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distraction

At the end of each year, the calendar often seems to have just the kind of dip in deadlines and workload that invites a contemplative wallow. Especially so for me this year, since I was traveling the first half of December.

I knew I’d want to spend some time over the winter holidays processing my thoughts and sensations from that trip: writing about the places, cataloging the sounds I recorded, sending follow-up emails to those I’d met, and organizing photos like this one:

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

But I also wanted to devote some time to thinking through my plans for 2010, to set out some specific and concrete goals, and decide how to achieve them.

I had a basic structure in mind, using questions and exercises I had accumulated over the last few months, some of my own creation, others pulled from books like Carol Lloyd’s fantastic “Creating a Life Worth Living“.

At the end of two weeks, I imagined I’d have some combination of “outputs” like:

  • a writing schedule for the blog and podcast
  • a tidy page full of measurable goals
  • practical achievable quarterly reading lists
  • answers to all the deep questions
  • maybe even a Gantt chart or two

All the kinds of artifacts you’re supposed to have to switch into the past tense with confidence, and say: “I planned.”

Well, enlightenment didn’t arrive in a neat bundle. Despite all the planning for the planning, my brain has been wiggling and writhing away from most of the tools I’d selected.

Sitting at the table, I kept reaching past the activities I’d assembled to pick up Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt or Anne Carson’s translations of the Sappho fragments, or Borges or Chatwin or Emily Dickinson or Marcus Aurelius — or even Mark Bittman.  All delightful, and all worth reading, put not necessarily frameworks for long-term planning or establishing those measurable goals.

Or maybe they are, indirectly: I found that each changed the contours of the course of my thoughts throughout the rest of a day.

I’ve read in those repositories of modern American myth known as business magazines that there are people who put “30,000 feet” projects on their schedule at a given time, for example “Plan future from 10:00 to 10:30″, and it works for them. They must be under some spell that I haven’t encountered. I sometimes envy creatures with such clockwork minds — but only sometimes.

When the mind wanders, why not let the body follow? Or at least try, if it can keep up.

Rather than confining myself to my desk, as though I was back in middle-school detention, I went walking — in rain, sun and even snow.

Amidst what seemed more like a muddle than work – walking on a whim, whenever the mood struck — I found myself engaged in a different approach to planning: I wandered with a pen and a pocket full of index cards, stopping as needed to scribble thoughts as they came to me.

Now, looking back at it, I don’t have all the fastidious “deliverables” I had expected, but I do have some clues:

So...who's going to type all this up?

So...who's going to type all this up?

Each card is like a ballot. Sorting and counting and typing and editing them has become a kind of informal, non-binding straw poll of where my mind is headed.

As I tally the votes, look for ballot-stuffing and other irregularities that might signify unwanted interference, and make note of all the write-in candidates and ad-hoc ballot initiatives with scarcely any support, I’ve discovered several patterns amidst those scribbles.

I’ve achieved much more than I originally thought.

And I’ve also been reminded: not only do we often find answers in unexpected places, but the path to those places is often unexpected, too.

So what do I have in the works for this year? I hope you’ll keep reading as it unfolds.

What’s your 2010 looking like? Did you do any year-end planning? How did it go? What methods worked for you? Please add a comment or send an email and let me know. And Happy New Year.

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“The extreme irregularity of my life makes poetry out of the question, for the present, except for momentary violences.”

– Wallace Stevens, writing to Marianne Moore, 1927

Our lives are disjointed and fragmented. Devices chirp at us. The kale needs to be steamed before it wilts. The inbox refills as soon as it’s emptied. We’re out of milk.

Wouldn’t it be great to just sit down, without distractions, and work through a project until the ideas run out?

Most of us don’t have that opportunity as often as we like.  And when we don’t, we are fitting creative work and deep thinking into the gaps and spaces of our lives.

From time to time, we can slip into the studio for three or four hours at a go, but then it might be days before we have a solid block of time again.

The brain doesn’t have a pause button. We can’t easily put it to sleep and have it come back to life in the same state 10 hours or two days later. We are more complex than that.

Yet any change in the velocity of thought consumes our time and energy. The key is finding the most efficient method of braking and resuming speed.

The disruptions are inevitable. It’s how we handle them that counts.

Pressing Pause

One of Gretchen Rubin’s techniques is to stop writing mid-sentence. When I’ve tried to do that, it left me anxious as I try to put the work away, and bewildered when I picked it up again.

I’m not saying she’s wrong or I’m right. Solutions for putting your projects on hold are idiosyncratic, and you have to find methods that work for you.

Here are some of the techniques I find helpful:

Always do a wrap-up. If you know you have to stop working on something at noon, stop at 11:45 and spend that final fifteen minutes summarizing what you achieved that day. (Side benefit: Looking at this over time can help you realize how much you’ve accomplished when you are feeling ineffective.)

Also, what would you do next if you had the time? Make a list of three or four ‘next steps’ for the project. This doesn’t have to be as formal as it might be in a business setting. It might just be a note about which colors to add next, or a list of adjectives, or a mood — some invented souvenir to remind you where you were.

