How time distortions keep you from getting things done

I love how this clock looks like it has cat ears.

I love how this clock looks like it has cat ears.

Here at the beginning of a new year, a curious phenomenon has arisen in the work I’ve been doing with my coaching clients. It comes down to this: what we believe about how long something will take is directly related to whether or not we actually do it.

These types of beliefs are time distortions, and a good example of this phenomenon comes from Seinfeld. There’s an episode where Jerry is trying to convince himself that it won’t be that bad staying for a few days with his parents in their Florida condo. To make the impending visit feel shorter, he tells himself that he can’t really count lunches and dinners and taking showers as part of the visit — so, actually, the whole visit will be “like fifteen minutes!”

Have you done this? I know I have. When we’re dreading something, our minds will go to all sorts of lengths to help us cope.

This is in some ways helpful and productive — I know there are experiences I would probably have never exposed myself to if I’d known in advance how hard and stressful they were going to be.

But my mind convinced me that “it wouldn’t be that scary.” In some cases, it was far scarier than I’d imagined, but in the end I was thrilled that I had the experience (so, thank you, dear mind!).

More commonly, though, our minds can protect us into not doing something at all (that we either want or need to do) with these types of distortions.

A client I worked with recently had not completed the “homework experiment” we’d set up for her. (I refer to any homework I give clients as an “experiment” rather than an “assignment” because approaching something as an experiment tends to engage more curiosity and less resistance. But not in this case!)

When we dug into why, it turned out that she’d been thinking the homework “would only take thirty minutes or so” and she could knock it out the night before our session. When we looked honestly at the homework, though, it was clear that she would need a minimum of three hours to do it.

So why had she decided it would only take about half an hour? Because she had a lot of resistance built up around doing it, and the only way she could bear to face it was to think that it would be over in a very short amount of time.

In this case, that meant she put it off until it simply didn’t get done. And I have a lot of compassion here, because I have SO done this.

Here’s another example, from a different client. She’d told a close friend she would run an errand for her, but hadn’t done it. For a month she’d been waking up thinking “I really need to do that today. I should do it.” Then she wouldn’t do it and the next day the whole cycle would repeat.

When we took a look at why she wasn’t doing the errand, another sort of time distortion revealed itself. She was certain the task was going to take hours and that it could become very complicated, and that she might have to get help to complete it that she wasn’t sure she could get.

I told my client that, while I could be wrong, to me it sounded like the task shouldn’t take more than about an hour to complete (and this included driving time). We looked at what would be the worst that could happen if, in fact, it did take her as long as she feared. “It would be really stressful and annoying,” she laughed.

But she agreed to go ahead and do it the next day. I told her to email me as soon as it was done and tell me how it had gone (this kind of check-in with someone who cares about you can be SO supportive!).

She emailed me way sooner than I’d expected to hear from her. Why? Because the task, including driving time, had taken her exactly 18 minutes — no complications, no extra help needed. Just straightforward driving to an office to pick up a folder and dropping it off at her friend’s house.

How do we keep ourselves from getting sucked into time distortions? Well, first we need to get our thinking about the task we’re avoiding out of our heads, where we can see it more clearly. It helps to write it down, or speak it aloud to yourself or someone else. (So often our thinking is automatic, bypassing our consciousness. We need to see it “out there” in order to be aware of it.)

If you notice there are time issues in your thinking (“I can write a draft of my chapter on the twenty-minute train ride”) and that you feel a considerable amount of anxiety with that thought, you can be pretty sure that what you’re telling yourself is deeply unhelpful. (We almost always avoid things because of the anxiety they bring up in us. If we can lessen the anxiety, we’re going to be far less likely to avoid them.)

So experiment with some mantras that will help you do a reality check when it comes to how long something will take. (Often, we just don’t know, and that needs to be factored in.)

Here are some of mine:

I won’t know how long it will truly take until I start doing it.

If it’s going to take a long time, I’d rather get started sooner than later. 

I want to feel as calm and grounded as possible around this action. What will help me feel that way?

All of these sentences give me a reality check. And for those of us with, shall we say, vibrant imaginations, reality checks can be a valuable part of our artist’s toolbox (as much as we might cringe at the idea of “mundane reality”!). As long as the reality check is supporting our bigger vision, it’s all to the good. 

What do you notice about how distortions of time play into your fears around getting things done? I’d love to hear from you.

And: Need some help moving your creative work forward in the new year? For a limited time, I’m offering three-packs of 30-minute coaching sessions. You can find out more, here.

Above image is “Old Distorted Clock,” © Jolin | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Welcoming the conscious pause

image

Conscious paws are always welcome 🍃

Somewhere on the continuum between torturous procrastination and frenetic “just so I feel like I’m doing something” action is a place of pausing. Of breathing. Of looking around, looking within, and inquiring: what do I really want here? What is it I truly need?

