Observation Journal: Distilling thoughts and readings

The observation journal has been wonderful for developing ideas, pursuing fascinations, and creating projects and exercises.

Occasionally, however, I simply use it to gather loosely-related thoughts (e.g. five thoughts on surface design), to comb through for patterns and lessons. Often these will turn into more detailed investigations or projects, raw material for exercises and workshops activities. But the first stage is just jotting them down, and then looking for patterns (although occasionally loose thoughts turn into a written piece on their own).

If you’re keeping a similar notebook, this can be a quick way to review what you’ve been thinking about recently, and to find ideas and lessons to pursue and examine.

Here are two examples (there will be more in the future).

1. Tracing a suspected pattern

I’d noticed a pattern in my reading (and in my concerns about my own work). This page was a quick exercise in pinning that down, and tracing some of the implications. It’s a similar process to tracing a fascination (e.g. Little Groves), but more nebulous.

Handwritten notes on patterns in recent reading.

The recurring pattern was structure as a trap vs structure as freedom. It united topics from discussions in an architecture reading group to thoughts on narrative theories, analyses of clothes in books (on the Clothes in Books blog), silhouettes and my attempts to work through story structure, Xanadu (the movie) and several murder mysteries. The most common theme within this was a sense of tricks and traps, and the mechanisms that can provide (or require you to avoid).

Many of these thoughts very much escaped into my “What I’m Reading” article for Meanjin, on “The Romance and Horror of the Navigable World“.

2. Looking for a pattern

On the second page, I went looking for a pattern, collecting advice that kept recurring across a great deal of reading (and many conversations, and some reluctant self-reflection), and then distilling it further.

Handwritten notes on patterns in recent reading.

The main overall lesson and reminder was that, whatever it takes to get the work done, to be deliberate about it.

Ballpoint sketch of a beagle asleep on a cushion

Support and/or follow

If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, here are some options:

Observation Journal: Time & self-management aka immoveable moods, moveable objects

Or: a not terribly flattering portrait of the artist.

Every so often I attempt to use the observation journal to optimise my time management (ugh — and perilously close to being introspective). It’s useful because the journal structure contains that urge and keeps the results in one place, so that I can look back and see what has changed (very little) and what approach actually works for me (one thing), and how much enjoyment analysing it brings me (moderate to minimal).

Executive summary: The one lesson that has consistently been helpful is knowing I am that way.

Effective workarounds vary from day to day, some tips and tricks and epiphanies break through for a while. What remains useful is being able to accept that I will react a certain way, and then attempting to remember to account for that (or at least not blaming myself too bitterly when myself happens).

I still wanted to share these pages, because I find it useful to look at the structures around creative work occasionally (if only to remind myself not to spend too much time on it) and because the exercises were useful — just not always in the way I’d expected. (The deviations were, however, consistent.)

Side notes:

  • These approaches have created more grand practical solutions (vs calm acceptance) when I’ve applied them to physical workspaces. See: Space and time and more epiphanies.
  • If you’re into productivity and time management books, you might spot some oblique references to techniques from Dan Charnas’ Work CleanPeter M Ball recommended that to me, and it was very useful for working out how to do the bare minimum to keep on top of the worst of the admin. If you follow or support Peter (newsletter and Patreon links are on his page) he often has good tips and précis on similar books, and details on how he applies them to his own projects.
  • Distractions and interruptions
    • On the first of these pages, I made a list of distractions and interruptions to my work. I then noted how I tended to react, why I react that way, and whether there was an obvious solution.
    • Often there was an obvious solution that was not feasible (for reasons ranging from pandemic realities to the nature of deadlines). Accepting that helped me temper my reactions a little. Knowing my reactions made me better able to deal with them.
    • There were some interesting patterns — resentment tended to be directed at entirely innocent external parties and was due to me running late (sorry everyone); weariness attended large non-creative things I nevertheless wanted; anxiety came from competing equally-weighted commitments.
    • The obvious answer to all of this was to do work regularly early. Isn’t it always? The practical answer was to be aware of how I was about to act out, and rein myself in.
  • Things that work and why I don’t do them
    • The next week I jotted down a few things I know help me get work done. For each I noted why I suspected it worked, and why I don’t do them. (And, occasionally, a possible solution.)
    • I also made a little list of improbable ideals, which is always illuminating, if unflattering. Basically, mine boil down to having someone to whom to outsource most executive functions. (I do in fact know why I am this way.)
    • The most useful part of this exercise has not been these secondary solutions, although I do refer back to them. Rather, since I seem to be committed to a degree of emergency-as-lifestyle, it’s been useful having a conscious list of approaches that have worked, and which I can deploy in an emergency (even if I don’t like employing them consistently).
    • I’d like to revisit this list and look at the reasons behind the reasons I don’t do the “correct” things. I suspect that would be more illuminating, and suggest some… not workarounds, but ways to trick myself into doing decent work while thinking I am having a good time. I learned some very good lessons about this in the first semester of my MPhil, so it is possible.
  • Objections and intentions
    • The following week I tried to pre-empt my contrary nature again. I made a list of things I wanted to try (early rising, etc), my likely objections, and possible workarounds. I succeeded in achieving remarkably few of them.
    • This exercise make me more aware of some of my own arguments against myself. But it confirmed that, in general, the path of least resistance is (where possible) to reconfigure the physical world around my inclinations, rather than the other way around. (Immoveable objects are a matter for another day).


