How to stop trying to do it all — 5 steps to choose the best project (and chuck the rest)
The Autonomous Creative Collective is the community of current students and alumni of the Creative Focus Workshop.
Cartoonist, teacher, and graphic recorder Lisa Frühbeis went through a shakeup of how she works and thinks that hit Level 7+ on the Richter scale.
The result? Lisa faced down her fears and scarcity thinking to say no to a lucrative (but incredibly boring) opportunity. She then pitched her dream project to a prestigious partner, and is now getting paid to make her dream a reality.
She shared how she did it, and it gave me chills.
“Pre-Creative Focus Workshop Lisa,” as she says, would not have been able to pull it off.
Maybe you’re a bit like Pre-Creative Focus Lisa.
Pre-CFW Lisa hoards offers and crams in more and more work, trying to do it all. She focuses on the highest-paid work, no matter whether it satisfies her need for creative growth. She tries to make time for everything and freezes at the thought of all that she needs to do and wants to do.
Pre-CFW Lisa skates dangerously close to burnout.
Does this sound familiar?
Here’s the truth: you can’t do it all. At least, not all at once.
And especially not when every new offer to land in your inbox sends you into a tailspin and makes you feel like you’d be a fool to let this one pass by, to wring your hands in fear and commit to unfulfilling work that might put food on the table but starves your creativity.
You end up trying to do it all, and finishing approximately none of what you actually want to do.
(If this does sound like you, my free on-demand Creative Engine Masterclass might help.)
Now, Lisa doesn’t try to make time for everything on her plate. She’s tried to do that before, and she only ended up burned out and exhausted.
Now, she makes time for things that matter to her.
But first, she had to identify what to focus on by getting honest about what really matters to her, and pinpointing the fears that had blocked that clarity in the past.
Once she did that, Lisa faced her fears and re-negotiated a client’s offer so that it would allow her to take her passion project off the back burner and finally get cooking.
It was scary! But she leaned on the help of her friends in the Autonomous Creative Collective. This community of Creative Focus Workshop students and alumni has supported and helped Lisa tack through a series of decisions that started with the initial realization that her fear of saying no forced her to juggle too many requests, trying to do it all at once, and pushed her into cyclical burnout.
Lisa’s approaches to working through this problem are not only proactive and creative, they’re bold. She made a project plan that has no room for the fear and scarcity thinking that used to eat up her time and energy.
And the happy outcome?
With the help of some serious negotiation kungfu, Lisa is tackling her long-held passion project AND doing a paid collaboration with a powerful institutional partner.
Here’s how she did it.
I’m finally working on my dream project, and I’m getting paid to do it.
When I finished my previous project and set out to choose what to do next, I could have just repeated the same mistakes I’ve always made before I joined the Creative Focus Workshop.
I could have tried to hold onto every opportunity that came my way out of fear, and end up only finishing the safest projects with the best pay but the lowest creative rewards.
Instead, I merged a prestigious paid offer with my dream project that’s been on the backburner for years.
When I first shared my news with the Autonomous Creative Collective, the CFW community, visual artist Leonie Sharrock said something that echoed the lesson I had learned.
“If we can haggle in a market over the price of goods, we can haggle in life over our creative souls!”
For the first time in my adult life, I feel like I’m consciously making my own day-to-day choices. The buzz I usually feel from participating in a week of comic workshops is what I now wake up to every day.
But for years, I was afraid. And my fear ruled my work.
I’ve been writing versions of the story in my dream project for three years. But those revisions are spring from the same fears that have kept me from completing this project earlier.
It’s a story about single mothers, who are some of the least privileged people in our society. It shows that not everyone can make art, especially if — like single mothers — they don’t have the privilege of free time.
I was raised by a single mother who believes that women never have enough time in their lives. And she might be right that society makes choices harder for women.
But with this fear planted in me, I created a self-fulfilling prophecy: I made sure I never had any time at all.
Whenever an offer knocked on my door, I said yes to anything that paid well or that would add to my reputation because I was terrified of missing out on opportunities.
I crammed my schedule with low-risk work…
…which automatically meant saying no to my high-risk passion projects.
My fear has led me again and again to hoard offers from clients, scared to say no. As a result, I overworked myself to the point of exhaustion.
I had to admit to myself that my fear for the future — multiplied by the pandemic — was hijacking my decisions.
When COVID shut everything down and pushed several projects forward at once, I doubled down. I did the work of three weeks in a single week— at the cost of my well-being.
I’ve done that before, and I didn’t want to repeat it. I knew I had to choose just ONE project, or be swallowed up by my fears once again.
As I worked through this dilemma, I had weird dreams almost every night throughout the entire summer that wrestled with my need for control. Sometimes, I literally wrestled bears and snakes in my dreams. I dug into emotions personified into garbage. I searched in the Alps for my younger self. I hid from cars full of clients (under a street-colored blanket. My subconscious is hilarious).
But when I did the one goal exercise—and it pointed to a project that felt totally wrong— I started doubting I could justify my dream project.
Here’s how I finally set my fear aside and took control of my time:
1) Prioritize your offers and potential projects
I listed all my potential projects and all my unfinished projects into a decision matrix and assigned points to each.
This is when I was shocked to see my passion projects at the bottom, while my most boring paid offer was my number one priority (to create a comic for a bank).
My fear had pushed me to land on something well paid.
The bank comic would be a huge financial windfall for me.
If the project worked out as planned, my work would get a lot of visibility.
The downside? It would bore me creatively.