Or perhaps this place, which I call conscious pausing, is not on that continuum at all. Maybe it is actually off that continuum — the silent, sometimes-sacred space you step off the path to claim, like the big rock next to the river that runs along the highway.

I mention this place of conscious pausing because it took me four days to recognize that I was forgetting it was available to me. I returned from visiting my family for Christmas a week ago, and allowed myself a couple of days to recharge (which a younger me would have felt like a slacker for allowing myself, so, yay! Progress!).

But after those two days, I began to ping-pong between a feeling of severe procrastination (I should be doing something, but what? how?) and impulsive activity that felt pointless and disconnected.

(One sign that I, a Myers-Briggs INFP, am “in the grip” — read: under stress — is that I start taking urgent actions that actually make things worse. If you’re at all interested in personality type theory, it’s worth reading up on what your type looks like when it’s “in the grip.” You can start to recognize these behaviors in yourself and regroup.)

Once I noticed how I was acting, I realized my desire to “start the New Year off right” had caused me to fall back on old black-and-white thinking: “If you’re not doing productive things, you must be procrastinating. And if you’re procrastinating, you suck. And now 2016 sucks. Bah!” (Humbug.)

But the key, my friends, as always, is in noticing — a seemingly benign word with a ton of power.

Because once I noticed my swing from one end of that aforementioned spectrum to the other and back, I was able to consider the possibility that I had another choice. That, instead of beating myself up for procrastinating or jumping into frenetic doing, I could take that conscious pause and reconnect with what I truly wanted and needed.

***

Here are some questions I find helpful when I realize it’s time for a conscious pause.

(It’s good to ask them while placing awareness on your breath. I often find that writing the questions and my answers in my journal gives me a bit of detachment from myself so I can see what’s going on in me more clearly. But you can also speak them aloud, or have a friend read the questions to you.)

How exactly am I feeling right now? What emotions are coming up? (If you’re not sure, start here: are you more mad, sad, glad or scared?)

How does it feel in my body right now? (I have a headache, my chest is tight, my knees hurt.)

How do I want to feel right now? (excited, hopeful, peaceful, relaxed?)

How does my body feel when I’m in that place? (get specific here: my spine straightens, my pulse slows, I breathe more deeply.)

What thoughts am I having about the immediate future?

(Here are some of mine as examples: I can’t get it all done. I’m already behind. I won’t make the deadline. I can’t show up fully for my client.)

How can I change these thoughts to thoughts that feel better but also feel true? (When you work with your thoughts, you must believe your new thoughts — your essential self will not be fooled by hollow “positive affirmations”!)

Here’s how I changed my examples above:

I don’t have to get it all done, only the priority stuff. (I believed that.)

Exactly WHAT am I behind? A semi truck? (The frantic part of me didn’t have an answer for this; she just sort of laughed, nervously.)

If I absolutely can’t make the deadline, I can find a work-around. I’ll see it better when I’m in a place of peace.

I can offer my client my imperfect presence, my listening, my best for today. That is all I can ever do. It’s been enough in the past, so why wouldn’t it be enough now? (My frantic self rolled her eyes and scowled at me a bit here, but I could see her shoulders relaxing despite her best efforts to act intimidating.)

***

After you check in with these exercises, you’ll notice that what you’re wanting and needing will be all over your answers to the questions. (It’s amazing how easily and automatically we forget to ask ourselves what we want and need!)

It really helped that my cat climbed into my lap while I was checking in with myself. Is there anything more grounding than a warm feline?

By the way, you don’t have to answer all of these questions (you don’t HAVE to do anything!). You can start with the first one, and move on as it feels right. You may find relief after the first two.

Or, you can nix the questions altogether and simply focus on your breath and the fact that you are, indeed, choosing to consciously pause and stop the madness! What I love about going through these questions, though, is the clarity I come out with on the other side. Every time I see my behavior, my thinking, my feelings, with more clarity, it’s that much easier to navigate the stress when it arises the next time around.

Here’s to conscious pausing and a juicily creative 2016! How might you integrate the power of the conscious pause into your intentions and goals for the new year?

Procrastination? Or no payoff?

brokenwagonwheels

A while back while channel-surfing I had the pleasure of happening on Tootsie, one of my favorite movies of all time which I hadn’t seen in way too long.

In the movie, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an impassioned, perfectionistic but unemployed actor, and we get this great opening montage of Michael auditioning and teaching his acting class and we get to see how he cares almost impossibly deeply about the craft of acting, but that he’s also kind of a pain in the butt.

