How to Stop Procrastinating and Focus on Your Art

You have art.

You have beautiful art.

You have art that if shared with the world, could affect the viewer on a deep and meaningful level.

Maybe, if you weren’t appreciated in this life, your art could continue to live on and inspire a generation who could take more from your art in a way this generation wouldn’t understand.

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Perhaps you are to create the next Sistine Chapel of this era!

There’s only one problem.

This art is all in your head. The art that isn’t in your head is only being exhibited in your head.

Because you can’t bring yourself to pick up the paintbrush (or the pencil, woodworking tools, gilding knife, guitar, dancing shoes, or any tool used for the creation of art). You are the worst artist of all time…

…or maybe it’s not art making that’s the problem, you will make art all the time, but what you do have a problem with is setting up your art business! Maybe you don’t apply for art galleries/fairs, get that Etsy going, or make prints of your art to sell.

…the PROCRASTINATING artist…

dun dun DUUUN!

Now that that bit of melodrama is over with, procrastination is one of the most human things I can think of. We all want to do something with our lives, but “I’ll get to it later” syndrome always seems to kick in. Of course, later becomes never. It’s funny really, but I think that besides killing yourself, it’s probably one of the most deadly things you can do to yourself.

Sadly, unlike Michelangelo, we don’t really have patrons anymore that will pay us to keep on track (maybe the extra freedom is a good thing? His patron was kind of a jerk).

It may sound like a joke, but I mean it. Time is one of the most precious resources we have. Once time passes. It’s gone forever, you can’t get that time back. Obviously, it’s more valuable than money, yet we know we wouldn’t give $100 to someone every time we ask for it, but we constantly give our time to people who demand our time even if there’s nothing to be gained from that (sometimes) repeated interaction, like that one friend who calls you up or hangs out, they just complain about how their lives, the government, or existence just sucks.

So, with that being said. If you’re an artist, what can you do to stop procrastinating? I’ve picked up a couple of strategies that work really well for me. I actually didn’t hear this advice from artists, but Med School, Entrepreneurial, and Business videos. I also came up with strategies that helped me stick to a work-out routine that I carried over into my art life.

A lot of what I’m about to talk about may seem impossible. That only a superhuman can accomplish what I’m suggesting. The truth is, humans, when they put their minds to anything, are surprisingly hyper efficient. Getting started on the road to procrastinating less is easy. You just need to start with doing easy things

Here’s what’s working for me:

1. Separate your Art Making into Microtasks

Even though you may not want to procrastinate, you may not want to do hard things even more. Humans don’t like doing hard things which ironically tend to be the things that help us learn or become better people in the long run. We’re not good at thinking of long term rewards. We’re very short-sighted, impatient people.

And this shortsightedness…

… can be used to our advantage.

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I’m talking of course into not pursuing big dreams. At least not right away, but instead, break them down into smaller and smaller dreams.

The hardest part of doing anything for most people is starting it. Once you start something, you feel good having just accomplished something, so it’s easier to move on to the next step of your big project.

So, imagine what you want in the long run. Imagine yourself becoming a completely independent artist that has shows in galleries and museums everywhere. Your art is beloved by everyone.

Now slap yourself in the face.

That’s a stupid dream.

Just kidding. It’s good to have a vision like that, and think very clearly about it, but you’ll never get there if you don’t get started, and going to art school will not be enough. That’s a terrible place filled with people who control your schedule. Once you’re out of there, there’s no guarantee you’ll keep going. That’s why so many art majors get jobs that have nothing to do with art if they’re lucky to get jobs at all.

Instead, think very small. You want to create a body of work to show to galleries. No, that’s not small enough. You need to make one art piece. Think smaller. You need to go into your space and paint for fifteen minutes. Smaller! You need to pick up your paintbrush…

Every big action starts with a tiny action.

