I was bored the other day and was trying to get myself to do something; anything! I decided to give myself two minutes to write a poem. It didn’t matter how short or unrefined it was (good thing). It was only important that I wrote something.
What I came up with probably should have only taken one minute. It’s short, circular and has no deep meaning. But it felt good to accomplish something anyway.
I have two minutes
To call the muse
And have her show me verse.
So any lines
I here put down
Must naturally be terse.
I have more project ideas and things to write about now than at any other time in my life. But I can’t seem to get very many of them done or even started. I look through my notes every day and think, this is a good idea. I’ll start on that today. But by the end of the day nothing has happened.
There are three things that seem to cause this:.
- The complexity of a project overwhelms me.
- I have no idea why I wrote something or why I think it’s important.
- I missed my peak motivation time and can’t get myself started.
It’s great to have a broad overview of the thing you’re trying to accomplish. But it can be overwhelming to take on the whole thing at once. I try to get it completed today or I’m afraid I won’t complete it later. I end up not starting a lot of things because I fear not finishing. The irony is that I’ll never finish it anyway if I never start. At least there’s a chance to finish a thinig if you start it.
Instead of getting bogged down in complexity, you just have to sit down and think of the individual steps that it will take to get a thing done. Break a project down into tasks that can be accomplished quickly. If those individual steps seem too big themselves just break them down into progressively smaller chunks until they seem doable. Then start doing them. This even works for projects that don’t have a known outcome or proceedure. Once you start working on something, its purpose and meaning will start to unfold.
Sometimes you just have to sit and think about things. Some of my ideas are just random thoughts, phrases or observations. On their own they don’t go anywhere. That’s when deeper thinking comes into play. My mind generated these ideas for a reason. Now I need to mull them over and try to find connections with the other data lurking in my mind. Once a connection is made, those ideas become something real and actionable.
But even if I can see the next step and it’s small enough to accomplish, I don’t always buckle down and do it. If it gets late in the day I get tired. I do my best work between 5 am and 11:00 am and then again between 7:00pm and 10:00pm. Outside of those hours I’m often tired and unmotivated to do anything that takes real thinking. When I’m at work during the day, I try to schedule my activities so I’m doing planning, programming and design during my peak hours. I try to spend the afternoon hours doing any rote work and attending meetings.
Outside of work hours it’s always a struggle to juggle exerecise, spending time with my family and trying to be creative. I often find myself just wanting to watch TV, read a book or play a game. These situations are almost impossible to get out of. The trick is to avoid getting into them in the first place. Even when I’m tired and unmotivated it’s not too difficult to write a list of things that can be done tomorrow. Then, I set a calendar appointment to do those things early in the morning. Or I plan to do them in the evening so my mind is predisposed to getting things done at night rather than binging on netflix. When I know what I have to do and I have a list in front of me, I move faster and get more done during my peak times.
Ultimately, getting stuff done, for me, means breaking projects down into tiny component tasks, thinking about what I’m actually trying to do and then executing on those tiny tasks early when I’m still fresh and motivated. Now if I can just remember to do this each day, I’ll have no problem.
For several months now I’ve been posting something to the blog every day of the week. I’ve made it a point to create something (prose, poem, drawing, photograph) new every day and share it. But lately I’ve been feeling like weekend posting is too much. Even something good like writing can benefit from a disruption in the routine.
I don’t want to get out of the habit of creating something every day. But I think I’m going to go down to posting only 6 days a week by taking Sundays off.
Boredom can eat away at your enjoyment of a day. That’s why when I walked into my son’s room the other day and saw him listening to music and staring blankly at the wall, I knew something had to be done.
Usually when I hear the words “I’m bored” from my kids I take it as an opportunity to remind them of all the chores they have put off doing. But this time I pitied the boy and decided to work with him on some ideas for interesting projects.
Here is the list of things I mentioned he might enjoy:
Create wall art for his bedroom. He enjoys drawing and is actually quite good. I encouraged him to make a large version of a smaller drawing he had already done. Then we could frame it and hang it.