Early in the movie, Michael and his playwright roommate (played by Bill Murray, need I say more?) are walking home from the restaurant where they both work as waiters, and the roommate asks Michael why he has to be “Michael Dorsey the great actor” or “Michael Dorsey the great waiter” — why can’t he just be, you know, Michael Dorsey? And Michael says, “I don’t know what the payoff is there.”

(Tootsie is packed front to back with great dialogue, so writers, go watch it immediately. But not before you read this blog post.)

Obviously, Michael means he can’t see a dramatic payoff for being Michael Dorsey (and this “throwaway” line has a number of meanings in the context of the movie). But the line kept popping into my mind for a while afterward because I tied it to some situations a couple of my clients were going through, where they kept beating themselves up for not doing something they said they wanted to do.

In other words, for “procrastinating.” I always like to put quotes around that word, because, as I’ve said here quite a few times, it tends to be a quick go-to descriptor when we’re not taking action on something.

But it’s not always true that we’re procrastinating when we’re not taking action. Sometimes we tell ourselves we’re procrastinating because we don’t want to look more deeply at what’s actually going on. (And sometimes, yes, we are actually procrastinating. But true procrastination has a different feel than the more complex stuff, which I wrote about here.)

What I’ve noticed over the years is that sometimes when we’re not taking action toward something we say we want, it’s because we don’t really believe there’s a payoff in doing whatever it is we think we should do. And I don’t necessarily mean an external, tangible payoff here.

It could be that we are not sensing an intrinsic payoff.

In other words, we don’t really believe that doing that thing is going to make us feel any better.

Feelings are incredibly strong motivators. It’s our feelings that drive us to action. And although we may say we want something, if on some level we don’t actually believe that having that thing will make a difference for us, we’re just not going to feel drawn to it, and when it comes down to it, we won’t take action toward it.

It’s easy to fool ourselves here — we say we want something, and it sounds good on the surface, and maybe we’re even getting into a kind of urgency where we feel like we desperately want it or need it. We may be really attached to the idea that we need the thing, or need to do the thing. But do we, really?

There are some layers that need to be peeled here.

We can start by asking ourselves what we believe the payoff will be for doing this thing. Can we see a payoff? One of my clients had to admit, when we delved into her situation, that there was no payoff for her in doing her thing. No wonder she wasn’t taking any action toward it!

We only ever want anything because of how we believe it’s going to make us feel. There’s really no other reason we want it. We can name all sorts of other things — acclaim, money, knowledge, experience — but all of that really comes down to how we think acclaim, money, knowledge and experience will feel or make us feel.

How we feel is the intrinsic payoff for anything we do, anything we move toward. But so often we leave it out of the equation!

Experiment with this the next time you’re feeling stuck or stopped on something you believe you want to accomplish. Is there a true payoff for you in accomplishing this thing? How do you think accomplishing it will make you feel? Is that how you want to feel?

If not, you need to get back in touch with how you want to feel, and go from there. The goal may need some tweaking, or you may want something completely different than you thought you did.

What about you? Do you notice yourself “procrastinating” on something you want to accomplish? Is it possible there isn’t enough of a payoff for you in accomplishing it? I’d love it if you’d share.

Also: Because I am in the process of creating new coaching offerings, these are the last two weeks to work with me in the current format. As of the end of March, the package of four sessions will be gone (the one-session-at-a-time option will remain, but the package of four saves you $75 if you’re wanting to purchase multiple sessions). Learn more about working with me here.

Image is “Broken Wagon Wheels” © Geoffrey Kuchera | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Momentum is not always obvious

frozenwaterfall

A friend and I had a conversation the other day about those times in life when we feel like we just can’t get any momentum going, and it got me thinking.

It can be painful to feel like we’re not moving forward. Part of this is due to external stuff (we live in a world that has little tolerance for the idea of “standing still”) and part of it is due to our innate desire to grow and become more of who we are.

If I look back over my life and pinpoint the periods of a lot of “obvious” momentum, it becomes clear that they were almost always preceded by a time (sometimes a long one) where I swore I was stagnating and that nothing would ever change.

Why is this?

In my experience, it’s because the part of us that has outgrown where we are is the one who is experiencing “where we are” as stagnant.

But: there’s another part of us, the slower part that isn’t quite ready to let go, that is NOT experiencing “where we are” as stagnant at all. This part of us is still receiving benefits, comfort, nourishment, even joy, from being exactly where we are.

When I look back on my life from the standpoint of “who I am now”, the “me” I am now sees the periods of my life that preceded a lot of change as stagnant.

But, when I actually was LIVING those periods, a part of me was okay with them. A part of me needed them to be exactly as they were. And until that part of me was ready to let go, they weren’t truly “stagnant” periods to ALL of me.

