Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Struggle (And Pro-Tips For It)

Image from this great video on time and how our brains are being rewired
We're living in a time when we have to actively fight a lot of our own instincts. Much of the way our brains have been wired comes from our earliest ancestors - cavemen who struggled just to survive. Modern life in the western world allows for many of our basic needs to be met without question (I don't mean to overgeneralize, but if you're allowing yourself the luxury of reading this blog post, I assume the existence of your next meal or where you're going to spend the night is not in question), and thus comes the dawn of living in moderation, and working for things that necessarily meet any of our immediate needs.

It's really interesting to see how we're rewiring our brains to adapt to the world around us. The internet wasn't a thing twenty years ago, and now everyone with an eye on productivity is figuring out ways to shut out or limit the amount of time we spend on it. Dieting would never have become an issue until cheap, high calorie food became so readily available. We're all struggling against something in our lives. And I'm not exaggerating when I call it a struggle. Fighting our natural instincts takes work, and a lot of mental energy. Honestly, we've got it a lot harder than those cavemen ever did. They got to follow their instincts all the time. And as far as I can tell, the only thing they ever had to deal with was hunting for food and avoiding dinosaurs.

Alright, confession time: the whole point of this post is to admit that six months in, despite my best efforts, Create / Consume is still not an easy process for me to maintain. Technically, I never actually said it was ever going to be easy or get easy, but in my head I guess I figured I would have somehow mastered my use of my free time by now. I thought maybe I could come on this blog and tell everyone I figured out the secrets of mastering productivity. But sadly I have not achieved an automatic, instinctual balance for myself just yet. Perhaps there simply is no point in which I will ever love all the lazy things I do any less. Like everyone else, I'm hard-wired to not want to work any harder than I have to. And I'm probably flying directly in the face of my body's internal mandate to just chill the heck out and stop working so hard. Especially with Mad Men Season 5 out on DVD, and the holiday gaming season upon us.

The good news is it hasn't been a fruitless struggle. I have done quite a bit of writing and performing over the past six months, and as always, I can feel myself improving, both in my work, and in ability to my avoid some of the pitfalls of productivity. The victories are mostly minor at the moment, but progress is always worth noting.

I have some to thoughts to share that come from my efforts against the eternal struggle. I've talked about how to make Create / Consume work for you before, but these are some additional tips to help get yourself on track when you're not seeing the results you want, or as a way to improve your current level of productivity. I honestly think these three little things (all of which you've probably heard before, but I'm going to reiterate today) in addition to the C/C strategy of tracking your time can make all the difference in a productive day/week/month. It really goes to show how much productivity is less about constant internal motivation or straight-up willpower than it is about just providing the proper environment for inspiration.

1) A Distraction-Free Environment
I've been bad about this, despite hearing it over and over for years, but I think I'm finally starting to get it. At work, when I have the time to spare, I try to get in an hour of Creation - usually writing - during my lunch break. It's actually hard to make the mental shift from day-job mode to writer-mode, but having said that, it's the only time I ever make it a point to put myself in a totally stimulus-free environment, because its the only way anything will ever get done. I try to find an empty conference room, I turn off (or just hide) my phone - which is honestly the biggest distraction any of us have these days, and with nothing but uninteresting stimuli around me, my brain pretty much has no choice but to focus up. And it totally helps. Now if only I could ever get myself to leave my distraction-prone apartment when I'm supposed to write...

2) Deadlines!
If you're involved with Create / Consume, it's likely that you're trying to develop your skills to get to the point where you're working that dream job or creating your best work. For now though, you're probably working on your own time. Although there's something great about the freedom that comes with picking what, when and how much you want to work on something, sometimes without any kind of deadline, nothing ever escapes "creation limbo" where several of my story ideas (including my unfinished NaNoWriMo novel), blog posts and plans for world domination are currently floating.

