Warning: Do Not Read This Post If You’d Rather Stay Stressed and Overwhelmed

note valuesLast night, I sat down for five minutes. I paused.

My 12-year-old daughter wasn’t feeling well; she’d had a headache at school and came home funky. I had been at work all day, gone grocery shopping after, came home and put away the groceries, made tacos, played Mankala with my third-grader and read to her in bed, then sang to her while she fell asleep. In other words, it was a pretty normal evening. By 9:00pm, I was ready to collapse myself, but my headachey daughter wanted me to sit with her. I did, for a few minutes, stroking her hair. Then I said, I’ll come back in a little while.

And I took two pillows from my bed, asked my partner if she wanted to sit for five minutes, set the timer on my phone, and settled in facing the wall.

And then it came… the contrast, and the corresponding relief. Of doing nothing. Of not responding to anything, not even my girl when she came padding into my bedroom. The amazing thing was she didn’t say a word. She saw that I was sitting there and just seemed to understand, that I was not avoiding her or putting off her needs. I was simply tending to my own, for five minutes that felt both like a blink and an hour. An oasis, even if it was filled with thoughts from the day and thoughts of what else still needed doing. I knew she needed my attention, and I also knew she could wait. I knew there were still more dishes to wash and a load of laundry to put in the dryer, and that those too could wait.

The same moment could be applied at work. Say you have back-to-back meetings, an overflowing inbox. You’ve barely stopped to pee, much less take a lunch break to get some fresh air or take a short walk. Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to move some big project forward, or you have to prepare an agenda for a meeting with your boss. Let’s say you supervise other people, and two of them called in sick today and payroll is due, you have to get to the bank before 5:00pm, and the dentist’s office just called with a reminder about your cleaning this afternoon. Maybe you and your significant other have been meaning to go for a fall hike all fall, and you are wistfully aware that the trees are almost bare of leaves and there is a frost warning for tonight.

This is the part where you might feel like you can’t possibly pause. There is too much to do. Maybe this is the part where you feel irritable. Or overwhelmed. Or just tired.

Our days are often like this, in some iteration or another, a fugue of incessant sixteenth notes without variation, fast fast fast and full full full and go go go. And this is when things are going along fairly “normally,” meaning there is no emergency, no crisis. No frozen pipes or dreaded pink slip or last-minute snafu, no injured child or chronic illness or bad news on the other end of the line.

If you have ever practiced yoga, you know that savanasana, or corpse pose, is how every practice concludes–whether it was a gentle 15 minutes or a vigorous 90. The language of yoga is that of “integrating the benefits of our practice,” the intention being that without taking the time to just be, to pause, to rest, we cannot fully come to feel the effects of all the doing.

If life feels like something you have to hold onto like a handbasket on its way straight to hell, or a roller-coaster ride that makes your stomach lurch, or simply a treadmill stuck on an 8-minute-mile when you’d rather be strolling, pausing like this can be painful. Because rather than feeling the benefits of all of the doing, you might feel the negative impact of it. You might realize, by taking five minutes to just sit there, that not pausing is actually a form of procrastination. Not taking rest when to do so is an option (and there are few professions where it isn’t) is a way of avoiding your life, even as you might think your life is the reason you can’t, or don’t, pause.

Our culture–whether you’re a manager, a business owner, a parent, an artist, none or or all of the above–feeds this reliance on busy and its corresponding glorification of stress. It’s a badge we wear, a purple heart of martyrdom.

If more people said, Actually, that can wait five minutes, if we could differentiate between fires to put out and true emergencies, if we inserted rest symbols into the endless stream of notes that is the music of our days, we might just start making different choices about how we live and work. We might get brave and admit to someone that we don’t in fact enjoy this sense of chaos and the anxiety it provokes, that causes all kinds of problems–in our relationships, our health, our ability to keep up.

We might just stop keeping up.

And that may be scary, especially if our sense of security and even self-worth rests on this premise that we must go a million miles an hour from the moment we wake till we collapse into bed.

But it doesn’t have to be scary.

Like all fears, as soon as you turn the light on, the big monster shadows shrink to harmlessness. If you find that you are putting a lot of things off–whether it’s returning that package with the too-small shoes or meeting the deadline that looms closer each day–consider that pausing is actually an antidote to procrastination. It may be just the thing you need to move forward.

