I’ve delayed writing this entry for about two months now. I really wanted to write a masterpiece, to strike a chord in your hearts and maybe even inspire change in the world. But alas, I’m just another blogger and I’m better off getting this over with instead of trying to turn it into my magnum opus.
You see, I have a problem – I procrastinate. And its made worse by the fact that I tend to procrastinate by reading about procrastination. I believe we each have some creative ambition we’ve failed to realize – projects we’ve never started or we abandoned in mid-course. While these ambitions and ideas just stay in our head we’re able to justify our procrastination – we tell ourselves we’re thinking it through, we’re taking our time strengthening the idea, waiting for the right moment, etc.
As we build these ideas and projects in our head, they feel safe and protected between our ears. We fear it might be premature to start, to give birth to this idea. Will it survive out in the real world, against the criticism of others? But I think we also procrastinate because we doubt our own abilities. We question whether or not we’re actually ready or talented enough to do this great thing? Whatever the excuse, there’s only one solution for the creative individual:
You must embrace failure. You must admit what is. You must find out what you’re capable of doing and what you’re not capable of doing. That is the only way to deal with the issue of success and failure because otherwise you simply will never subject yourself to the possibility that you’re not as good as you want to be, hope to be, or as others think you are. But that is of course delusional.
– Milton Glaser
You have to release that idea from the confines of your overprotective head.
2. MAKE SHIT!
Sometimes you just have to spit out your rough idea, even if it’s initially shit, to get to the good stuff, to its final version.
People begin to get better when they fail. As they move towards failure, they discover something as a result of failing. They fail again, they discover something else – they fail again, they discover something else.
– Milton Glaser
A physical draft of a creative project, whether it’s the first or twentieth, allows you to reflect and improve upon it. It allows for ‘prototyping’, a cyclical process of tinkering with something physical and making the necessary changes to it to make it more ‘complete’. If we’re going to fight and conquer procrastination, we need to adopt a mindset that embraces making imperfect and incomplete things. We have to remind ourselves that we don’t have to show these early prototypes to anyone else – they’re just for us to enjoy and critique. When you make your idea physical, using an appropriate medium, it’ll be easier to invest it with whatever time and energy you think it needs, until it can stand on its own two feet and go out into the real world to be seen by others.
3. DEADLINES ARE ‘THE KILLER APP’
But how can we encourage ourselves to start this creative work in the first place? And how can we continue it, with a sense of urgency, as if it matters, as if there are consequences for failing to complete it? I think I’ve found the answer –
Do you remember the insane number of assignments and deadlines we had back in school? I believe these deadlines, each associated with a consequence for failing, are the main reason we got things done. Personally, these deadlines were sacred and they helped shape me into the person I am today.
But why are deadlines so powerful? In search of an answer I recently stumbled across Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
In laymen terms:
If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.
– Tim Ferriss
What I’ve observed in my own studies during college and watching my colleagues is that we tend to get real smart when there’s no time to be stupid. And we tend to get productive when there’s no time to be lazy.
But alas, college is over and these days I truly wish I could apply as much structure to my own creative work. Outside of school or work, we’re responsible for generating our own sacred deadlines. We must not only embrace failure as part of the process, but we must encourage ourselves to work and fail on a regular basis, over and over again.
4. PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Based on the above, we must work and fail ‘outside’ – not in the theater of our safe minds, but in the physical world, in our studios and offices.
- Embrace a mindset that says ‘failure is okay’.
- Realize our goals can be achieved through a series of ever evolving and frequently shitty drafts and prototypes.
- Create a sense of urgency through self-generated deadlines.
But how? Glad you asked:
- Find an important creative pursuit that you’ve been putting off. Be specific about what you want to do – what is this project exactly? A first draft of a short story? A series of paintings? A new song you want to write?
- For this goal, this project, we’re going to give ourselves a deadline. But instead of making it a date in the calendar, our deadline will be a specific amount of time, lets call this X, that we’re going to work on this draft of the project.
- Any time we’re working on the project, the timer we set earlier is counting down from X to zero. You can stop the clock and take breaks as you like and come back to the project at any time. But the idea is that you’re going to complete this draft in the set amount of time you assigned yourself and no more.
- After the clock runs out, you should now have your draft, something you can hand in to yourself, and begin to examine and react to.
- Repeat as necessary to iron out the kinks you see or feel in your project, but remember to set specific amounts of time to each draft of that project.
For example, like I said, I’ve been procrastinating starting and finishing this blog entry for two months even though I felt it was important I get my thoughts out for my own creative practice. So today, I set my timer to 40 minutes to write the first draft of it. I choose this amount of time because I believed it would help ‘police’ me into staying on task and being efficient. To be honest, at the end of the 40 minutes I ended up with a mess. But I had a draft in my hands that I could continue to revise through more drafts, in between breaks, each with a specific amount of time associated with it. As you can see in the photo below, I went through a series of 40-minute drafts, and in between each I was able to reflect on where the article was and where it still needed to go.
Even though this entry isn’t a masterpiece, there’s no way I would’ve realized its full potential all in my head. I had to take several stabs at it to get it to this state. And its evolution doesn’t have to stop here: now you can react to this version, this draft of my blog post, and I can incorporate your feedback to make it even stronger.
When you have a draft/prototype of your idea in front of you, in your hands, you can actually respond to it, you can shape it, change it, improve it. But when your idea remains in your head, it’s just this gaseous cosmos of possibilities that slowly turn into insecurities, idealized futures and ultimately procrastination. One can only fully realize an idea and themselves as ‘artists’ by embracing failure, by making it a teacher, by making it a vital part of the process.
You learn how to make your work by making your work . . . art you care about – and lots of it!
– ‘Art & Fear’
We must work and fail, over and over again, striving towards our goals against our self-appointed deadlines. When we can bring our ideas out of the womb of our creative mind, they can become real, they can draw breath. They can begin to talk back to us, tell us what they’re still missing. They can grow into great, great things.
QUOTES FROM & RECOMMENDED READING:
- Milton Glaser on the ‘Fear of Failure’
- Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland
FURTHER IDEAS TO PROCRASTINATE WITH:
The 99 Percent is one of my favorite productivity sites because it’s aimed to creative types, here are two videos related to this entry you might enjoy:
“What you do for a living is not be creative, what you do is ship,” says bestselling author Seth Godin, arguing that we must quiet our fearful “lizard brains” to avoid sabotaging projects just before we finally finish them.
Twitter creator Jack Dorsey outlines his simple approach to making amazing ideas happen: drawing out the idea, gauging the right timing, and iterating like mad.