Make origami. He has dabbled in origami in the past so I thought this could be a good opportunity to get back into it. I recently bought a pack of origami papers to practice with and have on hand for the kids.
Painting miniature figures. He likes fantasy and miniatures games already. He could get a game that comes with figures or buy them separately.
Build PVC weapons or other crafts. PVC is cheap and readily available. There are some really cool things you can do with it.
Build model planes, boats or cars. I had fun building plastic models and painting them when I was a kid. You can find models that can be glued or snapped together. The real fun and creativity is when you custom paint your model. It takes time and a steady hand but can be rewarding.
Basically, I was looking for something that would be a challenge but something he could do mostly on his own. Anything that would be more than just a flash-in-the-pan activity. In the end he choose PVC weapons.
Over the next two days we had a great time building a PVC sword and dagger. Although I helped buy materials and gave a little instruction on measuring and cutting and painting, this was a project done primarily by my son. I wanted it this way so that he would have something enjoyable that he could do any time and could get his creative juices flowing.
I could tell he was having fun creating something of value to him. As he built his projects he kept telling me about his other ideas for more PVC projects. That’s what I was hoping for; something to spark his creativity and thinking. Something to get the ball rolling and keep his mind busy. Creativity in motion tends to stay in motion while creativity at rest tends to stay at rest.
I haven’t been sleeping well lately. It’s partly my fault since I’ve been staying up late watching pointless TV shows on Hulu. When I do go to bed I end up thinking too much. I usually come up with ideas that I feel I have to write down. So I get up and write them. Or worse, I use my note taking app on my phone. That kind of late night screen time, even a few seconds, just wakes me up too much. Unfortunately, this behavior can be a detriment to creativity.
I used to not even bat an eye at not getting enough winks. But it’s been affecting me more lately. When I’m tired and sluggish I have little capacity for creative thinking or doing. I’m OK working on left brain analytical projects which is a lot of what I do for my job. It’s after work when I have time to write, build or edit that I find myself flagging with little motivation to do the things I really want to do.
I started thinking about this today after coming across an article on the London School of Economics and Political Science Review website (LSE). The article asserts that creativity isn’t a fixed commodity. It waxes and wanes based on several factors including rest and stress.
Stress is another big creativity killer for me. I get really nervous when preparing to speak publicly. When I’m prepping to give a talk, that’s about all I can do. Forget writing poetry or sketching something the night before an event.
After a stressful event, my mind relaxes and it more easily shifts to creative endeavors. The same thing happens when I’m more rested from adequate sleep. The key, according to the LSE article authors, is in allowing physiological recovery, primarily through sleep.
Of course this isn’t anything new. Last year I read an excellent book called Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Pang makes the case for not only a good night’s sleep but resting throughout the day to allow your mind the time it needs to work on problems and ideas subconsciously. There’s a lot more to his book and I highly recommend you read it. It’s one of the rare books that I actually read all the way through.
Ultimately, the point is that we’re much more creative and productive when we aren’t running ourselves too hard. Putting in more hours to the detriment of rest and reflection will only make you less effective at what you’re doing.
Now I have to heed this advice, keep Hulu off at night and get more sleep.
For my birthday yesterday I went to a lecture by mixed media artist Mary Robinson called Shifting Perspective. She talked about the role our environment and experiences play in making art.
The writeup in the paper for the lecture used the word observation to describe this. However, I found it interesting that Mary never used the word observation in her talk (unless I was hearing but not really listening). We so often go through our days seeing things without really observing them. It takes a concious shift in thinking to truly observe our surroundings and understand what we’re seeing.
This is the same concept Maria Konnikova writes about in her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. I wrote a post about this book a few years ago and just started re-reading it earlier this week. It surprised me to spot the apt description of this lecture in the paper on the morning of the talk.
We see things every day but we rarely observe. Yet true mindfulness and observation of our surroundings and interactions are so important for everyone from photographers to programmers and everyone in between. It allows you to discover new ideas, methods of implementation and more efficient strategies to accomplish goals. At the very least you’ll get better at Trivial Pursuit.