It's amazing how much more motivated you'll be when, more than just goals and aspirations (which I presume you've already got), you have an actual deadline. I debated taking writing classes for a while, having told myself there was no reason I couldn't write just as much on my own. "I'll just write when I say I'm going to write, and everything will get done." Right? WRONG. Sure, I wrote, but I'd hit a wall on a lot of pieces, and at some point I decided to start writing something else instead, because hey, technically I'm still writing.

It's well worth the money I spend just knowing that I have submit a "finished" piece on certain dates, whether I'm in the mood for it or not, and whether I think its any good or not (more on this in a second). Whatever it is you're working on, figure out a way to make it DUE, even if it means giving a friend $100 (or more, if $100 means nothing to you, money bags) and telling him/her they get to keep it if you don't meet the self-imposed deadline in time.

3) Avoiding Perfection (And Just Focusing On Getting Better)
Second confession time: this blog post has taken me way longer than I thought it would because I wound up scrapping the first two drafts of it. I didn't like how I started, I felt a lot of the advice was stuff that's already been said better elsewhere, and I didn't feel like I was saying anything incredibly valuable or important. So I sat on it for over a week. Here I am now, finally finishing it, telling myself it's going up today one way or another (see: deadlines above) because I have to this post behind me.

One of the reasons I think I got into improv and didn't write for so long was I think I didn't have time to second guess myself on stage. I got up there, did my scenes, and for better or for worse, they were over, and I didn't have much time to second guess my work, since my next scene was right around the corner. I was extremely self-conscious about my ability as an artist early on, even to this day as a matter of fact. I'm very well aware that I have a ways to go as a writer, but it sucks knowing that the work I'm putting out right now isn't up to the same standard of quality of those I admire/aspire to be as good as. I think Ira Glass sums up the whole issue in this video here - he talks about storytelling specifically, but I think it applies to almost anything creative, or any skill, really:

<iframe src="" width="500" height="281" frameborder="0" webkitAllowFullScreen mozallowfullscreen allowFullScreen></iframe> <p><a href="">Ira Glass on Storytelling</a> from <a href="">David Shiyang Liu</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>

Don't worry about mastering the craft, or creating a masterpiece in the short term. You just have to get better, and the only way to do that is with practice. LOTS of it. Seeing an idea through to the end is an accomplishment, no matter how's it's received, or how you feel about the finished product. Easier said than done sometimes, I know. Like I said before, even with minor victories, you know you've made progress towards your goal, and that's further than you would have gotten had you opted not to try at all.


The struggle to create, to be productive, and to form new, better habits for your life is an exercise of will power, and it can be quite draining at times. Like any training regiment, it requires hard work, and dedication. You're not going to be able to rely on self-motivation all the time. Your body will fight you. You mind will fight you. It will come up with every excuse in the world to keep you from doing what you need to do. We're all in this struggle together, and we're all doing what we can to achieve our goals. Keep at it, and know that you're not alone (that was as much for me as it was for you guys).

Best of luck,

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Ode To Creation

Bet you didn't see this one coming, eh? Ok, so I spent some time talking about the somewhat overlooked benefits of consumption, so I'm planning to spend some time today talking about the also somewhat overlooked benefits of creation. Then, having mastered this skill, I'm going to look on the internet for jobs in the field of "writing about somewhat overlooked benefits of things," or maybe just "odes to things."

I'm going to make a bold assumption here and say that pretty much everyone has created something they were proud of at some point in their lives. Maybe it was a drawing you made as a child. Or the first time you nailed a song in music class, on the instrument you were assigned (mine was the clarinet). Or maybe it wasn't even an artistic expression - it could easily have been a party, or night out with friends/family. Or the name you gave your pet that totally nails his personality and is not at all cliche (I hate cliche pet names - if we ever meet, do NOT tell me you own a "Fluffy," or an "Mr. Mittens"). Whatever it is, you know the feeling you got after everything finally came together. It's amazing, isn't it? There are very few things in life that match of feeling of a creation seen through to completion.

