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.

Walking Past Writer’s Block

When my bandmate and I were working on our very first project together, we got a horrific case of writer’s block.  We were composing a song for a charity album to raise money for the American Cancer Society.  We wanted the lyrics to be meaningful—particularly because of the target audience—but we were stumped.

Conventional wisdom told us that the solution to our problem was “ass in chair:” if we wanted to get through our block, the only thing to do was write more.  We had to keep working, keep banging our head against the wall until we had made something worthwhile.  

We tried this advice for weeks.  We would meet almost every night in front of my piano and work for hours, brainstorming lyric ideas and trying out snippets of melody lines.  All we got for our effort was increasingly frustrated.  Out of desperation, my bandmate recommended one afternoon that we should take a walk.

My bandmate had been using walks to clarify his thoughts since college, so he thought the change of scenery might help us as well.  But we soon realized that our walk was much more than a change of scenery: it had turned into an adventure.

As soon as we got out of the studio, we started rediscovering the world around us.  We found a neighborhood horse and several cats to befriend.  We went hunting for the strangest color mushrooms and fungus we could find after it rained, and found honeycombs scattered across the ground from an old hive shattered by the storm.

All of these small details reminded us about what we noticed when we were kids, and soon we were rediscovering our childhood as well.  We explored old abandoned buildings and planned pranks.  He taught me how to skip rocks for the first time in the rain-swollen river. 

The more that we explored and discovered, the more we realized that we were also discovering and exploring the theme to our song.  The lyrics that had previously kept us stuck became about remembering as an adult what we missed about being a kid.  We wrote about lost innocence rediscovered and the feelings of home.  We finally had something to talk about.

*     *     *

There’s a well-known quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.”  I had always liked the quote, but I had never thought to apply it to writer’s block until my we literally walked our way into the same solution.  

Now when I get stuck on a creative project, I have two options.  First, I can put my butt in a chair and hope that I create something worthwhile through my hard work and dedication.  Sometimes working through a block really is the best option—just not always.  I find it only works when I’m struggling with implementation, but I already know what I want to do.  

Second, instead of trying to power through, I can inspire myself with new ideas.  I can go on an adventure.  Whether it’s just a walk or some other type of experience entirely, I can go do something worth writing about.