We all have things we want make happen. It can be overwhelming and discouraging to try to manage all of life’s responsibilities while still making time to do the things we love. It is common to look at a really successful artists and think they must have been sprinkled with pixie dust at birth. You might think you could never be that good so why even try? However, the truth is that every great artist once had to learn how to draw, and to persevere. Once momentum is built, creating can seem effortless. However, we all fall off track from time to time and it can be difficult to get back on. I have learned some tricks over the years to overcome this, and I would like to share them with you here.
”Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Since I had my very first homework assignment in 1st grade, good old procrastination and I have been very familiar with each other. I am comfortable with procrastination. It is like a soft security blanket, reassuring me and helping me justify the fact that the pressing matter can wait until tomorrow, or the next day, or next week.
Most people procrastinate on the things that matter most to them. These things matter so much that for some reason it’s scary or you are too tired from other responsibilities in your life to get started. It becomes easier to choose to put it off until tomorrow or some day.
There is a common misconception that to be an artist you have to love every minute of every day doing it, and if you don’t, then you shouldn’t be doing it at all. In truth though, whenever you are full time at something, no matter how in love you are with the thing, there is bound to come a time when you don’t feel like doing it. It can take some discipline to show up every day to get started and that is totally normal. Sometimes when this happens, a break is usually needed, or you need to be re-charged with some kind of inspiring experience like an outing, a movie or a good book. Maybe you need another outlet for a minute (Mine is cooking or writing). Other times it’s just that good old resistance getting in the way and you need to learn how to distinguish the two and know when to take a break or when push yourself.
I had a rough time in grade school because of procrastination. I look back on it and wish I had the skills to overcome it. Once I joined the Atelier, I noticed it disappear. Suddenly I was on top of things. I was moving ahead like a steady train. Every day I was excited to get to work, and was thrilled that I was working on my dream and improving my skills. As the months went by, my momentum only increased. Once I eventually began working at home though, I felt procrastination creep back into my life again. It made me sink into a little bit of depression and I felt like the light in me was going out. The weight of my bottom line hurt the relationship I had with painting. Fear of not being able to make ends meet can make it difficult to focus and enjoy it. Over time (and this is still a work in progress) I have learned ways of overcoming the limiting beliefs and procrastination that keep me from doing the things that matter to me the most.
Working towards the ultimate good.
Looking around and finding something or someone who embodies the values and virtues that you yourself want to possess. Reading good books, and finding out what kind of person you find most interesting, most inspiring, and learning about them. Learn what actions they take to achieve that ideal, and emulate those things into your day to day life. Figuring out what kind of person you want to be and building a life mission around it, helps steer your everyday actions and decisions. This doesn’t mean trying to be someone other than yourself, but rather being the best version of you that you possibly can.
Put it on paper.
Once you figure out what is important to you and what inspires you, decide on some goals and write them down. Under each goal, break it down into as many small steps as you can think of. You can’t make too many small steps, even if it seems obvious, write it down. I find it important to do this monthly. I sit down and figure out what I want to accomplish each month, and then break down each goal into small steps.
Schedule your ideal day.
In the morning, or before bed the night before, look at your lists and pick one or two small tasks from each list to schedule in your day. I realize it is hard to find extra time these days to do the things we want to do for ourselves, but what most people don’t understand is that you don’t need to devote hours at a time to these things. 10 or even 5 minutes are better than none at all. Over time this kind of dedication can yield big results. Start by noting what times in your day you are interrupted the least and make that your work time to start. When you are not feeling motivated, think about your mentors and the person you want to become and then picture yourself already there. Chances are you will want to keep going. We all have the same 24 hours in the day, so make a schedule that you are happy with and that brings you the most productivity.
Because we are human, and the inevitable lazy day is bound to happen, make things easier for yourself and create an environment with triggers that will get you in the mind set to get to work.
* For me, always having my tools laid out and a comfortable, inspiring place to get to work is key. If I have to dig through unorganized drawers to find raw umber or a palette knife, I am less likely to get to work.
* Get ready for work. Even if you just got home from a full day at your day job and are fatigued, freshening up can give you the feeling of a clean slate. Take a bath or shower, drink a big glass of water, use the bathroom, put on some fresh clean comfy clothes... brush your teeth. I realize it sounds like you’re getting ready for bed, but for me it means getting comfortable and ready for work. Doing these things makes me feel re-charged.
* A cup of coffee, or tea always triggers that work mode in my mind.
* Listening to music or an art history lecture on YouTube gets me excited to work also.
Do what most people aren’t willing to do.
The most important thing though, is to just do it. As a kid, Ulan had family members that used to tell him “Do something even if it’s wrong!” Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Put your phone on do not disturb (or in the other room), tell your family you will not be available, and set a timer. If you are really feeling the resistance, set the timer for just 5 minutes. After 8 years of practicing this, I can say with confidence as an extremely lazy individual, that if I put in 5 minutes, it is very likely that I will put in more, because the hard part isn’t continuing past 5 minutes. It’s showing up and setting the timer. Even if I am tired to start, focusing on a project ( like a painting ) invigorates me and I end up forgetting I was tired at all, and sometimes 6 or more hours go by of intense focus. The truth is, you never know how far you can go or what you can do in this life. Not doing something just because you are tired is what most people do. Anyone who has ever become great at anything have been willing to do what most people aren’t willing to do.
Don’t beat yourself up.
In the beginning, if you only put in five minutes, be happy that you took a small step in the right direction and aim to do more tomorrow. The important part is consistency. Make sure you are putting some time in every day, or a set amount of time a week. If you want to be a better draftsman, put in 10 minutes every morning sketching from anatomy books. If that feels daunting, break that down and start with tracing paper. Imagine how much your understanding of human anatomy would grow just by tracing the pictures in anatomy books a little bit every day. Start small and work bigger.
It’s never too late.
As corny as it sounds, it’s true. So what if it takes 5 years to get really good at something? Time goes by really fast and when the time comes, to everyone else, it will seem sudden. Think about what you were doing 5 years ago. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, and if you had practiced say, the guitar for 5 minutes a day for the past 5 years, you might be playing some really beautiful music by now. Make your future-self happy and do something today.
Failure is necessary.
There would be no learning without failure. If you start something new, expect to be really bad at it for a while. As representational artists, we often set impossibly high standards for ourselves and the constant effort and lack of recognition can be heart breaking at times. You have to ruin a lot of paintings before you make a good one.
A different perspective.
John Singer Sargent, one of America’s most famous portrait painters, had Laborare est orare, meaning, “to work is to pray” engraved on his headstone. Ernest Meissonier, another prominent painter, had a crest decorating his mansion and studio that bore the motto: Omnia Labor, meaning “everything by work”. The most successful people who have ever lived know the importance of consistent work, and maintaining momentum. A shift in focus to the process and the little things that make the journey enjoyable, can make all the difference.
Each time you set to work, you are bettering yourself. So even if you fail, or it takes a long time to gain any recognition from others, you won’t be bothered because your love for the work in itself is sustaining.