What I did on my summer vacation

As I began writing this post, my daughter was looking over my shoulder and asked me if it was about how our summer vacation inspired me creatively, referencing the progress I’ve been making on a large painting since our return.  The answer was “yes, but…”

School started last week. As the parent of a child now in middle school, I rejoiced.  I have no idea where the summer went, but it feels great to be back in the familiar and predictable routine. I have written posts on the importance of ritual and routine in the creative process, and today I want to back up a bit and take a look at the role of planning in the creative process and its relationship to routines and habits. The start of school represents a fresh start, a time to set goals and look forward.

Unfortunately, words like “routine” and “habits” and “planning” sometimes have a negative connotation when associated with creativity, especially during the free-spirited days of summer.  We’ve been led to believe that creative inspiration should just strike, but the truth is that prior to every big idea or insight, there is planning and there are many hours, days, months, and even years of grinding routine effort.

We escaped the Texas heat and drove to Santa Fe, which is nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico at an elevation of 7000 feet.  It was a blessing to spend two weeks in the cool, mountain air.  I wish there was a way to bottle it and bring it home, because high altitude clears the head.  I did a lot of reading, morning pages, and thinking and planning. As a loved one joked, I did more thinking and planning about my work and art on vacation than I do when I’m actually at work or in the studio.  Even though I was in a beautiful place that has inspired many famous artists to create, I didn’t paint.  Instead, I was inspired to assess where I was on my creative journey, both at work (synchronicity that it was mid-year review time) and in the studio. I want to share my discoveries with you.

I was armed with two books to help me assess my progress and determine next steps: Kathy Caprino‘s Breakdown, Breakthrough and Peter Bregman‘s 18 Minutes.  I recommend both without reservation.  Let’s start with Caprino’s book.  She writes specifically for women, and her book resonated deeply with me.  One passage stood out:

“Honoring our creative longings is vital; it is a positive and essential aspect of a satisfying life.  But it’s critical to honor these longings all along the way, with conscious thought and empowered action.  Following our desires can turn destructive if we end up becoming a servant to them.  Balance is everything.  Creative and spiritual longings are within us from the beginning, but we often ignore them.  When disregarded, these desires finally break free and demand urgently to be addressed.  But urgency begets imbalance.”

She goes on with more specificity:  “When following our dreams, it’s important to address the other needs in life through balanced action – paying your bills, saving for the future, protecting your health and welfare and that of your family, and so on.  The goal is to honor your creative and spiritual longings in balanced ways while addressing your other needs so you feel secure.”  As a single mom who is having trouble carving out time for my art in the midst of a busy career in marketing and personal life, I took comfort in her words.   The book’s exercises and real-life stories of other women helped me solidify what I long to do, what I must do, what I will say yes to, and the major steps I’ll take to get there over the next year.

I then dusted off 18 Minutes, a gem of a book I read a year ago but hadn’t quite been able to put into action.  Bregman is like a gentle, wise guide who helps you build a ritual to focus on what matters most and ignore the rest. He does not give advice on how to get more done; rather, he helps you get strategic about what you choose to do and what you choose not to do over the course of a year.  He recommends creating a theme for the year and then offers the 18 Minutes daily ritual to keep you focused on your top priorities.

I struggled with my theme but knew it had something to do with letting go of perfection.  In more Artist’s-Way-synchronicity-fashion, that same week a guest pastor delivered a Sunday message at my church (I watched online) on that very topic, articulating that we’re trained to think about the outcome of our talent, rather than the process and the essence of our being. (That’s why this blog is about the process, not the outcome, of creativity.)  Then he said we’ve been trained to think of great as more important than good, a belief I had firmly held and that Caprino’s book had shown me has a dark side that was holding me back. It became clear that my theme this year should be:  “It was good.”  My thought was that I would shift my focus from striving for perfection every day to accomplishing good work every day.  Now, this is not the same as “good enough”.  Those who know me know I disdain mediocrity.  This is about intention, a determination to do good work every day, without the pressure of perfectionism.

So, now that you know my theme, here are my focus areas for the next year, the ones I will want to review at the end of each week and say “It was good.”  (By the way, I do believe that the ability to say “it was good” every day – that repetition – translates into greatness over the long haul.)

  1. Build beautiful messaging and deliverables that tell stories.
  2. Paint on the road to mastery.
  3. Help others unlock their creative potential.
  4. Create and nurture healthy relationships and connections.
  5. Nurture my spiritual, physical, and financial well-being.
  6. General life maintenance (should be only 5% – things like getting your state inspection sticker and running errands)

Bregman provides detailed help to translate your list into action through the 18 minutes daily ritual:

  1. Morning minutes (5):  Plan your day based on your top five priorities.  Put tasks on your calendar and don’t take more than three days to check them off.
  2. One minute of reflection every work hour (8):  Once an hour stop (set your smartphone to beep you) and ask yourself if you’re doing what matters most.
  3. Evening minutes (5):  Review how your day went, what you learned, what you would do differently tomorrow, and whether you need to thank, interact with, ask a question of, or update anyone.

My theme has become my rally cry, my focus areas list has become my compass, and the 18 minutes ritual has become a deliberate reminder of both every day. The last two weeks have been the most productive and fun at work and in the studio in a while.

The back-to-school time of a year, with its return to routine, is a great time to take another look at the goals and habits you may have set back in January.  What is your theme for the year?  What habits and routines will you create so you can focus on your priorities?

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