View all posts filed under 'Productivity'

The Gift of Unstructured Time

Sunday, 8. December 2019 21:55

Americans reportedly work more than workers in any other developed country. Some would say that our work ethic is the result of Puritan influence; others might blame it on our no-holds-barred capitalism. Whatever the reason, we spend a lot of time working.

And if we are artists, it’s even worse. Because we like what we do, we tend to spend an enormous amount of time working. Added to that is the pressure to produce, particularly in the current social media environment. Jonas Jödicke has described the present-day pressure to produce this way:

 

So we work. And some of us try to follow the advice of so many successful artists from Khaled Hosseini,  to Julia Cameron and work with discipline, which means working on our art at a set time every day or working a certain amount of time every day. And many of us work at our art literally every day. Working with discipline often requires schedules and organization. And, as anyone who is a regular reader of this blog knows, I, for one, am a great believer in schedules, organization, structure, and lists. For anyone similarly disposed, this bent of mind facilitates the further structuring of our work time.

And structuring our work time can lead to structuring our other time as well, particularly if we are busy.  This leads to structuring all of our time. And while such structure might make us remarkably productive and organized, it can also have a deadening effect on our creativity. We find ourselves locked into our schedules and operating much like machines. What to do?

The solution sounds oxymoronic. We simply need to schedule unstructured time.  That is, we need to periodically set aside an amount of time during which there is no structure, during which nothing is scheduled. We can then use this time to think, dream, create, play the guitar, play with the cat, wash the dishes, weed the garden—or all of the above. That’s the point; it’s a time during which nothing is planned. This can be scary the first time, particularly for those of us who are schedule- and list-driven. And there is the fear of being bored, but creative people can always find something to do, and the discovery of new things to occupy us is one of the positive results of unstructured time. Once we accept the idea of unstructured time, there is yet another danger: planning what we will do during our scheduled unstructured time. This, of course, negates unstructured time. Once we plan what we will do, the time becomes structured. And even if we are addicted to being busy, we can busy ourselves during our unstructured time—just doing unplanned things. It’s like kindergarten recess for creatives.

How much unstructured time we need is an individual matter. Some of us need some every day. Others find once a week satisfying. Still others may need unstructured time only once a month. Length of time also varies with the individual. Whatever our particular needs, having that block of unstructured time will have a positive effect on our creativity and overall disposition. And that’s a gift worth giving ourselves.

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Talk About Your Work

Sunday, 24. November 2019 22:55

Remember when you were in that class and the instructor asked you to explain your work? Remember how you thought, “It’s art; I can’t explain it.” And then you took that other course and the instructor asked you to do the same thing, and this time you thought, “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t have had to paint [photograph, sculpt, compose, write] it.” But it only got worse. They kept asking you to explain what you were doing and, worse than that, they asked your peers to critique your work and say what they thought you were trying to communicate and how well you accomplished that.

It didn’t matter which art you were studying; the teachers were always asking for rationales for the choices that you made. They never let you get away with, “I’ll just let the work speak for itself.” And they continued to ask your peers what they thought about your work. And sometimes you learned that your work did not say exactly what you set out to say, at least to other people in the class.

As is often the case, the teachers were correct in their push to have us articulate our work. Even though we hate doing it, articulation forces us to put our work into prose, which forces us to think about the art differently. This is particularly useful for work that may be mysterious or ambiguous or may not be clear to the viewers/listeners. Probably this was not apparent to us when it was happening in school. The fact is that there is always something to be learned from articulating our work.

Please note that this has nothing to do with the talking about our work that agents, advisors, and gallerists tell us to do. That is a sales technique. And we’re really talking about something different:  the story of how the idea came and the process of making the work rather than an attempt to explain the work itself.

Many artists make articulation part of their process. For example, I know actors who, as part of their technique, walk through all the actions they will perform in a show, but they talk to themselves as they do it. I also know stage directors who have conversations with their assistant directors for the sole purpose of hearing themselves evaluate the things they are doing to shape the show.

