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“It Doesn’t Get Any Easier”

Sunday, 23. March 2014 23:03

That’s a statement that my yoga instructor is fond of making—not during yoga class—but other times when we’re talking about yoga. Having been in the class for about three years, I am forced to agree with him. My experience (and I think that of others) is that every day is a new day and what was easy yesterday might not be today and vice versa.

The same is true for art, I think. Oh, we may learn to use our tools better so that the manipulation of the medium comes more easily. We master brush techniques, learn more about the potential of Photoshop, make a breakthrough in our voice lessons, refine our approach to characterization, Develop new strategies for storytelling. We hone our work habits in order to maximize creativity and output. So in that sense it does get easier.

And, some of the things that we do every time we make art are like things that yoga practitioners do every time they participate in a class. Sometimes they are not only similar, they are exactly the same: staying in the moment, maintaining concentration, focusing on the task at hand. And then come the things that are perhaps not exactly the same, but are very similar: the recognition that today will be different from yesterday and tomorrow, the knowledge that on some days we may not do as well as others, or we may do better. The understanding that today, we might peak in an entirely different place than we have done before. We recognize that our routine, though solidly made and tested over time, may not feel the same today or function exactly the way that it did yesterday.

Additionally, as artists we hopefully keep growing and developing, which means that there is always something new, something untried, something risky. In that sense, what we are doing today is just as hard or harder than it was yesterday, or last week, or last year. Once again we find ourselves going through the pain and insecurity of creating artistic “children” and pushing them out the door and into the world. Once again we try to be sure that the ideas we have are communicated in all of their complexity and nuance, shaping the artifact to be say exactly what we need to say and not just approximating our artistic vision.

The other thing that does not get easier is putting ourselves, our souls, on display in yet another work, exposing our obsessions for the universe to see and being unsure of how they might be received. That was never easy and still isn’t.

And, as in yoga, we are obligated to remind ourselves that we are not really competing—at least during the creative phase of our work, and that it is, in fact, about the journey rather than any specific destination.

What we must recognize is that it that art is hard and really doesn’t get any easier, no many how many times we assume the role of maker. It is a humbling realization. And then we realize that we have chosen or have been chosen to go on this journey and that we must approach today as a unique opportunity to once again test ourselves, our focus, our concentration, our creativity, much the same as if we had entered a yoga studio and unrolled our mats. There’s a reason that it’s called practice.

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Two More Days

Sunday, 23. February 2014 22:57

When other theatre people ask me how the show is going, my standard response is, “We need another week.” Since I thought that this feeling was unique to educational theatre, I was surprised the other day when I asked a friend who is a professional actor how his show was going. His response was, “We could use two more days.” My takeaway was that no matter what level we work at, we are never quite ready for opening, at least mentally. And, having done this for a number of years, I know that even though the director and most of the production staff wish for another week or two days or however much time they think they need to apply the last bit of polish, the show is really ready, and probably has been for a couple of days. What it really needs is an audience.

The desire for extra time is probably not about a need for perfection, which, as most of us know is an artistic killer. Rather it springs from a desire to make it better. We want dress up our kid, wipe its nose and scrub its face before we show it to the world. We want to make it as good as we can make it, and we are sure that if we had just a few more days, we could do that and go into opening with the confidence that this is as good as we could possibly do.

It’s a function of being creative. Creative people never quit creating. We look at where we are in a particular project and invent six new things that we want to try to move the project forward. It’s a process that does not stop—unless we have some sort of creative block. So even the day before opening, we have new things that we invented overnight that we want to try because they would make the play better, and we know that if we had just two more days or one more week or whatever interval we name, we could add and refine and improve.

The world of theatre, however, does not allow that. Usually, opening is set before we begin rehearsals, so whatever we do has to be done before that date. Even though we might have done this before and know how to maximize productive time, it seems that we always fall “just that much short” of having the time that we need.

Artists in other media have a similar situation, except more often than not, there is no official “opening night,” unless the artist is working toward a deadline for a show. Without such a cut-off, we are likely to continue to develop new facets of our art, never actually finishing, but continuing to make it incrementally better each time we work on it. So we continue to tweak and adjust and improve. It’s a cycle that can continue indefinitely.