If every single nugget of an idea I had for a blog post, essay, story, sketch, game, app, or killer/sex robot was enough to bring said idea to life, then Create/Consume wouldn't even need to exist. It'd be no contest - I'd sit at home all day long, thinking of amazing ideas and just zapping them to life, probably without the need for any breaks. I'd already probably be a gazillionaire too. I just have so many great ideas you guys! It's that damn "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration" thing that gets me, and I imagine many of you as well. The idea comes with a burst of excitement - "think of how awesome it would be if I made this!" - then you realize the amount of work involved bringing that idea to life, and a little bit of that excitement goes away. But it doesn't have to - not if you keep your eye on the prize, and remember just how amazing it is to create something from nothing.

Relaxing is seriously great and all, but just as 'all work and no play make Jack a dull boy,' did you know that 'all play and no work make Jack a boy with an admittedly comfortable life, but not a whole lot to show for it?' And I should know too, as I kind of was that version of Jack throughout my 20's. I'm immensely proud of the work I've done over the past few years, and though it took a lot of discipline and getting through some serious self-doubt, I actually feel like a real, accomplished adult for the first time in my life. And I mean that in a good way (this is the reverse of the dreaded "adult-machine" I mentioned in my last post).

There's a reason I want to create more than I consume, and why I came up with this project in the first place. Consumption is certainly valuable for my mental health, but it can also be very near-sighted. Given the choice between working on something hard/time-consuming and just playing a fun game, my mind is always going to try to convince me the fun game is the way to go. In fact, I regret just saying what I did, as I see my brain repeating it back to me the next time I sit down to write ("don't you need to work on your mental health, Matt Shafeek?" Yes, I say my full name when I address myself). But without exception, whenever I finish the hard work involved for sake of creating, I never regret the time I spent on it. I never wish I could go back and slack off instead. Because I now have something tangible to show for my time.

I value my work, and I value my time, so I have to be diligent about how I manage it. Creating is in my blood, it satisfies me in a way nothing else quite does. Maybe someday people will be paying me to do it too. Wouldn't that be nice? Even though clearly, either way, I'll gonna keep doing what I'm doing.

So here's to taking that exciting new class. Here's to the hours lost ruining your dinner trying out a new recipe. Here's to finishing that big project you've been working on for weeks...nay, months now! Here's to that wonderful moment where you can lean back, look at your work, and just know what whether or not anyone ever sees or cares about what you made, something exists, right now, that wouldn't have otherwise existed without you.

Here's to the magic of CREATION, and to having it take over as much of our lives as possible!


PS: For those of you interested (I'm not going to do a big post about it), I finished September back on track. Here's some data/charts, presented without commentary (other than what I just said):

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An Ode To Consumption

I think one of the biggest dangers with taking on a project like Create/Consume, or deciding to rearrange your life in order to get more 'serious' or 'productive,' is that you automatically assume anything that is antithetical to your goal is a waste of time.

I'm at the point with doing Create/Consume (and in case you're wondering, yes I'm still tracking all my time, and so far September is going better than August) where it has become automatic to reach out, pull out my iPhone and start the clock every time I'm about to doing something creative or consumptive. When I'm about to start writing or performing, I mentally give myself a little pat on the back, knowing that I'm being the productive person I aim to be. Conversely, when I pull out my phone to start tracking anything I count as consumption - usually TV or a video game, there's a small sense of disapproval that comes with starting the counter, knowing that every second that ticks by is a second I'm going further into the red.

On the one hand, this is a good thing, and the reason I started tracking in the first place. I want to be held accountable for my time, and before C/C I knew I was erring too much on the side of over-consumption. On the other hand, it's very easy to start equating 'relaxing,' or 'enjoying yourself' with 'wasting time,' and 'unproductive.' And that's a bad thing. Studies have shown that people equate time with money (the logical end point for this line of thinking) have a harder time enjoying themselves during leisure activities. Sounds pretty awful right?