Recently I found another use for talking about my work. Some photographs were not quite what I wanted them to be, but I couldn’t put my finger on the precise problem. I had a friend look at them, and he pointed out a couple of things that I had thought about, but did not realize the full impact of until I heard it in words. Then I realized that I could have done it by myself. All I had to do was start talking about what was right about the image which, of course, led me to realize and be able to verbalize what was wrong with the image. Hearing it in words makes all the difference.

So now I talk to myself—even more than I used to—but now I talk about the art and how it works, or doesn’t. It sounds simplistic, but it takes editing out of the world of feelings and ideas and puts it into the world of reason. And that helps, and anything that helps make the work better is worth a try.

Category:Creativity, Criticism, Productivity | Comment (0) | Author:

Stay Flexible

Sunday, 29. September 2019 22:18

One of the most difficult things for actors to learn is live in the moment and respond truthfully to fictional environment of the scene. This is particularly observable in the way they cling to old line readings even though the circumstances of the scene have evolved since they arrived at those line readings. The impulse is to do what has worked before rather than trust oneself to step into the unknown and offer a new response based only on characterization, character objectives, and the immediate circumstances.

This unwillingness of the actor to trust him/herself in the moment can based in a number of things: (1) it could be laziness or intransigence; “I learned it this way, and I’m not going to change now.” (2) It could be that the actor believes that s/he has found the “right” reading, and anything different would be “wrong.” This, of course, means that if the scene goes in a different direction from the way it was last performed, then that new direction is “wrong.” These are the sorts of actors who believe that the goal of rehearsals is to perfect the performance, which then stays constant no matter how many times it is performed. Experience teaches that this is not the best approach to live theatre (or probably any performing art, or perhaps any art). (3) It could be fear (about which I have written a couple of times: here and here). Stepping out into the unknown is scary business, particularly when there are people watching. What if one were to make a bad choice in front of an audience?

The actor’s reasoning could be based on any of these, or some combination, or something I haven’t thought of. Whatever the reason, s/he sticks to yesterday’s plan, fails to adhere to the truth of the moment, and creates bad art.

This is not just an actor’s problem. Almost all artists are faced with creative situations where success demands flexibility. The characters in a novel take the plot in a direction unforeseen in the writer’s outline. An unexpected heat wave modifies the malleability of the sculptor’s materials. Rain mars the outdoor wedding photography. Every artist is likely, in the course of creation, to encounter some factor that modifies the work being attempted. The artist can respond in the same way as the actors above, refusing/declining to change what they are doing or how they are doing it. Or they can be flexible, see the situation for what it is, and respond to that situation in a spontaneously creative way.

Undoubtedly, those who are more flexible and can respond to the moment will be more productive, since they don’t wait until conditions are restored to optimum; indeed, that may never happen. And it is likely that they will—in the long run—be more successful. The actor who only repeats the same readings at every performance is soon considered stale and boring. The photographer or painter who will only use the one lighting setup will likewise find him/herself producing repetitious and uninteresting work.

So whether we are actors or musicians or painters or writers or photographers or sculptors, we need to stay open to the possibility of momentary change and be flexible enough to embrace those moments, modifying our procedures and practices as the situation demands. The bonus is that being that flexible has the potential to open doors that we didn’t even know were there.

Category:Creativity, Productivity, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

That Comfort Zone Thing Again

Sunday, 1. September 2019 22:01

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine, a theatre director who was between shows, had both his front and back yards landscaped. He did not, however, acquire an automated sprinkler system to water the newly-landscaped area. Much to his dismay, he learned that virtually every plant-care site on the internet advised him to water his new plants and grass early in the morning. “Watering” in this case consists of hand-watering a few plants and turning sprinklers on and off. Now, this is a man who has spent his whole adult life working afternoons and evenings and normally sleeping from roughly 2:00 am to 10:00 am. This was a schedule that he could not maintain and water his landscaping early in the morning.