Stop, for a moment, for one full breath, for five minutes, and respond to nothing. I am willing to bet nothing will fall apart. In fact, this small act may be the glue that holds all the pieces together.

Dismantling the Atomic Fears

atomic bomb

 

I have a love/hate relationship with self-help books. I love the concept. Self-help = help yourself. Right on. I’m all in favor of that. That would be the love. The hate part is a little bit harder to nail down, at least in words. Books like The Secret make me cringe. While I believe that our beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes influence our lives in some major ways, fostering a belief that all you have to do is believe strongly enough in something, and practice feeling it as though it has already happened, is enough to make it occur is beyond ridiculous.

If the concepts in The Secret work, explain to me why I was never able to get my Big Wheel to fly? I believed it would happen with all of my heart. I felt the power, triumph, and exhilaration fully. Yet still, my little five-year-old body never cleared the ground on that thing.

I’ve spent countless hours reading, implementing, and assessing dozens upon dozens of self-help books. Some of them are invaluable. Some of them are worse than worthless; they’re toxic. Books that lead to product deals, making the authors extremely wealthy, while unable to show any evidence that the theories actually work, piss me off.

The Secret is that anything worth having is going to require more than belief. In fact, it will require quite a lot from you. You’re going to need a healthy dose of the following:

  • Optimism
  • Desire
  • Action
  • Willingness to Fail
  • Persistence
  • Help from Other People
  • Flexibility
  • Discipline
  • Bravery
  • A Plan
  • Coping Skills

If you’re looking at this list and feeling like you don’t stand a chance, give yourself some credit. You’ve probably exhibited most or all of these traits at different times in your life. What about right now? Assess yourself honestly.

Don’t be shy about patting yourself on the back for the things you’re doing well. It’s not only okay to feel good about the things you’re doing well, it’s critical for you to acknowledge those things if you’re going to succeed.

What about the areas in which you could use some reinforcements? When you look at the things that are holding you back, remember that there’s no need to feel ashamed. Having weaknesses doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human. Being human is a good thing. What’s the other option? And the only way to improve anything is to get very clear and brutally honest.

When you think about your art or your business in terms of what isn’t going so well, what is your primary emotion?

I’m lucky enough to work with artists and creative entrepreneurs on a regular basis, and while the issues we discuss are personal and differ greatly, almost always, when we get to this question, the answer is the same.

The Primary Emotion That Holds Us Back is FEAR.

What are you afraid of? Are your fears realistic? Are they likely to come to fruition? If they did, would your world fall apart? Would you die? Or would you feel the pain and ramifications, recover, and keep living? If you’re ever going to put fear in its place, meaning that it will no longer rule your life, you have to look the beast in the eye.

Remove emotion from your assessment of the fear. It might sound impossible, but it isn’t. It’s actually not that hard at all. Pretend that you’re not looking at your issues at all. Take them in as if they belong to someone else, someone you care about, and imagine that they’re asking you for advice.

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to be reasonable and pragmatic when offering advice to other people than it is when you’re trying to figure out how to tackle your own problems? It’s because no matter how much you love and care about the other person, you’re slightly removed from the situation. Learning to distance yourself from your own life issues enough to give them this same sort of objective once-over isn’t easy, but it’s a skill worth learning. I can’t promise you that you’ll never feel afraid again (you will), but I can promise you that bouts of hysteria and paralysis will take up residence in your brain less often.

Teeny Tiny Baby Steps

 

It’s time to put down the self-help book and actually do something. I’m not against reading about overcoming fear. I think it can be very useful. I’m sitting here right now writing about it, and I wouldn’t be wasting my time if I didn’t believe it could be of value to the people who will read it. But it can get a little sticky when you start to confuse reading about something (or talking about it) with doing something about it. If you’ve read eleven self-help books in the past year, but you haven’t started to implement changes in your daily life, you’re no further along than you were before you read them. If you’re like me, it’s all too easy to get stuck in the research phase without taking action.

