So What Do I Do Now?
Practical Advice from Finishing School
- Stop, Drop, and Roll: How change works
- Helpful Hints on Time, Space, and Money
- Sing Through the Phlegm!
- Start to Make Friends with Conflict
- Update Your Motivations
- Find A Sympathetic Fantasy Audience
- Respect Your Power
- Expand Your Horizons
- Practice Tolerating Different Emotional States
- Allow The Work To Exist On Its Own Behalf
- Just One Blip On Your Timeline
- The Fractal Approach
- Your Take On Things
- There is No One Right Ending
I must go on, I can't go on, I will go on.
— Samuel Beckett
So — here you are. We've now determined that because of many different factors, both internal and external,
you have a project sitting in front of you (or in a drawer) that you are afraid to work on. What are you supposed to do about this?
I'm offering in this section a number of ideas, tips, and techniques that will help you get past your blocks and start thinking about how you might pick up your project again without some of the anxiety that has been stopping you in the past.
Humans have a tendency to respond to situations automatically. You might say that we are evolved for pattern recognition — seeing new situations in terms of how they resemble familiar ones — and then responding with an overlearned repertory of responses. This may, in the long run, keep us safe. But always seeing the new in terms of the old doesn't give us much room for change.
"Stop, Drop and Roll" is a phrase we learned in elementary school. It's what you're supposed to do in case you find yourself in the unfortunate position of being on fire. Its message is: DON'T respond automatically. Because the automatic response in that situation is to run around. screaming — causing the fire to spread. On the other hand, not responding according to our first impulse is really hard, and that's what the first injunction, STOP, is about. STOP means: take an extra second to interrupt your impulse. You want to act — but don't. The next commands, DROP to the floor and ROLL, are also counterintuitive. Dropping would create wind, which fans a fire, and rolling around in flames, well who wants to do that? But rolling on the floor is the best way to put out the fire. Counterintuitive as it is, it's your best bet.
"Stop, Drop, and Roll" works as an analogy for all kinds of change, including the change in attitude that's necessary to finish your projects. First, in order to understand what's going on, you have to STOP and consider what you've been doing and why, and then you have to DROP to the floor (take a completely different position than the one that you're used to), and ROLL — do things that seem strange and wrong — but that may be the road to putting out the fires of anxiety and resistance to change.
So let's see how we can use the Stop, Drop, and Roll metaphor to help us develop new working strategies.
Although in a previous section we have discussed how time, space, and money can be metaphors for psychological conflicts, and these difficulties are not always to be taken literally, the physical world can present us with hindrances. And, while it's true that insight into your conflicts can often pave the way for behavioral change, the opposite is often true as well: that is, by working on behaviors, you can start to "reset" yourself and make a new start on your working life. Some examples:
You've probably heard this one before, but one way of making some extra time is to get up earlier in the morning. Even a half-hour more can serve two purposes: (1) a half-hour of work gets done, and (2) during the whole rest of the day you will feel so much better about yourself and your life because: You already worked on your project today!
Work in smaller "modules" than you're used to. Instead of thinking a work period is at least an hour, or an afternoon, practice giving yourself a five-minute "margin" in which you prepare yourself both mentally (breath slowly for two minutes) and physically (three minutes of gathering materials, sitting down in the same spot you always work in, making sure the temperature is warm or cool enough), and then doing actual work for a half-hour. Even if you want to continue after the half-hour is over, stop. You might be surprised at how much you can accomplish, both in that half-hour and cumulatively over the next month. (The reason to stop after a half-hour is because you want to stop on a high note. If you keep going until you can't stand it anymore, you may instead be stopping on a note of exhaustion and emotional defeat.)
The Importance of Margins: Don't just think you're going to get into working immediately. First you have to prepare yourself. Margins are an acknowledgement that you need to prepare to work. In the margins, take ten breaths, sit yourself down in a comfortable place, and, mostly, realize that, in the margin you're not *supposed* to be working. You're just getting ready. Then work (for a short period) and then give yourself another margin to get back into "real life."
SPACE: We are creatures of habit. Make sure you have a space to work in that works for you. It can be a very tiny piece of a room, even a closet outfitted with a table. But it needs to be THE space in which you work, with everything ready to go. This not only makes it easier to start working, but it also validates emotionally that you really are doing this project.
Not doing your project is not going to make you richer. Really. You may think you're using that time productively, but what it's costing you in psychological "points" is much more valuable, and probably has financial consequences as well, because if you're loaded down with the emotional burden of an unfinished project or goal in life it most likely is burdening you in other areas, such as your "real" job, as well.
A long time ago, as a music therapy student, I was taking voice lessons. One day I arrived at my lesson with a horrible cold. (you're probably wondering why I didn't just cancel. It's because I didn't have the teacher's phone number. And there was no e-mail. This really was a LONG time ago.) I was so hoping that my teacher would excuse me from singing, maybe giving me some written music to study or something. Wrong! Instead she make me stand up as usual, and when I was barely able to make a noise through the congestion and, um, gunk, she exclaimed, "Sing through the phlegm, Dear!" I was appalled and utterly grossed out. But — I did it, and found that, in fact, I was able to make some noises that resembled singing. Lesson learned: Nobody's saying that you're never going to feel depressed, cranky, or in existential despair when you begin working. Nobody's saying that every sentence you write is going to be great. What we're saying is that bad moods, doubts about where to go from here, and even physical illness do not have to stop you from working.
