What to Do When You’re too Creative

I have been slowly coming to the realization that this is my life. I feel pulled in too many directions; there’s too much on my plate; there are things I’ve been meaning to do for ages, but never seem to have the time and/or energy to do it.

I sat down one day and accounted for my time. I found that I have 2.5 non-consecutive hours per weekday for working on projects and relaxing/ having fun, plus two weekend days.

Then I made another list of things which I am trying to get done or would like to get done. I had fifteen items on my list. And that doesn’t count the fact that one of those items–medieval re-enacting–has many sub-hobbies, such as sewing, embroidery, weaving, spinning, illumination, basketweaving, shoe-making, etc. If I were to count up all the sub-hobbies that I do or want to do, my project list would nearly double.

Is it any wonder, then, that there has been dirt and containers sitting on my porch for a year because I never got around to gardening last year? Is it any wonder that when I started seedlings last year, I neglected them and they died and I never replanted? Is it surprising that I started a costuming experiment (and, if successful, I would like to publish a research paper on it) but I put it aside when it was only half-completed and I still haven’t finished it 3 (or has it been 4?) years later? Or that I have a large embroidery project about 1/4th complete and sitting in a frame in my living room, collecting dust?

Even more embarrassing is that all I need to do on my first book are some grammar and typo corrections. When I have those done, I can send it to a publisher. Yet I’ve barely completed any of them and it’s probably been close to a year since I started. My second book needs its first round of edits (I think of these as serious edits, where entire scenes and even parts of the plot may be changed), but I’ve not worked on it in quite a while. I’ve made no progress on my third book either. And my romance book needs its first round of edits, then a round of typo edits so I can send it to a publisher.

I think this is probably true for a lot of creative types. We don’t get a great idea or want to learn a new skill–we have a lot of ideas and want to do a lot things. I know when I’m in a creative mood–and this was true of me even when I was a child making crafts to sell–I come up with ideas faster than I can implement them–each better than the last. Sometimes, when I’m working on a story, I can’t type it fast enough. Woe be to me if I’m somewhere where I can’t immediately write down a new idea in my head; if I wait, I’ll lose it. (This is, incidentally, why I write my stories out of order; I have to write what’s on my mind and figure out a way to connect the pieces later.)

Judaism talks about the fact that there are two forces in the world which are ultimately represented by male and female (this concept is also found Taoism–as most commonly illustrated by the yin-yang symbol). One force, which is male, is creative and contains unlimited potential. Men make millions of sperm, any one of which–or all of them–can become a child. The female force, however, is limiting action. A woman’s ovary only produces a single egg per cycle and she’s born with a limited number of eggs. But once the child is conceived, she builds it into a human being.

Male = potential, but also procrastination and incompleteness
Female = action and completion, but also limitation and stagnation

If you look at a yin-yang, there is no hard dividing line between the two opposites; they’re supposed to flow gently in and out of each other. Also, a solid kernel of each must reside in the other.

My problem is that I’ve been too yang lately; I’m not in balance. I’m constantly coming up with ideas for projects–even starting some of them–but finishing next to none of them. That’s why I have to give up some of my hobbies/projects to work on others. As the old saying goes, something has to give.

Blogger/Writer Scott Young mentions in a post that he has the same problem:

My old notebooks are filled of half-started ideas, vague projects and uncompleted dreams. It took me awhile to realize that this enthusiasm was great, but unless I was able to direct and focus it, my ideas would forever remain inside my head.

What changed was that I realized being a quick starter and rare finisher is just another form of debilitating perfectionism. Instead of sticking through the practical realities of my goals, I wanted to start again, where every idea was perfect in conception.

Once I realized that finishing, not starting, was the key, I started putting emphasis on it. I’d finish projects that had flaws, just because I had committed to finishing them. I’d try to make my existing path work instead of finding a new one. I’d start less, because I took my commitments to start more seriously.

Sound familiar?

He goes on to an interesting idea. He essentially separates experiments from commitments. What’s the difference? My understanding of the concept is that an experiment is something you do for fun–something you just try. In short, you have no goal. For instance, I took a class on basketweaving and later bought myself a kit to make a basket. I need to be realistic: while I enjoy basketweaving–and it’s great to have a basic knowledge of the skill, in case, you know, I ever live through the apocalypse and I need to make myself baskets to aid me in my fetching and toting of foodstuffs–I don’t want to become a professional basketweaver. I don’t even want to make it my primary hobby. I just want to learn the basics and then be done with it.

However, I do want to be a professional writer. That’s my goal, and I need to do work which will help me reach (and retain) that goal.

That’s the difference between an experiment and a commitment: one is generally short-term, one is generally long term; one is for fun and has no real goal, but the other is serious and has a goal which needs to be obtained; one you try out, to see if you like it, but the other you commit to finishing.