Maybe the truth is that when we feel a lack of momentum, and think we are “stagnating,” what’s really going on is we’re feeling an increasing sense of incongruence.  Who we are becoming is feeling incongruent with who we have been, but we are still ALSO who we have been.

I’ve found that it’s not helpful to rush along the part of me that needs to be exactly where it is for a while longer. When I do that, it holds on tighter out of fear and a kind of rebellion.

What’s more helpful is to reassure the part of me that wants to gallop ahead that it WILL have its day, and that, in fact it IS moving forward as we speak, and that’s why the divide between it and the part of me that wants to stay put is becoming more and more painful.

The pain is a good thing! The pain of incongruence is a sign of momentum, rather than evidence that there is NO momentum.

If you find yourself thinking that momentum has to look a certain way, play around with rethinking it. Are there signs of momentum in your life that may not be obvious or tangible? Does the fact that something is not obvious or tangible mean it isn’t real?

Nature is always a good role model for us here. During the winter, growth does not stop altogether. Growth goes into a different phase. Trees do not die; they sprout new buds in the spring. Some animals go into hibernation, conserving energy for their eventual reemergence. The fact that they’re inactive during this period does not mean they are dead!

Before you assume you have “no momentum,” look for ways that momentum may be showing up in your life that are not totally obvious. And check for signs that you may be in the middle of your personal “winter,” where growth is occurring in oh-so-subtle ways, deep beneath the surface.

Trust is helpful here. Trust and momentum make good partners.

What do you notice about what momentum looks like for you? What do you do when you feel your momentum is “lost”? I’d love to hear how this works for you, in the comments.

 Image is “Iced Waterfall” © Patricia Cale | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Is it worth it? (and other helpful questions)

redleaves

This morning I took one of my beautiful fall walks and noticed that my mind kept going to several things I’ve had on my to-do list for a long time that are just not getting done.

I stepped back a little and let my mind go — the practice of walking helps me immensely with getting into “observe my thoughts” mode — and pretty soon I saw that the thought that kept coming to the top of the rotation was this one: “What’s wrong with you that you’re not getting these things done? Anyone else would have gotten these things done months, years, ago.”

“What’s wrong with me?” is kind of a default, underlying, unhelpful thought for many of us. I’ve been a coach for about four years now, and I notice this particular thought come up at some point for most people.

There’s no satisfactory answer to this question. There’s no encouraging, supportive answer to this question. It’s a good example of a question that closes off possibility and keeps us spinning our wheels.

As I walked, and got out of my thoughts and into the present moment, noticing the row of trees that has erupted into lava-reds, the squirrels fighting for supremacy at the neighbor’s bird feeder, my mind began to get more peaceful.

And when I got home, I went to my journal (as I so often do), and experimented with better questions to ask myself about these things I am not getting done.

Why aren’t I getting them done? (“Why?” can be a good question, for sure, but in this case, it felt impossibly heavy.)

How do I want to feel about these things on my to-do list? (This created an instant feeling of lightness.)

What kind of relationship do I want to have with these things? (More lightness. Relief.)

Is it worth it to me to do these things? (Ahhh. Here I hit the jackpot.)

I could tell that last question was the one that opened up possibility and movement, because exploring it felt really juicy to me.

So I went through the list of these things that have been nagging at me, these things I’m not doing, and for each of them, I asked myself, “Is it worth it to me to do this thing?”

The answers were revealing. For the first thing on the list, the answer was a clear no. It simply wasn’t worth doing. But I was telling myself I needed to do it. Is it true I need to do it? No. I crossed it off the list.

For the second thing on the list, the answer was a clear yes. Yes, the thing is definitely worth doing. And here is where “why” comes in. It’s worth doing — good to know! — but I’ve gotten out of touch with WHY I want to do it. Time to reconnect with that.

With the third thing on my list, I realized I’m not sure if the thing is worth doing or not. Sometimes not being sure is code for “no”, but other times, there’s fear there that is masking the “yes.” So this one will require some inquiry, some investigation.

I feel so much lighter right now, like I’ve cleared a path before me.

What do you notice about the questions you’re asking yourself? Does your mind jump to “default questions” that may not be helpful, but you keep trying to act on them anyway? Try experimenting with finding some more helpful questions. And let me know how it goes.

Hope you are enjoying the changes that fall brings (both outer and inner) as much as I am.

And: My Mini Unsticky Sessions are half-price through Halloween, when I’ll be retiring them. My intention with these sessions is to help you make a quick shift that allows you to move forward on a project you’re feeling stuck on. I approach these sessions with a sense of curiosity and play, and they’re often a lot of fun. Check them out, here.

Image is “Red Leaves” © Bart Van Oijen | Dreamstime Stock Photos

What would make it easier?