Now, when I want to get things done but I'm not feeling great, I say to myself, in my teacher's piercing soprano, "Sing through the plegm!"
At Finishing School we talk a lot about conflicts. And when we do that, one mistake we often make is to assume that conflicts are horrible,that they must be expunged,in some overriding project to become what some sadly refer to as "mentally healthy." But at Finishing School we firmly believe that conflicts are not terrible. Conflicts are, in actuality, what make us interesting, complex, and fully human. We might even say that, when you have choice, you have conflict.
You may harbor a wish to be a conflict-free, ever-confident person. I would, however, like to offer you a list of individuals througout history who at least appeared to feel remarkably certain of their goals, motivations, and strategies:
Some Examples of People Who Seemed To Be Very Very Sure About What They Were Doing:
George W. Bush
(uh, Michael Bloomberg?)
See anything in common here, personality-wise? And now, here is a partial list of people who appeared to be riddled with doubt:
Vincent Van Gogh
Edgar Allen Poe
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Which group would you rather be a part of?
Conflict is at the root of all art and science — it is the mother (and father) of questioning, of exploration, of humanism, of adventure. Rather than seeing conflict as a separate "thing" that you must destroy in order to work toward your goals, why not view your conflicts as expressions of who you are — of your unique history, personality, and the seeds of your motivation and even creativity?
When you feel confused and defeated, it can be helpful to try to return to your original inspiration.
Motivations can be practical: "I want to finish my degree so I can get a better job." They can also be based on feelings: "Even though it's so difficult to do this work now, I know I will feel better about myself if I plow through it."
On the other hand, revisiting motivations might give you new information that either propel you to continue or show you that you want to move on to another project. For example, if your main drive for wanting to complete a project is making your parents happy, you might want to explore this further.
If you find yourself constantly overcriticizing your work (finding fault with it, instead of asking, "what does this work need right now?"), here's an exercise to try:
Ask yourself: If I imagine somebody looking at this, who is the first person who comes to mind? Then ask yourself how you feel about this person. What is your relationship? Is this person a friend? Is he particularly critical or sympathetic? If you find that your imagination is full of critics, then try to think of a person, real or imaginary, who you believe would be sympathetic. For example, when I do this exercise here are some possibilities I come up with: Michelle Obama. Mary Tyler Moore. Ellen DeGeneres. And now, here comes Hilary Clinton. "Nope," I think. "Too critical." (You can learn a lot about yourself with this exercise!)
A long time ago a friend of mine was taking a tennis lesson and I was watching. She was a beginner, and the teacher had asked her to try to hit the ball across the net so it would land in a certain spot. But she was an extremely powerful hitter, and the ball kept landing far far away from the spot, actually out of bounds.
She kept trying to rein herself in so the ball would hit the spot on the court. But then the tennis teacher told her not to do that. He didn't want to diminish her power, he said. He didn't want her to go for accuracy in exchange for strength. Not at this phase in her tennis playing, anyway.
I've often thought about that tennis lesson. I think a lot of us strive for accuracy (which translates into perfection) way too soon when we do things. For example, if we're writing something, we don't allow ourselves to have "shitty first drafts," as the writer Anne LaMott calls them in her wonderful book "Bird By Bird." Like my friend on the tennis court, we diminish our own power for the sake of accuracy. And then, with our power diminished, we lose momentum and motivation. We deflate ourselves, and shortchange our projects.
So try to remember to Keep The Power. Much later in your project, when you have your most powerful first draft really down, you can refine, refine, refine.
I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering, where it will go...
We get scared, most of us. It's hard for us to have the courage to go to new places in our work. We fear criticism and we fear novelty (although of course we seek it too).
As an exercise, pick up your project, just once, with no preconceived ideas. Who cares what's gone before? Allow your mind to wander wherever it "will" go. See what happens. Try to forget about your old notions of what your work should be, and what you think the stakes are. It could turn out that the world is different from what you always thought it was. It could be that you have potential that you never imagined. What you think is logical might really be conceptually limited. What you think is too weird might be wildly original.
Stop Making Sense
— David Byrne
Procrastination is not really about avoiding DOING; it is about avoiding FEELING
In order to do work that is creative you must tolerate moving in and out of different feeling-states, and some of them are not very pleasant. Blank pages produce anxiety. This is the essential paradox of creative work. You want to make something, but first you have to start with — nothing. Nothing is scary. Nothing is empty. Nothing is pressure. Nothing is lonely. Allow yourself the indulgence of realizing these truths. To rise above Nothing, first make friends with it.
— Margaret Wise Brown
Practice giving up the notion that your work is a direct product of your conscious mind, or even an unconscious that you feel you can ultimately control. Treat your project like your child. Let it develop along its own lines and then let it out into the world. Trust the influences, inside and outside, that you cannot see or even feel .