I haven’t written this up as a creative exercise because it isn’t about drawing or writing as such. But if you are interested in looking at your own work habits, these are some interesting questions to lean into. But I particularly recommend asking those further questions at the end: what did you notice not only through the exercise but about the exercise, and how it worked with or for or against you.

Anyway: back to the art and writing!

Support and/or follow

If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, here are some options:

Observation Journal: Things that might make her do the thing

These two observation journal pages are a follow-up to some previous pages (see: Why has she not done the thing), and feature solutions to problems. In one case, a portfolio of fixes for the future, in the other, a direction that did work.

The first digs deeper into my issues with framing, packing and posting art (or anything, really). Specifically, I’d realised that I should look at what had worked in the past, on this and similar problems, instead of just dwelling on my resistance.

At the time, it didn’t feel like I’d reached an overwhelming conclusion. There was no epiphany, or one unbelievable trick. But it has proved to be a very useful list of things to plan for and around when I do need to post things. It’s also an array of solutions to try when I do get stuck.

The other question (“why has she not done the thing yet good grief why”) hadn’t been finished because I thought the unadorned skeleton of the questions I needed to ask myself was hilarious, if damning. Here it is again: I’m going to stick a copy of this next to my desk.

But I did revisit it. The problem involved writing several pitches, and I was wrapping myself thoroughly around the axle. In this case, dwelling on the points of resistance helped, because they weren’t as physical/practical as with packing-and-posting. And leaning on those points meant just sitting with the project for a while, and slowly tinkering things together.

Other key solutions:

  • find what was exciting about it
  • ridiculous fast first drafts feel as if they have no weight
  • you can just make stuff up?
  • talking it through with someone
  • sitting and staring at the problem for a period of time, even if I don’t do anything
  • making a playlist (a way of gently leaning on the idea)

As it turned out, in this case half the problem was simply allowing molehills to expand unchecked (with a healthy dose of self-doubt and fear of inability to read other people’s minds). And in such cases, setting a timer for half an hour and just staring at the task usually breaks through. (A watched molehill doesn’t grow?)

Finally, my housemate tricked me into watching The Morning Show aka The Morning Wars and I found it, like much (prestige?) drama, extremely stressful. This is how I watched most of it:

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Also, I’ve just started a mailing list. It’s not a newsletter — it’s just going to be the occasional email with any major updates (publication announcements, exhibitions, etc) and semi-regular heads-up of things you might not want to miss. If that’s for you, the (extremely early version of) the sign-up page is here:

Mailing List Sign-Up

Observation Journal — Why has she not done the thing?

I don’t like being introspective — one of the advantages of the observation journal is that I worked that out quickly and was able to sidestep it thereafter. However, the journal is sometimes useful for unpicking specific problems. [Edit: there’s now a follow-up post to this — Things that might make her do the thing]

For example: My intense avoidance of packaging and posting things. I can make myself slightly feverish, now, just by starting to think about preparing art to send to a show.

I always have to look up tabebuia online — the pink ones blossom like crepe-paper pomanders in winter

The important approach on this page was to:

  • follow each high-level answer down through several levels (what types of stress, and which physical parts, and what’s causing that…)
  • highlight key elements as I went (otherwise these pages are unintelligible when I revisit them.