His answer was to completely change his schedule. He said that he had to protect his investment, so he would have to get up early to water the yard, an act far outside his comfort zone. Instead of getting up, watering, and going back to bed, he decided after much thought that he would try getting up, staying up, and adjusting his bed time. I had my doubts. But he did it; his new schedule puts him in bed eleven-ish and gets him up at seven. This represents quite a change. He said that the first thing he learned was that after watering, he had a “huge” block of time before he had to go to work. This contrasted favorably, at least to him, to the smaller blocks of time he normally had between rehearsal and sleep and between waking and work. He said the larger block allowed him to be far more productive because he could delve deeply into a personal project instead of having to break it up into smaller chunks to fit his available time.

So, in order to protect his investment in real estate, he completely changed his lifestyle of many years. It’s not a choice everyone would make, simply because it is so far out of his ordinary comfort zone and because it has effects on so many other aspects of his life. Yet, he is determined to try it. In fact, after two weeks on the new regimen, citing the healthful effects of being outside every day, he says he feels better and is far more productive than he was prior. He seem to have had no trouble adapting to the different sleep/wake times. He even decided to maintain the same schedule even on days he didn’t water for the sake of consistency.

(But remember, he has been between shows during this period, so making such a drastic change has been a little easier than if he were rehearsing until 10:30 pm. He goes back into rehearsal next week. It will be interesting to see how his new lifestyle holds up.)

And the point of all this, you ask. Aside from being a curious story, it points out several things that should be of interest to artists, particularly those who have day jobs.

  1. The capacity to “display adaptability” when faced with a significant problem, a practice advocated by both Bobby and Douglas McArthur Shaftoe, is a desirable trait to have.
  2. Sometimes one area of our lives will impact other areas in unexpected ways. We need to always stay alert.
  3. Change that initially looks onerous, may, in fact, bring unexpected positive consequences.
  4. Different, even radically different, can be better.

After a time, we take our “normal” schedule for granted; it becomes a significant part of our comfort zone. Perhaps re-examining it from time to time might be worthwhile. We may not want to make as dramatic a change as my friend, but we might want to consider alternatives.

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The 80 20 Rule

Sunday, 4. August 2019 23:44

So I’m on the cusp of finishing the first draft of a very large writing project. The problem is, though the end is in sight, I can’t quite seem to get there. Ideas and anecdotes keep jumping into my mind, all wanting to be added to the project. And some of them are worth putting in, so I have to stop and consider each one individually. The result is that it seems the end will never arrive. As I was dealing with this, a thing called the 80 20 Rule (also known as the “80/20 Rule”) popped into my mind, so I turned to my friendly internet to gather more information.

For those of you who don’t know, the 80 20 Rule, also called the “Pareto Principle” after its founder, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto, says that in any endeavor, “80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” Although originally applied to economics, it turns out that this 80-20 split can be applied to nearly any human activity. For example, if you type “80 20 Rule” into Google, you come up with an almost endless list of predictive activities. Plug in “80 20 Rule writing” and you get 144 million hits. In the first of these, Stever Robbins says of writing a draft, “The 80/20 rule also applies to writing. Only in writing, you get 80% of the way there in 20% of the time. Then you spend the last 80% of your time getting the last 20% of the polished draft.

The more I think about it, the more profound the implications of the 80 20 rule seem. It may certainly account for the frustration we all experience toward the end of a project when we are ready to wrap things up and suddenly there seems more to do. It may even be an explanation for the difficulty in writing endings. Every writing teacher I know and almost all writers say that writing endings are the most difficult part of any writing project. Perhaps this is because of the tremendous effort required to produce the last 20% of the project.

Although Robbins has a technique for changing the process—at least for writers—so that that last 80% of the time gets streamlined, it involves adding an editor to the workflow, and just may not be practical for all writers, or other artists. Perhaps the best we can do with the 80 20 Rule is to understand that it is a thing, and work accordingly. Acknowledging the rule allows us to be far less dissatisfied with our progress than we might be otherwise. And that is a step forward in anyone’s book.

The other thing that we can do, being aware of this rule, is to plan our projects to account for the increased effort that will be required toward the end of the project, whether that project is writing, or editing photographs, or perfecting choreography, or directing a play or creating a character. If we know the last 20% will require as much as 80% of the effort put into the whole project, we can prepare for that, and in so doing, produce a more complete product. Put simply, planning our projects to account for the 80 20 Rule will allow us to do better work.