We must recognize that, if we are to be genuinely productive, we have to let go. If an “opening night” is not part of our particular art, we would do well to establish one; then we can wrap up this project and move on to the next. But we must realize that with every opening night, whether externally established or self-imposed, comes the feeling that we need just two more days…

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

Trash It!

Sunday, 8. December 2013 23:27

There are times in the life of a project when things are not going the way we would like. Every working artist experiences these times. The question is what to do about them. Do we forge ahead? Do we modify our approach? Do we change our technique?

The answer probably depends on the nature of the project and the exact difficulty. Sometimes all it takes to get things moving again is rewriting a sentence or changing a brush. Other times it may mean concentrating a little harder, thinking further ahead of ourselves, doing some more research, editing more severely. In extreme cases, what some consider unthinkable may be the best choice: trashing what we have and starting over. This option is unthinkable only because it requires that we admit that what we have is not good enough and probably cannot be made good enough following the current path. And that’s a form of failure, and most of us don’t want to admit failure as a possibility, even when making that admission, trashing our present effort, and starting over might well be the most efficient way do our best work and complete the project.

Starting over does not mean that we must deal with a different topic, or even have a different approach. It is simply the admission that we need a fresh canvas, metaphorical or literal, on which to bring the project to life.

Michael G. Moye told me once that he knew that he was writing well if he threw away 10 pages for each page he kept. He was not exaggerating; he meant it quite literally. At that time he wrote longhand on legal pads. His approach was a form of severe editing-as-you-go. He would write a page, look at it, and if it was not to his liking, throw it away and begin again. He is a consummate craftsman.

Since most of us don’t have Moye’s discipline, we have difficulty deciding when to crumple the paper and start over and when to just strike out a portion and re-work what’s left. Probably the earlier we make that decision, the more efficient our workflow will become. Instead, most of us put that decision off as long as possible, clinging to the hope that we will be able to make what we have done so far work. Putting it off can have serious implications

For example, I once heard a director, at the end of final dress tell her actors to take a short break and come back because they were going to re-block the first act—of Scapino! For those of you who don’t speak theatre, she was going to change the movement pattern for the first act of one of the most physical shows in the canon on the night before the show opened.  For that director, the prospect of putting what she had seen in rehearsal in front of an audience was more onerous than the pain and effort of re-blocking an entire act. She had waited until the very last possible moment to start over; the result was a very unhappy company going into an opening with a complete lack of confidence.

It takes a long time and a lot of “almosts” before an artwork is actualized. We must be willing to admit that not every attempt is going to make it all the way to the finished piece and that we have to be ready to trash what we have and begin afresh if the situation demands it. Sometimes that is the most efficient and effective way to realize a project.

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Sometimes We Need to Stop

Sunday, 1. December 2013 23:25

In response to a question about taking it easy when he was long past retirement age, my grandfather said that he would rest when he was in the ground; he intended to stay busy as long as he was breathing. As I look back on it, his “busy” was very different from what we call “busy” in twenty-first century America. Our “busy” is more like controlled frenzy.

And sometimes we lose control of that frenzy or, at least, it seems that we are likely to. Even those of us who consider ourselves a bit laid back manage to put in hour upon hour at work, and, even though we may enjoy our work, it can be a bit much.

Then there are those of us who manage to take some time to play, but we play like we work—on a very tight, competitive schedule as we think about what’s next. Some play.

And sometimes the frenzy does get out of control. Not enough hours exist in a day to allow everything that we have planned to actually happen. What then? Stay up longer hours? Most of us are living on the edge of sleep deprivation as it is. Work faster? We risk doing a much less thorough job. Rush through our schedule? Our quality is sure to suffer. So what should we do?

Stop. It’s what any rational person would do. Unfortunately, most of us don’t think of doing that before it’s too late, and we forge ahead to do poor work, or, worse, put ourselves in a situation where our bodies rebel and demand that we shut down.

It’s what happened to me last weekend. Some of you who read the blog regularly may have noticed a missing post. It was because I stopped. Had to. I had had about four really rough weeks in a row with far too little sleep, capped by a weekend-long art show. During the show, I managed to crank out three draft blogs (it was not a well-attended show). I wish that I could say that I realized that I was overloading and running just a little too hard and had the good sense to slow down, but alas, no; I had to be smacked over the head.

