Reader question: How to keep on keeping on

I was SUPER excited to hear from someone who sat down and read my entire blog from front to back last month, every last post, AND found it inspiring AND took the time to tell me. She also shared some ideas for future posts, in the form of questions that she has about the creative process and going after your dreams. I am very grateful special reader (you know who you are).

So, here is the first of a series of ‘reader question’ posts that I plan to scatter throughout this year’s programming. Let me know if you like the format, and if you also have questions of your own you’d like addressed in a blog post, PLEASE let me know.

I will now rest my excited caps lock button and proceed.

1) How to keep doing something. I love the idea of doing something a little bit every day, but not coming from a family of doers, and being the kind to completely blob out in front of the telly every night, I find it easy to be inspired and get started but impossible to continue. So, pointers/carrots/sticks would be lovely.

Thanks for the question, I think it’s one that many people experience – the initial wave of excitement that can come with a new idea and the fading and slightly stale or sad feeling that may follow. Many people also struggle with their habits, recognising that it can be hard to learn new skills that we didn’t pick up in childhood, or to step out and ‘go against the grain’ of what our families like and admire. Barabra Sher has great stuff to say about this in her books – see the bottom of this post for a mini reading list.  So yes, great question.

My very short answer is eliminate the obvious, recognise resistance, sidestep the perfectionist, ride the waves, check for interest and build your support structures. More about these below.

Eliminate the obvious

So, to begin with, eliminate the obvious: exhaustion, depression, ill health can make it hard for us to muster energy and follow through with plans. It might sound obvious but I would always suggest checking in and making sure that at this particular point in time you are well rested, not overworked, not in a life transition that is extremely stressful, not suffering from depression, or struggling with an immune disorder or some other condition that might be sapping your energy. I think this is important because our culture so values activity over rest, and we can sometimes forget that pushing harder on the accelerator while our body has the brake on is a sure fire way to burn out our engines. So check in first and make sure there’s no underlying reason why activity might be hard for you right now. If there is a good reason to be tired, maybe respect that for the moment and focus on getting all the rest and help you need to be physically and emotionally well.

Recognise resistance

Next I think it’s important to recognise resistance. Instead of thinking ‘why am I so lazy and stupid?’ it is a lot kinder to think ‘wow, could I be scared of something here?’. Resistance is a natural digging in of the heels that you do when you feel fear. Fear is usually of some kind of change – and that can be linked to EITHER failure or success…even a change that might bring success can be deeply scary. Barbara Sher talks a lot about resistance, and how it is a perfectly normal biological response to change, and is designed to keep us safe.

Fear of writing a bad poem or embarrassing ourselves at that dance class we say we want to go to registers in our bodies as fear of something life threatening. Acceptance of ourselves, and by our ‘tribe’ is a key goal for most, so it is completely understandable that we should fear being rejected or judged. Recognising resistance is the first step to then finding ways around it. If we just keep something as a vague dream and then get angry at ourselves for never magically waking up and feeling like doing it, we wont get very far. It is like a horse rider getting angry at a horse that wont move, rather than recognising that something is probably scaring it, and figuring out what that is. So if you have a nervous ‘icky’ feeling attached to something that you also really want to do, and you notice you just can’t get started, chances are it’s resistance. It’s normal, it’s human, try not to waste valuable time and energy beating yourself up about it. You’ll need that energy to do something about it instead!

Sidestep your inner perfectionist

Perfectionism to me is the fear of just not doing a very good job at whatever task you are stepping out to do. Do you have an inner perfectionist? Goodness knows I do. There are times when it is paralysing for me to think about starting because I *know* I can’t do a wonderful job of a particular project (say its new to me, or I know I don’t have much time to do it in, or I know I’m a beginner and don’t have great skills yet, or worse yet I know that I have no benchmark or wont get any feedback and wont know if I’ve done a good job or not). In this case I suggest sidestepping the perfectionist. Acknowledge the inner perfectionist, listen politely for a while and then do whatever it take to politely step around them and keen on moving.*

Things I like for getting around this block are: giving myself permission to do a bad job (‘ok then perfectionist, I hear you, and I agree that it is unlikely I’ll do something great so stuff it, I wont make ‘proper’ art, I’ll just scribble a little bit on this page and let off steam.. oh look at these pretty colours.. oh now I’m adding layers.. oh what do you know I like it’). I also remind myself that in learning new skills we need time to not know, to try, to get things ‘wrong’ and to do an awkward and slow job of things before it starts to feel second nature. The phrase that reminds me of this is ‘a bit like the first pancake’ (you know, when the pan isn’t quite warm enough but you cook the first pancake anyway and it’s a bit bodgy, but that’s ok because the next one is better).

