The Turkey Trap

November 24, 2010

Posted by Deborah Atherton

The end-of-the-year holidays are not generally known as great spurs to creativity, unless you are Martha Stewart. All those people to whom you are related–all those turkeys which you will have to stuff and roast–and all the presents which you will have to buy–tend to weigh you down by mid-November, a weight which does not really lift until you make New Year’s resolutions to finish the book (film, painting, script, you fill in the blank.)  Plus, holidays tend to be depressing. Nothing is ever as much fun as it was when you were eight, and that gift you hoped for but hardly dreamed you would get actually magically appeared in the pile of presents.

So what are we to do about the holiday Turkey Trap, that keeps us from doing the work we love?

I think we need to ask ourselves: what is the least we can do and still keep a connection to our creativity, our ongoing projects, and ourselves during these challenging holiday weeks?  This is not the moment to begin the mammoth project you have been thinking of since last New Year’s; this is definitely not the time to tell yourself you will be spending hours a day you aren’t going to have in your studio/workroom/study.  No matter what the calendar says about days off from work or school, you aren’t going to have extra time; you are going to have less time.  And in that little time that you do have, you will likely be tired from all the festivities, and hung over from all that good cheer and sugar. Please, please, please don’t think this is going to be the moment you finally get through that pile of stuff that has been blocking your workspace – trust me,  you will get a third of the way down the pile and be urgently called away, leaving a worse mess than before.

So let’s think realistically about that teeny little bit of time.  Maybe you won’t be able to carve out an hour. (And wouldn’t it be nice if you really could carve out some time, just the way you carve out some white meat from the turkey?)   But perhaps, realistically, you can find a half hour a day.  (Maybe not every day – probably not on the holiday itself – but most days.)

You can do a surprising amount in half an hour. You can write a paragraph or two. You can lay a little groundwork for a painting.  You can make entries in a written or film or audio journal vilifying your friends and relatives.  You can download some of those subversive photos you’ve been snapping and take a look at how they might fit together.

You can do a short blog post, and let us know at The Intuitive Edge, so we can help spread the word!

You probably won’t be able to do a lot, what with that bowl of eggnog and all, but even on the worst days, you might be able to do a little. And usually, a little is all it takes to stay on course and keep connected to your work and to yourself.


November 7, 2010

Most of us do it, and then get angry at ourselves afterwards. Nobody
procrastinates a trip to the corner ice cream store for a hot fudge sundae; almost everybody procrastinates beginning their income taxes.  We postpone beginning something we won’t enjoy doing. But what’s interesting is that we also postpone the creative work we feel we ought to be doing – work we really, really want to do, and maybe aren’t getting paid for until we finish – and instead end up watching yet another rerun of Iron Chef America.

Last month, I was lucky enough to wander into a New Yorker web chat with writer James Surowiecki, in which he discussed his recent article Later, in which he reviewed  the book The Thief of Time and discussed procrastination, and all the theories about why we do it.  These range rather widely from the old fallback lack of will power to the new theory that we are forever negotiating among our own multiple (and uncooperative) selves.  I am really charmed by the idea that inside me are many little egos screaming for satisfaction – perhaps one entirely dedicated to Iron Chef America and trying to figure out what Cat Cora puts in her bread pudding.

And lurking behind all of this, some experts suggest, is a fear that we aren’t good enough, that our work isn’t good enough, and that nothing will ever be as perfect as the project we first envisioned, in that golden moment right before we started to procrastinate.

To achieve success in our battle against procrastination, one solution reported by Mr. Surowiecki is to negotiate amongst all these clashing internal agendas and make bargains for success – i.e., if I finish this blog post, then I get to watch an hour of TV – which seems to land us rather squarely in the role of parenting our own inner eight-year-olds.  Because our will power is limited, we have to be clever in finding ways to bolster it. Imposing deadlines is a trick many experts suggest that most of us have already put into practice (and many of us have spent a lot of time circumventing, as well.)

Near the end of the chat Mr. Surowiecki brought up the idea that “how people think (construe) a problem has a powerful effect on how they act . . . framing effects can be very influential, and to the degree that you can think of a task as close rather than distant, you’re more likely to actually get it done.” We are all a little delusional about time, whether we are calculating how long it takes to get from here to there or how long it will take to finish a painting, or a film, or a novel. So maybe we can pull back a bit from the idea of that perfect, complete, shining final product, and know that if we begin today, we can watch the twenty episode marathon on TV over Thanksgiving weekend without guilt.