Tag archive for » art «

Finding the Rhythm

Sunday, 19. January 2020 23:02

Sometimes we have difficulty beginning a new project, even if it’s a project very similar to one we have done before. The reason for this difficulty can be any one of many. The trouble begins when we just jump into the project, not taking into account any differences from projects we have worked on before. Sometimes all goes well; other times there is a significant mismatch between our approach and the project. Things do not go well at all—at least until we figure out that the problem is that every project has its own rhythm, and we, the artists, must match that rhythm in order to make any headway.

This was brought home to me this week. There were five projects on my plate: one older one and four new ones. One was completed successfully; two were begun successfully; two were begun less successfully.

Project number one was beginning a course that I teach every semester. (Yes, teaching a course is a creative project—at least from my point of view.) From the first minute, I fell into old patterns, making such adjustments as necessary for the new group of students, and the semester began quite comfortably—for that course at least.

The second project was beginning a course that I hadn’t taught in four years. The material was the same as it had been; even the text was the same. The first day of class, however, seemed to be very much a muddle. Ideas did not flow. Nothing seemed to connect. Everything was so disjointed that I cut the class time short and used it to prepare for the second class meeting. When that class came around, I moved into the material and very quickly found the rhythm that would work for the material with this particular group of students. So, after a stumble, the course seems to be beginning successfully.

Project number three was casting and beginning the rehearsal process for a musical. The first night of auditions was more than a little weird—everything seemed off. The musical director and I decided we could make a show, but things did not feel quite right. The second night of auditions was a little better. Then came callbacks where we really began to see what we had to work with. So we cast and had the read-sing-through. It was very unsettling. We have not yet found the rhythm for the rehearsal period. However, having identified some of the issues, I have hope.

Project number four was a photo editing project, the kind of project that I have done thousands of times. The editing of this session had been problematic from the beginning. My usual workflow was not as smooth as it normally is for some reason I could not determine. About half-way through, I modified the workflow and things ran more smoothly, but not as smoothly as I would have liked. Finally, as I neared the end of the project a pattern of work emerged that caused the editing to really run efficiently. I had finally found the correct rhythm for the project and was able to complete it.

The fifth project is, of course, this post. The beginning was difficult, but once the organization suggested itself, a flow with a steady rhythm quickly developed, and that led to a writing period that was much briefer than I had anticipated.

In reviewing these projects, I have been able to discover the factors that prevented an easy flow from the outset. It was, of course, different for each project, proving that virtually anything can throw off one’s creative rhythm. Whether the causal factor can be discerned or not, we must make every effort to find and follow the rhythm inherent in our artistic projects.

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Broken

Sunday, 22. December 2019 22:24

America, it would seem, is broken. Every day there is another headline about this or that being broken. It’s to the point that there seems to be nothing that isn’t broken. Here are just a few examples:

But these are all political and social systems. We in the arts may or may not be interested in those programs. We should, however, be interested in the following list.

While American theatre in not classified as “broken,” it might as well be. In most locations, professional theatre, if it exists, is far from affordable, thus there are websites like BroadwayForBrokePeople.com, which doesn’t secure inexpensive seats, but does provide links to digital ticket lotteries.

For those of us in the arts who do not work on Broadway or have our work auctioned by the big New York auction houses, things sometimes appear to be broken on our level as well. It is difficult to find representation, or paying gigs, or gallery space, or win at the crap-shoot that is the juried show system, or just sell a piece now and then.

The point, of course, is that everything seems to be broken. No matter where we turn, this system or that industry or program is broken. For example, just a couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal announced that clothing sizes are broken. Clothing sizes! What’s next?

A better question might be, “What’s not broken?” And the answer is “creativity and art-making.” Neither of these is broken. In fact, it’s a good time for those of us who are creative and interested in making art. There is an abundance of material about and from which we can create. And there are people who are interested in what we do, even if they can’t afford to purchase our work. And performers can find outlets; even if they are non-paying or low-paying ones, still they exist.

