Episode 138: Focus Amidst the Chaos

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…a lot of us have an idea – a project – something we want to get off the ground alongside our regular work life. But so often, we can’t quite make it happen.   

“It is absolutely possible to make this year the year that you make the big thing, that everything changes for you. But YOU have to make those changes. You can’t just wish it or decide it, you have to actually take action.”

How to prioritize that idea you’re always talking about…coming up on The Broad Experience. 

Before we get into the show, a quick word about a former guest. I know a lot of you lead a team.  When you’re a manager, your work is about more than just the work.  It’s about managing human relationships, and enabling your team to get things done, and thrive.  

It’s not always easy!  People Management is skill that you develop, over time, when you make the commitment to learn.

You can find Anne Libby’s free monthly newsletter On Management at people dot substack dot com.  Each month, you’ll learn about how good managers do their work, and ways you can practice and learn.  Noted management expert Anne Libby* also interviews experts and practitioners, and writes and curates recommended reading for you about people management and workplace trends.

The internet is full of advice.  Some of it is BS.  On Management is practical, topical, and smart -- it’s like getting a monthly email from an experienced mentor.  Or your cool aunt.  You can find it at people dot substack dot com.      

At the start of a new year a lot of us are thinking about clearing the decks of old habits, forging new ones. We’re thinking about ways we want to improve our lives – we tell ourselves we really WILL launch that business on the side this year, or start writing that book we’ve been thinking about, or launch that podcast, or just make an old-fashioned photo album – something for us. Something WE really want to do.  

Yet it can be so hard to make those creative projects happen in the midst of work and life, and other people’s needs. I have had my photos printed out for a year. I have not made the album. Often our good intentions fall by the wayside amidst all the demands coming from the outside world. My guest this week knows all about that. 

“I am Jessica Abel, and I am a cartoonist, I’m also the author of a number of books, both prose and comics.”

Jessica is a fully fledged professional creative. On top of her writing and drawing she teaches as well, and she coaches people on how to actually make space in their lives to achieve their creative dreams, whether that’s starting a new business or writing a novel. She’s also married and has two kids. 

Most of her clients are also women.

“I do work with a majority of women and I think women have this issue more strongly than men do…this feeling of obligation to everyone else in their lives more than themselves. They don’t think they have the right to spend time on their book or their paining or whatever it is until they’ve checked all the boxes and everyone is OK. And the fact is no one is ever gonna be OK. There’s always gonna be something else to do. Why do we feel that way, well I think there’s a lot of socialization that goes into that but I feel we also reinforce it ourselves. We tell ourselves this. It’s easier to do something that feels like you’re fulfilling an obligation to someone else than it is to truly believe that your own work is important. To truly feel like that’s the thing – that you deserve equal weight.”

Again, this goes back to what can be a major difference between the sexes – confidence and the belief that you deserve things. That holing up in your study or your lab or your studio, being away from other obligations…it will bring its own rewards.

“This kind of thinking applies both in the professional realm and what we think of as the personal realm. So if your goal on the professional side is to grow your consulting business, you still have to think of the strategic things you should be doing, you need to get your head out of the day to day clamour of email and demands and responding to what people are asking of you…and spend time on what you think of as important and strategic and have to move things forward. That is the same process as you want to start painting again because it makes you happy, and you have to decide that time spent on your painting is as important as organizing your children’s lunchboxes or whatever…that it’s OK for you to let them be disorganized.”

And we’ll come back to that idea of letting things go in a minute.

I’d recently read one of Jessica’s blog posts on her own sometimes frenzied existence. And she described this situation which is probably familiar to a lot of other freelance creatives. You like creating things – so you make something, complete a project, and almost instantly you move on and start creating something else. You don’t implement a marketing plan for the last self-published book you wrote or course you designed – you just jump right into the next thing. You don’t allow yourself any time to sit and ponder what’s important about the project you just completed, or what maybe didn’t work and shouldn’t be repeated.

Jessica says for her, this rushing into the next thing, the lack of reflection…

“…that all comes out of scarcity and scarcity thinking - scarcity of time and money. So it’s not so much that I’m deeply inspired by the next project…maybe I really wanna do it, but my frenzy to jump into the next thing comes from if I’m not working, if I’m not killing myself, I’m gonna end up a bag lady. Things are gonna fall apart. You know, this is anxiety that comes out of a sense of what I’m doing is not enough, it’s not gonna be OK, so I have to keep running as fast as I can. And allowing yourself the space to be creative and to think and to be strategic and to figure out what the end result of one thing is before you move onto the next thing is super scary, really scary, because you have to allow white space in your life and in your calendar.”