When the show was over, my body closed down. I was numb. I not only didn’t want to function, I wasn’t sure that I could. Whether the draft blogs were any good or not, I have no idea, because I couldn’t even look at them. It was a terrible feeling, and it was non-productive. And productive is something that we tell ourselves that we must be—always.

Perhaps that “always” is the problem. I did stop for at least one evening, mostly because there was no other choice. As I roamed around the house avoiding doing anything more complex than loading the dishwasher, I thought that if I had had the foresight to have planned some down-time during those four ugly weeks, I might not have hit the wall.

But there was no time for that. Except, of course, there was. All I had to do is schedule it like I do everything else. The trick, of course, is to spend that time not being concerned about what is next, but to really stop and smell the roses, or prune the roses, or watch a movie, or read something, or whatever it is that will allow us to relax our minds for a few minutes and allow our creative batteries to charge. We are, in the end, biological critters who need some R&R once in a while. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does have to be real. And it does have to be.

So the lesson last week—for me at least—was to stop, before being stopped by body and brain. Taking a bit of down-time can, in the long run, make us not only a little healthier, but both more productive and creative as well.

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Ruts and Routines

Monday, 30. September 2013 0:28

Routine is both comfortable and comforting. There is security in knowing that you will do the same things in the same order and for more-or-less the same duration every work-day. There is reassurance in knowing that this weekend will follow a pattern much like last weekend and very much like next weekend. Routine makes everything stable.

Many of us have a tendency to fall easily into routines. One of the strengths of the routine is that we don’t have to think about it. No concerns about what to do next—we look at the clock or the calendar and we know. If it’s the right time and day to work on our art, we do that. If it’s time to eat, we do that. And so on. I rather like routines for all of those reasons mentioned, but I have a friend who reminds me that doing things always the same means not that I’m in a routine, but in a rut.

But then, ruts are comforting too, and ruts are really comfortable, and easy. You really have to think about nothing. Just put the wheels into the grooves in the road and you don’t even have to steer. And since you are a creature of habit, you don’t have to think about speed either—you’ll go along at the same tempo you used the last time you went this way.

We all pretty much agree that ruts are bad, but a rut is simply a routine that’s gone on long enough to make it a practiced thing without any conscious alternatives. It’s that no conscious alternatives thing that’s not so good. That prevents us from seeing new possibilities, from exploring other methods, from developing new ways of thinking. It’s comfortable, and, because it amounts to autopilot, we tell ourselves, it leaves us more time for creativity.

Or does it? I have been working on a very large project for weeks now. Because I’ve learned to take my own advice, I work on it every day. This has resulted in plodding along, working every evening—sometimes just a little; other times for a longer period. Unfortunately, I am in the not-so-creative, preparatory part of the project. It’s work. I slogged onward, unknowingly losing interest every day. Then the deadline of another project suddenly interfered, forcing me to alter my routine. The results were wonderful! The second project got finished on time, and that energized me so I was able to go back to the larger project with fresh eyes. Suddenly I began to see possibilities that had been invisible before.

The obvious lesson is to avoid ruts, and perhaps even routines. Unfortunately, the latter may not be possible, particularly for those who have day jobs or other obligations. Perhaps a better alternative would be to change our approach: instead of telling ourselves that we should work at our art every day or week or whatever, perhaps we should, in addition, set goals. For example, instead of writing for a set time every day, Stephen King writes 2000 words; he does not stop until he has reached his goal. Some days that takes a rather short amount of time; others require a longer period. Another thing we can learn from observing King is that he gives his work a high priority, meaning that he may have to have adjust some other aspect of his life when things are moving slowly. Many of us do it the other way around, and short our artistic work when life intervenes.

Like many artists previously discussed here, I am a great believer in discipline.  However, when discipline becomes a routine which then develops into a rut, we must find a way to break out of that rut and renew ourselves. Our work will only benefit.

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On Taking Your Own Advice

Monday, 9. September 2013 0:00

When you are in the teaching/mentoring business, you tailor the advice that you give to each individual because each individual has his/her own wants and needs and desires and goals. What will work for one won’t work for another. But then you lead a workshop or write a blog and suddenly you’re giving advice that by the nature of the delivery has to be general.