Drop of water

Several months ago, I led a small group of my clients through a support session to help them with fears that were coming up around their creative projects. They were all nearing the finish line and feeling a lot of resistance to completing, so I thought, maybe we could all support each other in this.

Something we noticed during our session was that we all had a tendency to complicate things to the point that we felt utterly paralyzed about how to move forward. The closer we got to finishing, the more questions about what might happen when we brought our projects into the “real world” came up.

A lot of the stuckness, we found, was based on fears of what might — or might not — happen in the future, if we actually did finish the projects. What if we put them out into the world and no one noticed? What if we put them out there and offended someone close to us with our content? What if we put them out there and got criticized or booed?

All of these things, of course, are distinct possibilities when we put our work out into the world. Focusing on these possibilities can also be effective ways to distract ourselves from actually finishing our work so it can BE out there.

So we came up with this question to ask ourselves when analysis paralysis set in: What would make it easier? What would make it easier, right now?

Just asking this question, we noticed, created a feeling of relief (which good questions usually do — and most of us are not in the habit of asking ourselves good questions!).

We brainstormed a list of possibilities this question generated, and here are some of the things we came up with:

* I could, just for today, commit to staying in the present moment with my work.

* I could stay in my own business. (This comes from Byron Katie’s “three kinds of business” — my business, your business, and God’s business [you might also call this the universe’s business or simply “reality”]. As I’ve written here before, much of the time I feel stress it’s because I’m in someone else’s business. That includes worrying about how my creative work will affect others in the future. There’s a place for this concern, but it’s not while we’re creating the work.)

* I could go to bed earlier and wake up earlier.

* I could check in with someone who helps me gain perspective when I’m stuck.

* I could drink more water. (This might sound silly and completely unrelated, but truly, dehydration can cause us to feel stuck, because water helps our physical systems move and flow. And, particularly if your system is highly sensitive, you may be susceptible to the effects of dehydration.)

* I could take more walks. (Sitting at a desk, especially if you use a computer to do your creative work, can cause you to feel sluggish and static. Moving your body shakes things up and help you shift perspective.)

* I could employ tunnel vision (in a good sense). Think of a racehorse who has blinders on so he is not distracted by what’s on either side of him — he’s only focused on the immediate few yards ahead.

* I could shift my work time to earlier (or later) in the day.

* I could work in a warmer (or cooler) room.

* I could take more frequent breaks when I work.

* I could aim for a B- rather than an A+ (this one is especially important for perfectionists, which most of my clients are). If it didn’t have to match your perfect vision, how much freer would you be to finish? Think about your favorite books, movies, music, artwork. Are they perfect, or are they inspired? There’s a big difference.

* I could, just for today, let go of the idea that I can please everyone with my work.

* I could, just for today, let go of the idea that I can please everyone in my existing audience with my new work.

These are only a few examples of what we came up with. But notice how simple most of them are. Sometimes there’s one small tweak we can make that really helps. And we noticed that the phrase “just for today” was especially helpful.

It’s very human to make things much more complicated than they are. Usually, when I find myself in the land of analysis paralysis, it simply means that I’m scared and I need some support. Notice if this might be the case for you.

What might make your current project easier — particularly if you’re getting close to finishing? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

And: If you’re stuck near the finish line and need some support in completing a large project, I’ll be forming another small, low-cost support group soon. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to be put on the list to learn more.

Image © zaliha yussof | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When you’re not taking action (even though you want to)

birdonmirror2

Sometimes we’re in a space where there’s something we want to do, but we’re not taking any action toward actually doing it. This space is frustrating and icky. We can spin our wheels here for quite a while.

What I find especially stressful (and confusing) is when I do take a step toward whatever it is I want to do, but I don’t seem to build any momentum. Something feels off. I’m not getting caught up in whatever that thing is; there’s no passion, no fire.

What’s going on when we’re in this space? It’s tempting to try to bulldoze our way through and “just do it!” And there are times when that works.

But sometimes it doesn’t work — and, when we plow forward with sheer force, there’s a nasty lingering side effect: We don’t understand ourselves any better. We may get that thing done, but what happens the next time we’re in the “spinning our wheels” place? We force ourselves to plow through again?

I much prefer asking questions at times like these. More than anything, I want to understand myself better so I can have a better relationship with myself. If that relationship is vital to you, too, here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re spinning your wheels:

Do I truly want to do this thing, or do I believe I “should” want to do this thing?

The presence of a “should” is not necessarily an indication that you don’t want to do it; it often means that you have conflicting voices within you around taking this action. If you can untangle the “should” from the rest of it, you’ll have a much clearer sense of what you really want.

Is this something I used to want, but perhaps no longer do?