I try to remember that even masters of their craft were beginners once too. Be completely radical and give yourself permission to be just average – or even to do a shoddy and half-arsed job. Sometimes you can do this by building in time to your project for a ‘rough draft’ or ‘concept map’ or ‘first go’. Or build in early rounds of collaboration, input, reviews or checks by others’ who you think are pretty skilled at this thing (whatever it is you are trying to do). It lowers the pressure, lowers the stakes and tells your perfectionist to go take a nap. Once you’ve sidestepped the perfectionist you can wander about and find you inner cheerleader or the part of you that’s actually fascinated with what you’re doing instead.

Body surf on your inner waves

In riding the waves what I mean is to look for and make use of whatever patterns and rhythms your body and energy levels tend to have. Are you a morning person or or night owl? Do you find you have weekly or monthly cycles of greater energy and activity? Do you feel more energised after physical activity? After listening to inspiring podcasts? Do you notice an up welling of enthusiasm after you’ve cleared the kitchen and wiped the benches, or does some energetic music and a dance around the house get you moving? Does a morning coffee get your mojo rising?

Living in a land of clocks and clockwork, we can feel sometimes like we MUST have a measured, even, consistent contribution to be productive or efficient. And maybe that works for some people, but quite frankly it doesn’t for me, not one little bit. My energy levels are like waves and tides – there are little cycles of more and less energy through a day or a week and then larger tides come in and out. I know that sleep, nutrition, time outside, natural hormone cycles, caffeine, contact with people (either inspiring or draining), noise levels, my fear about failure, whether my creative well is full, the amount of daylight, the weather, and sometimes which way the wind is blowing (joking. I think) can all effect how enthused I am about my projects and how much ‘energy’ I have to spend on them. For me, ‘energy’ is this intangible thing which is hard to measure or see externally but boy does it make a difference. I can get a week’s worth of work done in a day if I am feeling inspired, upbeat, and energised, and get it done without ‘pain’ and dragging of heels. Part of the trick then is to schedule the tasks to make use of the energy when you have it, and to feel OK with a more ‘organic’ pattern of creating, that might not be the same amount every day – and maybe that’s OK.

Check for interest… and ditch it or try to make it fun again

Do you really want to do this project? Or did last year you want to do it but today you are sick of it entirely? Sometimes our ego self gets very excited when we start making useful pretty things, and wants us to keep making them over and over to get whatever ‘goodies’ (material or emotional rewards) it sees these outputs can bring us. We can assume that this project will make us satisfied because it did the first time we did it. So our head says ‘make more! do your project!’ while actually our creative self says ‘I’m bored with this and want something new’. If you identify as a scanner this might be particular relevant.

If the project isn’t actually fascinating or exciting to you anymore (even when you imagine doing it with ease, not being able to get it wrong, and having nothing but acceptance and encouragement from everyone else) then chances are you’ve just lost interest and maybe you just need to erase it off your to do list. Try stepping away from it. If the idea of never doing it doesn’t cause a pang of loss you are probably ready to leave it behind. If it feels sad to never do it chances are you want to do it but are just suffering from some garden variety resistance and need to try some of the tips in the sections below.

If on the other hand you are a bit bored with the whole thing but committed to it and need to get it done anyway, do whatever it takes to make it fun and interesting again….

  • Connect with inspiration – read about someone who’s done it, look at great images of the work of other designers, go to a hardware shop and let your fingers trail along the pieces of wood
  • Mix up your materials – try a new colour, new combination of yarns, a new app, a new format, something to add learning into an already familiar task
  • Give yourself a limited structure or set of constraints that you’ve never worked to before – if you’re a novelist try haiku for a few days, if you’re an illustrator try only doing paper cut outs this week, if you’re a pianist try playing one handed today
  • Join a challenge – e.g.. to make and share something every day for 30 days. It often reduces the expectations and encourages you to try new formats. The time pressure alone can make things feel more exciting.
  • Shift your project just little a bit – I used to like taking photos of a new flower every day on my morning walk. At first I loved it. Then it felt a bit ‘expected’. I started to feel like I was looking for and seeing the same things. Recently I’ve started a new daily photographic project where I photograph small objects I find to use in art making while on my walk – arranging them on my kitchen bench when I get home. I still get the benefits of a daily photographic practice linked to walking, but it feels fresher and more authentic now it’s a new topic.

If you can’t make it interesting, and your safety or material wellbeing is not hanging on this project, then don’t do it. Find something else that is fascinating – even if it means icing a cake rather than writing a symphony, or learning to repair shoes rather than writing a short story.

Build your support structures

OK so you’re not sick, you are interested in the project, you’ve recognised resistance and perfectionism and found some ways to step around them, and you’re aware of the way your energy comes and goes and are OK to work with that. Great! Now comes the fun stuff – building your practical and tangible carroty – sticky support structures.

