Looking Sideways

Procrastination affects everyone, but I think it’s particularly bad for artists and freelancers.  We are generally our own bosses, at least in the sense that our deadlines are self-imposed.  Procrastination may lose us a client, but it won’t get us fired.   And it’s hard to create motivation when the consequences are self-inflicted rather than external. 

Personally, I battle writer’s block and procrastination on a regular basis.  I fight it when I’m writing blog posts.  Who’s really going to notice if I skip this week? I’ll catch myself thinking.  What’s the worst thing that could happen if I miss a deadline, just this once?

Email is even worse.  I can easily get hundreds of messages in a day.  I often find myself procrastinating my replies, because I don’t know how to solve the problem of my overflowing inbox.

It’s hard to attack a problem head-on.

It’s hard to attack a problem head-on when I’m blocked.  Because I get stuck so frequently, I’ve come up with a number of methods to get out of a rut.   I will often try to sit down and willpower through a large amount of work in one batch.   If that doesn’t work, I will try to walk past my problems. And sometimes I have to acknowledge that I’m just prewriting. 

But occasionally, none of these direct solutions work.  In these rare cases, I’ve learned how to look at a problem sideways. 

It’s actually a technique I gleaned from an art instructor I modeled for.  When an artist is drawing the human form, it’s very common for a body part (or two or three) to be problematic.

Say you’re having trouble drawing the model’s arm.   You rework it again and again, but it never fixes the problem.  Actually, each time you re-draw it, you often end up introducing new problems instead.  Maybe the angle of the elbow joint is wrong now, or the limb is too long or too thick.  You get to the point where you don’t have any new ideas on how to fix it, so you try to ignore it instead.  You procrastinate.

At this point, you won’t solve the problem by trying to tackle it head-on.  But you have another option besides redrawing it time and time again.  Instead of approaching it straight on, you can look at it out of the corner of your eye. 

With drawing, looking at a problem sideways is easy.  If you can’t get the shape of an arm, draw the negative space on either side of it.  Concentrating on negative space forces you to stop thinking of the figure you’re drawing as a person, and makes you look at abstract shapes instead.  It makes your brain think about the problem differently.  The arm ends up properly drawn as a side effect.

The same process of reframing a problem can be applied to other fields.  When I get overwhelmed by all of the emails I have to answer, I tend to alternate between trying to power through all of them at once and ignoring my inbox completely.  It becomes a horrible cycle, and it’s something that I’m honestly still working on. 

However, I know better than to attack a problem like that head on.  Instead of worrying about what seems like an endless pile of email, I should be looking at what’s around it.  I’ve recently applied a new system  that changes what emails I look at, when I see them, and how they’re organized.  Changing systems forced me to reframe my problem, instead of obsessing over the growing number of emails I had to write.  What the new system consists of doesn’t really matter—it doesn’t do anything about the number of emails that I have to answer in a given day.  But it does get me over the obstacles to actually answering them.

It’s the same with writing.  If I find myself procrastinating after I’ve tried all of my writer’s block tricks, I often find it’s not actually writing that’s the problem.  Maybe I forgot to eat (this happens far more frequently than I care to admit), or maybe I didn’t schedule myself enough time around modeling gigs that week to tackle a particularly challenging essay topic. 

Of course this solution isn’t for everything—if just powering through is working, then there’s no need to try anything else.  But when it isn’t, I’ve found looking at problems obliquely to be a very useful concept for getting me out of my own way.