Sooner or later, you look at what you have said in that general forum and wonder why you have never taken your own advice—well, all of it. Obviously you believe it if you passed it along to others. Why aren’t you doing it? The answer, of course, it that you didn’t think to. This is advice for others. That’s where your focus is. It’s the same as the old story about the plumber who never fixes his own faucet—he’s too busy fixing others people’s faucets.

So you decide maybe you should try to take your own advice. If it’s the path you advise others to follow, perhaps you should attempt it yourself. And what you discover is a number of thing:

  • Some of your suggestions don’t work. You find that the ideas you have been giving others just don’t accomplish what you thought they did. The only honest response is to drop this line of advice. But had you not tried it, you never would have known.
  • Some of your advice needs tweaking. Your practice might not exactly match your advice for a variety of reasons. This means that what you are saying might require a little tweaking to bring it into alignment with what you are doing, or what you are doing might require a little tweaking to bring it into alignment with what you are teaching. Either way, it’s an easy fix.
  • Some of what you are advocating needs adjustment. When you try to implement it, it doesn’t work quite the way you had thought that it might. And it turns out that what you are advising needs more than tweaking; it needs revising if it is to have any application in the real world.
  • Some of what you are suggesting to others is just difficult. Perhaps you did not know just how difficult it was until you tried it. And that means that you have to temper your advice with warnings about the complications the student is likely to encounter. For example, I have long advised actors, indeed, all artists to live in the moment, but unless you are in the midst of flow, this is a very difficult thing to do. When I tried to do what I had advised, I found it to be one of the most challenging things I had ever attempted; it’s a goal that one has to work on for perhaps years and still may not be able to master all the time and in all instances. But it is certainly worth the attempt. So now this topic always includes difficulty warnings.
  • Sometimes you find that the advice that you are dispensing is solid. It works, and it makes you work or your life better. Once you find out how well this particular piece of advice works, you wonder why you hadn’t tried it before.

Taking your own advice is not easy. For some reason we have a blind spot when it comes to applying our own counsel. But once we have seen it, applied it, understood the outcomes, we can learn from it. And because we learn, we can become better not only as teacher/mentors, but perhaps as an artists as well.

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Don’t Let Perfection Get in the Way

Sunday, 28. July 2013 23:32

“I’m a perfectionist; I can’t help it. My work isn’t finished until it’s perfect.” How many times have you heard an artist say that? It doesn’t matter what his/her art is, the result is the same: it will never be finished—because it will never be perfect.

Many of us have learned to seek perfection. Whether we have been taught this, or just happened to confuse working to a very high qualitative standard with trying to achieve perfection is an open question. Many of us were pushed to do better and achieve more as we were growing up; others of us figured out that that was the way to succeed in our culture.  Reasoning as children will do, we decided that if excellence was a goal, perfection must be a higher goal, so we became obsessed with making things perfect.

So now when we try to make art, we set an impossibly high standard for ourselves: perfection.  Never mind that it’s unachievable, we still try to get there. This is one of the excuses for much of the bad behavior for which artists are notorious. We even romanticize it; the striving for perfection becomes part of the mythology of what it means to be a real Artiste.

What really happens is that perfection itself becomes the goal rather than creating excellent, meaningful art. So those of us who are still aiming for that perfect performance, or painting, or photograph, or film or whatever have our eye on the wrong thing. We should be concerned for our work, not for some abstract concept that we mistakenly learned to seek as youngsters.

But many artists, as well as non-artists, have this affliction. And it is an affliction. Brené Brown, sociologist, psychologist, and educator, has said, “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

But what about the famous perfectionists, the ones who, because they are always striving toward that abstract goal, generate huge successes? What about Steve Jobs? Actually, some writers credit Apple’s success not to Steve Jobs’ legendary perfectionism, but to his learning to loosen his rigid stance.

How then are we to proceed—those of us who believe in excellence? We must supplant the concept of “perfection” with the notion of “good enough.” Now, before you raise the cry of mediocrity, let me say that “good enough” means just that—good enough to satisfy you and to exceed your standard of excellence. You can set the “good enough” bar just as high as you would like—just short of perfection.

