Sunday, November 30, 2008

Habits that Help, and Habits that Distract

I have been thinking about habits lately. Over the last four months, I have been building the habit of getting to the gym. After four months of conscious effort, my car now seems to effortlessly drive right past my street, and head for the gym after I drop off my daughter in the morning. Before I am fully thinking about it, I am on my way to the gym.

When I began this struggle to build this habit, I would have to have these conversations with myself...."Don't head home. You need to go straight to the gym. Don't turn down our street.".....It took effort. Effort to get out of my usual habits and build new ones. Now, going to the gym is nearly as effortless as not going once was. And for me, just getting there is the biggest hurdle. Once I am there, I am there to exercise. There are no distractions. I do what I need to do, and I leave feeling better than when I got there. Tired, a little achy, but my head is clear, and maybe some endorphins have kicked into gear.

On the other hand, when I get home, it is easy to get on the computer and "check my e-mail." "Check my e-mail", is really code for; check my e-mail, read a few blogs, check the e-mail, check stats, do a search, check e-mail,.....and down into the hole that can be the internet. An hour or more can pass before I emerge from the internet stupor.

"Who am I, and where have I been? What was I going to do today?"

Maybe the internet doesn't have this effect on you, but I can easily fall down the Internet Rabbit Hole. So, here we have it. In my morning I am finding a habit that is helping me have more energy and feel better overall, and another that is sapping my energy and making me less productive. Distracting me from the work that I really want to do in my day.

It would be easy for me to rationalize this distracting behavior, or even avoiding the healthful behavior. I could skip the exercise, because I am too busy. I just don't have time for it in my schedule. And, I am doing work when I am on the computer. I can tell myself I need to be on the computer.

But these rationalizations don't move me closer to the life I would prefer to be living. I want to be healthier and more fit. That means I need to invest the time into getting to the gym. Time spent on the computer and the internet is something that cannot be avoided, and can help make connections, find out important information, and much more. But it can also leave me less time, energy and focus for the work that is more essential to me as an artist....time in my studio. The rationalization doesn't take into account what my priorities are; what it is that I want to be accomplishing in this life of mine.

The thing about these habits of distraction is that they can be sneaky. They can masquerade as being productive.

  • Do you have to straighten out your studio before you sit down to work?
  • Do you have to make sure the dishes are done and the beds made, etc., before heading for your studio?
  • Do you have to add ten more galleries to your mailing list before you do that mailing?
  • Do you have to write a post for your blog, even though you don't have anything on your mind that you want to say, but you need to write something everyday.

All these things can seem like the right thing to do. This list is by no means comprehensive. But, if you recognize yourself in any way in any of these activities, ask yourself, are those activities helping you be a more productive artist, or are they just making you feel more comfortable, and busy?....and helping you avoid the act of creating?

Let's look at one of the items; cleaning the studio. Perhaps I am trying to rationalize the mess that is my studio....but let's just go down the path a bit further before we question that motivation! I know that some people need to have order before they can begin to sit down to work. I will not question this desire. If a chaotic studio causes too much stress for you to be productive, then you need to honor that desire. But, does the activity of restoring order, give you a sense of accomplishment, without really having done any "work". Does the process of creating order shift your brain to a different place than where your true creativity arises? In the process of trying to create an environment to be creative, are you squelching your creative energy?

But you need that order.

What if,.... you developed the habit of cleaning and re-ordering your studio each day, after you are done creating. Going to that restful place of putting everything in it's place, and cleaning surfaces after the real work is done. Then in the morning, when you go into your studio, you are ready to work. You are not distracted or stressed by the mess.

For me, I find that having a bit of chaos makes it easier for me to go into the studio and get to work. It is less intimidating and scary than the blank canvas of a spotless studio. I can jump right in something that might already be in progress. I like some degree of order so I have room to work, and know where to find things, but the studio where work is always partly done feels more productive to me.

My distraction is that computer. I am not being truly productive by getting on the computer before I get into the studio. I need to shift that energy and time drain to later in the day. After I have exercised, and spent a good chunk of time in the studio.

Finding these sorts of distractions can be difficult. We have to be uncomfortably honest with ourselves, and our priorities. If your art is important to you, you have to make it a priority. If the dishes get done at the end of the day, rather than after each meal, they still get done. And if you are in your studio working, you won't see them! You can go ahead and do that mailing to the list you have, and send out more later as you add to the list.