I also had won a project grant in the beginning of 2020 to do a nonfiction comic with a journalist. We postponed this project due to COVID, but we plan to return to it this year.
I had also finally returned to the story about the single mother that I’ve been working on for a few years now, but this project would be time intensive and wouldn’t be backed by a partner. I feared I wouldn’t have enough time to devote to it.
Then, out of nowhere, the Goethe-Institut of South Korea [The Goethe-Institut is the cultural arm of the German government. Here’s the English site. — Jessica] knocked on my (virtual) door. It offered me the chance to lead their feminist group webcomic project and come up with my own concept. This offer was a total no brainer. I immediately wanted to do it.
But my fear forbade me from letting go of any of my plans.
2) Get clear on your values, and reprioritize
I realized that I had tangible, measurable motivations for my other projects, but the motivation for my dream project was passion. This wasn’t a factor in how I prioritize my time, though money and exposure were.
But the money I put aside should buy me time to work on my art. Why not do what I really want?
I created a new prioritization matrix, including the factor of how passionate I was about the project, and added up the numbers.
My passion project was higher on this new list, but it was still not at the top. The bank comic had fallen quite a few steps. Number one was now the collaborative webcomic for the Goethe-Institut.
But the risk of saying no to any of these still seemed too steep to me. I needed more validation to ditch the other projects and focus on just one.
My old self would have probably just started all of the top projects. This would have once again tapped into my perfectionism and eventually lead to another burnout.
But hey! I am Creative Focus Workshop Lisa now
So I started a Project Path. [The Project Path is a Creative Focus Workshop technique to break down a large, overwhelming project into doable steps, and get them onto a calendar so they start getting done. — Jessica] I made a list of the months leading up to mid-2021 and wrote in all my top projects as well as slotting in time blocks for client work.
It was just. So. Crammed.
Ridiculously so, thank god, or I wouldn’t have realized that it would be impossible for me to finish everything.
That’s when it really hit me. I would have to say no to at least one project. There was no other option.
3) No, seriously, get clear on your values. And reprioritize.
I called my mentor and asked for her opinion. She mentioned another new factor for my criteria, one that I had not thought of before: Which project gives me the most artistic freedom?
I realized that my passion project was exactly that: an opportunity to strive artistically. I had included “learning” as one of my criteria, but I had forgotten about artistic growth.
She said that, in my last comic, I hadn’t used the artistic potential that she saw in my paintings, and that merging the two skills should be my goal for the next project. She also recommended that I avoid any collaborator who would limit me, or even put myself in a position where I would censor my own artistic abilities in order to please them.
Most importantly, she told me to wait. I needed to ask the Goethe-Institut for more information and take my time before saying yes.
More opportunities would come. Better ones. Even after saying no to some of the opportunities already in my lap.
4) Say “no” more quickly
The mere process of saying no had been incredibly stressful and time-consuming, so Jessica recommended using pre-written email responses (in addition to bringing on an assistant to answer new client inquiries), that allow me to quickly respond to offers in five sentences maximum.
[Do you use pre-written responses? Share them in the comments.]
Now, instead of agonizing over how I should respond to each email, my pre-written responses allow me to focus on whether the opportunity is even right for me. They keep me from falling into the trap of people-pleasing that can happen when preparing a new response for each request.
5) Negotiate before you say yes
I took the advice of my mentor. I added “artistic growth” to my criteria, and there it was: Now, my passion project was number one, and the Goethe-Institut was number two. I didn’t want to give either one up.
I looked at my decision matrix again, at the collaboration with the Goethe-Institut and my dream project, and I allowed myself to wonder how much freedom the Goethe-Institut would give me.
Could this client let me choose my own project instead of a collaboration?
And could they allow me to draw my dream project that I have been working on for so long?
I pitched to the Goethe-Institut on why other participants would probably (like me!) want to work on their own stories. I suggested two formats, one similar to my passion project and a collaborative project. I even proposed that I reach out to potential collaborators instead of an open call for participants. Then I could bring people on board who I admire and want to work with.
I was careful not to take control. I just wanted to see if our ideas would align.
I negotiated with my most compelling offer to work on my dream project.
The Goethe-Institut chose all the options I secretly wished for.
It’s a perfect fit. I now meet biweekly with three other artists to publish longform narrative webcomics on the role of women in society. We have complete artistic freedom. The Goethe-Institut in South Korea aims for the stories in this series to be controversial and trigger a debate in the role of women in South Korea, where webcomics are a highly popular medium.
We will publish weekly. I prefer this to publishing monthly as I used to do, since I have no time to doubt myself in such a short time frame, and it forces me to make my comic a priority.
Most importantly: I said no to a draining paid comic that pre-CFW Lisa would have accepted — and I said no to my fear sabotaging my art.
Lisa Frühbeis works in the field of political non-fiction comics. She has taken part in numerous exhibitions. Her feminist comic strip “Busengewunder” was published by Carlsen Verlag in May 2020, and was awarded the Max and Moritz Prize for the best German comic strip, as well as the Bavarian State Award for the Advancement of Arts in Literature. She also works as a creative coach and teaches illustration, such as at the Würzburg University of Applied Sciences, the Literaturhaus München, TIM Textil- und Industriemuseum Augsburg and currently at Macromedia Munich. As a graphic recorder, she draws live word-image protocols for sustainable companies. She has been a voluntary member of many associations, including the board of the German Illustrators’ Association, which she also represented as the German representative in the European umbrella organisation EIF.
You can check out her work on her site: lisafrhbeis-yhb.de. You can also find her on Facebook or on Instagram @lisa.earlybite.
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