This is actually a trick I play on myself when I try to enter art shows. One thing I do is imagine myself as two separate people, my ID and superego if you will, the first one is like my inner child: impulsive, lazy, only wants to do easy and fun things, but the second is my rational, adult brain that can think about things long term. I imagine the mature adult brain as a parent or teacher to the inner child. Wants them to achieve and do their best, but not be a cruel slave driver.

I have these little conversations that go like this:

Mature Ashley: Alright, Child Ashley! We just turned on our computer, and now it’s time to enter some art shows!

Child Ashley: No! I don’t feel like it! I just want to play video game instead!

M.A.: I know… I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you open the internet? If you still feel like playing video games, we’ll do that.

C.A.: Okay that sounds easy! (opens internet)

M.A.: Good job! Now, type http://www.callsforartists.com…

C.A.: Okay! Yay! I opened the website! I accomplished something!

M.A.: Very good! Here’s a place that wants art that we have, open the website and upload one picture and fill out the information…

See? Little steps. I have been exhibited in three shows last year because I practiced this trick. It’s easier to accomplish what you really know you ought to do if you let yourself enjoy several micro accomplishments along the way. Sometimes those microaccomplishments will seem daunting, so you can break THOSE down even more. Human beings are very creative, so you will find a way to do this.

There are many microsteps in between, but it’s super helpful. In the long term, I want to want to run on the treadmill for 20 minutes, but I feel good if I can get through five minutes, then then the next five aren’t so bad, and so on.

2. The Pomodoro Technique.

6969282632_bc5249a9a6_bNow that you’ve mastered the art of getting started, what if you decided one of the things you really want to do is dedicated a long block of time to making art, or working on your business? Doing long blocks of time is really daunting, but there’s a strategy for that too.

The Pomodoro Technique was a strategy invented by Francesco Cirillo. It’s a time strategy named after his timer which was shaped like a tomato. He would set his tomato timer for twenty minutes, do his work (and nothing but his work), then when the tomato dinged, he would make a check mark on a piece of paper, then take a five minute break, then set the timer again. After he made four checkmarks, he would up the time. He would instead have a 45 minute work block, then fifteen minute breaks.

When I adopted this, when I decided to have these short bursts of time hyper focused on my work, I was doing three times as much work as I would normally do.

3. Write a Distraction List

The Pomodoro Technique is good for helping yourself get focused for short periods of time, but what if you find yourself wanting to Google

Now, most of us, especially the youngest of us are easily distracted (personally, I blame [insert technology here]) with increasing diagnosis of ADD. To counteract this, The Art of Manliness suggests having a “Distraction List” when something comes to mind, you write it down and say you will wait and attend to it on your break, which is coming soon anyway. Now, for the life of me, I remember finding the distraction list in the Art of Manliness’ article about building willpower, or an article related to it, but I can’t find it now.

I found hand writing a distraction list when I worked on the computer took too long. Instead, I used the Sticky Notes program on my computer and typed it. My distraction lists grew quite long, but oftentimes, whatever “distracted” me stopped being distracting simply by typing it out on the virtual sticky note.

4. Treat the Schedule as your Tool, Not Your Slave Master

There’s a pretty good chance that you hate schedules, and no wonder! Schedules are so constraining, there’s this list of things you need to do. You need to wake up, brush your teeth, take this class, and this class, go to your job, do your homework, you have a big paper to write, and finally at the end of the day, you just want to play video games, binge watch Netflix, or veg on your phone because hey, you earned it.

Artists need to be free, not be constrained by something as petty and archaic as a schedule. That’s what I used to think anyway.

I found that it’s much more helpful to rethink the role of the schedule. Instead of thinking about the schedule like it’s a slave driver, think of you as the master of it. Human beings are ritualistic creatures. As much as we like to think of ourselves as free spirits, we function better when we have normal times to eat, normal sleeping schedules, and repeats of the same thing every day.