And while some systems and programs that impact us are broken, the one that is our primary outlet is not. We can still produce art; we can make things; we can perform; we can create. We need to remember that even though giving birth to works of art can sometimes be painful, it is also a great joy. And we need to remind ourselves that we have the power to present a point of view, the power to share our ideas and feelings, the power to make people feel, the power to change minds, the power to change lives. Art itself is not broken, and never will be. And that is something to celebrate!

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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.

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Stay Open

Sunday, 10. November 2019 23:10

One of the most difficult things for student actors to learn is to keep inventing. It seems that as the blocking (the pattern of movement) and the line memorization become solid, there is a tendency to want to also solidify their readings and business. As they solidify these aspects of their roles, these actors tend to close themselves off to other possibilities.

One supposes that this is because they come from backgrounds in church plays or high school where the philosophy of production was to rehearse until they got it “right” and then repeat that for the performances. A number of directors, myself included, believe that that approach is a formula for producing stale theatre; we believe rather that actors should create their characters anew at each performance and that rehearsals create the stable structure that allows this to happen. This approach works best if actors stay open to new insights and ideas and realize them on the stage.

Yet they continue to stop inventing as the rehearsal process moves along. And that’s a shame because trying one new thing, even toward the end of a creative process can generate new concepts and open never-before-thought-of understandings that can only enhance and enrich the creation—if the artist is open to it. Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, quoted in Austin Kleon’s recent blog post says, “Really be as naïve as possible, you know as ignorant as possible, because then you can keep yourself as wide open as possible for anything that could be of help, could be of use…”

The need to stay open applies to artists other than actors as well. Artists are notorious for tunnel-vision, particularly as they near the end of a project. But along with that single-mindedness, artists need to remain available to other ideas that may appear along the way. Ask any musician who does jazz improvisation; sometimes a new riff comes because one person in the group played a single note differently.

And this idea is not restricted to performing artists. A photographer may note the particular way a model turns or notice something in an image during post processing that s/he had missed before and suddenly new doors open up. The painter may slip and make an unplanned brush stroke and then realize that it was not a mistake, but one of Bob Ross’ “happy accidents.” A writer can mistype a word and suddenly realize a direction that s/he hadn’t thought of before. These opportunities would have been missed had the artist resisted a new idea because s/he was too close to finishing the work.

And many of us focus not only on the work, but on finishing the work—particularly as we get closer to that goal. Unfortunately, this state of mind works to our detriment if we refuse to let new intuitions into our creative process

As for finishing the work, Pablo Picasso has famously said that to finish a work is to “kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow…” The natural extension of this idea is that all art should remain unfinished, and since it is unfinished, new directions and modifications are always possible. Just thinking about our works this way can give us the freedom to continue to explore and invent, even as we move toward completion of a project. In other words, thinking this way gives us what we need: the ability to stay open to new ideas and insights all the way through the creative process.

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The Nipple Effect

Sunday, 27. October 2019 23:07

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I look at a lot of images. Lately that has been mostly on Twitter and Instagram, and occasionally Facebook. Some of the images I look at are nudes. Over time, I have observed an evolution in those types of images specifically and other types of images as well. For the moment, let’s deal with nude images.

All three of these platforms have restrictions on “adult content.” Definitions are somewhat similar but treatment is different. Facebook restricts images of real nude adults where nudity is defined as “visible genitalia except… visible anus and/or fully nude close-ups of buttocks unless photoshopped… uncovered female nipples except….” The “excepts” include breastfeeding, birth-giving and after-birth moments or health-related situations or “an act of protest.” Instagram’s restriction includes “genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples.” Both platforms exempt photographs of paintings and sculptures, but that exemption seems to be unevenly applied. Twitter says that you cannot share adult content within live video or in profile or header images. However, Twitter does allow “consensually produced adult content within Tweets if you mark the tweet as “sensitive.”