Think about that for a minute. To so many of us the mere idea of white space sounds like a luxury. But she’s right. It’s something anyone who has to come up with ideas needs in their life. It’s why we shouldn’t over-schedule ourselves. But only we can put that empty block on our calendars. And doing that probably means NOT doing something else. And that’s where it gets tricky.

Jessica says there are lots of ways our creative endeavors or side hustles can go off track. She’s borrowed a couple of terms from other writers.

“…this term that I got from Kazu Kibuishi …’idea debt.’ All the things you have stored up, you start working on one and the other one jumps up and distracts you from it, so you never get to focus on any one thing. Then you have open loops…and that’s all the little commitments you’ve made to yourself and to other people, they’re literally sitting around your space right now, like just look down and you’ve got some. Tabs on your browser, stuff you wanted to buy but haven’t, emails, little notes. I’m looking at my computer right now and there’s a post-it on my computer telling me what to do today…which is open loops, right? So if you haven’t decided which of those things you’re gonna do and which of these things you’re not gonna do, because I’m sorry to tell you, but you are never gonna finish your to do list. It’s sad but true. It will never happen.”

AMT: “Yeah, I hate that, I love ticking boxes.”

“Yes. It’s deeply satisfying. So that’s one of the biggest problems. I could spend my morning ticking off all these boxes and feeling so efficient. Or I could spend 2 hours sitting with myself and considering what my next step is.”

AMT: “It’s easier to check off the boxes, frankly.”

“It absolutely is. But if you don’t spend the time thinking about what you want to be doing you’re gonna spend time doing whatever is thrown at you and nothing more than that.”

I have been a prime example of this lately. Prioritizing the daily things that come at me via email, or that I put on my to-do list…telling myself I’ll get to my creative project – otherwise known as this show – later in the afternoon…but somehow the daily stuff is still being dealt with at 5p.m. Then another day goes by, more stuff comes in, I tackle that, and so on.

Jessica says one way to escape this trap is to edit your to-do list.  

“If you have a to-do list that is too full for your day, that you cannot do all the things on your to-do list, and by the way I have that every single day…I do it to myself constantly. If you do that you will feel like a failure at the end of the day. If you don’t get control of that, if you don’t decide what you plan to do, what your top three things for tomorrow are the night before, and cut your list down to a doable amount of things, you’re gonna end the day feeling like you suck. So why are you doing that to yourself? So this triage and sorting and conscious decision making is step one of taking control of all this stuff, and it doesn’t matter how busy you are, you still only have 168 hours a week, so if you’re putting 200 hours of stuff on your list…it won’t happen. Just decide, which things really will and which won’t. Decide - it’ll put you in the driver’s seat in way you have not been in the past.”

Jessica says once you begin to take control of your time and make time for the project you’ve set your sights on, it helps you believe in the work and believe it’s real. And you’re more likely to keep doing it. That’s not to say that it’s easy.

“Anyone may be in a situation where you may desperately want write a novel or start a podcast and you only have a couple of hours to work on it per week, probably broken up into bits. And it’s gonna go slow, it’s gonna be really hard. But at least if you decide this is my time, I have this, you can use it as a base to move forward.”

AMT: “And part of that, part of the first thing you talked about is also this business of particularly with women, valuing ourselves and valuing the work we want to do – because so many times there will be that voice in your head saying that you’re selfish, these other things and these other people are more important than your dream project.”

“Yes, exactly. So I think it’s incredibly common especially for women…imagine the scenario. Having a Saturday say, and Saturday afternoon your kid has a ballgame of some kind. You can go to the ballgame which is what’s required of you by society or you can stay home and work on your book. How does it feel to you to say no, I’m not gonna go to your ballgame, I’m gonna stay and work on my book? Everyone’s gonna be fine but you feel like you suck as a mother. Or you need to lower the standards for cleanliness in your home…that’s tough for a lot of people. I’m failing as an adult woman if my house isn’t sparkling. These are moments where you’ll say, who am I to say this book means anything? Nobody’s asking for it, nobody knows it exists. How can you stand in your strength and say no, writing this book is the most important thing I can do for myself, and I’m going to let everything else fall by the wayside for this time when nobody’s telling you it’s any good or that they need it? It’s an incredibly difficult conundrum. It starts by acknowledging that it’s happening. It feels wrong but intellectually you know it’s right, so you’re just gonna go with it.”

AMT: “Hearing you talk about this, I mean some people will think…whether it’s a novel or another project, well but what if this doesn’t pay off for me? Let’s face it, many novels do not sell well, especially when you’re a first time author…many people’s fears I assume will be what if I do lay aside this time and then ultimately I spend hours and hours and what will add up to weeks and weeks over some years, and then the project doesn’t really work out…I can imagine a lot of people thinking that.” 