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the line between childhood and adulthood. I couldn't comprehend why people would ever stop wanting to be a kid. In my head actually pictured a machine on an assembly line that people (presumably aging teenagers?) would have to go through to 'enter' adulthood. I didn't know exactly what happened inside of the machine, but I did know that upon reaching the end of the assembly line, suddenly fun things like freeze tag and video games stopped being worthwhile pursuits. And now business meetings, exercise and proper diet were of the utmost importance, while watching too much television or eating a whole bag of Doritos was utterly shameful.

I never wanted to enter that machine. I wanted to be a kid forever. And guess what? I actually resisted hard enough that my dream sort of came true, for better or for worse. I spent my 20's not excelling at any career, but rather priding myself on having free time, being able to have fun, and having an active social life. My nights have never been filled with deadlines or late hours at the office, but rather the things I've chosen to fill my time with. Sometimes it's an improv show, or a night of writing. Other times it's time spent out with friends, or staying in watching four episodes of The Walking Dead in a row (in fact, that was just last night). And that definitely makes me happy.

Adult life is filled with responsibilities and work, and it's easy to see why over time people stop being able to really relax and enjoy themselves. I've been blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with the opposite problem - I've spent a reckless amount of time having fun and avoiding certain responsibilities while ignoring what it takes to really pursue my passions. As I take steps like C/C to take my work more seriously, I've got to ensure that I never forget the joy that comes from a gaming marathon or a late night out with friends, whether or not the "clock" (literal or metaphorical) is running. Otherwise I'd be doing the child that's still inside of me - whose opinions on ice cream and superheroes are very much still valid - a terrible disservice.

So here's to finishing a full season of Breaking Bad in less than a week. Here's to hitting 100 hours in Skyrim. Here's to unapologetically wasting an entire afternoon on Facebook, Reddit, whatever, you name it. Here's to indulgence, the devil on our shoulder, the reward we rightfully deserve.

Here's to CONSUMPTION, the very important second half of the Create / Consume equation!


PS: Note that this post on the joys of Consumption just netted me about 45 minutes of Creation for blogging. Create/Consume is not without its loopholes.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

August Was A Bust (/Sweet Vacation!)

I have a confession to make. August was not a very successful month for me, as far as Create / Consume is concerned.

72 hours and 38 minutes of glorious mostly guilt-free consumption
Now, keep in mind this chart also includes not one but two "vacation" periods (first weekend in August, as a celebration for completing July, as well as this current holiday weekend) where I wasn't tracking but I was consuming plenty. So its actually even worse than this. It probably didn't help that I got my first PS3 and a slew of games to go with it. Look at all this blue!

On the plus side, my list of completed video games grew nicely in August
So, just in case you thought Create / Consume was something that becomes easy or that you naturally gravitate towards once you stick with it for 30 and no. I'm not being hard on myself right now, but it is important to me to be aware of how easy it is to slip back to old habits. The same thing happened to me when I gave up video games for an entire year. I allowed myself to gorge pretty heavily once the year was over, and a lot of the new interests and habits I formed wound up falling by the wayside.

Despite how poorly I knew I was doing this month, I was definitely diligent about recording my activities. I wanted to see/show the results here, no matter what. I stopped looking around halfway through the month though, knowing I wasn't going to like what I saw.

"Miscellaneous" pretty much means working out. 11 hours of outdoors exercise in August is probably a small victory in and of itself
I think it's important to reward yourself for a job well done, but also to recognize when an extended reward is turning into an old habit returning. But hey, these things happen, but I'd like to say here and now that I'm going to do my best to get back on track for September. Just like week I had something pretty awesome happen - a piece I wrote got on my favorite blog, and got a fair amount of press along with it - so I'd like to keep that momentum going if possible.

As always, thanks for reading. Look for more thoughts this coming month.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thoughts From Another Create / Consumer

When I first came up with Create / Consume, one of the first thoughts I had was that it would be a great project to pitch to others to do themselves, since it's tremendously flexible. Lots of friends showed interest, but so far only one of them actually followed through and did the full experiment for a month.