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Instead of thinking of the schedule as something monotonous, think of it as something that will help you achieve and live the life YOU want to have, versus what your boss/teachers want you to have. Have a normal time of day to wake up, then incorporate a specific time to do art. After weeks, and especially after months of doing this, your artistic abilities, business, etc will have improved and progressed much better than if you have only created art when you felt like it.

Many of us like to sleep late if given the choice, but I changed my morning schedule so that I wake up two hours earlier than I need to leave to work.

When I was trying to find a strategy for writing better papers in the morning, I found a psychiatrist I greatly admired in his paper-writing rubric that he suggested consistently waking up in the morning, and that there was a lot of scientific evidence that suggested that people are more creative in the morning. After being desperate enough to be willing to try anything, I tried this, and it worked wonders! Not only could I write faster and more intelligently, but when I carried this over to my art practice after having graduated college, I found that I’m more sure of myself, more creative, and paint more beautifully in the mornings than any other time of day.

I like to use Instagram as an example, if you don’t post good quality art consistently, you will find yourself losing followers pretty quickly who have made it part of THEIR routine to look at your posts when they come out.

Another thing to consider. If you don’t take control of your schedule, OTHERS WILL. Your boss, your teachers, etc. You may not like the idea of schedules, but I think you might like idea of SOMEONE ELSE ruling over your schedule even less.

How familiar is this story? You wake up at the latest you can get away with waking up to get to work on your time, you go to work, then you come home tired wanting to do nothing more that sit in front of the TV or veg out on your phone or computer.

Worse yet, you willingly use your boss or job as an excuse to not do anything to pursue your dream of becoming a great artist because your job sucks everything out of you.

5. Above All… Remember That it’s Okay to Fail.

I think too many people find that once they do dedicate themselves to something, something outside their control happens that throws their goals off kilter. Maybe you’ve been painting for 20 minutes every day. A couple weeks went by, then one day, you just really can’t get out of bed, or you’re sick, or some big event happens that throws your routine off balance.

The truth is, we’re human. we’re naturally lazy and have a hard time keeping ourselves disciplined. Whenever you set off to do anything, you need to keep this in mind, and not be surprised… or discouraged… when you slip up.

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Be Kind to Yourself sounds like a cheesy motivational poster, but yeah, be kind to yourself. 

You need to remember that it’s okay. This doesn’t make you a failure. You’re still the same worthwhile human being as when you started. The greatest thing is that you’re still alive. You still have some time ahead of you. If you slip up one day, maybe you’ll feel awful, but you can always try again the next day.

If you allow this room to forgive yourself (again, thinking of yourself as a loving and encouraging care-taker that praises your inner child for little accomplishments).

Here are some links I recommend to help you be a more productive artist:

  1. Med School Insiders – This channel is geared at med students, but they have a lot of techniques that can help you be more productive. This is where I first learned about the Pomodoro Technique.
  2. The Art of Manliness – While this website may be targeted at men, they have a lot of good advice on how to focus, build Willpower, finding meaning in your life (which I think is the most important part of becoming an artist) and. I and other female artists do recommend these guys greatly.
  3. Simon Sinek – I’ve been listening to Simon Sinek a lot at work lately. I highly recommend him because he talks about how you need to know “Why” you do things. Some things he helped me realize is that art shouldn’t be about creating that one masterpiece or be in that one museum, but instead playing the long game where you’re trying to always just be a better artist than what you were yesterday, which I think helps reconciles and keeps you encouraged when things like that feeling of your art being inferior when you encounter an artist who’s better than you.
  4. Thomas Frank – or College Info Geek –  This man probably changed my life forever and is the reason I’m able to wake up at 5 am every day. He has a lot of videos mostly geared at college students and how they can better stay, stay organized, and stay motivated, but he introduced me to a lot of mindsets, tricks, and apps to better wake up, paint, and go to work with the feeling that I gained some semblance of control over my life rather than rolling out of bed with the immediate knowledge that a job I hate is coming up immediately after.

 

 

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