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.

March-2017-Calendar-Detail5.jpg

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!