“Absolutely. I think that’s absolutely true that people do think about that end result. The answer to that is asking yourself the question of what is your goal here? Is it to sell a lot of books, is it to be famous? If it is, that’s legit, you can have that goal. But you have to be aware that you don’t have total control over that. If you want to sell a lot of books you can do a lot towards that goal to do with marketing. And then you can set yourself the task of writing the book and marketing it. But you don’t have control over that. If the action of writing the book is not something that’s going to satisfy something in you that’s really important, then maybe you don’t want to do it, maybe you don’t want to do this thing. You have to find that internal motivation for doing the work, you have to feel the work itself is important enough to do it. Being a professional creative is incredibly hard. I mean you know this, right? It’s unbelievably hard to do this for a living. If you can do anything else and be happy with it, then do that. It’s easier to do almost anything else than this, professionally speaking. But if you feel in yourself the deep desire to make the work you have to separate that from the piece of becoming professional. Making the work is one thing, but is it enough, yes or no? Either answer is fine, but you need to know. And then you want to become professional at it? That’s a separate project. So many people want to make something creative and they imagine if you make it they will come, and it will just translate into being a professional, because it’s so excellent. Which is just not true. The job of making the work support you is huge…and in some ways even bigger than making the work itself.”

What she just said about deciding the work is important enough to do regardless of outcome – that’s what I decided when I began this show. But I often struggle to get it out on time when family commitments and other work take over. Or am I just letting them take over? I don’t teach all year but when I do I’m always surprised by how much time that work takes up. And I told Jessica, I feel I have to put this other work first because it pays me so much more than the podcast. And I would not be popular at home if I spent my weekends tending to my podcast baby the way I used to when I lived by myself.  

“No, that’s a real thing. That’s the kind of painful no you have to face. If you say no to a freelance assignment you say no to money. No can be saying no to your husband or stepchild, I can’t hang out today…no can be to your podcast because you’re doing other things, all of those things are painful, those are tradeoffs that are really hard. So the second piece of this is the calendar piece, it’s looking at how are you spending your time, what are your priorities depending on how you’re spending your time. One of the biggest things that’s transformational for my students and clients is time tracking, it is literally writing down what are you doing all day, then getting conscious and making decisions. Teaching, when you talk about that taking up more time than you think it takes, well, if you tracked it you’d know how much time it took…and then you could account for it going forward instead of looking backward saying oh man, that really came out of left field. That’s kind of the other piece.”

Jessica says we don’t have to do it all at once – we can start taking control of small things one at a time. She says in the end we CAN do what we want with our lives.

“I say that knowing there’s all sorts of people yelling at whatever they’re listening on, saying no, it’s not true for me, I have three children, I have a chronic illness, it’s not possible. I completely acknowledge there are differences between lots of people’s life circumstances and a lot of stuff is not fair, there are lots of circumstances we need to deal with, it’s not an even playing field. But within your own life structure you can move things forward within the limits of what’s in your life, and you can change then what it’s made of.”

But you taking control of some of the chaos is key. Intending to do so isn’t enough.

“A lot of people are gonna be thinking about resolutions and trying to make big changes in your life…clean slate, start over, make everything better, but unless you are actually taking steps to change your engagement with the things on your list, the things you intend to do, the things you’ve been doing, nothing changes – you can’t just decide you’re gonna make this big project this year and not change the structure of how your life works. If you intended to do it last year and it didn’t happen, something happened. You have to say no to other stuff, or nothing changes. I want your listeners to understand it is possible to make this year the year you make the big thing, that everything changes for you, but it’s you who has to make those changes, you can’t wish it or decide it, you have to actually take action.”

AMT: “Affirmations in the morning just won’t cut it.”

“No, I mean there’s nothing wrong with a good gratitude practice. That is a good idea but that is the starting point. Then you actually have to face the hard stuff. Which is making decisions about what you want to do and more importantly what you do not want to do, what you are not going to do. Make those decisions. Then put that in a calendar that actually conforms to the time/space continuum.”

Jessica Abel. She is the author of many books including her latest, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. I will link you to more information about Jessica and some of her writing under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

That’s the last show of 2018. Thanks as ever for listening. If you’d like to kick in to support this one-woman show I would really appreciate it. Just click on the ‘support’ tab at TheBroadExperience.com. Thanks so much to all of you who have done that this year, including my sustaining members who pledge something every single month. Some of you have been doing this for years. I’m very grateful.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks again for listening.