I find I need to reassess my routine every few months. How am I spending my time? Is it moving me toward what is most important to me, or is it pulling me away? Today, I am glad to say, I stopped myself from heading for the computer after getting home and making my cup of coffee. Instead, I went into the studio, and go some work done, and enjoyed it more than I would have enjoyed that same amount of time on the computer.

Do you have any habits that need re-evaluating? What are your priorities, and are your actions supporting them?


Elaine said...

I have some of the same issue with the Internet rabbit hole, compounded by the fact that my primary income is earned on the Internet. It adds another layer of faux-legitimacy to being on the net.

What happened, in the end, was I check emails, blogs, etc. no more than 3 times a work day (so, between 6 & 6). If I check in the evening on my own time, that's fine but I often don't.

Not only that but I use an egg timer to limit the time I have for those tasks. And I try to clear through everything I can, when I do them - which is why I am commenting now, on my 'lunch hour' instead of waiting for later. Obviously some items, like posts or more complicated correspondence cannot be jotted quickly but 95% of what I write in a day is the quick stuff.

I use a similar approach to other tasks in my office / studio that can be time drains - shipping, tidying up, filing, etc. They all have set times to do them - and obviously, if they need more, I assign more but NORMALLY they are quick to knock off.

Barbara J Carter said...

Oh, yes, the computer does suck up time. But is it such a waste of time?

For me, I need a lot of what I call "percolation time" when I'm painting. Things often need to simmer on the back burner. Just standing in front of the easel for hours isn't going to do much good. Why not turn the mental downtime into something at least moderately productive, like reading other artists' blogs?

I think sometimes those of us who work alone can get a little too obsessive about how efficient or inefficient we're being. I think a little inefficiency isn't necessarily such a bad thing.

Loretta said...

Wow Judy!
You've really said something here. About a year ago now, I put myself on a "computer diet" allowing myself an hour in the morning and a quick check of email at the end of the day. I understand the pull of time bandits and the seduction of inertia.
Most of this year, I've been too busy to waste time - having way too much to do in each day. But as soon as the urgency lets up...I can turn into a slug. That's the time to be on guard against bad habits.
Also, like you said, when you're putting a new habit in place. Oh the trouble we make for ourselves.
Anyway, fabulous post. Keep up the good work at the gym - taking care of yourself is the most important part.

Lisa Clarke said...

The problem with the computer is its energy-zapping effect. That effect is what keeps me online for 2+ hours sometimes, despite the fact that it stopped being productive or even enjoyable over an hour before.

I look forward to getting the kids on the bus every morning so I can sit down, alone, with a cup of coffee and enjoy some blog-reading. My problem is forcing myself to get off the couch and do something active, once the computer experience ceases to be a positive one.

Good for you for getting to the gym every day! I hope I can be as successful with my own fitness goals in the coming months. It's an area that has traditionally been very hard for me to get self-motivated.

artandtea said...

Great post, Judy! I had a habit of turning my computer on every night when I got home from work. Because the computer was then on, it would lure me in to sit down and, inevitably, I would get lost for several hours and the evening would be almost gone. Now, I resist the urge to turn it on and find that I have been much more creative in the evenings. Now if I could only resist the urge to turn the tv on! lol

Dayle Doroshow said...

Hi Judy, great post and an ongoing balance issue for me too. My rountine now is to get up an hour earler than I use to- jump right into my speed-walking clothes(or I will alk myself out of doing it) make a cup of coffee and spend 45 min.or so on the computer while the caffeine kicks in. The off on my exercise walk, shower and right to work. The mornings up til 3PM or so are my best creative zone times. Later in the evenings(when I am not feeling creative) I do computer work again. This seems to be helping my balance.

Jess said...

I can certainly relate to this post! I love spending time on the internet, and it's compounded by the fact that my computer desk is also my creating desk! But often I drift between the two - I'll read some forums/blogs, check e-mail... then I'll shut the lid of the laptop and make something!
And then I'll hop back on again... but I do admit my time online could be reduced/better spent sometimes!

Iris Mishly said...

Judy, it seems like you are talking about.... ME!
I am a graphic web designer, working with web all day, it's so easy to keep tracking with your favorite sites, even when i get home, after few hours at work, i sometimes find myself sitting for hours, NOT EATING during those hours (which is a good thing), but it's keeping me away from the studio as you say. i think i will give Loretta's idea a chance -"computer diet" sound good...
thank you!