The face of a man who knows how to balance his time.
My fellow Create / Consumer's name is Drew Tarvin. I met him a few years back at the Magnet Theater where we both perform improv every week. Drew went through his own version of C/C that was fairly similar to the one I set up for myself, tracking writing, shows, research on the one end, and internet use, TV, and leisure reading on the other. He also tracked a few "gray area" items of note (like watching improv shows).

Hmm, even more time creation time than me. No need to outshine me on my own project, Drew!

He even went so far as to track the times of day he was most productive, something I didn't even think of:

Drew's thoughts on the very successful experiment can be found on his personal blog - which you should totally go check out. I'd like to share his final thoughts on the experience here though, right now:

"So what was the biggest benefit of all this? For me it was giving me insight into how I work and keeping me honest about how I’m spending my time. By having the data in front of me, I can make strategic decisions on things I want to keep or change (such as less time on the Internet).
But perhaps the greatest thing about doing this challenge was that simply knowing I was tracking my time influenced my behavior for the better. Early on when I didn’t have much “creation time” reserved, I did less consumption because I didn’t want to tip the scales. That alone was worth implementing the system.
For those of you with creative ambitions, I recommend you give it a try. You certainly don’t have to keep as strenuous of logs, nor do you have to go into as much analysis, but it is an interesting challenge to at least try for a month."
Thanks a ton Drew for fully committing to the experiment and helping to spread the word. Create / Consume is officially a multi-person project!


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

One Month Challenge Completed!!

There you have it. My final numbers for my first successful month of Create / Consume. 85 hours and 14 minutes of creation to 56 hours and 1 minute of consumption, which came out to a nice overall 60/40 split. I really did it you guys!

By comparison (and in addition to the hours seen above), I slept for about 217 hours (No, I didn't actually track this, but I know for a fact that I come pretty close to 7 hours of sleep on average each night), worked my day job for 144 hours, and whatever else time was left in the month was spent commuting, bathing, exercising, cooking, eating or very likely, socializing (though there's definite crossover with that and movies, television and games).

Lots of great stuff accomplished in thirty one days. Four research books read, a full revision on my card game, a second draft of an older short story I was working on, and a first draft of a new story. Four weeks of improv shows/practice, one live storytelling set, and an average of two blogs posts a week on this blog and my other main blog (not to mention regular updates on my Batman tumblr).

With plenty of time still spent enjoying myself. Over a full day of television! Seems high, but national stats show I'm very much on the low end here for a full month compared to the average American (2.8 hours a day, or 83.7 hours a month). And that's just with television!

Next Steps / Going Forward

So you'll be happy to here I'm not done with Create / Consume. I absolutely love having an excuse to not be lazy, and I've yet to discover something as effective. So this is not the end of the project for me, merely the beginning.

Here are the changing I'll be making going forward, adjusting from the initial rules I set for myself:

1) First and foremost, I'm allowing myself some "vacation" time this weekend, as a reward for finishing the first month. I have a three day weekend coming up, so from Friday evening through Monday evening I'm allowing myself UNLIMITED CONSUMPTION, which won't be tracked at all. Then it's back to regular C/C again. I may do this once a month or so as a nice break, or whenever I leave town and am actually on a legitimate vacation.

2) I may at some point decide to count certain activities as 'creation' that are only actual creations in the loosest sense of the word. 'Exercise & Chores' is probably a lot more accurate. But I could use any added incentive to work out and do things like paint my apartment, so I'm ok with loosening the original requirements for the experiment for the sake of added overall productivity.

3) I may also adjust the values of certain kinds of creations over others. I've found that as a writer I am incredibly bad about editing/revising pieces I've written once I've finished and have cooled off a draft. Tweaking old ideas just never appeal to me as much as cranking out new ones. The solution? Editing and revising old drafts will counts as double creation, meaning every minutes effectively counts as two. I may do the same for other activities I similarly find myself dragging my legs with. And conversely, if a situation arises with a certain consumption I find myself addicted to (Skyrim, anyone?) I may do the same there to curb the habit a bit.