The goal is to allow yourself to give up (the illusion of) control and let your work develop in accordance with its own requirements. How can you do this when you are the creator? Well, you can ask yourself: what does this project need right now?
When you are sure a task is utterly beyond your powers, approach it one day at a time, without hope and without despair.
Try not to overinvest in one project. Remember that your life comprises a whole body of work. Remind yourself that the project you are doing now is a function of who you are in the HERE and NOW. It is not the end-all and be-all of your life, the defining product of Who You Are For All Time.
An exercise is to review the entire time frame of a writer or artist you particularly admire. Look, for example, at what Matisse painted in his early years. Then look at his much later works. People change. Dramatically. They evolve. Imagine if Matisse didn't let himself finish his early works because he knew that a more modern version of reality was coming and he didn't want to be viewed as old-fashioned forty years later. This concept is obviously absurd, but ask yourself, have you aborted a project because you thought that it wouldn't look good later on? Or because it wasn't as sophisticated as you'd imagined?
The hard part is, just as you have to endure painful emotional states in order to get beyond them, you also have to endure work that feels not-good-enough in order to, evenutally, produce work of which you're more proud. You can't skip steps! But you can remember that each project constitutes just one blip on a long timeline.
It can be hard to work on a big project a little bit at a time, because you feel that, each day, you are hardly accomplishing anything. So here is what I call the fractal approach. First, here is a dictionary definition of a fractal:
A fractal is "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole -- a property called self-similarity."
In what I call the fractal approach to work, the fractal is a metaphor. It signifies that each little bit of what you do is,in itself, a microcosm of the whole. The approach really has to do with seeing time and accomplishment differently from what you're probably used to.
Rather than feeling you've accomplished something significant only when you've finished a conventional unit like a chapter, or a draft, or a whole verse of a song you're writing, the fractal approach says that, no matter how small in size your accomplishment for the day (or week, or year), it counts. And it doesn't just count because it is something in itself, it counts because each little amount represents the whole — in intention, in style, and as a reflection of you.
Right now I'm feeling that this one paragraph I'm writing is a significant piece of this website, and when I'm finished writing it, I will believe I've really accomplished something today. But years earlier, I'd have felt quite differently about it. I probably would have told myself, "but Liz! You could have done much more today." Oh really? In whose world? According to whom?
The fractal approach is a way of stating that time, accomplishment,and value in general are relative and subjective. The final decision about what and how much to accomplish is yours. Any amount of work you do on your project today, including thinking about it, is a microcosm of your whole project.
But, you're probably now asking, if I work so slowly, how will I ever finish? Let's answer that question with another question: "You will finish one fractal at a time."
Try this strategy as you begin work: Instead of asking yourself, "How much do I need to accomplish today in order to feel good about myself?" ask the following: "Given the givens — what do I need to do right now?" and then just do that Next Thing.
Next Thing after Next Thing after Next Thing = A finished work
One stumbling block to continuing working on a project is the feeling (and sometimes, conviction) that you are not producing anything original. That it's all been done before, so why waste your time?
A while ago, I found myself discussing the production of art with an artistic friend of mine, and we came to this very topic of originality. How do you keep going when it seems as if everything has already been done? My friend had what I think is a great answer to this question: tell yourself, "this is MY take on it." In this way you acknowledge that, in fact, most everything has been done before — hundreds and thousands of times — but that doesn't mean that there is no room for you to express yourself in a fashion that is unique to you.
Think of all the pieces of music that have been written using the same harmonic progression: I - IV - V7 - I. Why bother to write another one? Because this is your take on it.
Your take on anything will reflect what we all have the hardest time seeing — our own individual styles — and that is what results in our own, unique "take" on things, much more than anything our conscious mind is producing deliberately. Anything you produce is new. Even people who copy other people's work are doing something new. There's even a fancy artworld name for it: appropriation. The intention to copy turns out to be an original concept. You don't need to think of yourself as original, or not original. You don't need to think of yourself at all. This is the hardest part of all. BEING a subject who is In Action in the world. It is easier for us to step back and analyze ourselves and what we are doing, to make ourselves and our work into objects. Just being and doing, without judgment, as we work — that's the hard part. But that is the part from which actual authenticity arises.
Be Here Now
— Baba Ram Dass
It's so hard to say "I'm done. This is it. The End."
When you say "the end" to your project, it is because you feel you have done the best you can at this time. It is not because the project is finished in some absolute way. If you do believe that there is some perfect, right ending, and you've gotten there you may be lucky, or you may just have that particular belief at that particular time, or you may be deluding yourself (which is fine. Because there is no one right ending.)
I think that's it mostly damaging to the work process to have in mind that there is some absolute, almost predetermined end point. This belief implies a static universe of almost Platonic ideals. We all know that there are many good endings, many definitions of finished, many aesthetics, many belief systems.
Perfect, Platonic "rightness" is the path toward fundamentalism and leads away from individuality.
When you're finished with your project it's because you feel that the work is fniished, or because you've decided that you've done enough in this little piece of the world and you are ready to move on — not because some authority (either inside or outside of your mind) has told you it's finished.