Four things I learned in an offsite with myself

I’m so glad that May is over. It was a month in which I lost control of my schedule and time to an unprecedented extent. I felt stuck in a “create-on-demand” twilight zone, reacting and responding to almost hourly urgent-but-not-important requests and attending last-minute meetings that hijacked my thinking and real work time. I had to work late nights on the project that really mattered, leaving me drained and resentful. Another month passed with no progress on a painting I had begun, a study of Rouault’s “Head of Christ”, a painting that is so full of passion and so moving that it requires the student be in that frame of mind also.

The constant heavy rain in Austin meant the Memorial Day holiday weekend would be spent indoors, so I had an offsite with myself to pause, take stock, and figure out how to make some improvements. I sought answers online and in conversations with friends. My questions were met with agreement and empathy, but everyone seemed resigned to feeling this is just the way life is now. Technology seemed to get most of the blame. Dissatisfied with the acceptance of the status quo, I kept searching and finally stumbled upon a website that claims to provide the “missing curriculum” for making ideas happen:  99u says they don’t want to give you more ideas – they want to empower you to make good on the ones you’ve got. I was intrigued: I have lots of ideas, but lately I haven’t been able to make them a reality, particularly in my art of oil painting, but also at work. I enjoyed reading the articles and watching the videos on the site, but the real breakthrough came when I downloaded Volume One of their three-part book series “Managing Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind.”

Manage Your Day-to-Day from 99u

I devoured the book on my Kindle app in just a few hours on Memorial Day, highlighting key passages and taking notes and making significant changes based on what I learned. The book is divided into four chapters and is comprised of essays from various creatives and thought leaders. I love this approach because it’s not a one-size-fits-all recommendation. It’s a playbook of best practices for producing great work and focusing on the things that are important to you.

The preface summarizes the dilemma so perfectly that I felt the 99u editor-in-chief Jocelyn K. Glei had been observing me: “Creative minds are exceedingly sensitive to the buzz and whir of the world around them, and we now have to contend with a constant stream of chirps, pings, and alerts at all hours of the day. As these urgent demands tug us this way and that, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a centered space for creativity.” She goes on to explain the organization of the book into four key skill sets that must be mastered to succeed in this new world:

  • Building a rock-solid routine
  • Finding focus in a distracted world
  • Taming your tools
  • Sharpening your creative mind

I highly recommend this book and cannot do it justice with a review, but I do want to share the advice that resonated with me and that I am trying to put into practice so that you may be inspired to pick it up, order it, or download it this week. I’ve chosen to highlight one key practice from each chapter listed above.

First and foremost, great work must happen before everything else. I continue to do morning pages very early in the morning to observe habits and thought processes. This five-year habit wasn’t affected by the May Madness – that’s how ingrained it has become. The big change is that I’ve blocked my calendar from 8:30-11:30 AM each day to get my most meaningful and important work done, leaving the reactive work (email, anyone?) and meetings for later. I hope I am able to respond to requests for meetings during those blocked times with a sincere, polite, and firm “I’m sorry, I’m booked at that time, but I could meet after 11:30.”

Second, turn off phone, apps, email, and other technology unrelated to the project or task. The only way to respect the first habit is to ensure that the distractions of the modern world don’t sabotage the time I’ve set aside to get real work done. It’s so much easier to answer an email or look at Twitter than it is to create something, so resisting the distractions by turning them off is something that I think will work for me. I admit that I might feel anxious if I don’t look at email for three hours, but I figure someone will call me if it is truly important.

Third, breathe. I learned a new term from one of the essayists in the book: screen apnea. I’m a long-time sufferer. I hold my breath or breathe shallowly while sitting in front of a screen, no matter the size of the screen. The writer described how unhealthy this is: The body becomes acidic and inflamed and there’s a tendency to over-consume in this state as we become less aware of when we’re hungry or sated. Breathing decreases stress and helps you make better decisions, the author says. It sounds very strange to say “I’m going to try breathing”, but I guess I’m not alone in having trouble with this basic human function.

Finally, practice unnecessary creation. This is the art of using personal creative projects to explore new obsessions, skills, or ways of working without the pressure of the real-world work environment. For work, this means keeping a notebook to record questions I have, ideas I want to pursue, or demonstration projects that I’d like to try. For my art of oil painting, it means setting aside the time to paint, to write about the creative process here, and to explore.

This new day-to-day starts today, and I will report back on the progress here. The frequency with which I post will certainly be an indicator. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the passages by Todd Henry that is as inspiring as it is scary: “Consider the opportunity cost of spending your life only on pragmatics. You dedicate your time to pleasing everyone else and delivering on their expectations, but you never get around to discovering your deeper aptitudes and creative capacities. Nothing is worth that.”

Have you been feeling like your day-to-day has drifted to accommodate your surroundings rather than meet your preferences and goals? I’d love to hear about your frustrations and changes you’ve made to your routine, how you tame distractions, tools and technology, and how you sharpen your creativity. Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Four things I learned in an offsite with myself

Add yours

  1. Practice unnecessary creation.

    Actually, it is necessary 🙂 It should be “practice creation that doesn’t seem related to work.” One of two things will happen: It will become about work or it will allow other neurons enough rest and indirect stimulation to help work, and other areas of your life.


  2. Amen Gary! I agree! It’s why Julia Cameron in Artist’s Way advises having an artist’s night at least once a week with yourself. It’s also a safe place to experiment and face forward instead of worrying about what others think. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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