The past few weeks I’ve been completely overjoyed to have my regular work schedule back. I loved remembering what it felt like to make real progress, but also I kept thinking, “Oh, please, please, just don’t throw me any curveballs right now!”
Of course life is, pretty much by definition, one big curveball (I think there’s a new branch of physics that has confirmed this), so even as I was thinking it, I knew it wasn’t really possible.
And I did run into a few different curveballs, but by far the largest and most frustrating one was when I discovered a light mold just starting to stain the backs of a bunch of canvases I had stacked on one main wall of my studio.
You’re not supposed to store paintings on an exterior wall, and I didn’t really think of this as one, because there’s a building right next to it. But it turns out, the lower half of the wall is actually an alley there, meaning no insulation from the other building…and also no sun and not a lot of air circulation.
So in some ways this wall is even worse than a normal exterior wall. And I had moved lots of paintings to this wall last year.
Cue epic forehead slap.
I did get some lucky breaks. First and most important, I caught it early. Also, it wasn’t on any paper, just canvases, which are much easier to treat and clean.
Here’s an edge before cleaning:
And after cleaning:
But even with it being not too terrible, this was a complete drop-everything style hassle.
It was also just plain old depressing.
In my experience, the worst part about this type of curveball isn’t the additional work it requires, it’s the way it can suck all the steam right out of your progress train.
Over the years I’ve had to develop a number of tricks that help me stay on track, and I’m going to share them with you in the hope that they might be helpful in your own curveball situation – or maybe they will just give you a good laugh at the mental and emotional gymnastics I employ to get work done.
My first trick is: I have a huge amount of willpower.
Just kidding! Very, very much kidding. In my opinion, willpower is way overrated, and depending on willpower is the best way to do absolutely nothing. Humans are just not built that way. When events conspire to be a bit disruptive, our willpower is often the first thing that goes to hide in the corner. (Hopefully not the moldy corner.)
What we are built for is routines. That’s because routines require less thought and energy: they are just plain easier. My routine is my downhill slope towards anything I want to accomplish; it is my ticket to seeming to have lots of “willpower.”
So my first real trick is:
Make it easy.
I know that sounds a little ridiculous, and I do mean for it to be a joke, but I am also totally serious. This is my best and most valuable tool, and I use it repeatedly.
For example, the first part of keeping my studio routine easy is making it easy to get to: It’s in my flat! All I have to do is walk down the hall!
But believe it or not, it is still difficult for me to go to work.
Part of that difficulty is because my studio is in my home, where there are lots of distractions, but it’s mostly a “Time to go try to create amazing work again!” problem, and this is not helped by the ephemeral and very subjective nature of what I do.
I have been doing this for many years now, so at this point it’s not end-of-the-world difficult, but that’s not because it became less intimidating – or there were fewer curveballs and distractions – it’s because I learned an additional trick that made it even easier for me to get in there:
I lie to myself.
Again, it’s a joke, but I’m also completely serious: an important part of why it’s currently easy for me to go in is because I tell myself that my job is just to go in and sit there for five minutes.
That’s it. Not to go try to make powerful, authentic work. Just sit for five minutes.
It does not matter that I know this is a lie. It still totally works.
So I go in and sit at my drawing table.
This past spring I decided to create an extra treat for myself in this next part of the routine, so I bought a nice-smelling candle, which means now I get to sit and light my candle.
Then I use my next important trick:
I get my head straight.
It turns out, if I’m not consciously “driving” my mental state, then basically the events of the day are driving. And at least for me and my work, sometimes that is really not a good thing. Unless you were hoping for endless detours into negative-self-talk alley (or a nice, long journey down why-am-I-doing-this-anyway avenue).
What I do is very simple: I just close my eyes and consciously push out any garbage (doubt, anxiety, whatever) and plug in my “of course I can.” Not the thought, but the feeling. I remember a time when I felt 100% confident that I could handle whatever came my way and succeed, and I connect to that.
This pretty immediately shifts my energy, and I’ve noticed it changes my posture too. It also gives me the urge to immediately open my eyes and stop, but I force myself to just sit with it a few minutes and really anchor it.
Now, as I shared above, I tell myself every day that the above routine is all I have to do. But when I open my eyes… I’m in the room (the hardest part!), prepared, feeling energized, smelling something nice, and hey, look, right in front of me, there’s this nice, unstressful drawing I can do.
Starting with unintimidating work allows me to again trick myself, pretending that I don’t have to do the more difficult and risky work today if I don’t feel ready, but it is also a perfect warm-up. I’m using skills that are very comfortable for me combined with low-stress improvising. It’s like a physical repetition of that “of course I can,” I’m just proving it to myself.
I also turn on some music during this time. I have a pre-programmed playlist of music that doesn’t suck and that inspires me but also sometimes slightly breaks my heart. Nothing is worse than superficial music or a jarring advertisement at this moment.
The playlist has to be pre-programmed because do you want to accidentally spend half of your work time hunting for beautiful and hopeful and heart-breaking music? I do not. So this too has to be as easy as possible for me, requiring no work or thought.
In case you’re curious, here are a few of the songs I use:
- Cycling Trivialities – Jose Gonzalez
- The Cool, Cool River – Paul Simon
- Radio Daze – The Roots
- Deceptacon – La Tigre
- Heavenfaced – The National
- Shatter – Liz Phair
- Something’s Coming – Larry Kert (from West Side Story)
- Somebody to Love – Queen
I force myself to stick with this drawing for the full 15 minutes or so, because like sticking with the mental exercise, it’s tempting to rush through (get to the “real” work), but I know my results later will be better if I stick with it.
And then, finally, I go to paint.
As you can see, at this point I’ve only been in the studio maybe 20 minutes, but I am now fully warmed up and ready to go. The next hours will be my most focused and productive time.
So those are my tricks, which really just boil down to: Make it easy! Lie to yourself! Get your head straight! Make it easy! Make it easy! Make it easy!
I know none of this is rocket science, but I believe it is human science. It definitely helped me avoid being deflated by this whole dumb mold situation, and I hope it has been either interesting or funny to you. Or both.
Most of all, if you’re confronted with some difficult curveballs of your own – as we all have been lately – I hope you don’t feel bad if your willpower decides to take a little trip down why-am-I-doing-this-anyway avenue. It is not a sign of weakness or a moral failing. It’s just the mechanics of how we all work. And an invitation to see if you can make things a little easier for yourself.