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Editing: A Completely Different Skill Set

Monday, 27. May 2019 0:34

There have been a number of posts in this blog on creativity. This is one more—well sort of. This is about the step after creativity. No matter what art we are engaged in, sooner or later we have to edit. And that’s a completely different skillset from the set that we used to create the artifact in the first place. There have previous posts about editing: one discusses the benefits of editing, another discusses the necessity for editing, and a third discusses the difficulty of editing.

To edit is “to alter, adapt or refine especially to bring about conformity to a standard to suit a particular purpose.” So basically we’re going to refine results of our creativity. In order to do that, we are going to judge our own work and then take action to correct the faults and omissions we find. This is a difficult thing to do, particularly because it’s difficult to get the distance we need to do a really good job on our own work.

So what skills and qualities do we need to do this job?

  1. Objectivity. We must come to the work with “new eyes,” i.e. we have to look at the work as though we have never seen it before. When we are in edit mode, we are looking at the work the way we think a very discerning audience might. Once we are in that place, we can begin to see what might impact that audience in what ways. So we begin to learn what we might leave out and add to make the work stronger.
  2. Ruthlessness. To actually start cutting away and adding in we must be without fear and without remorse. Every piece that we eliminate or modify is something that we made, and while it may have a great deal of merit on its own, it must be removed for the overall good of the piece. It takes strength to excise perfectly good material, but we must trust ourselves that the impact of the edited piece will justify the surgery.
  3. Knowledge of purpose, plan, message. In order to make such a judgement, we must first be aware of what the piece of work is trying to accomplish. Only by having this goal foremost in mind can we assess whether the artifact succeeds or fails in achieving that purpose. A firm separation from the artist must be maintained to insure valid judgement.
  4. A set of standards by which to judge. In addition to the goal of the piece, we need to be aware of our own standards about what makes art good. This can be something as simple as adherence to the principles of design or some more complex set of standards that has to do with our sense of aesthetics and ultimately what we think about the nature of art.
  5. A willingness to check the tiniest of details. We not only have to look at large issues like message and adherence to standards, we have to be able to drill down into the work to see how very small details affect the larger work. It is at this point when we really begin to understand what must be changed to improve the piece, or what needs to be left out entirely, or what must be enhanced.
  6. A means of judging the overall impact. Now that we have standards and some notion of the purpose of the piece and have looked at the details, we need to take a bird’s eye view to see how everything works together to create overall impact, and, more importantly, how pruning can improve that impact.

As you can see, this is not even close to the skill set for creativity. But if we are to be successful as working artists, we must develop this set of qualities and skills as well as the creative ones. Just as we develop our creative work flow, we must develop our judgement and willingness to edit ruthlessly to better our imaginative output.  Better editing will facilitate better work.

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Chunk It

Sunday, 31. March 2019 23:32

A couple of weeks ago I took on a new project. This brings the total of personal projects to seven plus my day job which has its own set of projects. That may not be a lot for you, but it’s a significant number for me, particularly because the new project is a very different project with challenges different from my normal run of projects and thus demands a different kind of attention to actually get it done.

The question of how to move forward on all these projects at once naturally arises. Multitasking would be the immediate answer of many. Unfortunately, multitasking is mythology—at least for me. I find that if I try to do more than one thing at a time, everything seems to take longer and the work on each task is less than it could be. But dutifully I went to the internet to see if perhaps I was missing something. It turns out that multitasking really is a myth. Look it up. And it turns out that my experiences with attempted multitasking are supported by nearly every study on that topic. Study after study shows that attempted multitasking really takes more time and results in lowered productivity; one study even suggested that multitasking was actually bad for brains.

If not multitasking, what? Handling the projects sequentially would seem be a good choice, particularly as it facilitates flow and appeals to my obsessive personality; however, because of the nature of the projects and various deadlines, this is not feasible. The question then becomes how to move forward on all projects in a somewhat efficient manner.

The answer is to chunk it, it being time. Basically it just means spending significant time on each project successively. Hardly a new idea, but one that seems to work.