All of these rules, of course, limit the photographic images that can be posted. Limitations are not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes having limits actually makes the artist more creative. And certainly, even though it seems that these platforms are public forums, they are really commercially owned, and the owners are within their rights to set the rules to be whatever they want them to be (although one would wish that they are applied even-handedly and objectively). And one could certainly question why only female nipples are forbidden, but again, the owners can set their own rules.

In response to these rules, Photographers who do nude work must modify their images. The ones I have observed have taken three primary paths of response: (1) they push as far as they can and end up being banned (2) they pixelate or otherwise cover nipples and genital areas; (2) they pose models so that the offending bits of her anatomy are concealed—sometimes quite awkwardly, creating images that deny their own story-telling. (3) They restrict their postings to those they know are safe.

Sometimes photographers evolve, first trying one approach, the adopting another so that they can stay online and garner as many “likes” as possible. This, in my mind, becomes problematic from an integrity of art perspective. Those artist are essentially tailoring their art to fit the platform. And that is smart—if what is important to the artist is the continuation online and the collection of “likes.” Certainly, some photographers are savvy enough to monetize the number of “likes” they receive. Otherwise, they are modifying their style and content of their work to suit platform censors simply for vanity.

And this trend is not limited to photographers doing nude work. If you look long enough you can observe that photographers are tailoring all images to fit he platform. For example, images that might be square or landscape in orientation are rendered in portrait orientation. This is particularly true on Instagram, where almost every image is optimized to the platform’s ideal image format. That means that aesthetics other than the platform’s don’t matter; the artist is giving up his/her autonomy for the sake of platform optimization.  (Twitter, incidentally, is much more forgiving, rendering all images initially in landscape mode, but allowing all proportions when a viewer clicks on the image.)

Social media are here to stay and have become the primary way many artists become known. However, we must be careful that we do not become slaves to what we think are the most obvious choices in marketing ourselves on social media. We must maintain some artistic integrity and remain true to our individual artistic aesthetics. Otherwise what we are “selling” on social media is not really representative of who we really are as artists. As David Bowie said, “I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. They generally produce their worst work when they do that.

Regardless of the ego appeal of “likes,” we do not want to lose our uniqueness as artists to the seeming demands and expectations of social media. There are better choices.

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Tiny Adjustments

Sunday, 13. October 2019 22:27

On Twitter earlier this week, Andy Williams posed the question, “Photographers: Do you MAKE a picture or TAKE a picture?” Ansel Adams, one of America’s great photographers, answered the question years ago when he said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” I must agree. Of course, every photographer wants to take a good picture, but that’s only the beginning. Adams made prints from his superior negatives, but not without a bit of darkroom magic to enhance the picture. Today, when most photography is digital, we strive to get a good capture, and then we turn to computer software to do our digital legerdemain to improve our images.

It is at the computer that a number of decisions are made which can make or break an image. One of those is the decision on how to crop the image, i.e. deciding what to keep and what to discard. Several years ago, I posted about the importance of framing, determining what information stays within the borders of an image and what gets left out. It’s a task that most photographers do instinctively without overthinking the process.

However, I have a colleague, a fine art photographer, who has developed a process of making 5×7 prints of certain images and attaching them to his refrigerator with small magnets. “It allows me to think about them over a period of time,” he says of the process. “I find that it makes my work better.” He pins the images to the refrigerator where they will stay for sometimes a month while he considers what will make them better. Sometimes he decides to reject them entirely, but usually, he will make cryptic marks, noting what modifications he wants to make in the image. In answer to my question about the process, he said, “These are the problem children. Most images are easy to edit in the computer, but some are more difficult to get exactly right. I find it hard to see exactly what they need unless they are on paper and I can study them off and on for a while. As far as the decision goes, I just look for what will make it better.”

