The Holiday Juggling Act

December 14, 2012

by Deborah Atherton

Juggler by Helico via Flckr Creative Commons License

Work life balance is hard enough, but there’s something about jingling bells and the smell of roasted chestnuts in the chill December breeze that is enough to send many of us over the edge.  Creative people tend to have a lot of balls in the air at any given moment anyway; sometimes it is hard enough to be trying to figure out what comes next in your delicately balanced plot or your apparently-never-to-be-finished painting without adding the stress of buying presents for 1,432 people.


Words of wisdom on this subject abound.  They usually involve Making Lists and Deciding What is Really Important and Letting Go of Making the Annual Fruitcake (which nobody eats anyway.)  But all that is in itself exhausting, and we’re human beings and our minds don’t actually work that way anyway.  We decide to go to parties because we think we might have fun and heard there were going to be peppermint martinis or because the host came to our party last year or because we said yes in a weak moment and can’t back out, not because it is Really Important.  We already know what is Really Important, and tend to avoid it at all costs.

What must self-help books and articles do is try to help us work around our own minds, to help get us to do what we know we ought to do.  Or may even want to do, but find ourselves continually distracted from doing.  The distraction level rises exponentially during the holiday season, and so do the “oughts” and “shoulds.” And most of us, even or especially those with hours set aside every day or week for creative efforts, can’t totally maintain our focus, at least not without arousing the disapproval of others.   We don’t want to be Grinches or Scrooges, do we?

Scrooge Being Warned by Marley

Scrooge Being Warned by Marley

Well, maybe we do, at least once in a while.  Those articles are at least partly right: we can’t be everything to everyone, even for a month.  It’s hard enough to be something for ourselves.  And whatever that something is: the book from NaNoWriMo that needs three more chapters, the blog that gets left untouched, the film that can’t quite get edited—we’re better off if we find just an hour or two, somewhere within the onset of social obligations and consumer madness, to spend some time with it.

So say no once in a while (maybe not to the party with peppermint martinis), take a breath, and stare at your unfinished work for a bit, at least long enough to remember what the problems were when you last picked it up.  Maybe the $29 you would save at the Cybermadness sale isn’t worth the afternoon you might spend thinking through your project—or at least reminding yourself that you have one.


The Creative Process and Procrastination – Can Mindfulness help?

August 1, 2012

by Leslie Zeigler

In my last blog post  I spoke about  the naysayer  inside of you/us. It is often so much easier to be upset when someone else in your life says something critical to you about your creative endeavor.

But there is another way we stop ourselves, without input from anyone else.  We say: I just  don’t have the time.

I know I have been procrastinating writing this blog post for the past  four days, maybe longer. I told myself  I just have too many other paperwork demands. And truth be told, I did have  an unusual number of forms that needed my attention.  But could I  have found the time  on Saturday or Sunday and not Monday night at  l   a.m. to write this?

Probably. So what  resistance was I facing?

In my favorite book about resistance to being creative, The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Stephen Pressfield says, “We don’t tell ourselves ‘I’m never going to write my symphony,’  instead we say, ‘I”m Just going to start it tomorrow.'”

Sound familiar?  I know I certainly can  identify with that sentiment. I have been telling myself since Friday I am going to write my blog post. But I didn’t tell myself I am in the throes of a resistance.  Yet I was.

So  what now? I’d like to  continue where I left off in my last blog post–I had just begun to talk about Mindfulness as a tool for dealing with creative blocks.  I offered in that blog post the first step, which is to just become aware  when you notice your inner naysayer  is going negative (I guess that is an oxymoron).

The next steps in mindfulness are to, as  Dr. Susan Orsillo and Dr. Roemer in The Mindful Way through Anxiety, say,  “observe your internal states …with gentle curiosity and compassion through a clear wide-angle lens.” In this way. you can begin to learn how to detect and increase your  awareness of when you are stopping yourself  from doing what you love .

Why Don’t We Do the Work We Love?

