Why is it so hard to pick one of the many projects in my mind and get to work? And I can’t tell you how many times each day I’ll be in the middle of a project, and start thinking I really should be working on something else. Do you have these problems too? Tell me I’m not alone!
I started wondering why it can be so difficult to get started, and then stick with, any particular project. I don’t believe I’m truly ADHD, although that diagnosis probably wouldn’t surprise my family who know me best, and love me in spite of my scattered tendencies.
(This post is part of a series on Surviving Creativity. Be sure to go back and read the first post for context!)
I’ve done a lot of soul searching this week about this problem. As I got really painfully honest with myself, I realized the actual problem is fear. It’s not a fear of failure really, although there’s some of that in there too. It’s something a little harder to put a finger on.
I’m afraid that what I’m doing doesn’t really matter to anyone but me.
Creative work, by definition, lives outside the box. You’re doing something that no one can quite define or quantify, and in the end you want to know that your work has value. Whether that is your work as a mom, trying to make plans for your family’s day, or an artist, trying to make something beautiful that people will respond to visually.
Maybe nobody will notice, appreciate, or respond to what you’re trying to do.
Most of our work, as creatives, involves taking a mundane task or object and making it special somehow. Take pottery for example. We all need dishes to eat on. But the creative person thinks, “Why not design beautiful dishes that make me happy while I’m eating?”
But who’s to say that anyone else really cares about eating on beautiful dishes, or would pay more for those dishes, to justify the time and effort you put into them?
That’s the question that stops me in my tracks when I’m trying to pour my heart into a new project. That’s also the question that gives me pause in the middle of a project, when I start to doubt all those great ideas I had at 4:00 this morning. That’s the question that makes it easy to give up on a project and move on to the next one, which always momentarily promises to be more useful and impactful on the world.
In addition, there’s the problem of all the daily tedium that also needs to be done. Because, let’s face it, not all of our creative work is, well, creative. There are a lot of times when things just need to get done, and I usually feel like those tasks are tedious and boring. I’d rather be working on art, but the family would probably like dinner at some point. And beneath my desire to be creative lies an even stronger desire to fulfill the needs of the people I love. But paradoxically, fulfilling their needs does not usually thrill me. I wouldn’t change it for the world, but being a stay at home mom can sometimes be just plain boring. I think that the reason I’ve turned into such a creative mess is to occasionally escape the tedium of the third load of laundry for the day.
But the truth is, big or small, what you’re working on is important. Without creatives, nothing would ever be improved upon, beautified, remade, or re-imagined. So you need to keep working, but how do you decide which project should be occupying your thoughts and time at any given moment? And how do you balance your creative world with the daily barrage of Stuff-That-Needs-To-Get-Done?
How do you juggle the discrepancy between changing diapers and changing the world?
You set priorities.
Prioritizing sounds pretty boring, but once you know what you should be working on, it’s a lot easier to stick to it and get it done. And prioritizing doesn’t have to be so hard! I’ve found a quick, pain-free way to sort out your priorities so you can get down to work, and even stick with your project till the end.
This little exercise is so easy you can do it in your head, but it will help you understand why you are so passionate about that creative project that you are working on, or why it’s necessary to do the task you’re not so excited about. It’s a simple two-step process.
- First, define the project. Let’s say, for example, that you’re reupholstering a chair. (If you’re anything like me, you’re somewhere in the middle of the project, wondering if you should be working on any of the other 16 things on your list for the day, instead of what you’re doing.)
- Now, fill in the blanks of this statement:
“…..(project x)…. is important to ….(who)…. because ….(why)…..”
Your statement would look something like this. “Finishing this upholstery project is important to me because I need to write a blog post about it by Friday.”
This statement breaks down the question into three parts: What, Who, and Why. Be as specific as possible, especially with the last part. The “Why” is a huge part of understanding what your priorities are, both on a daily basis, and in a more long-term, global sense.
OK, we know the what and why are important, but what’s the big deal about “Who”? As creatives, we can’t always be working on projects that are solely for the purpose of scratching our own creative itch. In other words, life gets in the way. Personally, my problem in answering the question, “What should I be doing right now?” is how to juggle the demands of other people on my time, along with the ideas that are in my head, trying to get out. This means that either my blog post is being written, or my dishes are getting done, but certainly not both at the same time, so I always feel that I should be working on the other, no matter which one I’m working on. I find that it helps me to define who I’m working for at any given moment. Here’s another example statement:
“Doing the dishes is important to my kids because eating dinner from the pot with their hands goes against the table manners I’m trying to teach them.” (In reality, this is probably not important at all to my kids, but more to me!)
Defining the “who” helps me know that I’m still doing my job as a mom, even if I feel like I should be working on my job as a blogger.
You can use this statement exercise for anything from small to huge. It could be as small as my dishes example, or as big as “Writing a book is important to me because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” Or “Organizing this convention is important to my company because it brings in sales.”
When I start asking myself, “Is this really what I should be doing right now?” I fill out this statement in my head. Depending on the answer, I can make an educated decision about whether to keep going or move on to something else that has a more compelling answer.
It’s a simple exercise, but for me it helps to know that what I’m working on is relevant. It answers the big question of “Am I making a difference?” And most importantly, it helps me establish that the task is worth the time and effort I’m putting into it. And best of all, it helps alleviate the fear that my work will fall into a black hole of oblivion. Defining who I’m working for helps me know that I’m making the right impact on the right people. Sometimes that’s myself, sometimes it’s the people I love, and sometimes it’s a client. But either way, I know that what I’m working on has value to someone and that helps me see it through to the end.
What does fear have to do with priorities? When people are your priority, and you can define how your work will affect those people, you no longer have to be afraid that your work is irrelevant. So remove the fear and get to work!
Next week we’ll look at how to sort out the multiple demands on our time, and still leave room for being creative. Check out that post on Time Management, and the following on on Finding Fulfillment. For your homework this week, try composing one of these statements whenever you question what you’re working on. Then leave me a comment below and tell me what you see when you look at your statements.