Once you have identified what you actually want to accomplish versus that which just seems like something fun which you might like to do, then what? My thought is that you need to limit both, but much more so the experiments. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do any experiments–you should–but I think one at a time is plenty. Do one and do it until you’re bored with it or find something you’d like to do better. Then, instead of telling yourself you’ll do both, drop the first thing and move on.

You can handle more commitments, but how many depends on how much time you have. I’m thinking one commitment per 8 hours of free time. I have roughly four 8-hour periods per week. So which four commitments will I undertake? (Remember, this is down from a list of 15+!)

  1. Conversion. I am going to spend the next year working with a rabbi to convert. This means reading and writing assignments, plus meetings and synagogue attendance weekly. If I also throw in a little Hebrew study on my Sabbaths, boom, there’s one 8-hour period filled up. Needless to say, my goal is to become a Jew and to read a portion of Torah.
  2. Home Improvements. As finances allow, I want to do some redecorating–namely I want to faux plaster and paint our paneled walls. This will cover a multitude of sins–like cat-scratches–and get us out of freaking 1986. (I think this will also make us enjoy our home more; when something is ugly to you, you can hardly appreciate it.) My goal is to redo the bedroom and the kitchen over the next year. This, along with general home upkeep (i.e. cleaning) will take up my Sundays.
  3. Writing. This also includes blogging, marketing, and publishing. I do this mostly in the evenings after work. My goal this year is to 1) finish the edits on my first book and submit it to a publisher; 2) finish the edits on my romance novel and submit it to a publisher; 3) publish 2 more short stories. Notice my goals are about finishing my work; I never lack for energy to start it.
  4. Exercise. The only way I lose weight is if I exercise. Walking a half-mile every once in a while or doing yoga on the Wii once a week is not sufficient. My ass needs to be out of the bed every morning and doing 20-30 minutes of something 7 days a week. Plus, I need to leave the house early so I can park 1/2 mile from work and walk the rest of the way. Being outside twice a day has the added bonus of getting me some Vitamin D, plus I do some good thinking while I’m walking. My goal for this year is to be able to touch my toes and do a real/full push-up (you may laugh, but unless you’re a gym rat, you likely can’t do them either; if you don’t work on your strength and flexibility regularly, you lose both).

My experiment for the year is gardening. As soon as I get back from vacation next week, I’m going to start some seedlings and plant some things. And when funds allow, I also want to turn the section of our backyard known as the “Lawnmower Death Strip” into a rock garden (so we never have to attempt to mow or weedeat it again). If I kill my garden, I don’t like doing it, don’t do it at all, etc. then I will forever abandon the idea of one day turning our 5 acres into a self-sustaining mini-farm or a thing of landscaped beauty and I will give away my containers and dirt. So, worst-case scenario, come October I will be rid of buckets and dirt sitting on our porch. At best, I will like gardening and eating what I produce, so it will become a yearly commitment.

Everything that’s not part of one of those goals is going to be suspended. I am going to shelve my sewing machines and clear off my sewing table (which is really a junk table right now, there are so many unfinished projects on it) so I can use it to pursue one of my goals. (Imagine being able to sit down at a clear table and draft story outlines, gardening plans, or read!)

Now it’s time to evaluate your life and:

  1. Find out how much free time you really have. When I figured my time, I subtracted time spent sleeping, eating, bathing/grooming, working, and commuting from 24 hours. These are the things that I do everyday, 5-7 days a week, all year long. You may need to subtract hours for watching television, reading, playing on the computer or anything else that you do religiously and/or can’t do without.
  2. Figure out how many 8 hour blocks of time you have available to you. If you have a partial day, you may want to round up so you can do another commitment, or you may want to round down and give yourself some down time. If you have a very small chunk of time, you may want to go back up to #1 and see if you’ve allotted time daily for something (like TV watching) that you might be willing to give up in order to do something else.
  3. Pick one commitment to do per 8-hour block of time, plus add on one experiment. Whatever is not on your to-do list, don’t do it.

What if your problem is not having too much to do but not doing anything at all? (I.e. you’re stagnating or feel bored with life.) This list works for you, too, only instead of narrowing your focus, fill up your time. At least do an experiment (everyone should do an experiment; it’s what keeps life interesting).

If you’re feeling constantly stressed, have health issues, or are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, then don’t take on the maximum number of commitments. Leave time open to just relax. Veg in front of the TV or with a book; nap; spend time alone in a park or quiet place. Sometimes your “commitment” has to be to your health and sanity.

The other benefit to defining (and limiting) your commitments and setting goals is that there is suddenly no room for anything else. If you are a person who constantly says “yes,” making a list (and putting it where you can see it regularly!) will help you say, “no.” If you are asked to chair some committee or lead some project, or bake cookies for the entire school, you can just consult your list of commitments–if that sort of volunteer is not on your list, then just say “no.”