So I’m asking you to do something for yourself today. When you’re done reading this article, sit down with a pen and paper. Ask yourself what steps you can take, right now, to move through your fears, and write down as many as you can. It might mean that you RSVP for a networking event, even though you’re terrified to talk to strangers. It might mean calling your local library and reserving a room for a free class, even though you’re afraid no one will show up. Or maybe you’ll send out an email to your twenty closest friends and ask them to promote your upcoming gallery show, even though you’re fretting that they might feel like you’re imposing on their time.

Aside from being situations that all evoke fear for some people, do you see the common thread between all of those things? No, I’m not talking about the fact that they are all forms of marketing. I’m talking about the fact that they are all first steps towards doing something bigger.  They’re teeny, tiny baby steps. Not one of them will take more than fifteen minutes. If you’ve listed something that will take longer than this, it might be too big for a beginning step. Break it down into smaller, shorter steps. This makes them totally doable. You can do anything for fifteen minutes. You’ll be afraid for just a quarter of an hour, and then that step will be done.

Take one fifteen minute step each day for a week. Next week, aim for two fifteen minute steps a day. Week by week, your distress tolerance will increase, and your fear will decrease. You might still be afraid, but it won’t take you long to discover that even if you’re afraid, that fear can’t really hurt you, because it’s not actually real.

And just like that, you’re doing it. You’re helping yourself.

Ass+u+me: How Assumptions Hurt Your Business

Donkey

Definition of assumption (n)

  • as·sump·tion
  • [ ə súmpshən ]
  1. something taken for granted: something that is believed to be true without proof
  2. belief without proof: the belief that something is true without having any proof

We all make assumptions. It’s human nature. We take whatever bits of information we have available to us, filter them through the limited view of our window on the world, and start piecing together a story about what it all means.

There’s actually no harm in doing this. It can even be a useful exercise. But things get dangerous when you forget that what you’re doing is forming a hypothesis, and start making decisions under the delusion that you’ve already discovered the truth without bothering to test the hypothesis.

Attempting to build and run a small business on a series of assumptions is a recipe for disaster. An assumption that is built on a reasonable knowledge base can be a great jumping off place, but it’s just the beginning.

When it comes to business, the only thing you should ever assume is responsibility.

You assume that if you follow up with past clients you’ll be bugging them, when maybe the truth is that they’ve been meaning to contact you, but keep forgetting, because life is busy.

You assume that it’s a crazy pipe dream to quit your day job to pursue your dreams, because when you were thirteen your dad told you that painting is a hobby, not a career, and you needed to be realistic. Sadly, your dad didn’t know anyone who made a living painting, but if you do a little research, you’ll discover that people do that.

You assume that you don’t have what it takes to advertise successfully. In fact, you’ve convinced yourself that this is why your business is failing. How do you know? Have you read books on the subject? Attended courses? Hired someone to teach you? And if you did do those things, did you actually attempt to implement what you learned? How many hours a week do you spend on advertising?

A lot of the assumptions we make are based on fear and low self-esteem, and the only way to move out of these inhibiting thought patterns is by pattern interruption. This doesn’t mean that you won’t think the thoughts. It just means that you won’t let the thoughts dictate your actions. These paralyzing assumptions don’t just hurt your business, they can actually stop it before you start. A lot of fantastic ideas have never seen the light of day because of this type of thinking.

The other side of this ever-spinning coin would be assumptions made out of arrogance or full-on delusional thinking. These are the things that lead to impulsive, and oftentimes disastrous, decision making. If you’ve come up with a fantastic business idea and have decided to tell your boss to shove off tomorrow, even though you only have twenty bucks to your name and haven’t even taken the first step towards turning that great idea into a reality, please reconsider.

There are different types of programs, tools, and professionals that help business owners make decisions that test assumptions and provide data and feedback for informed decision making. A lot of them are fantastic, so I’d never suggest that business owners should bypass these services. However, if you’re on a tight budget, they can be cost prohibitive. Luckily, when you’re just starting out, you can take a much simpler approach that won’t cost you a cent.

Instead of assuming that you know what people are thinking, ask them. Instead of assuming that an idea will work or fail, test it on a small scale. And most importantly, do not ever, ever, ever assume that you’re not good at something unless you’ve invested a significant amount of time and effort trying to get good at that thing.

