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I have a problem with productivity. Maybe some of you have experienced this, too. Over time, nearly every long-term creative endeavor I’ve undertaken has hit a wall where progress stops coming naturally and creation becomes a chore. Day jobs are even more susceptible to this (and how).
This marks the point where I become prone to distraction, which breeds low productivity, then low confidence, and back around to more distraction, and on and on. A downward spiral I have to imagine lots of you have ridden.
I’m naturally attracted to self-improvement. I gobble up blogs and books about how doers do. Productivity porn has been a vice. Over the past several months, I’ve been talking with a brain science coach to identify paths toward productivity and satisfaction. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I’m prone to distraction–most confounding when doing things I should be enjoying–and what strategies I can employ to counteract it.
The lines are starting to converge, and it starts with “flow.”
Going With The Flow
Any of you, who create comics, write, draw, or engage in other creative tomfoolery, have more likely than not experienced flow. Creatives inevitably have experiences in which the act of creating takes over our whole awareness. You’re “in the zone.” The perception of self-fades, and the perception of time twists–hours fly by like minutes, while split-second events spread out in slow motion.
This phenomenon is defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (glad this is a blog and not a podcast, ’cause I’d butcher that name) as “a state of optimal experience.” A condition he calls flow. According to theory, there are a handful of specific attributes to a flow experience, and although the nature of these traits may mean some people are more naturally prone to flow (look up the “autotelic personality”), their existence also means even the less fortunate of us can practice techniques to dip into that creative nirvana.
For the sake of clarity, let me define the qualities of flow, per Mihaly C.:
1) One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
2) The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.
3) One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
(Thank you for that summary, Wikipedia.)
For my money, flow is vital to long-term creative productivity. Anyone can have a fortuitous moment of optimal experience, but it takes an intrinsic motivator like flow to create on demand day after day, to improve over time, and to still find the enjoyment that keeps you going when all other motivations fail (money for comics, anyone?). In fact, being someone who’s prone to distraction and confounded by ambiguity, I’ve come to realize that flow is vital to overall satisfaction in life, let alone success in making funny pictures. And that’s exactly what Mihaly C. is saying: the happiest and most successful people tend to be the ones who most frequently enter states of flow.
But there’s a catch:
The kind of low self-confidence we creators often feel–the kind bred by confusion (What should I write next? How do I compose this scene? Egad, horses are hard to draw!) or dispassion (Really? More spreadsheets?) — is a killer of flow. The potentially enjoyable activity becomes a confidence-murdering or mind-numbing chore. At this point, cat videos are the natural choice. Sure beats inner turmoil.
Flow is defeated.
It looks like mindfulness–the practice of being attentive to the present moment, and tuning out concerns of the self, the past, or the future–can bring us back to flow. Better yet, mindfulness is a learnable and practicable skill. There are techniques you can employ. I’ve found short bursts of meditation helpful to refocus my attention, like a minute of concentrated breathing at my desk, or paying close attention to the feel of my steps on the pavement as I walk from the car to my office. Another tool: repurposing of daily distractions (jangling phones, email notifications) into reminders, like a ringing chime, that say: “pay attention to where you are right now!” Tricks like these make the mind flow-ready, and bypass the flow-killers.
To elaborate: Mindfulness turns off self-consciousness and activates attention to all aspects of the moment; the self-fades away and you just act in the way your ingrained skills tell you. This, in turn, allows entry to a state of flow, which subsequently brings productivity and contentment.
Personally, though, I’m still having a hard time breaking through blocks built of confusion and ambiguity. Unclear paths are a big part of long-term creative endeavors (Structuring a graphic novel, anyone? A viable business plan for webcomics, perhaps?), and the nature of ambiguity means there’s no single way to skin your cat. I thrive on clarity and suffer without a clearly marked road, so the idea of carving a business out of a jungle with a machete made of talent, practice, and adaptability just plain stinks, as far as I’m concerned.
Maybe I just haven’t gotten far enough in my practice of mindfulness techniques, but the hard truth is that I don’t like feeling lost, and it’s hard to want to be “in the moment,” when the moment consists of you, stranded, in the middle of nowhere.
So, this is where I start thinking about improv-artists. Lack of a clear road doesn’t dissuade a good improviser. Jazz musicians, interpretive dancers, and improv-comedians all have a set of skills they practice that makes them broadly empowered, but when they “go with the flow,” they’re letting muscle memory and instinct decide how to apply those skills.
There’s an anecdote I’ve heard about a group of mountain climbers who became lost in the Swiss Alps. Confronted by a harsh icy death, they were elated when one of them found a map buried in his gear. The followed the map, and made it back to civilization.
It was only then that they discovered they’d been following a map of the Pyreneese Mountains.
The speaker who shared this story had a theory about how they survived: They moved. It didn’t matter what the map was, but rather that they followed something. They didn’t sit still, a recipe for certain doom. They picked a direction–any direction–and moved.
If those explorers had been overly focused on whether their direction was the right one, they may have wound up doubling back, walking in circles, and going nowhere definitive. This is where improv-artists seem to excel: They know they have the basic skills needed to “climb the mountain,” and beyond that, they shut out self-doubt and do what comes naturally. They pick any direction and follow it.
Conquering confusion may be about turning off the conscious mind that’s prone to low confidence, uncertainty, and the resultant act of overthinking. Assuming you have a solid foundation of creative skills, and understand your strengths, then the challenge is shutting off doubt with mindfulness long enough to enter flow. Once there, you’ll respond naturally because your conscious mind is fully occupied with all aspects of the present moment, rather than the uncertainty brewing in the self.
Putting It All Together
Here’s the whole formula, in a nutshell:
Mindfulness short-circuits self-consciousness and promotes awareness, which beget flow, maintained by foundational strengths and focus on the moment, which leads to satisfaction and productivity, bringing success and satisfaction.
At least, that’s the theory I’ve strung together.
Now’s the part where I pull out that machete, take a swing at the overgrowth, and see if I can make it out the other side. If you don’t hear from me, I may be lost in the cat videos again. Come throw me a rope, okay? We all need rescuing sometimes.
Brain Science Coaching (Blog):
Chris Watkins is the creator of Odori Park (www.odoripark.com), the pseudo-autobiographical adventures of a mixed-culture marriage, and has a long and sordid history in webcomics. By day, he disguises himself as a user experience design professional.