4) Non-research books are just going to be a neutral activity going forward. I think reading is always going to be valuable as a writer, and so I'm not going to punish myself for indulging on that front, unless I wind up with a subscription to US Weekly or something. Podcasts will also get a pass going forward, just because I listen to them while I'm walking or working out and they distract no more or less than music does, which was already exempt.

5) Lastly, I'm allowing myself to have internet breaks at work without penalty. Like most people who work in an office, I take mental breaks during the day, and all last month I recorded that time (approximately 15 minutes each day) diligently, but since I'm not counting the work I do at my day job as creation, I don't feel it's fair to penalize myself for the breaks I take from it. However, if I'm able to get away from my desk for lunch (which is not always possible), I will count that time towards either creation or consumption depending on how I use it.


I won't be updating weekly with stats anymore, but I will certainly continue to post here with updates regarding my own personal experience with the project, and for any related ideas that may help others who are looking to do the same thing (and if you're working on this project now, and have any thoughts or feedback, please let me know!)

Thanks to everyone for following along. I hope so far you've found the project as interesting as I have. Here's to another successful month, year, and/or lifetime of balance and productivity!


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Day Twenty Nine - Week 4 In Review

Four weeks in, and less than three days to go. Create / Consume is pretty much old hat for me right now. I don't want to brag and say I've mastered this or anything, but...ok, let's look at how I did this past week:

For the first time since I started, I managed to maintain a solid 2-1 ratio of creation to consumption. 18 hours, 33 minutes (68%) of creation to 8 hours and 52 minutes (32%) of consumption. I've been holding steady with about 19 hours of creation every week, and slowly reducing my consumption level overall, filling my time with creation and other forms of productivity.

Let's take a look at creation - but before I do, apologies in advance for not having more fun stuff on this or my other blog to share as a result of all the work I've done this month. I've been doing a lot of writing, but I'm cautious about sharing first drafts of things I'm working on before I feel like they're really ready. I hope to have some stuff up soon though.

Writing and blogging took up about 50% of my creation time, as did performing, research and game design. I'm 23 pages away from finishing my 4th book of the month, which is something I'm not sure I've ever done before, even when I was back in college. Certainly not voluntarily. While this would be a very different experiment if any book I read counted as consumption, I'm satisfied with how I set things up - allowing myself an hour (at most) per day to read something instructive or otherwise relevant to my own work (like re-reading/analyzing one of David Sedaris' books, since I do a lot of short non-fiction writing) allows me to have a few more choices in terms of productivity whenever I have downtime.

Let's move on to consumption...

Look at how little time I spent on the internet! Two and a half hours? That was probably an average day for me less than a month ago. And thirty eight minutes of games? That was an average bus ride home. It's pretty amazing how things have changed. And most of that television was a single Sunday marathon of Game of Thrones, and Legend of Korra with friends, two highly enjoyable series very much worth the cost.

Finally, let's take one last look at my overall ratio to date before we get the final tally on Wednesday when the full month is over:

I never tracked a full month on either side before, but 77 hours of creation seems like a pretty kick-ass number. I imagine I'll hit close to 85 once the month is fully over. Maybe some other month I'll aim for 100, just for shits and giggles. And 51 hours of consumption averages to a little less than two hours a day, which is most certainly on the lower side of my past behavior.

I'll have some closing thoughts on the experiment along with a final breakdown on Wednesday. I'll also let you all know what I'll be doing going forward once the month is over. I'll give you a hint: I'm going to keep doing this. It's been such a wonderful experience, and so great at keeping me productive and responsible in a way I've never been before, it'd be silly to simply allow myself to go back to my old habits. There will be vacation days on the agenda though, specifically, next weekend, which I'll be calling the 'weekend of infinite consumption!' I'm very much looking forward to it.

Thanks everyone for reading. Anyone looking to start their own month of Create / Consume in August or anytime going forward, hit me up and let me know what you have lined up.