Letting assumptions rule your life keeps you in a perpetual state of ignorance. You’re too smart to hang out there.

What assumptions have you been making about your business that may not be true? What steps can you take to test the validity of your beliefs?

 

 

Monkeys, Squirrels, Artists, and Shiny Things

SquirrelDo you misplace your keys, lose track of time and show up late for appointments, or only remember to pay your bills once the disconnect notice arrives? What about projects and deadlines? Do you start everything you do with a bang, only to fizzle out before you finish? Or maybe you just have trouble sticking to a routine that keeps your life running smoothly. In any case, I feel you.

I’ve been there. Until a few years ago, my life was a hot mess of distraction. It’s a trait that seems to go hand in hand with creative brilliance, and since so many of my clients and readers fall into the brilliant artist or entrepreneur category, organization and project planning is a frequent focus of my work. I’ve been outlining my systems during one-on-one consults for months, and I’ve seen them work for all sorts of people.

The benefit to focusing on this type of work via private consultations is that we can ask each other questions, dialogue, and then use the shared information to  customize a plan that works for your unique situation. The drawback, of course, is that not everyone has the money to pay for one-on-one creativity consultations to help them organize their lives and creative endeavors. I’ve compiled and condensed the basics into an ebook, “Monkeys, Squirrels, Artists, and Shiny Things,” so you can access the information anytime you want. You can buy it here for just $5.99. If you don’t have a Kindle, or you’d be just as happy with a simple PDF, click here to buy it for $3.99. Just send me a note with your payment, and I’ll email you the file.

If you’re looking for a miracle fix, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a simple strategy to get yourself organized that doesn’t require anything fancy or expensive, give it a shot. I did the legwork of several years of trial and error (lots and lots of error) to figure out how to simplify in a way that isn’t complicated. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found that approach to work for more than a few days. All you’ll need to get started is a notebook with three sections, a pen, and the commitment to try something new.

Note: The reviews are positive so far, but there aren’t many! You can read them here. After you read the book, if you’d do me the favor of writing a review, I’d really appreciate it!

The Art of the Pause

BowArrow

Inertia. Paralysis. Stagnancy. We all get stuck sometimes. In fact, if you’ve read this blog for very long, or any other blog that focuses on creativity, entrepreneurship, self-help, motivation, inspiration, or habit formation, you’ve read plenty about getting moving. Which isn’t to say that I won’t write about it again in the future. I will. It’s a good topic.

Forward motion is important, and there are countless reasons we can find ourselves in need of a nudge in order to get moving. Not only have I written thousands of words on the subject, I frequently read what other experts have to say on the subject. Sometimes you want a swift kick in the ass that comes from someone other than yourself. Have you ever kicked yourself in the ass? It can be done, but it’s not easy or terribly effective. If you haven’t tried to kick your own ass, you should. You should also make a video of the attempt and send it to me!

But what about the other part of the productivity equation? If you’re in perpetual motion, eventually you’re going to be exhausted and burned out. When you’re constantly busy, not only does your body get tired, your mind does, too.  Our brains are not designed to work overtime without downtime.

If you’re an artist or entrepreneur, refusing to take breaks can lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s neuroscience. All healthy bodies operate in cycles, and for the purpose of making the most of your time and energy, you need to familiarize yourself with the ultradian rhythm. The ultradian rhythm is the natural series of energetic peaks and valleys your brain experiences throughout the day.

You may or may not be familiar with the term, but you’ve no doubt felt the effects of this rhythm on an ongoing basis, particularly if you’re not inclined to take regular breaks.

Your brain is only meant to sustain full engagement for approximately ninety minutes at a time.

At the beginning of this ninety-minute cycle, your brain starts gearing up. It is excited and ready to go. As you immerse yourself in your work, particularly if you’re working on a project you enjoy, it gains momentum. This is part of what allows you to slip into the flow state.

But as you reach the end of those ninety minutes, your body and mind will start throwing up signals that it’s time for a break. Your concentration won’t be as steady. You might slip into multi-tasking. You might begin to feel fidgety, like you need to get up and move around. Or you might crave a nap.

