Years ago I worked with a coach who taught excellent annual classes on choosing a theme for the coming year and I’ve loved having one ever since.
This past year my theme was inspired by Tina Fey‘s Rules of Improvisation “that will change your life and reduce belly fat.” This year I’ve been practicing Yes, And. As in: Yes, I’d rather throw myself into the holidays. And, I’m going to finish writing and sending this article anyway. It’s really just a formula: Yes _____ [insert seeming impediment]. And I will [insert chosen action or commitment] anyway. While it hasn’t turned me into a rock star of productivity (though, come to think of it, it has reduced some belly fat), it has very effectively dialed down the drama – which is a very real impediment to getting things done.
In the coming year, I want to dial down the drama even further by really embracing ordinary, everyday life and finding not just momentum but useful beauty in small actions taken frequently and consistently.
While I’ve been a huge fan of immersion and working episodically – something the creative process so often seems to need – I suspect that approach has shifted from preference to necessity and now to routine. And the habit of all-in/all-or-nothing is not creating the stability and spaciousness I want in my life. It’s creating chaotic and reactive drama of last-minute-rabbits-pulled-out-of-hats rather than the harmonious and proactive thrill of genuine achievement built over time.
While the latter is far more satisfying, it’s not as sexy as the former (at least not on the surface). And I’m coming to recognize the razzle dazzle of all-in/all-or-nothing as the siren-song of my ego, as the music coming out of the right speaker of what Anne Lamott calls Radio Station KFKD.
“If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over a lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to sh*t, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. You might as well have heavy-metal music piped in through headphones while you’re trying to get your work done.” — Anne Lamott
There are many good resources out there for turning down the volume on the rap songs of self-loathing, for quieting the mean voices of the inner critic/gremlin/monster. So many resources you would think that fear is the only thing that ever gets in anyone’s way.
But my reality is this: my ego and the heavy metal of self-aggrandizement get me into far more trouble far more often than my fear. The confidence that comes from my sense of giftedness often turns out to have been overestimated. The arrogance that comes from my sense of specialness often results in avoidance.
And another reality is this: true confidence comes from actual accomplishment. And something special is built by small, ordinary actions taken over time.
My ego loves the voices of affirmation that populate my online world. When Fabeku says: Use your superpowers! my ego says yes! When Leonie Dawson says: Ride your wild donkeys! my ego says yes! When Charlie Gilkey says: Do epic sh*t! my ego says yes! When Jen Louden says: Be a shero! my ego says yes!
And while that’s all genuinely great advice (don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect the bejeezus out of those people and I doubt any of them would fundamentally disagree with the gist of this essay), these days it’s George Bailey who is my hero. A man with dreams and ambitions prevented by circumstance and conscious from pursuing them, who ends up creating a substantial legacy anyway built from the ordinary actions and decent choices of everyday life.
And like most of us, he’s blind to what he’s created until shown what could have been had he not been alive to make those decent choices and take those ordinary actions.
“If you knew of the differences you’ve already made, you’d now see yourself as wildly successful. It’s time” – Mike Dooley
Since an intervention from my own guardian angel doesn’t seem imminent, it’s up to me to stop being blind to the beauty of the ordinary, unable to see the verdant in my life for gazing at the greener grass of if-only-then.
It’s up to me to stop seeking the drama and the high of all-in/all-or-nothing, thinking that’s where accomplishment and satisfaction lie. It’s up to me to stop dismissing small actions and decent, everyday choices as not enough – as not epic, sexy, rapid, lucrative, challenging or special enough to be satisfying or worthwhile.
So I’ve been experimenting with turning my day upside down and ignoring the conventional advice to do my most important work first, in part by redefining what my most important work is.
“Hey, artists? Note the way George Harrison looks at the floor and sees it needs sweeping, but does not ditch his guitar to go find a broom.” – Lisa Baldwin
Conventional wisdom – at least in creative circles – is to go to your garret studio and make what you feel called to make before you do anything else. Nothing else is considered more important. Everything else is considered a distraction or form of procrastination.
But I’ve been wondering. Because the garret-first guideline hasn’t exactly made me a prolific creative. Instead, I suspect it has just turned up the volume on the heavy metal of my self-aggrandizement. And it has resulted in a backlog of maintenance that is distracting and has created the wrong sort of drama (drama that is totally avoidable and unnecessary).
“Whether you’re trying to garden or take a picture or write a book, your ability to make a creative mess is your most productive state. You want to be able to throw ideas all over the place, but you need to be able to start with a clear deck. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Two messes at a time, you’re screwed. You may want to find God, but if you’re running low on cat food, you damn well better make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the cat food is going to take a whole lot more attention and keep you from finding God.” – David Allen
I think Allen is right. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Until you’ve reduced your non-creative messes, maintenance is your most important work.
That’s the hypothesis I’m testing anyway. And my initial experimentation seems to be proving this theory true.
In turning my day upside down, I’m starting with caring for my body, then my immediate environment, then my finances, then my professional work, with communication coming before content creation.
That’s right, creation is last on my to-do list.
It feels backwards and vaguely wrong. This experiment definitely requires breaking a rule and a habit.
And it also feels great.
The shift in the frame of mind with which I enter my creative work is markedly different. I enter my garret much more fueled and confident and far less distracted.
For me, that floor really does need sweeping before I can make my guitar gently weep or create anything else useful or beautiful.
And – another hypothesis – it may take me less time to get into flow (my favorite state) since so much less of my energy is going into trying to focus because I’ve handled my legitimate distractions. Immersion may not require the large swaths of time I’ve always assumed.
In short, this upside down approach to my day is turning me into a rock star of productivity.
Except rock star is completely the wrong metaphor. Because, again, it’s George Bailey who is my hero and guide for the coming year, my reminder that world-changing legacies are built from small, everyday actions taken over a lifetime.
Or as Patti Digh would say: “Put down your clever. Pick up your ordinary. Because at your ordinary, you’re at your most potent.”
And so with the turning of the year, I will shift from asking myself How can you say Yes, And today? to What would George Bailey do? I’m not just going to pick up but love up my ordinary. Because I suspect that’s how you love up your extraordinary.
If you want to dial down your own unnecessary drama, reduce your own non-creative messes or experiment with turning your own day upside down to find greater stability, spaciousness and creativity, please join me in the new year for Foundations: Right-Brain Time Management 101.
This is just the sort of thing we play with.
Please write back soon and tell me…
- in the comments below, by email [ hello at thirdhandworks dot com ] or postal service [ address at the bottom of the page ]
Let’s talk about this fear vs. ego thing. Which gets you into more trouble? (Be honest.) How do you counterbalance or keep yourself from straying too far into one or the other? How do you quiet both speakers of Radio Station KFKD?
What was your theme/word/song/image/color for the past year? What new one is emerging?