When I was a kid, my parents would get me to eat by saying in their southern Italian dialect, “The more you stare, the more there is.”
I stared at my mother’s amazing food, elbows on the table, my head held in my hands. Were they right? There’s so much food already. How can I eat all of this?! Ah! I think I just saw my bowl fill up with even more brodo! There’s no way I’ll be able to get through all of it. I’m doomed.
It was a nightly onslaught of “finish your plate” or face the disappointment of an Italian mother. This is a family in which an aunt cried because I was “skinny”; and an uncle gave my sister bananas so she could put on weight. I stared at my mother’s food not because I didn’t like it. Quite the opposite. I loved her cooking. The problem was that there was too much of it, and I couldn’t see the finish line over the horizon of gnocchi. Faced with an insurmountable task, I would default to inertia.
THERE IS NO BLANK CANVAS
If you’re like me, staring at a blank page conjures every insecurity. It’s amazing how easily a white rectangle can cripple an artist. Like the dinner dilemmas in my youth, the urge to sit and stare at the canvas rises up. There’s so much to do. How am I going to get through it all? Then, my subconscious starts rattling off slams like a Gatling gun. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, you know you’re not a very good oil painter? Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, this might be the piece that finally sinks your dreams. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, why bother?
In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield speaks to this. I highly recommend reading it. It’s not very long, and it frames the epic struggle of being in the “zone” vs. being crippled with insecurity. I equate my own experience with fighting my inner naysayer to Atreyu’s experience confronting the Magic Mirror Gate in The Neverending Story.
Everyone has their Magic Mirror moments. I did writing this post! I stared at my phone and only saw a cursor blinking back at me, saying, “Really? Another blog post? No one cares. You still don’t know how to use semicolons!” We all have our reasons for not wanting to step through the Mirror. But there is a common answer among most creatives, and it’s this:
I don’t know of any artist who wakes up in the morning and says, “Yeah, I’m as good as I want to be.” There will always be room for growth. The key is to keep moving. Like Atreyu, the only way to confront the Magic Mirror is to take one small step through it.
YOU CAN’T TELEPORT
Professional illustrators and designers are often faced with large amounts of work and small amounts of time. This is normally the case with life in general. It’s easy and natural to default into “anxiety mode” or “procrastination mode”. Show me a spotless dorm or studio or home, and I’ll show you an artist with a deadline. I’m a culprit of this too. I tend not to start any art project at home unless the home is clean and orderly. Age, confidence, and three kids have snapped me out of that, but I still prefer to work in an orderly home out of habit.
“Anxiety mode” is the worse of the two. I see it often with junior illustrators and designers. They’re so overwhelmed with the workload, so worried about doing it perfectly, that their anxieties pinch off their creative flow. The pressure mounts because they give themselves no time and unreachable goals. A common term for this is being “in the weeds”.
I compare managing a workload to traveling cross-country. Unless I can teleport, there’s no way for me to instantly get cross-country. So why even get my anxiety levels up thinking about it? I focus instead on giving myself the time, taking multiple breaks, and being fine with getting lost along the way. If I take manageable steps, I’ll get to my destination in no time. Chances are, I will have also learned something along the way.
Understanding how much time you actually have, and setting smaller, more realistic benchmarks, is the scythe for the “weeds”.
MANAGING COMPETING PRIORITIES
“Managing Competing Priorities” is a corporate mark by which employees are measured. In other words, can you do more than one thing at once while keeping multiple schedules in mind. It sounds easy enough, but it’s surprising how few graduates (and some more experienced creatives) really struggle with this. It’s understandable. Many artists work linearly: start one project, finish it, start another, repeat. The successful ones find ways to work on myriad tasks simultaneously.
ADDITION BY MULTIPLICATION AND DIVISION
With respect to the order of operations we learned in school, what works for me is addition (of production) by multiplication (of time) and division (of work). You could manage your competing priorities by simply allotting hours in the day to multiple endeavors and setting timers. Spend one hour every morning posting to social media, updating your website, etc. Once the hour is up, stop. Jump next to gathering reference or sketching for another block of time. Stop. Work on a project. Stop. And so on. Do this every day, and you will quickly see the time adding up for each endeavor. The beauty of the work week is that you get to multiply by five or six. Two hours a day for six days is twelve hours. If I told you that you need to spend twelve hours a week on marketing, social media, contacting clients, and website maintenance, you would tell me you don’t have that much time. No, not in one day. But you do in one week.
The key to time management is understanding how much time you really have. Then divide the work by the time given. Then start.
I hate the term, “dead lines”. It implies nothing pleasant. I don’t know anyone who speaks of “dead lines” in casual conversation without some level of anxiety percolating up from their chest. Do you? If the term “dead lines” doesn’t get those creative juices aflowin’, what about “drop dead date”. That’s another beaut in the corporate world.
Try to think of deadlines another way. My favorite term to apply to getting work done is “chipping away”. It has a nice sculptural sound to it, and it feels more doable. I also like benchmarks, markers, due dates, goals, mini-goals, downs (for you American football fans), etc. The point is, thinking of dead lines in smaller, more manageable, less life-threatening ways will help keep the anxiety down and the creativity up.
JUST ONE THING
Even though I’ve been working creatively for several decades, I still find myself slogging through the start of a project at times. When that happens, I use the “one thing” method. It’s a method I employ to combat that inner child who doesn’t think he can eat all of his dinner. Just do one thing. When I don’t want to clean our home (even though I love to), I start by cleaning one dish. That leads to two dishes, a clean kitchen, clean dining room and hallways, vacuuming, window washing, mopping, shower scrubbing, wood furniture treating, laundry, recycling, and on. And it started with one plate.
The same goes for me with book design and illustration. With book interiors on which I’m feeling especially blocked, I break down the interiors into days. Twenty pages a day for twelve days sounds a lot better than two hundred forty pages in one day. The key is to not procrastinate until I have one day left before it’s due. I almost always give myself just one page to do. Just do the title page, I say. Most times, that’s all it takes to get the creativity ball rolling.
It’s all about the small bites. In moments when my subconscious is going to win the battle, my one thing could be as non-creative as “launch program, set template”. And that’s all I can manage. That’s fine, because when I go back to the project, I will be that one step, that one bite, closer to accomplishing a task.
One of the more common bits of advice I share with my designers is, “Don’t feel like you have to do it all right now.” Or, I’ll say, “You can’t eat the whole dinner in one bite.” It’s advice I wish I had received when I was a kid. Whether you’re tackling a dinner, the chores, a project, or an avalanche of school work, the approach should always be the same: just start and take small bites; because the more you stare, the more there is.