Does the person you are today actually want to do this, or is this something you wanted to do five years ago? Are you hanging on to an old dream? (“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” – Alice in Wonderland)

* Is there a deadline issue?

Some of us work better and more effectively with deadlines; some of us get panicky and overwhelmed when we have a deadline situation. And sometimes, the deadline is simply too close or too far away to work for us.

If there’s a deadline by which you’re supposed to do this thing, is it possible to push it back, or push it up? Would doing either of those things make a difference in how you felt about taking action on it? (Sometimes we’ve set our own deadlines. Most of my clients have a perfectionistic streak and expect themselves to complete things way sooner than is reasonable, or necessary.)

Am I making the task too big?

One of my clients had decided to apply to a graduate program, but she wasn’t taking any action toward it. The deadline loomed and the weeks were going by and nothing was happening.

We noticed that every day she had been writing on her to-do list “Grad school application.” But when we broke it down, we found that there were at least twenty individual steps involved in completing the entire application process, and some of those steps could be broken down into even smaller steps. Of course she wasn’t taking action on it when “grad school application” was not an actionable step.

We often don’t want to break things down into small steps because we’re in a hurry. We think we don’t have time to take small steps. Then we proceed to do nothing at all because the giant leap we think we have to take overwhelms us. In the long run, we move more quickly and steadily when we take small steps over time. Think turtle and hare.

Am I in somebody else’s business?

Byron Katie talks about the three kinds of business: My business, your business, and God’s business. Much of the time when I’m feeling stressed, confused, or unfocused, if I remember to ask myself who’s business I’m in, I discover the issue. When I’m in somebody else’s business, as Katie says, there’s no one here taking care of my own.

How does this keep me from moving forward? If I’m worried about what someone else thinks of me, or trying to control someone else’s reaction to my choices in some way, I keep on spinning my wheels. I may not allow myself to do what I truly want to do. It’s human to care about what others think; but if we’re paralyzed because of it, we’re way out of our own business and into somebody else’s.

* Is my creative well empty?

I often mention the creative well on this blog. Julia Cameron likens the creative well to a “trout pond” that, ideally, is fully stocked with fish, except, as artists, we stock our ponds with images that inspire. We stock our ponds with the wordlessness that comes from simply being.

When the pond is empty, we need to restock it. And this means we need to practice great self-care and recognize that there are ebbs and flows to our energy and our creativity. Sometimes, when I’m not taking action, it’s simply because I need to be in a place of inaction for a while.

Any of these questions is a good starting point if you find you’re not taking action on something you want to do. If one question doesn’t seem to apply to you, try the next. And come up with your own, too — write them in a notebook where you can refer to them the next time you’re up against the stuckity-stuck.

How do you deal with it when you want to move forward but can’t seem to take action? I’d love to hear from you!

Image is “Bird on a Mirror” © Shane Link | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Trusting in where your energy takes you

leafwater

One day last week I sat down to write and felt distracted. This is not uncommon. I often experience resistance, confusion, tedium, and occasionally even dread, when it comes to working on my novel.

In fact, I don’t usually call it (in my own head at least) “working on my novel” anymore. I call it “playing with my novel.” This feels much lighter and opens up possibility, curiosity, excitement. When I make it less grave and serious, I’m more in touch with why I actually want to do it in the first place.

That said, sometimes I feel stuck and it feels hard. And I hang in there with it anyway, because it is a commitment. And because sometimes I reach that lovely place of getting lost in my story. And the more I practice hanging in there with it, the more I reach that place.

But on that day last week, something else was going on. I sat and I sat and I sat, and I wrote and revised and tinkered. But my energy was not with the writing. I had the odd sense of pushing something away.

I glanced over at my open notebook, to some morning pages I’d done the day before. Jotted in the margin at the top of the page was a reminder to call a friend of mine, a dear friend whom I’d been meaning to call for a while. But I’d been putting it off because, although I knew that talking to my friend would be nourishing and fun, I’d told myself that she was probably busy and wouldn’t have much time to talk, anyway. I kept telling myself I’d wait and call “when we were both less busy.”

Now, the reminder note jumped off the page at me. And I realized that there was a ton of energy in calling my friend right then, right in that moment.

So, I stepped away from my computer and dialed my friend’s number. She was home and said she’d been thinking about calling me, too — that very morning. But she figured I was probably busy with coaching or writing and she’d wait to call me until the weekend.

We talked for an hour and it felt soooo good. It filled my creative well to — at least — a 10 (read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to find out more about the creative well). You know those friends who accept and love you so deeply that it doesn’t matter what’s happening for you, or not happening for you, because the connection is about your very essence? That is this friend, for me.

And something important came out of this call. I realized that I often make an assumption that the people I care about are busy and they need to “fit me in.” And this assumption is not reality. In fact, my friend was making the same assumption about me, but in truth I would have welcomed a call from her.