For me, this idea evolved into a two-step procedure: (1) Review each project every day to refresh and determine the next step in whatever process is involved. This brief review also allows the subconscious the opportunity to consider the project and work on it while I’m eating lunch. (2) Select a project and a chunk of time and do nothing else for that amount of time. (I’m not using a timer, but the thought occurred to me.) Presetting an amount of time to work on the project allows full concentration for that chunk of time, which, in turn, allows the development of flow and the minimization of distractions. Limiting the time also allows moving from one project to another in the same evening. Obviously, the longer the time spent on a single project, the better, but this becomes an individual choice. Chunks could be so large that one would take up the entire project time for one day; the next day could then be used for a different project, and so on.

There is an alternative to presetting the amount of time allotted for each project. When I review projects, I look for the next step. The completion of that next step then becomes my target. I then work on that project until that target is achieved or until that step becomes a failure; only then do I move on to the next project.

It’s a new system—to me anyway, but so far it’s working well. Will it work for you? It might. Give it a try; chunk it.

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Art—It’s not for the Weak

Monday, 10. September 2018 2:08

You Don’t Choose Art; It Chooses You” is the title of a post from several years ago. In it are several supporting quotes and a number of very brief case histories. All of these come to much the same thing: most artists had no choice in selecting their vocations.  For example, author Paul Auster says, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.

First, what Auster says not only applies to writers but to other artists as well. Second, the last part of his statement warrants a bit more discussion: that long hard road that the chosen have to walk for the rest of their days. (For discussion purposes, we will divide artists into three categories: “professional” artists are those who make over 50% of their income from their art. “Semi-pros” who charge for their work but make less than 50% of their income from art. “Amateurs” are people who make art but do not regularly offer it for sale.)

No matter which category an artist happens to be in, the road is long and hard. For example, Actor’s Equity Association, the union which represents stage actors, estimates that the unemployment rate for actors “hovers around 90 percent.” These are professional actors who have invested the time and money to join a union (and it’s not cheap). Statistics are much the same for those in other arts, except very few professional artist have unions to join. The fact is that while  non-union professional artists work a lot, sales are sporadic and the artist has to spend a good deal of time marketing his/her work. Income is similar to the union artist who is unemployed a good deal of the time. And for that tiny percentage who are wildly successful, who become stars in whatever areas they work, there are a whole set of other difficulties.

The semi-pro artist’s path is no less hard, just different: this artist has a day job, but would rather be making a living from art. S/he thinks it is more realistic to use the day job for primary income and probably use any income from art to purchase more art materials and tools. This is definitely a person with divided loyalties, and that creates its own special kinds of problems, the chief of which is finding enough time in the schedule to make art sufficient to enter into significant shows and offer pieces for sale.

The amateur artist shares the problem of time. Since this artist is not necessarily making art to sell, s/he still has to find the time to create his/her art. This means taking time away from the family and friends, finding enough quiet time to write or paint or sculpt, or dealing with the demands of evening rehearsals at a community, or other non-paying theatre. Just because there is no money involved doesn’t mean that the conflicts and difficulties are less significant.

Regardless of the level at which an artist works, s/he does have a long, hard road. S/he has a life of erratic artistic income (if any) as well as an ongoing gluttonous need for materials, time, and energy, all coupled with an obsession for creation. Once art chooses a person, and that person accepts the choice, his/her life becomes tough—because art is hard. Most artists, however, wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Blocked? Make the Problem the Subject

Monday, 13. August 2018 1:53

Blogging and making art are not the same, but they are similar. The core procedures are nearly identical. The artist/blogger has ideas; s/he has to translate those ideas into some communicable form and send it into the world. Sometimes the artist/blogger has a notion as to whether the product is good or not; sometimes s/he doesn’t. The problem is, of course, that the artist/blogger has no idea what the audience is going to see in the product or say about what they see.

When everything is working properly, the artist and blogger have similar processes. S/he gets an idea, develops that idea, communicates the idea, edits the communication, and moves on to the next project. Regardless of how the audience might or might not respond, there is a feeling of accomplishment, of closure that makes moving forward easier.