He is a firm believer in creating the best image he can imagine and ruthless when it comes to adjusting what stays in the image and what gets cropped out. This sometimes means making images which do not fit any standard frames; he says that he gave up on standard sizes long ago, and is concerned only with making the best possible image. The other day, I got to see the current collection of images in his kitchen. One long, thin image had a mark slightly less than 1/8 inch from the top with some words I couldn’t read. In answer to my question about what it was, he said it was where the image needed to be cropped. “But that’s a tiny amount,” I said. “Yes, he said, but it will make the image better. The new crop line removed just a little less than 2/100 of the overall height of the image, a tiny adjustment if there ever was one. However, he made that adjustment and reprinted the image. It was indeed better.

And so it is with all art. Tiny adjustments can make a piece radically different: an actor changes one line, which then cascades into an entirely different performance. The addition of two measures completely alters the nature of the musical composition. Minute brush strokes modify the meaning of a painting. The examples are endless.

But to be clear, this is not about perfection; it is about using (usually small) adjustments to make a piece the best it can be. And it’s about understanding that making such adjustments might allow us to reclaim some projects that we had before considered failures.

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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.

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Extortion

Sunday, 15. September 2019 23:07

The subject matter of this post is a bit unusual. However, the topic is one that can impact anyone who works in the arts, whether commercially or not. In my experience, arts people, on the whole, are fairly honest and trusting. This can make them particularly vulnerable when it comes to the internet, where there are many people who are anything but honest and trusting. So, this cautionary tale; I hope you find it useful.

In addition to Unnatural Light, I have several other web sites. This week I received two emails in less than three hours through the contact form on one of those sites. The contact form is a favorite of spammers and phishing expeditions, but these were different. Both purported to be from content writers and demanded that I order some of their services. If I did not, they threatened to create thousands of backlinks from porn sites to my web site in order to hurt my rankings in search engines. One gave me two days to comply; the other vowed to remove the backlinks once I ordered their services. Interestingly, both had the same contact link although they allegedly came from different people. One, which Gmail had flagged as a probable phishing email, stated that it was the only way the writer had of getting work and asked me to not take it personally because it was “strictly business.” It was the first time that I have ever heard extortion referred to as “strictly business.”

These emails were, I think, delivered by bots. Evidently, these bots did not analyze the web site before posting their emails. Had they done so, they would have discovered that that particular web side uses no written content—it’s photos only. Thus there is no real market for written content, no matter who wrote it.

The second thing the extortionist(s) didn’t know is that this web site is not in competition with other web sites, so SEO (search engine optimization) is not a major concern. The web site was never intended to appear on page 1 of a Google search; it exists for people who already know it’s there. Thus the promise of dropping it in Google’s (or any search engine’s) rankings is not really a significant threat.

My first step was find the technology to prevent bots from sending me mail. Such technology exists, and does not seem all that difficult to implement. I am in the process of doing that; I suspect my volume of mail coming into that contact form will drop dramatically.

My second step was to learn something about malicious backlinks. Although I did not find mention of the sort of extortion I was facing, I found instances of unscrupulous site owners who used the technique against competitors. Evidently it is not terribly difficult or expensive—and it works. Some webmasters who depend upon search engine to drive traffic to their sites reported significant revenue loss after such attacks. Combine that with criminal intent and you have a virulent form of ransomware which targets your web site instead of your hard drive.

As of this writing I do not know whether the threat to my website was a bluff, a bit of phishing, or real. What I did discover is that Negative SEO is a thing and it impacts your search engine rankings. The good news is that there are tools to minimize the probability of such attacks and even ways of dealing with the situation if you have already been attacked. Just Google “malicious backlinks” or “negative SEO,” and you will find everything you need.

Well, everything except the time it takes to implement the tools. It turns out that website security is, in itself, almost a full-time job. You may not be able to protect your web site against all possibilities, but perhaps, armed with this information, you can at least improve the security of your web site.

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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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