Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Learning to Focus and Work "Little and Often"

I have been spending a lot of time at the Sustainably Creative site. the proprietor is a man about my age who has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and so obviously has a lot of fatigue and other symtoms which translates into not a lot of energy. He has courses and podcasts and short ebooks about learning to fit creative creative work into a life with the kind of physical limitations he has. I don't have any kind of physical issues, unless you count Brain Cell Depletion Caused By Five Children Who Have Never Been To School, but I do have limited time and energy because I have a lot of people who need to be fed and listened to and a lot of messes that need to be cleaned up and a lot of keeping-it-togethering I have to do as an introvert living a life better suited to extroversion.

My last post here was a run-down of all the stuff I like doing and want to have time for, but what I tend to do is wait for the big chunks of time to come along to do any work, and instead spend the small bits of time being resentful about how rarely that happens instead of just doing some little thing during those brief moments. I also realized recently that my ability to focus is pretty much shot. That is caused by a combination of my life circumstances (which have not allowed me to finish more than 20 thoughts in as many years) and all the voluntary distractions that most of us struggle with, especially in this age of instant communication and unending topics that need to be explored right now via the search engine of your choice. See, as I write this I am reminded that a friend mentioned a new search engine to me yesterday, and my first inclination is to just open another tab and real quick-like look that baby up. But I have a timer set here for 20 minutes (the amount of time Mr. Nobbs recommends for short focused working) and by golly, I am not going to follow the little bluebird of distraction.

When I had only one kid and was still involved in the whole Perfect Wife and Mother and Homeschooler Club, I had the Managers Of Their Homes book. This is a system made for large homeschooling families that teaches you to break your day into 20-minute blocks of time so you can Fit It All In. That sucked. It was just another way to overplan and overschedule and it made me depressed. I am way more into Mr. Nobbs' thought process, that it's okay to just have one thing to do each day, even just one 20 minute block of focused time working not on what needs to be done or should be done, but on what Your Important Work is, as defined by you. Since I am not as limited in my energy as he is, I think I could probably fit in more than one 20 minute period most days - but there are days when I couldn't even do that. He is also big on self-compassion and self-care, another idea I have been drawn to over the past few years, as I have been learning to toss aside my whole lifetime of unreachable personal expectations and tendencies toward constant self-improvement and productivity. I am tired and worn out from all that and I don't want to and can't keep it up mentally or physically anymore.

Second 20 Minutes Begins

Mr. Nobbs reminds us that working "little and often" can add up to a lot of completed work over the years. I think I might get brave and make a video tour of all the work I have after 20 years of working. I admit that my style of work has alternated between the little and often and the rare binge...but either way, whether I am working consistently for a while or have a 3-week binge of work, I have never made a "habit" of doing my creative work and I still have proof that always going back to it gets results. In a way, Mr. Nobbs' stuff reminds me of an artist's version of Stephen Covey's first 3 habits:

1) Be Proactive
2) Begin With The End In Mind and
3) Put First Things First.

In fact he uses the illustration of the jar with rocks that Mr. Covey uses in his book

...the point being that if you want to get big rocks into a jar (the jar being your life, I suppose) you have to put them in first...before all the pebbles and sand.

Unfortunately, most of us have filled up our Jar of Life with the little rocks, and even if they are the pretty polished ones they are not all that satisfying after a while if they are just busywork, or even if they represent good important work that should be done, but not necessarily by you.

I do know that a lot of my anxiety and depression stems from my inability to focus (not necessarily on art stuff either...I don't even want to start doing ANYTHING most of the time because the inevitable distractions depress me before they even happen) and also from all the stupid pebbles that are in my jar. And I am not even a busy person by American Mother Standards. I want to dump out the jar and put some of the big rocks in.

Third 20 Minutes Begins

One of the things that really resonates with me at the Sustainably Creative site is the idea that rest is important for healing. For the past several months I have been thinking, "I need a vacation", but that didn't seem to really get across what I was feeling. But in the last few weeks, even before I found that site, I was starting to understand my situation as a need for healing. Healing from all the pressure I have always put on myself, healing for my tired mind and body. I am a person who honestly does not know how to relax. I am 44 years old, and I doubt if I have truly relaxed for 44 hours during those years. That is why I have always loved to sleep, because that is the only time that I actually stop and don't do anything but, well, exist. And hopefully have interesting dreams. You can understand why I fell in mad love with the television a few years ago, because I discovered that it was True Relaxation that came with Intellectual Stimulation (meaning I could totally rest while I was watching, but it still gave me food for thought afterwards).

Another thing that I am guilty of doing - which gets in the way of both resting and working in a truly productive way - is unnecessary planning and/or "getting things ready" to work. I am not talking about things like mise en place while you are cooking, but rather deciding to straighten up the art supplies instead of using them during the precious half-hour the kids are out in the pool. Mr. Nobbs talks about how important it is to make sure that your setup for working is conducive to just jumping in. I think that my work area usually is ready to use, but what is that inner THING that whispers, "You can start after you have done this small thing that appears to be related to the real task but actually isn't."? Not sure if that is fear of failure or what. I know that it's pretty much a universal situation we artistic types deal with. But then there is the very real need to not work sometimes...either you really have no energy or you are in a percolating period. It's can be hard to discern if you are getting all procrastinate-y in the bad sense, or whether your subconscious mind is being productive for you, ruminating on recent experiences, ideas, etc. with the full intention of making them available to you as creative fodder at some point.

Fourth (and Hopefully Final) 20 Minutes Begins

I am not thinking that I will necessarily be able to regularly finish things in 20 minutes, although an awesome artist recently started a 20-minute painting project and those look great. But there are some things I could finish in 20 minutes. In fact, for the past few weeks I have been setting the time for 20 minutes when I start anything, even something annoying like kitchen work, because when I focus and just work through that time, even if I hate what I am doing I know I can manage to do it for 20 measly minutes, plus I am usually surprised by how much I got done in 20 minutes.

My problem with this short focus period idea is that I have a lot of things I want to do and I never know if I should pick one and work on it (even in these 20 minute snatches of time) until it's completed, or whether I should (gasp) PLAN to do art journaling one week, painting the next, zinemaking the next, etc. I don't want to spend any of the 20 minutes deciding what to do. Of course, even if I have a plan I am always free to ditch it and work on another thing. But I am serious, this kind of question about something can literally paralyze me so I don't do anything at all. The main reason I didn't continue the Bible copywork project I started years ago was because I did not know how I would bind the work, whether I should work on individual sheets and store them in a box, etc. I just stopped because of that little problem and have never started it up again. I know I do need to take some time (20 minutes here and there, hahaha) to consider the big picture and how the projects I want to eventually complete can break down into small steps that won't make the itty bitty 20 minutes cower in fear and despair under the huge looming shadow the project casts.

Mr. Nobbs also talks about the importance of making your intention public, and I am not so sure how I feel about that one. There was a time, back when I was a prolific blogger, when I would do that regularly. Sometimes it helped keep me motivated and sometimes I ditched whatever it was and I was left eating my words, which are sometimes tasty and can be nutritious if I allow my consumption of them to teach me something. In her book Refuse To Choose (which goes well with these other ideas) Barbara Sher debunks the notion that it is somehow bad to start something and not finish it. That is practically an American mantra, that to quit something is to fail. It can be a negative thing if you quit something you truly enjoy to avoid hard work or because you are discouraged with being a beginner, but if you have started doing something and you have learned what you wanted to learn, or decided that the activity really doesn't interest you, or it does interest you but you don't have time for it...why spend the minutes of your life finishing something that serves no purpose for you?

Wow. I had four 20-minute periods to work with today. Cool.