The most useful question to ask for this type of page turned out to be: has [the problem] ever worked out okay, and why/how. In this case, the tricks for getting me to package and post things effectively/at all have been:

  • Clearing space
  • Dedicating time
  • Recruiting a second pair of hands (or passing it over to someone else entirely — there are people out there who apparently LOVE and are GOOD AT putting rectangles into other rectangles, and I need you all to know you are important and valued)
  • Having a tested technique AND checking if there are better approaches out there
  • Information/checklists

Two days later I started to investigate something else I was avoiding, but when I put down the key questions I thought they were (a) self-answering and (b) funnier left unanswered.

The moral of the story is: stress can be repurposed for entertainment. And sometimes laughing at myself is what is needed to get a project moving.

“could she in fact be doing the thing right now instead of writing this?”

UPDATE: I addressed these points further — and completed the template page! — on this post: Things that might make her do the thing.

Observation Journal — time vs floors and ceilings

It’s all a bit Alice-in-Wonderland

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.

The well-known meteorological classifications “high little many clouds, & lower puffy ones”

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.)

Potplant vs ceiling

Some previous Alice, also available on Redbubble and Spoonflower.


Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee). And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Observation Journal: Work at Play

Four very tiny unicorn drawings, in ballpoint pen lines on gridded paper with a little bit of blue watercolour for the shadow.

Tiny unicorn drawings, from a mid-April Lessons Learned page of the Observation Journal. These led directly to the unicorn calendar.

A printable calendar page for May 2020, with a design of unicorns and vines on a starry twilight-blue background.

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 hand-written page from the observation journal, with tiny writing of various lessons learned, and also small unicorns.

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.

Observation Journal — stalling and stopping

This page of the observation journal is about where my work was stalling and why (also Agatha Christie and guitar).

Double-page spread of observation journal. On left page, 5 things seen, heard, done and a picture. On the right, a hand-written table of thoughts on why I wasn't getting work done.

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.

A hand-written table of thoughts on why I wasn't getting work done.

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
      • Doubt
  • 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.
    • These turned out to be mostly same reasons projects catch fire in the first place (see: Observation Journal — giving ideas a push):
      • Acting immediately
      • Using (and surfing) the fun of it
      • Setting aside the time
      • Doing the prep work
Pen sketch of person sitting on steps playing guitar
I only practice the guitar during natural disasters

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.

Writing/art exercise

  • 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.
  • Set a timer for 15 (or 30) minutes.
  • Until the timer goes off, you can either work on the project or stare at the project. But you can’t do anything else. (You might have to consider your definition of “work”. I generally exclude planning and research, unless it’s extremely obvious the lack of that is what is stopping me moving forward — which is rarely the case. Related to which, this pamphlet (Turbocharge Your Writing) is one of the most practically useful writing books I’ve ever read.)
  • 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).

Now panic and freak out

Screenshot: "Possible? Just because I'm rolling around panicking about my presentation (part of my process).
Email postponing something else I will panic about later.

I am giving a presentation tomorrow, and am therefore being overwrought about it.

Gif of woman in blue dress flinging herself dramatically onto sofa.
Me, but imagine I have known about this presentation for 13 months

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.

Chris Fleming gif, in-character as a woman carrying a vacuum cleaner and saying "Get rid of the couches. We can't let people know we SIT!"
From Chris Fleming’s Company is Coming

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.

Painting of an amateur opossum actress clutching its chest dramatically.
Halfway through (me) writing this post, Angela Slatter sent me this. The art is “Amateur Opossum Actress” by Rebecca Kriz/TruBluArt, and prints of the painting are available on INPRNT.

Edit: It was, of course, fine.

Observation Journal: Reflections and making things happen

A page from the observation journal, headed "Reflections & Lessons & Patterns", with mind-map style notes on the week's observations.

I’ve continued to find weekly reflection pages the observation journal very useful when I do them, and interesting to look back on. This is from the end of January: the week including Points of habit and resistance, Patterns in days, Reflections and alphabetical order, and The appeal of staginess — there was also a more introspective, prosy page of reflection which I haven’t posted about because, well, turns out that’s not the sort of journal I like to keep.

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.
  • An emerging concern with surface design, written and visual, which I will post more about eventually when I get to the core pages — it relates to the post Framing devices and stories in the ornaments).

Also, with splendid dramatic irony, the note I don’t want to go out! I want to stay in and make things!

Also: My Australian Gothic book Flyaway is out very soon!