Care for your self the way you care for your work
Last night, I was trying to put the finishing touches on a new article for you, about getting your tasks on a calendar and yadda yadda, and it was weird. I was feeling a lot of resistance, even though it was virtually done. It just felt…wrong. Not that the information was wrong. No, I think it’s probably useful. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that was bothering me until last night, as I was writing an email to my subscribers (which you can join here!), where I talked about the core reason we need to get our creative practice into a functional state.
I’ll talk about what that reason is in a minute.
But so, I had this sudden realization: this new article would come on the heels of several weeks of very tactical articles. Approximately a gajillion people read my Idea Debt article. A half-gajillion read the next one, about setting one clear goal to focus your efforts. But when I broke it down further to open loops and turning projects into action steps, I lost a lot of you. I realized (again) that when it comes to getting through the actual tactical steps of setting up a system, we all resist. And for good reason: you’ve probably got some system that’s already not really working for you all that well. You’ve probably started and abandoned lots of other approaches along the way. Why the hell would you want to plunge into yet another system, without any idea why this one will be better?
I talk about having a “trusted system” where you can put all your goals, track your progress, and plan your projects. But here’s the thing:
The key is not the system, the key is the trust.
You can have a crap system, janky and weird. Built only for you with bubblegum and duct tape. But if you can TRUST it to support your creative work, you’ve got what you need.
The problem is when you get so focused on building the system, and filling the system with actions, that you lose sight of the goal. I mean the BIG goal. Not that puny 5000-page novel you’re planning. No. The big goal is to be a person who creates without undue anxiety, who knows how to stop working and play without guilt, who knows how to buckle down and do the hard work of making things without (always) feeling somehow inadequate or unworthy. The big goal is to create a practice that takes care of not just your work, but your entire self.
Believe me, I’m not claiming any creative practice can be—or even should be—angst-free. It’s hard to create, and it’s painful. In fact, it’s so hard that no one needs to make it harder by piling on the negative emotion that comes part and parcel with feeling completely out of control of your creative life.
The point is, your creative practice is your LIFE practice. It’s the basis of how you live every day.
That is why figuring out a creative rhythm is self care.
And THAT is the core reason why you need to focus on your creative process, and get it working for you, not against you.
If you don’t, you live with pain and guilt and anxiety. All the time. Not just your “creative time.”
Building a healthy creative practice is SELF-CARE. It’s the best kind of self-care, the kind that builds you up from the inside. It may feel self-indulgent to spend time and money on your creative life when the rest of your life seems to be falling apart. But that’s exactly why you need to do it.
If you think self-care means taking exercise classes, let’s get this straight: you won’t go to exercise classes if you’re tied into knots over not working. The core of self-care is taking care of the core of YOU. That’s where the emotional turmoil you feel about your creative work lives. And that turmoil is what you will start to calm when you implement a reliable, trusted system.
OK, so, what does “trusted” mean?
Your subconscious is smarter than your conscious mind in a lot of ways. You know at some level that you’re losing track of your goals when you’re mindlessly going through actions and never taking a global look to make sure those actions really lead where you want to go. Or, for that matter, if you don’t capture all your flitting to-dos in the first place, and you know you’re forgetting things. That’s when anxiety kicks in.
Big question: what does “trust” in a system look like, concretely?
You don’t just pat your iPhone at night and say, “it’s OK, I trust you.” Trust is all about the system being there for you, to bolster you and support your weak spots, when things start to fall apart. The same way you know you have a friend you can trust because she’s the one who takes care of your dog without being asked when an accident lands you in the hospital, that’s how you know you have a trusted system.
What the hell does that mean?
What it means is, if you invest your time into building a system to support your creative goals and contain your next steps, you had better build a robust review process into it, where you verify that you’re moving in right direction and even have a chance to reflect on if that is indeed the direction you want to be heading.
Trusting your system means developing trust in your self, and that’s self care.
Trust in your system stems from review.
Whatever system you have, however half-assed and sorta-kinda, set aside an hour today to read it. Just read it. Find all the post-it notes and envelope-backs and notebooks and digital systems, and read them all. Try to decipher all the fading items written in ballpoint pen on your wrist. Just taking stock of all that will help calm your nerves.
But it won’t fully resolve the anxiety problem, because you still don’t know where that leaves you in regard to your overall goals. So sit back and take a few minutes to reflect on your goals. Have a clean sheet of paper next to you, and write down whatever comes to mind.
You’re going to see you haven’t done this or that, that you may not be where you want to be in terms of finishing. That is not a thrilling realization. But trust is in knowing that you have a plan for the next week, next month. You’ll be able to see where you are on your plan. You can re-calibrate and regain a sense of control. While you may not be finished, but you know what’s next. Which means you can potentially afford to say, OK, I’m done for today, now I can afford to spend an hour playing guitar or baking cookies. Doing things that make you happy? Totally productive.
I’m not telling you to create a new system. (Although, if you’re ready for a new system, I want to help you build one.) Don’t just write lists of to-dos. I mean, you can do that too, but that’s not the point. If you can grab a little window of time and use it to reflect on what you’ve captured in your system, you’ll find that it will produce all kinds of thoughts and ideas that may lead you…well, who knows where.
That’s the point.
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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I think you’re on point here. I hear you. For me, the word system is loaded. It’s synonymous with shackles. The way I see the world is that it is layered in systems that often separate and stifle. We each operate in so many and have little idea of the parameters that others have been conditioned to work within.
I am part of many systems, but I am loathe to include my creative soul in one. Systems have defined parameters. I rather stuff my creative soul in the sand and believe that this sole part of me is still free than let it associate with the word system. Another word, perhaps? Please? ?
You are absolutely right. You’re on point. Is there another way to reframe it? You’re a cartoonist. Frames is synonymous with the seven letter s* word but, it leaves more air to breathe. Frames are around doorways and windows. They are parts of wonderful films. They help us step back and reanalyze and see things in new ways. I would love to have consistency even if it was crappy. I’m open to that. I know that creativity will happen if I allow it space. I wonder what words we could use with find and replace all for the s word.
Hey Pete –
Sorry to use a word that’s so triggering for you! I know “system” can sound like a cage, but I’d argue that anything we do routinely is a system. A checklist is a system, and the way you go to bed (brush teeth, wash face, read, bed…or whatever) is a system. I don’t know of another word that is as flexible as that for what I’m referring to! Identifying and regularly using your own personal, custom-designed systems for your creativity is how you create space for more open-ended creativity.