Empty your short-term memory. Have you ever been interrupted while sorting notes or receipts, and then later realized that you can’t remember the meaning of each of the piles anymore?

If you are editing or categorizing, and have to stop mid-stream, don’t trust that you’ll recall the details. Supplement your memory with notes and labels on piles and folders so you can build on the work you’ve already done when you have a chance to return to it.

Identify underlying questions. Choose two or three aspects of the projects you need time to think about, state them as briefly and simply as possible, and take them with you to ponder in the in-between spaces of the rest of your schedule.

I sometimes put these questions on a note card in my pocket, so I can pull them out in the middle of the grocery store, on a long walk, waiting for the train, etc. As you mull them over, don’t worry about coming up with definitive answers. Just steep in the questions.

Restarting

The ways to get started again are just as idiosyncratic, and many depend on the techniques you develop for pausing.

Refer to your next steps, mood descriptions, or souvenirs. As described above, when projects get complex, I always leave notes for myself about what I would have done next if I’d had the time.

Caveat: Don’t treat these notes as law. Review them critically. Your time away from the project might have given you a new perspective, and maybe what you would have done before no longer applies.

Integrate new notes. If you’ve been chewing on any questions since your last work session,  synthesize some of your thoughts and mix them into the project.

Use sense cues. This could include a change in lighting, touching tools or artifacts, sniffing scents related to your project, or sound triggers. I frequently leave notes to myself about what music I think I should listen to during my next work session.

Involve your body. Change your posture. Stretch. Use a different chair. Close your eyes for several minutes. Put on a hat, or take one off — anything to physically remind yourself that you are doing something different now.

Tip-toe around it. Do some free sketching or free writing. Pull out your instrument and improvise for ten minutes. Find some way to indirectly re-approach your project that gets you in the mood before you look at the details again.

Just be with the project. Mark Rothko used to just sit and stare at his canvases. This is harder to do with time-based work, but a random sampling of different sections can help set the mood.

Look at a past success. I remember hearing an interview with Christopher Hitchens a few years ago in which he said that every single time he sits down to write, his mind is telling him that this is it: the moment when he will be revealed as an utter fraud who can’t even put a sentence together.

If starting to work puts you in a similar state of mind, keep a talisman of past success at hand — a thank you note, a photo of your favorite work, a poster from a past show — to remind you that yes, you can do this.

Deliberately practice pausing and restarting. Once you find a few techniques that work for you, practice them against arbitrary deadlines until you get used to them. This will make them more effective when you are up against real deadlines. It’s disruptive in the near-term, but it can help you be more effective in the long-term.

If you have any favorite techniques for pausing and restarting your work, I’d love to hear about them! Please add a comment below, or email me.

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Gravel on the Ice

by Matt Blair on March 25, 2009

in Process and Workflow

My intention was to get up this morning and write.

In fact, I started writing, then went looking for a link related to the post I was working on, which led to a search through email, which brought up another email which had to be dealt with, which led to a lost password ‘situation’ and on it went.

At the desk for almost three hours, yet feeling like I’d just been bouncing around from nagging problem to nagging problem. All tasks that needed attention at some point, but none of which led to putting cohesive thoughts together in the last few hours.

“It’s going to be one of those days,” I thought as I stood up. “Or is it? None of this is insurmountable. None of it is impossible. It’s just annoying. A gaggle of petty, distracting, time-consuming annoyances. Life could certainly be worse.”

“It’s not as though I’d been buried in an avalanche,” I continued thinking to myself as I cracked an egg for a much-delayed breakfast. “It’s more like gravel on the ice.”

“Gravel on the ice?”

Where did that come from? What does that mean?

Traction and friction are two sides of the same phenomena.

In creative work, we hope to attain the first and avoid the second.

If an entire city is iced over (as Portland was recently) then gravel is essential for going anywhere. It’s messy, and the streets look terrible after everything has melted, yet it provides enough traction to walk around.

But that wasn’t the image I had when that phrase popped into my mind.

I was picturing myself on ice skates, trying to move elegantly across the ice. Instead of gliding gently over a smooth and finished surface, I imagined myself overly preoccupied with each movement, my eyes fixed a few feet in front of me, never able to look away for fear that with my next step, I would hit a pebble that would twist my ankle and send me spinning.

These weren’t boulders in my way. I could move around them. But having to pay such close attention meant that I could never gain any speed or momentum.

Just as we must choose our footwear and the type of movements we make based on surface conditions, we also need to choose our creative tools and gestures based on our own current conditions – energetic, emotional, and environmental.

When impeded by pebbles and grit, take off your skates and lace up your boots. And if you find your self slipping or sliding all over the place, you can either throw down some gravel to give yourself something to grip, or pull on your skates, embolden your gestures and see where the ice takes you.

This is based on a draft from this past winter that never made it onto the blog. I decided to revive and publish it before ice and snow seemed too distant in the minds of Northern hemisphere readers. For those of you in the South, consider it a preview.

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