In an effort to exhaust some of my remaining vacation days, I took this week off. Across the week I have a smattering of projects and appointments I’ve set for myself, but for the most part I have unstructured vacation time on my hands. This is proving to be trying, as without structure I tend to not get things done.
I tend to get really hard on myself. I look back at my experiment in structuring time earlier this year and feel like I’ve gone backwards. I had set up a system of accomplishing many tasks, taking on new projects, and making sure I keep on top of things. Now that I’m not in experiment mode, I feel like I’ve forgotten the benefits I received from setting up my own schedule.
I also feel myself on the verge of productivity, but not making the final step, the final commitment to myself. It’s even a small step! For the last week or so, I’ve been telling myself I should make a list of things to do and cross them off. Once I kick that off, everything else becomes easier. But something is holding me back.
I’m reminded when I visited Katie the other day and her housemate was trying to remove a splinter from her six year old daughter’s finger. The young girl’s anxiety of how it might hurt was completely overwhelming her. I wanted to explain that sometimes we build an experience up as a huge scary event, when in reality it’s a brief moment of discomfort followed by relief and happiness. If I carry this metaphor over to my own situation, it’s also followed up by accomplishment. It’s a modicum of effort followed by an avalanche of opportunity.
On Sunday I was at a BBBQ at my friend Hayley’s house and we started talking about ensembles we play in. Lately, I’ve been hankering to get a brass quintet together, as there are often gigging opportunities with that kind of ensemble. Hayley expressed interest in being the trombonist in such an ensemble, which would be great.
Often when I’m having such conversations, I’m feeling things out and testing the waters. Frequently, I quickly move on to other ideas that are more within my comfort zone instead of taking initiative and making it happen. The barrier that appears to be insurmountable and scary is often just a speed bump. Once I get over that initial effort, everything falls into place. I’m not saying that the work stops there, but the path is usually clearer after you cross over from thinking (and worrying) into doing.
My initial (self-defeating) reaction to my reluctance is that I obviously have a fear of effort (I’m lazy). When I take a step back, I realize that it’s not just effort that I’m trying to avoid, but wasted effort. For as long as I can remember, the act of losing something I put a lot of effort into; or the gut-wrenching feeling that I’ve been trying hard to make something work that was not reciprocated have driven me into berserker rages. That’s not a justification, but rather a way of deconstructing my anxiety about starting projects that may not go anywhere.
Besides, there’s a big difference between spending hours, weeks, and months on a project only to see it collapse, and the type of effort I’ve been shying away from. Sometimes all it takes is a to-do list, a scheduled rehearsal, or a date on the books to make things happen.
That last one comes from another opportunity I’ve been leery about following up on. A friend asked me recently if I would be interested in teaching a project planning software to his organization. It’s a great opportunity to expand my freelance chops in a safe(r) environment. All I have to do is schedule it, and it’s mine for the taking.
So for my own benefit and maybe yours too, here is my to-do list. It’s not a list of things to do today, but it’s a list of how to get lists done.
1. Do it right away
While my email inbox is cleaner than most (5 in there at the moment), I do tend to put off the things that give me anxiety. That means uncomfortable phone calls, asking for more money, turning someone down, committing to a project I’m not 100% sure on, and starting something I’ve never done before. Granted, we all need time to compose a thought-out response, but we don’t need 2 weeks. Besides, getting a phone call out of the way, receiving an answer about money requests, providing closure to a relationship, making a project concrete, and accomplishing something I’ve never done before all feel amazing. Give yourself a deadline, and meet it.
2. Make it clear
I’ve been reading a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. Probably the concept that has meant the most to me is that we are afraid of the things we haven’t done before. That’s just the nature of things we haven’t done before. So much of that fear has to do with not knowing what to expect. There are two ways to figure out what to expect. One way is to do copious amounts of research, discuss it with friends who have gone through the same thing, and do our own projected analysis. The other is to just do it and see what it is I’m missing, then fill in the pieces. While they both have their benefits, the former can go on indefinitely (how do you know when you’ve finally learned something comprehensively), while the latter can give a clear picture instantly. So do what needs to be done to make it clear what you’re trying to accomplish. That way, you know when you accomplish it.
3. Do it with integrity
Whatever you do, do it with the full intent of doing it as well as possible. My friend Samantha wrote an excellent blog about her experiences as a vendor at a craft fair. After she ended up not selling anything, she considered that perhaps the things she was selling had no value, or perhaps the nature of the event (rain, poor advertising, etc.) colluded to keep her from selling anything. But instead, she decided to do the work of analyzing who her customer was, how to reach that customer, and whether it was worth her time to try:
I think this is an approach that artists (and I use that term broadly, encompassing visual artists, writers, musicians, etc.) across the board don’t take nearly enough. Of course, it’s much easier to take either of the first two approaches when something doesn’t go according to plan. It’s easy to make excuses, and it’s easy to get discouraged. The third approach requires some introspective thinking (and possibly some market research) around where one’s art fits into the larger artistic–or maybe even less glamorously, consumer–landscape. The successful artists have found a niche to fill–a customer to sell to–and they do it in a way that makes it worth their time to produce the art.
Approach your projects with integrity. Mindless autopilot is not especially fulfilling, and the successes attained from using your full brain power are far sweeter.
4. Explore the branches
This is more of a follow-up, but it’s good to remember that once the things are crossed off your to-do list, the work doesn’t end. Inevitably, there are new ideas that emerge from exploring the other ones. These branches can form whole new root systems that open up even more opportunities. Take some time to explore the directions your new ideas branch to and figure out what kinds of new projects you have on your hands.
So Dan, do you hear that? Get some paper and write out your to-do list for the day. Give Hayley a call and find the rest of the players for the brass quintet. Schedule a rehearsal. Put a date on the books for your Project class. Take the effort to flick that pebble down the mountain, and let the avalanche begin!