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="http://player.vimeo.com/video/24715531?badge=0" width="500" height="281" frameborder="0" webkitAllowFullScreen mozallowfullscreen allowFullScreen></iframe> <p><a href="http://vimeo.com/24715531">Ira Glass on Storytelling</a> from <a href="http://vimeo.com/thedak">David Shiyang Liu</a> on <a href="http://vimeo.com">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,
Matt

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