Here are some I use at different times:

* parallel task – do boring tasks like filing or tidying alongside a fun task like listening to music or a podcast to distract from the aversion I feel for it ( I *know* this is the opposite of being fully present and mindful in the task, but to be honest I just find it so hard to fold washing mindfully, I would much rather fold washing distractedly while learning about a topic I care about). This isn’t the same as multitasking where you flick backhand forth between tasks, and lose concentration and efficiency along the way, you just do the two side by side as a way to fill up your concentration and associate something fun with something less fun.

* sneak something useful* into down time – Barbara Sher talks about setting up your easel in the loungeroom and painting in the ad breaks right alongside your family. I do similar, working on multimedia art, cutting out pictures for collage or knitting while watching TV, or sketching at airports in the waiting lounge. A friend had a writing routine while commenting on a train. Even doing 15 minutes of something creative that you love will brighten up your day, and you’ll feel more connected to your dreams. You might just need to let go of any rigid rules you have like ‘I have to work on my project for 3 hour blocks when no one’s around, in a silent tower with only iced lemon tea to drink and a wet washcloth infused with the scent of jasmine on my forehead’. (* Yes I know, doing nothing and resting is also useful. I have an inherent and sometimes unhelpful bias towards activity.)

* lift my mood first – sometimes I lift my energy some other way first and then ride that wave through the hard or boring task – e.g. go for a brisk walk in the sunshine, have a coffee at my favourite cafe and then come back with a bounce in my step and tackle the hard task.

* do it with a friend – I have an art project I make that requires hours and hours of manual photocopying of my original artworks at a printshop – I find it smelly and confusing and hard – BUT I LOVE the final product and get such a strong sense of satisfaction when it’s done, so the best way I’ve found is to get a friend who likes arty stuff to come along with me – we finish up with wine and dinner and I get the whole thing done in a day. And I can’t then chicken out and avoid it on the day. You can even invite a friend over while you make the scary first steps of a new project, or get through the tricky bit. Sometimes just having someone to complain to (er, sit with) really helps. Whatever it takes.

* new environment – sometimes doing things in cafes feel more fun than doing them at your desk and you have less distractions and other tasks to procrastinate with.  Only you know whether you’d like a quiet haven or a hustly bustly busy hum in the background. Some tasks are nice done under a tree, or with the ocean as a backdrop. I even find some tasks are great done with a very short deadline (‘send that overdue email right now at this bust stop before the bus arrives’).

* do it with company – a craft or making project might be something you would enjoy doing with others around say in a share space like a Men’s Shed or Women’s Shed, or a local ‘drop in’ art space. If you are a writer and feel like a change of scenery and some company might help try Write Together or its offshoot Create Together. Going to a course or workshop on something you kind of know how to do but just want an excuse to do more of (e.g.. cooking, printmaking, drawing, web design, meditating) can be a great choice if you can. Participants in my weekly Women’s Creative Wellbeing group tell me they find it so much easier to make time for creative expression when they’ve signed up to a regular event and have a small group around them all working on the same thing.

* make deadlines – personal projects often don’t have deadlines. I work well with the finality of a deadline to push me through my resistance. Committing to another person or public forum to submit a draft / have something ready also helps. For example, I often finish designing my workshops and doing all the logistical prep work AFTER I have a date set and people booked in, because then it feels real and I don’t have a choice. Can you create an ‘exhibition’ or sharing of your work that will give you a deadline? Can you join an event that requires you to have worked towards the goal in advance? Could you work with a friend or coach to create a plan with mini milestones?

* bribery – some people finds this works. It doesn’t really work for me as a general rule but very occasionally very occasionally  I will make myself do something I don’t like if I get to do something I do like afterwards. Usually I’ll just skip straight to eating the carrot.

* pomodoro technique – do you know it? A way to hack time to get more done in short bursts. Works a treat, I work much better with a sense of urgency, this helps create one even when there’s not one. In my online groups and one on one coaching I also use Barbara Sher’s ‘blockbuster’ method to help people get things done in short bursts of time.

So there you have it. A quick romp through some different approaches to doing things you want to do more often. Most of them link to increasing the joy in the task and decreasing the feelings of isolation and fear of failure that keep many of us stuck.

Do any of these resonate? What have you found also works for you?


*Deeper work with a trained counsellor, psychotherapist or art therapist on uncovering the critical voices in your head and replacing those with more encouraging ones can also be very powerful, alongside using the tips above, especially if your attitudes to yourself are highly critical and unforgiving.  

2 thoughts on “Reader question: How to keep on keeping on”

  1. I LOVE all of these – I’d particularly like to put some effort into riding my inner waves better.

    One other thing that works for me is “stop before you get stuck”. If I’m doing a project that is being done in fits and starts, I have a tendency to keep working on it till I don’t know what the next step is. So I stop, and then find myself in a loop of not wanting to start again because I don’t know what to do next. I’m trying to remind myself to stop when things are going well, so that I’ll be motivated to start again. Easier said than done though!

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