According to Seth Godin, “Good enough, for those that seek perfection, is what we call it when it’s sufficient to surpass the standards we’ve set.Godin goes on to say, “Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.” So the time that we spend trying to move past the excellence of our highest standards to perfect amounts to running in place.

Voltaire was another who was not a fan of perfection, and Voltaire was a man who knew something about making art and getting it out the door, having written over 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He said it very plainly: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Maybe it’s time we quit worrying about making perfect art and instead make good art.

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Maintenance Is Required

Monday, 17. June 2013 0:01

The saw blade is dull. The brushes need cleaning. The chisels need sharpening. The acting workshop gets ditched. The sensor hasn’t been cleaned. The word processing files are jumbled and disorganized. Pencils need sharpening. The monitor calibration is out of date. The act one analysis gets superficial treatment. The desk is cluttered. The studio is filthy. The truck needs cleaning out. The practice session gets skipped. The chemicals are old. The update goes unloaded.

It doesn’t matter what your art is, maintenance is required. Although it may take different forms for individual arts, it’s really all the same thing. It’s the battle against entropy. And we all have to fight it.

But we don’t. Rather, most of us could do a much better job fighting it than we do. Otherwise, we would never say any of those things in the first paragraph, or anything like them. This is just not the case. I know very few artists whose tools, desks, workstations, studios, shops, equipment, minds are all free of clutter and in 100% working condition. There is always that thing that we are going to take care of next week, and then everything will be in top-notch order. Well, except for that one other thing. And so it goes, and next week turns into next month, and sometimes turns into next year.

And then we end up like a photographer friend whose studio background cloth ripped apart in his hands just yesterday. He had known for a while that it was old and fragile and already had a couple of inconsequential rips, but had postponed purchasing a new one, not because he couldn’t afford it, but because it had not presented a significant problem, and because he just didn’t get around to it. And it wasn’t for lack of time; it took him all of 20 minutes to research sites for the best price and make the purchase on the internet.

This is often the case. We know that we have something that needs maintenance, but instead of doing that maintenance—which will require minimal time—we instead develop workarounds. Never mind that the workaround requires three times as much time and/or effort as fixing the problem would take, and that we will work around a problem repeatedly—we still decline to take the time needed to really do the maintenance which would make the workarounds unnecessary.

And why? As far as I can tell, we seem to avoid maintenance for one or more of three reasons: (1) it’s boring; (2) it seems like work; (3) it seems unproductive. All of those things are probably true. Maintenance is not very interesting, and it does seem like work because it’s often not very creative and it is often repetitive, which are the same reasons it feels unproductive. Nothing is being made. It’s just repairing, replacing, refurbishing, and almost unconnected in our minds from doing our art. My friend was lucky in that he had no shoots pending that required the backdrop; otherwise, he would have had to figure out a way of quickly repairing the damaged piece, paying overnight fees to get one flown in on time, or postponing the shoot.

Thus it is with all maintenance. We spend extra time accomplishing a task that would be far less time-consuming if we only had everything in proper working order, all the while telling ourselves that we will get to it—soon.  If only we were to go ahead and maintain our tools and environment, we could save enormous time and effort in the long run and, in the meantime, be far more productive.

 

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Artistic Success: A Matter of Definition?

Sunday, 26. May 2013 23:47

It is very evident that the student’s comment that he wanted to “live an artistic life” engendered much discussion. The meaning of the phrase was, according to the student, to support himself by doing his art. One person with whom I discussed this suggested that the student’s was likely to produced art of diminished quality. Further discussion revealed that the idea was based on two suppositions. The first was that the student would cling to the notion of supporting himself through art without regard to the quality or level of work produced. And this, of course, is based on the other supposition: that certain types of art are superior to other types.

For many, the question of the superiority of one type of art over another was resolved by the postmodernists, who declared very loudly that there was no high or low art, or if there was, there was no difference between them. Of course, not everyone accepted this idea. We sometimes hear photography instructors criticize a student’s work as “too commercial,” which somehow makes it unworthy, or music instructors who are certain that if a piece is less than 100 years old, it cannot be possibly be considered art.