And when everything is not working properly, the problems are similar. Creative block preys on both the artist and the blogger. There are just times when the painter has no idea what to paint, when no new ideas come to the choreographer, when the playwright stares past the screen, not knowing where the plot is going. The same holds true for bloggers; ideas don’t come, and for most bloggers the problem is exacerbated by deadlines, since bloggers often work on a schedule.

A problem comparable to creative block is the problem of too many ideas at once. Ideas come to the artist/blogger quickly and s/he has no opportunity to develop one fully before another arises and fights for attention. The net result is that no idea gets full development and the artist/blogger feels that s/he is running in circles. And there is no product.

What to do?  There are literally thousands of articles dealing with creative block and how to overcome it. So the how is fairly well documented; all the artist or the blogger needs to do is pick one or more of those methods which s/he thinks will work for him/her.

Dealing with too many ideas or the inability to fully develop ideas is more complex. The first step is to record the ideas as they appear, lest some of them get away. Just because they are recorded does not mean that the artist/blogger has to use them, but it does preserve them. And the act of recording can sometimes suggest a pattern of development or a reason to hold off developing that particular idea at this particular time. After that, it becomes a matter of scanning the recorded ideas to see what engages.

If that doesn’t work, the artist/blogger can always doodle or outline or sketch or involve him/herself in whatever form preliminary development takes. Sometimes that can get the mind working and development can proceed.

And if that doesn’t work, the artist/blogger can always make the project about the problem. Thus we have movies, plays, even musicals about creative block, for example Barton Fink, , and Nine. We have blogs such as this. The problem becomes the subject matter of the piece. It may not be the best solution, but it does break the cycle and allow the artist/blogger to actually create something, to produce, and to move on to the next project.

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Art Impacts

Monday, 18. June 2018 2:00

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are aware that Anthony Bourdain passed away a little over a week ago. I was a fan—not an “I’ve seen everything he ever did” fan, not an “I want to copy his tattoos” fan, but a fan nonetheless. If the press is any indication, so was a large part of the world. The articles about him are legion. Indeed, a simple Google search on his name yields nearly 47 million references. This is not another of those. As big a fan as I was, one of the things that has struck me this week is the extent of Bourdain’s influence.

Those writing about him are not just foodies, but are also humanitarians, politicians, artists, bloggers, novelists, musicians, actors, musicians. The list goes on and on. Those writing about him are not people who have merely heard of him; they all seem to know something about him—something he said, something he did, some attitude he possessed. It seems that Anthony Bourdain touched people in all walks of life, which is pretty remarkable for a chef, even a celebrity chef.

Bourdain was a poet of food who was outspoken on any number of issues. He seemed to genuinely love not only food and its preparation, but all of the people associated with the restaurant industry. That he was a poet is evident in virtually everything the man said and did—at least in public. That he thought deeply about humankind and human culture is also readily apparent. He was a poet who went about speaking the truth as he knew it. And he had an audience, an audience that was huge and diverse and appreciative, and he touched them. Thus all the memorial tributes.

It’s the sheer size of his audience that I find significant. Even given that Bourdain was famous, a world traveler with his own television show, the response to his death has been overwhelming. The number of people that he really touched is amazing. Bourdain might have said the same thing, given his state of mind at the time of his passing.

And that is something that we as artists need to remind ourselves of. We may not have our own television shows, but our audiences are larger than we can ever know, thus our influence reaches further than we can possibly imagine. Even on our worst days, if we are putting our work into the world, we are influencing people. In speaking the truth as we know it—using whatever media we favor—we are having an impact. And there is no way to know who, what, or when that influence will strike.

We all have experienced that one moment when the work of an artist spoke to us, or impressed us, or inspired us, and that moment changed our lives in ways that matter. And it was likely that that artist never knew that his/her work had such a profound impact on someone. So it is with our own work. We make it; we put it out into the universe. It impacts.

For that reason it is important that we keep producing our art. It is important that we are putting truth into our acting, directing, painting, sculpture, choreography, writing, photography, music, thus putting ourselves as well as our art out into the world—because we cannot predict or even anticipate when our work will speak to, impress, or inspire someone. We cannot even guess when our truth might change someone’s life. All we can do is produce.

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