My list is a year-long list because it’s going to take me a year to accomplish #1 and #2. I’m hoping to make exercise an integral and habitual part of my day, so next year–when I sit down and do all of this again–it will be a line item on my day, just like sleeping and eating. There’s also the hope than in a few years my writing will become my full-time job, so I’ll be doing it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and I will free that slot for something else.

I suppose you could make your list for less than a year–namely if your commitments are short in duration. If you are the type of person who seems to live life on fast forward, you may take on one experiment and/or one commitment per month, two months, or quarterly. If you have more leisure time than the average American, you may reach goals in 6 months that would take others a year to do. So there’s some flexibility, but do remember this is not about setting short-term goals but things which require a lot of time and effort.

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3 comments on “What to Do When You’re too Creative

  1. Wallace says:

    Very nice ambition. Most people would confine their actions to just two goals; their day to day life of eating, sleeping, working, etc.; and their second goal of presuing their Dream. You’ve picked five goals. Besides day to day life and writing, you’ve added conversion, home improvement, and exercise. I hope this turns out better than your experiment with making lists and checking things off. As I recall that ended with the list making being an end in itself that ultimately led nowhere.

    I’m not sure how strong your desire for spiritual emlightenment is, but I’d bet that, given human nature, exercise and home improvement are going to end up as dusty weights and unworn track shoes and half plaster and unpainted walls. If it’s any help, I’ve always found that most goals are more rigourously pursued and ultimately accomplished if you don’t do them alone.

    You’ll have regular appointments with your rabbi to help you in your conversion, but you’ll be alone in the others. I think you can drive your own desires enough to finish your writing, but not your other goals. If you can get Stewart involved in the home improvements and have him be your helper and partner, then they are far more likely to not only get started, but actually done.

    I’m not sure what you can do about the exercise. Parking your car a half mile from work is a fine idea, until you’re running late one day, or it’s raining, or it’s summer and you show up at work soaked in sweat. Any exercise routine that’s centered around work is bound to fail. You don’t want to show up for work late, or sweaty, or still wet from the shower. You can’t always take an exercise for lunch if work runs long, and if you can, it’s the same late, sweaty, wet syndrom that prevents pre work exercise. And after work is even worse since you’ll be tired, hungry, and just want to get home and relax after a hard day at work.

    And evening exercise is just as bad since there’s dinner to make and laundry to do and the house to clean; and let’s not forget about conversion and writing and home improvement, all of which take place in the evening.

    Good luck on your objectives, but if you just get by living day to day and get just one other thing done this year, consider yourself fortunate and better off than most people.

    • keripeardon says:

      Well, do remember that I whittled that list of 5 down from a list of over 15! So I feel more confident that I can meet some goals. At the very least, I’m no worse off than I was before in terms of not accomplishing anything.

      And this is how I spend my free time. If I’m not writing, gardening, studying, painting, or exercising, what will I be doing? We don’t have TV or high speed internet. I don’t like talking on the phone or texting. All of my video games are old and have been beaten at least once. I have two days and 12.5 hours to fill up, so it might as well be with one of these projects.

      I do have a plan for the home improvement: do the bathroom first. And, actually, our toilet and shower are in a separate room (I think of it as the toilet closet, because it’s really small), so that will be the first room I tackle. If things go well, then I can do the rest of the bathroom. If not, I will regroup and come up with a different plan. There’s also a deadline with it, as with the gardening: if I haven’t reached my goal in a year, then I need to give up the idea of doing it.

      Sometimes the most important thing about a to-do list (of any kind) is knowing what not to put on it. Instead of constantly feeling guilty about not getting around to XYZ, I will give myself a year to do it, and if it doesn’t get done, then it was an unrealistic expectation and I can drop it and drop the guilt with it.

      And The List (meaning a daily to-do list) was not a failure; it’s just a tool that works better when used more sparingly (for me, anyways). It DID get me out of my procrastination rut. After all, while working with it, I did finish all the filing (and have kept it up since then), caught up the billing, decluttered an old office, and right now I only have one thing in my inbox to do–and it will take me 10 minutes to complete.

      Perhaps for certain types of people (i.e. me), lists, goals, and plans have to be changed up fairly regularly in order to remain effective. Just as some medicine loses its effectiveness when used regularly over a long time, and just as your body stops improving after you’ve done the same exercise too much, so it might be with lists for me.

      I’ll have to give an update in a few months to see where I am. …Typed at my standing desk, which I still have! (Some experiments DO work.)

  2. […] idea was pretty stinging after so recently coming to the same realization myself: I have too many projects going on at once, and none of them are getting completed. I had to […]

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