September 21, 2011

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Recently, Leslie and I were having lunch with a good friend and colleague who has just begun to write seriously.  She posed the question:  Why is it that we don’t do the thing we in theory want to do the most? (For all three of us right now, it is finishing a book.)  Why is it that our weekends and evenings fill up with chores, errands, TV, email, etc., etc., and suddenly it is 11 PM Sunday night and nothing has been written? 

The classic answer for this, of course, is resistance (something explored really brilliantly in Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art), but, as Leslie said a few blog posts ago, let’s for a moment resist calling it resistance.  Maybe this isn’t always our inner critic at work, blocking all change and creative effort in our life; maybe this is something else.  Because we all enjoy working on our books; when we set the time aside, it is almost always good time, not frustrating or self-critical time.  

As we discussed the problem, we realized all three of us tended to do the same thing: we feel that we have to block out a day (or an afternoon, or a week!) to work on our projects, and that we can never find a separate block of time long enough (or quiet enough) to really stretch out and enjoy working on it.  And so we postpone, and postpone, waiting for a time when we accumulate enough vacation days, or can take a break from clients and obligations for long enough, to REALLY get some work done.  But what happens, of course, is that that time never comes, and our projects pull further and further away from us, until they seem to have left us entirely.

Last year, when I was facing just such a dilemma, trying to finish a novel and thinking I would have to go away somewhere to make any progress, my friend, the amazing coach Cindy at Less Drama Queens made a suggestion: can you find one hour a week to work on it?   At the time, I was highly doubtful that I could get much done in an hour a week – I had a whole book to rewrite!  But I had already allotted my vacation time, and I didn’t really have much choice.  So, somewhat reluctantly,  I tried it.

And it worked.  Every Saturday morning, instead of rushing off to the dry cleaners, or picking up a few groceries, or (let’s be honest) catching up on Top Chef on the DVR, I worked on my novel. Interestingly, the hour often expanded into two, and sometimes even three, time I would have sworn I didn’t have. But there it was. And because I was obligated only to that hour, I honored it. Everybody, except maybe Hilary Rodham Clinton when the Mideast is exploding, has an hour.  We just don’t think we can do anything with it: it’s only an hour.

But that hour a week worked for me: it took more than six months, but I did finish editing the book.  It is a lesson that it is hard for me to remember; I still think longingly of all the work I could do if I just had about a month to go sit somewhere quiet and write.  Someday, I’m sure, I’ll get that month (although whether I am able to actually sit down and write for that stretch of time is another issue!)  In the meantime, I try to remind myself: just one hour a week, and eventually you can finish anything.

Let’s Resist Always Calling it Resistance

May 21, 2011

We live in a culture that thrives on quick sound bites and formulaic   responses to complicated matters.

For example , I am reminded of a  New York Times bestseller called  He’s Just Not That Into You. I actually never read the book but from what I have heard about it, it sure sounds like a one trick pony to me.   The basic assumption  was that if a man does not return a phone call after a date it is because he is just not that into you.  What if he just lost his job?  What if he is commitment phobic and responds this way to all women? It is not hard to find other books with  a tendency to oversimplify also on the best sellers list.

In that vein, I feel it is often common for people to assume that if someone says the often used comment  “I just don’t have enough time”  in referring to their creative endeavor,  that it is a sure indication of resistance.     What if it is not so black and white?

What if someone just suffered the loss of a parent and is paralyzed by their understandable grief?  Or perhaps a woman is yearning to set aside time to work on her passion of writing yet has just given birth to twins. 

Sometimes it may be about the lack of energy and consequent lack of   ability to focus that may be one way to explain the behavior.  IF someone is weighted down by  a difficult emotion or a new life transition, it can feel like wanting  to get up from the couch with a body that just won’t move.

Sometimes life happens and our behavior  just cannot  be easily labeled.


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.


Slow Starts

August 3, 2010

Sit and Wait for Inspiration?

I start very slowly, and don’t actually begin to write the book until I can’t stand not to write it. This method derives from my sense that one can start a book too soon, but almost never too late. (Stevan Polansky in GlimmerTrain)

We writers and artists almost always have a bad word to say for ourselves, and often it is on our inability to get started on a project.  Sometimes, even if we have a deadline, even if our food and rent depends on it, we just cannot begin. We have an idea, yes.  We may even think it is a pretty good idea.  But it isn’t ready.  We aren’t ready, and we aren’t sure we will ever be ready.

