As well as an excuse to draw Alice in Wonderland (see previously), this page of the observation journal was an opportunity to think about me vs time. Specifically, it’s a musing on the pleasant and horrible aspects of treating a deadline as a ceiling vs the present as a floor.
I have always been a deadline-motivated person, as well as very good at procrastinating (I don’t know which is the cause and which the effect). But some combination of 2020 and too many deadlines were breaking that system. The really useful aspects of deadlines (motivation, eventually, and productive procrastination) were suffering.
Changing my approach and treating now as a place to begin seemed promising. But it’s a skill I only learned very recently (at the beginning of my MPhil, in fact) and it is not yet innate.
Time vs me is, I suspect, an ongoing process rather than a work in progress. And these approaches are less in opposition than part of a continuum. A setting I need to constantly, consciously slide and adjust according to circumstances — ideally before but certainly when (as recently) cracks open and things fall into them. (Apologies.)
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I’ve been giving some school workshops on drawing tiny things, and quite apart from all the other uses of drawing small, the playfulness of it always charms me.
A lot of these notes were specific to the week of 14-17 April 2020! But an ongoing lesson is that I am most likely to work on a project if there is impetus and enjoyment — a sense of catching the wave of a project, and of play. Ideally, I’d have both, but either one can help create the other.
That week, I worked out a way to restart a sense of both momentum and play on a dragging project. The first 15 minutes (at least) of a work block (or longer at the beginning of a project) should be time to tinker — to try out the tools on fun little drawings, or riff on scenes, or write silly little variations on the core idea. It warms the project up again, and gets some traction, and helps me to like the work again.
This page of the observation journal is about where my work was stalling and why (also Agatha Christie and guitar).
My position in relation to introspection is fairly well advertised. It’s not what I, personally, enjoy using the observation journal for, and too long a course of it will make me stop keeping a journal at all. However, the journal has been very useful for working out ways to muse over things in ways that are practical for me.
In particular, rough tables suit how I think: I can concentrate on just jotting notes, and then look for patterns, and not write myself into a spiralling pit of angst or ennui.
In this case, I was looking at Where I Was Stalling & Why.
This was in April 2020, so I need to say up-front that this list alone did not fix anything. I still am digging my way out of some stalled projects from last year. However, it taught me a lot about what to avoid. It’s also fascinating to revisit now, where I’m setting up for some new large projects.
Here are the columns:
Project list (cunningly mis-named to protect those involved)
Quick thoughts on why I might be stalling.
Just high-level thoughts on what was going wrong (an unpleasant mixture of inertia and panic).
It was good doing this on multiple projects. Occasionally a note on one project would make me realise it applied to another. And once it was done, I could look for patterns. The main patterns were:
(Loss of) impetus and (loss of) enjoyment
Lack of pressure + competing distractions
Guilt + stuck-together-in-door
Ways I could fix those situations.
The most magical fixes were, boringly yet thrillingly:
Accepting there is no one right task (and therefore no ‘wrong’ choice).
Picking anything — why not the first thing on the list?
Setting a timer for fifteen (or 30) minutes to concentrate on solving just one of the issues (it worked and the project in question is out). This is the only solution that works for me almost 100% of the time. I’m always wildly irritated that it works. (There’s a reason Evaline Ness’ Do You Have The Time, Lydia speaks to me.)
Ways I could avoid those situations happening again.
As an aside, I’ve recently found Charlie Gilkey’s Start Finishing useful on aspects of managing multiple projects. It’s the sort of book I suspect is most useful if you’ve already got a robust understanding of how you manage your work, and of how to approach time management books, and can therefore apply/mine it for specific solutions. I found myself resisting the structure/phrasing of the book itself the whole way through, but it’s also been one of the most useful things I’ve read for a while.
Think of a project that you are stalled on (or want to start, or don’t have the skills for, or…). The first one that springs to mind, or else pull it out of a hat.
The few times this doesn’t push either me or the project forward, it later turns out that staring time was what the project actually required. (This is specific to my experience and how I work, but I hope the worst case of this exercise just means you got 15 minutes quiet thinking time).
I am giving a presentation tomorrow, and am therefore being overwrought about it.
So much time management advice declares The One True And Efficient Way to do things. It’s all very appealing in a sort of model home way, but it rarely plays well with my actual life and brain (no storage space, for one thing). And even when I’m at my most organised, I will still find something to stress about.
Yes it should be more energy-efficient to never have to panic, but it turns out performative alarm is part of my process. And fighting against that inclination is exhausting.
What has worked best for me: scheduling panicking time. That way I get to both hyperventilate AND check “be dramatic” off my list.
It’s a different format, and it has fewer birds and dinosaurs than the previous week’s summary, but there are a few continuing and new themes that began to push the journal (and what I was making) in certain directions after this. A few are:
The trap of thinking only about creativity/productivity, and not about actually creating and making things (the art of making things manifest, as it were). In retrospect, this was mostly a problem because I was reading so much about creativity at the time, in preparation for teaching, and trying to cast a fairly wide net in the journal, so that it would work as an example. But it led to the next point.
The links between IDEA and DOING, between filling a page with ideas and going back and making something with them, the difference between “incubation” and “overthinking”, and the extent to which an idea can be the thing itself (and ongoing personal resistance to collage). This was initially of concern because I wanted to make sure students actually made something in the creativity class, but it immediately fed into my own issues with inertia vs momentum. I began taking time to look at how I got certain ideas to the finish line (and also, eventually, why I chose those particular ideas). This led to the next point.
The immediate power of pushing an idea just a bit further — this was scarily effective, and derailed my time planning (such as it was) and I want to post at a bit more length about it. At its most basic, however, it boiled down to this:
Once I have an Idea™, take five minutes to do an incredibly high-level, noncommittal outline of what a final version of it might look like.
The belief that style might not be everything, but it can get you a long way. This is personal to my taste and the way I work, of course, but is connected to recurring future references to “aesthetic”, as it emerged from the post on staginess.
The usefulness of considering patterns across a set of [stories, pictures, etc], rather than just a close critique of one — triangulating elements of interest and craft, and prioritising appreciation over criticism.