To be sure, some works of art are of higher quality than others. Some are more difficult, more complex, more sophisticated than others. Some exhibit a higher degree of craftsmanship than do their counterparts. In those ways they may be superior. But to say that one type or form of art is inherently superior to another is nothing but bias and snobbery. Certainly within every category of art are those qualitative differences that exist in almost every area of human endeavor.

The other consideration is whether the student in question is willing to reduce the quality of his work in order to make a living from his art.  Some would say that if the student were to be a soap opera actor rather than performing Shakespeare, he would have become an actor of diminished quality. If he had set out with the goal of becoming a Shakespearean actor, that might be the case; working on a soap opera would certainly represent a failure to achieve his goal. If, however, he had set out to be a professional actor, he would have succeeded admirably.

Likewise, if what you want to do is sing for a living, and you front a cover band, and that pays your bills, you are indeed singing for a living and thus succeeding in making a living from your art. Thomas Kinkade, according to most critics, failed at painting fine art masterpieces; however, Thomas Kinkade succeeded wildly at making a living from his art.  Whether the artist, in his/her attempt to earn a living from artistic work, succeeds or fails depends on how the artist defined his/her artistic goal in the first place.

Will this student be able to support himself doing art? We don’t know yet. Will he have to figure out exactly what success means to him? Of course he will. Will that demean his art? I think not. So far, it seems that he does not aspire to act Shakespeare or sing Wagner; he wants to sculpt and make music and perform; some might consider what he does lower forms of art. He doesn’t; it’s his art and he loves doing it. And, I suspect there is a market for it. He just has to find it.

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Busy Does Not Mean Productive

Sunday, 3. March 2013 23:08

At lunch this past week, the musical director of the current show asked if I had things that I did daily, like meditation. I started with a list of daily activities that I did—until a few weeks ago, ending with the statement that since I started this show “I’ve been really busy.” It was only then that I realized that for the last several weeks, I had been very, very busy, spending a little time on this project and a little time on that project, with very little time to do anything else, and certainly no time to think, plan, evaluate, or reflect.

While there are a number of positives that flow from being busy, there are many negatives as well. One of the most insidious is “What’s Next Syndrome.” This happens when we are in the midst of one task, but considering the next task. In this case, we never fully concentrate on the task at hand because we are already thinking about the next one. And so we hurl ourselves from task to task and project to project just trying to keep up.

Many of us like to be busy; we find it far superior to being bored, so we overdo. What we get out of overdoing is an excuse that explains why our output is not what it should be. “I couldn’t get to the details—no time.” “I was just so busy that I overlooked that.” “I’m just trying to do too much I guess.” We are, in fact, too busy to succeed.

Where we are running, I am not exactly sure. If you really question those who are rushing madly about from task to task, you get all sorts of responses. Some are trying to fast-track their careers; some feel that increased volume is what they need to succeed. Some do it out of habit. Some think that’s the way things are done. Some are not aware they’re doing it. Some are not aware there is another choice.

We forget that there is a middle ground. We do not have to run ourselves from task to task, nor do we have to be completely without occupation. This inability to find the middle way is in part cultural, at least here in the US. We are a culture of busyness. It seems to be some sort of sociological virtue. Never mind that what we might be doing is not interesting, important, or even productive. We must be busy. It’s in our language: “The boss is coming; look busy.” “Keep busy.”

When we are busy, we get things done, or so it seems. We at least get to check things off of our lists. Unfortunately, when we operate according to What’s Next Syndrome, we only sort of get things done. Yes, we get to mark them off, but are we really being productive?

Productivity, at least in an artistic sense, does not simply mean getting stuff out the door; it means getting high-quality, creative stuff out the door. Busyness can be the antithesis of productivity. Busyness is about constant doing, while real productivity is about making, which requires some time to stop and consider, time to contemplate and create. Then we can pour all of that consideration, contemplation, and creativity into our work before it goes out the door.

When we find ourselves saying, “I’ve been really busy lately,” it may be an indicator that we should take breather to reconsider and adjust our schedules to allow for true productivity. There may be no real way to make that happen in the short run, but certainly, if we think about it, we can come up with ways that will allow us to reduce our busyness level in the long run and maintain (or improve) our creativity and productivity.

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