After we talked,  I returned to my novel with a sense of lightness and new possibility, and I no longer had that nagging sensation that there was something important I wasn’t attending to. I could give the writing my full attention.

If I hadn’t followed my energetic pull toward calling my friend, I would have missed out on that connection and that insight.

And yet, my rational mind wondered if I wanted to step away from the novel simply because it was hard and it was my way of “procrastinating.” It can be tempting to “power through” at these times, no matter what. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing to do when we’re developing a habit, whether it’s writing or something else.

But we get to the good stuff in life by acting on what feels juiciest for us in the moment. I don’t mean by acting on our every impulse, but by following our intuitive urges. Often, it’s as simple as asking, “What would light me up right now?”  On that day last week, contacting my friend was that thing. It was “up” for me, calling out for attention. And I needed to listen.

Sometimes, our “creative work” can serve as a means of avoiding doing our inner work. Just as we can avoid our creative work, we can also use our creative work to avoid — or push down the list — other things that are vital to our well-being. Like our relationships. Most particularly, our relationship to ourselves.

So notice the quality of your energy as you create. Is the creating connecting you with yourself, with the world, with that beautiful mysterious space we go to when we create — even if it’s a huge challenge at the moment?

Or, do you have the sense that you are using your writing, artwork, business brainstorming, or whatever it may be, to push something else away, as I did last week? Just notice. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing. Just tell yourself the truth, whatever it is for you.

Because, ultimately, creativity is being connected to what’s true for you in the moment. Because that is when you are most you. And that is what I wish for you — that you be most you as often as possible. That, more than anything else, is your gift to the world.

Image is “Leaf on Steel” © Chris Mccooey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Can you wrap a system around that?

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I used to think that I didn’t like systems. Every time I found myself dealing with any kind of system — which implies structureI would rebel.

Part of this probably stems from having a childhood that felt way, way overstructured to me. My heart wanted to lounge in open fields with cows, sheep, books, and my journal (not that I lived near any fields), but my days always felt completely scheduled with activities from morning to night — not just riding the bus (an ordeal in and of itself) to school and back, but with afterschool activities, and then homework.

This seems so nuts to me now, but it was considered normal, and, thirty years later, though I don’t have kids myself, my sense is that many kids are even more overscheduled than I was (plus today’s kids have so much more technology to manage).

I think another reason I’ve tended to rebel against systems and structure is that I’m a Myers-Briggs INFP, and we “P” types like to keep things open-ended. Too much structure can feel overly planned and rigid for a “P” and trigger our rebelliousness.

At the same time, I’ve had to admit over the past several years, especially since becoming a coach and attracting clients who also tend to rebel against structure, that the right amount of structure can be a true godsend for those of us who cling to open-endedness (which can sometimes result in saying things like “I’ll write when I’m feeling inspired” or leaving ourselves one hour to complete something that actually takes four — woops!).

Systems and structure do not have to be elaborate or complicated. There just needs to be enough of a system to get it done — whatever “it” is.

Here’s my (very simple) example:

I was having a huge issue with mowing the lawn. It only takes me about 30 minutes, but it was becoming this thing that I so didn’t want to do and eventually I’d have to force myself to do it, angrily, usually swearing. Even though, once I’m doing it, I don’t hate it (except for that one time I mowed over some dog poop). It actually feels kinda good, moving my body, the smell of grass and dirt around me, the heft of the mower.

About a month ago, I figured out the issue. My brother, who used to live here and used to mow the lawn, had told me I should do it “about every ten days.” And I tried this. But it felt increasingly stressful to me. Because “every ten days” could fall on any day of the week. It might be a Wednesday, and then next time a Saturday, and then next time a Tuesday.

It occurred to me that if I mow the lawn every two weeks, it really doesn’t look all that much worse than if I do it every ten days. So I’ve made every other Sunday afternoon my mowing-the-lawn-time. And I think about it so, so much less. On Saturday, or Wednesday, I’m not thinking, “should I do it today?” because I know Sunday is lawn day. Every other Sunday, “mow lawn” is on my to-do list, and I know I’ll do it, and that’s that.

That was all the system that was required. It was actually way more stressful to keep the “when” I’d mow the lawn up in the air than it was to assign a day to do it.

This applies to anything I want to do on a regular basis, whether that’s writing or yoga or doing the dishes: Keeping the “when” up in the air creates stress and vagueness, and vagueness does not produce specific results.

And I think that’s worth consideration for us “open-ended” types. Is keeping something unstructured and open-ended giving us a feeling of peace and freedom, or stress and confusion?