How do we know when to begin a project? Steven Polansky says it all when he says,  “one can start a book too soon, but almost never too late.”  (Of course, we haven’t heard from his editors on the subject.) But perhaps the reason most of us have drawers full of unfinished manuscripts, basements full of half-done canvases, hard drives full of video and photographs we’re not sure about and scripts without an ending, is not because we don’t have the will to finish, but because, driven by our own anxiety to begin,  we started too soon.

Great ideas may seem sometimes to spring out of nowhere and demand our full attention, but the truth is, they’ve probably been stewing for some time, in some form, before they assume a final shape.  Our minds take a little bit from here and a little bit from there, throw in a dash of this and that, do a rain dance to the muses for inspiration, and only then hold the concoction under our noses and insist – okay, okay, this is how it will be! Pay attention and get going!  And it is in that moment when we really do have to build up some steam and prepare to chug away.

This isn’t like waiting to be hit on the head by an apple (although one can argue that Mr. Newton’s inspiration, as well, owed a lot to creative stewing.)  We have to feed the process, with reading, or going to galleries, or watching films,  and thinking, and sleeping, and possibly striking up a chat with the morose person sitting next to us at Starbucks who is also waiting for his or her moment.  If you and nature are on close personal terms, you can go take long walks, and even try sitting under a welcoming tree.

While you are doing all this, you must make the attempt not to torture and threaten your idea into existence, but to gently lure it out, with the promise that it will have your full attention and its moment in the sun.  Be kind to your idea, and be kind to yourself.  And when, finally, it manifests itself in full – or at least close enough to be getting on with – don’t be afraid to jump in and move forward.  Institute your creative ritual; protect your creative time; let it be as central to your life as it can be without completely disrupting the rest of your life.  It’s almost never too late to start, but when it’s time, it’s time, and it’s a moment to savor before you begin some of the hardest work of your life.

Just Do It?

May 13, 2010

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Even before Nike adopted this phrase, it was extremely prevalent in our culture.

It has a nice ring – just do it – forget all your hesitations and second thoughts, stop procrastinating, pull yourself together, and take the leap!  Perhaps someone has even told you this about a creative project (or career) you’ve been thinking of undertaking, or a ritual you’ve been trying to establish.

Fine for Olympic skateboarders, but maybe it doesn’t work quite that way for you. It sure doesn’t work that way for me. And according to psychologist James Prochaska, who is perhaps best known for his statement that “change is a process, not an event,”  it doesn’t work that way for most people.  Studies done by Dr. Prochaska at UCLA have demonstrated that the process of actually doing something new—making a behavior change—begins in “pre-contemplation” – you aren’t even sure what it is you are thinking of doing yet—maybe you are asking yourself some questions, doing some self-exploration.  The next phase is contemplation – you’ve identified the action you are thinking of taking, but you are sitting on the fence about it, weighing the pros and cons.     If you can convince yourself to act, you proceed to preparation—take a few small steps. You go out and buy the watercolor set or camera; you get that new laptop you’ve been thinking about for two  years; you borrow a guitar from a friend and strum a tentative chord or two; you tweak your resume.  Or you meet with a new potential collaborator, file away or store all remnants of your last project to carve out some working space, and clear a little time on your calendar.

Then, finally, having thoroughly convinced yourself it is possible, you may actually be ready to do it.  Which doesn’t mean you will keep doing it—if you’re trying to do something like set up a daily writing or practicing ritual, for instance, the UCLA studies say you need 4-6 months to trust that as a real change.  Otherwise, back to contemplation!

This isn’t to say that you won’t wake up tomorrow at 3 AM with the greatest inspiration of your life, cast the covers aside, and start working on it immediately.  In that case, please, Just Do It! But I’m willing to bet that in the months before, you have already set the stage for that creative breakthrough, and the materials and resources you need in that moment will be mysteriously close to hand.