Now stuff finished (or in progress) and practice the art of focus for a while before you move on to tackle the stuff that has no external deadlines or commitments. Get the task-breakdown Granularity worksheet on this post to help with this process when you’re ready.
Pro tip: the Now + Would Like To bucket should be empty.
Regaining your creative focus can be a slow process:
If you’ve only been out of it for a week, it’ll take you a day or so to get in the groove. Maybe it’s been 2 months, and you’re in a whole new environment, like me, it’ll take a lot longer. If you’ve never really had this down? Build up slowly, know this is really really hard, and forgive yourself when you fall short.
Try again, and forgive again.
The most difficult obstacle between you and full access to your creative productivity is that voice in your head that tells you this is all happening because you suck.
You can find an expanded version of this article, as well as the accompanying activity, in my book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.
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