If you’re not particularly interested in what you’re doing and don’t have a boss breathing down your neck, you’ll probably heed these signals. You might take a walk or call a friend. Maybe you’ll just use the bathroom and grab a snack. It doesn’t really matter what you do, the point is that you’ll switch gears for a little bit. Ideally, it is best to spend about twenty minutes doing something else before refocusing your attention on your work project.

On the other hand, if you love what you’re doing, you’ll probably ignore the cues you’re receiving. You may not even notice them at all. Your brain is being rewarded by the pleasurable activity, so your body asking it to get up and walk away is a little bit like trying to convince a sleepy three-year-old that it’s time to leave the park.

Sometimes we ignore the signs that it’s time to take a break for other reasons, too. There are reasons we don’t take breaks when we need them that are less pleasant than being immersed in a state of flow.

You might ignore your ultradian rhythm out of societal conditioning. You’ve been trained to believe that being dedicated means working straight through whatever you’re doing until it’s done. Maybe you even feel guilty or ashamed. Have you ever (either in your head or when talking about yourself to someone else) called yourself names like lazy, slacker, or fuck-off when you take breaks? If so, it’s time to forgive yourself for being a human, not a robot.

Or maybe it’s more concrete than that. You’re broke. You need money, and you won’t get paid until you’ve seen this project through to completion. Taking breaks means a lag between now and paying your electric bill or feeding your kids. Taking a break does not feel like a responsible option.

The only problem is this: Your body’s ultradian rhythm will only put up with being ignored for so long before it will fuck your world up in order to get your attention.

Somewhere between the beginning of your dip in energy after ninety minutes of concentrated work and the two hour mark, the intensity of the signalling is going to increase. I’m not saying you can’t push through and work more than two hours without taking a break. Of course you can. We do it all the time. Most of us do it every day, multiple times a day.

What I am saying is that it is counterproductive. During this period, your efficiency begins to wane. You might be working just as hard, but you probably aren’t working as fast. You’re also more inclined to make (and miss) little mistakes like typos, so the quality of your work decreases a little bit, too.

And of course, the real trouble begins when neglecting your brain’s needs becomes habitual. If you are regularly working for several hours at a time without taking breaks, eventually it is going to catch up to you. And when it does, it is going to bite you in the ass. Hard. You’ll have teeth marks for weeks.

Unfortunately, our culture rewards this kind of masochism. That doesn’t mean you have to participate in the insanity. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Do you really want bragging rights for being chronically exhausted, in a constant bad mood, endangering your health, and neglecting everything in your life except work?

I love to work. Seriously. A lot of it is like a form of play to me (everything except the parts that aren’t). I’m also not opposed to working long hours. Putting in more than forty hours a week does not depress me in the least. There’s nothing wrong with loving your job and devoting significant amounts of time to it.

There is everything wrong with working yourself senseless without taking time for other things. Not only is it hard on your body and mind, it’s hard on your relationships, and pretty much every other aspect of your life. Plus, after awhile, your work suffers, too.

Your creativity wanes. Your productivity decreases. Your efficiency is meh…

And guess what? Someone else is working fewer hours than you, taking more breaks, and getting more done. And it’s higher quality work, too. And then they get to go enjoy the rest of their life.

If you’ve been confusing being busy with being productive and efficient, watch Tony Schwartz: The Myths of the Overworked Creative. If you’re ready to start thinking about shifting away from the former and into the latter, it will be a half hour well spent.

Every creative needs to master the art of the pause.

Give yourself permission to stare into space. Or read a book for sheer entertainment value., not to improve yourself or learn a new skill. Take a walk. Get a latte. Have sex. Clean your kitchen. Call a friend. Take a nap. Play with your kids. Get outside. Write if you’re a painter. Paint if you’re a writer. Take up a new hobby. Take up an old hobby. Do something you’re terrible at, yet find absolutely, delightfully fun, just for the hell of it. Whatever. Just. Stop. Working. Do anything else. Or do nothing else. Really. (Note: I cannot dance well, sing well, or play pool well, but I never let this stop me.)

Do absolutely nothing for twenty minutes several times a day. The world won’t stop. 

You’re already an artist. You’re a creator by nature. You don’t have to worry that your creativity or momentum will vanish if you give yourself time and space to pause in the middle of your projects. In fact, they will expand exponentially within the newly discovered territory of unstructured time.