The way to know you’ve hit on the right amount of “system” for you is that you use the system without a huge desire to rebel. (If you have a very strong inner rebel, as I do, you may be a little bit edgy around any amount of system, but when it’s the right amount, you’ll find yourself using it anyway.)

Your body is an excellent guide for whether or not a certain amount of structure is too much or too little. When I am overstructured, I feel frazzled, frenetic, like I’m on a treadmill. There’s a need to catch my breath (literally). When I have too little structure, I can feel sluggish, unfocused and fatigued.

There’s no right or wrong here; each of us has a “sweet spot” where we have enough structure, but not too much. So when I’m struggling with something that just won’t seem to get done, I’ve started to ask myself, “Can I wrap a system around this?” And then I brainstorm a little about what might feel like enough.

How do you feel about systems and structure? Do you tend to rebel against them, or do you find them helpful, or both? I’d love to know, in the comments.

Image is “Poppy Field with Powerlines” © Peter Gustafson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Two ways to deal with “idea paralysis”

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A while ago, I had a session with someone who had so many ideas, she felt paralyzed as to which to choose and where to begin. Every time she took a little action on an idea, another one of her ideas started to haunt her and she was sure that one was better. So she’d stop working on the current thing and start this other thing. And then the other thing wouldn’t feel quite right, and some shiny new idea would start hovering and she’d drop the current thing and start in on the shiny new thing. And so on.

I so relate to this. It doesn’t happen to me that frequently, but when it does, it is crazymaking. What’s going on when we’re knee-deep in a sea of ideas and we just can’t choose, or stick with one long enough to bring it to completion?

For me, there are one of a couple of things happening:

1) Perfectionism has reared its oh-so-troublesome head.

We’re wanting the idea to be the be-all and end-all of ideas, rather than a stepping stone to what the idea can become. There’s no way an idea won’t transform as we work on it, so most of the time, it’s not going to stay the same as the seedling in our heads. But if we have perfectionistic tendencies, we want to know it’s going to be great, it’s going to knock everybody’s socks off. We can’t know that at the beginning of the process. We can’t know that at the end of the process.

Our own interest in the idea has to be enough. The only thing we have an absolute guarantee of is that we will check in with ourselves about how we are responding to our idea, from day to day. And I can guarantee you that our relationship to it will change from day to day, week to week.

Perfectionists often feel “it’s not quite right, so I’m not ready to begin.” My question to perfectionists (and that includes myself!) is: Is there enough here for me to work with? Is there enough here to sustain my interest, for now?

When I was in college, I had a screenwriting teacher I remember really well because he talked a lot about things that I sensed were true, but didn’t yet have the life experience to know were true. He looked at twenty or so pages of the screenplay I was writing and said, “You don’t have to telegraph your themes to the audience. The themes that are important to you as a writer are going to be there because they’re important to you. They can’t not be there. So stop telegraphing your themes and just tell the story.”

This felt like a huge relief. And I think this applies to those of us who struggle over choosing the “perfect” idea. No matter which idea we pick, the common theme behind it is going to be US. Just because you decide to tell the story about the guy who goes fishing with his estranged father instead of the story about the woman who learns her teenage son is in trouble with the law doesn’t mean your usual themes of loss, loneliness, heartache and redemption are not going to be there. They’ll be there because you will be there.

So relax. You, and the things that are important to you, will be there, in spades, no matter what path you choose.

And, on the flipside:

2) You may be knee-deep in ideas because you are only knee-deep. And what you really need is to be completely submerged in one idea, so your heart is engaged. In other words, there may be a bunch of ideas swirling around your ankles but they’re not really involving the whole of you, so it’s easy to jump off of one and onto another.

I’m reminded of someone I know who, many years ago, was caught up in romantic involvements with two different guys. Time went on and on, and she just couldn’t decide between the two. Finally, she ended both relationships, realizing that neither of these guys was a “hell, yes!” for her and that was why she couldn’t decide. The question wasn’t actually “which of these men is the better choice?” but “who am I and what do I really care about?”

If you’re flitting from one idea to the next, stop. Take some time out and ask yourself, what do I really want? Why am I doing this (writing, artwork, coaching, whatever it may be)? How can you engage the whole of you — starting with your heart, which tells you what you care about the most — in your creative process? And go from there.

Looking at it this way, you’re not choosing the idea so much as letting it choose you. And when something chooses us, there’s no contest.

(On this topic, I highly recommend Miranda July’s wonderful memoir, “It Chooses You.”)

Do you struggle with “idea paralysis”? How do you decide which idea to choose? Or do you let it choose you? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Work With Me: I have a couple of openings for new coaching clients, starting in July. Interested? See if we might be a good fit, here.

Image is “Sepia Bulb” © Graham Stewart | Dreamstime Stock Photos