Post Mortem: Takeaways from the “Thing-a-Day” Challenge

It’s been almost two weeks since I wrapped-up the November Thing-a-Day Making Challenge of making “30 things” that were tangible and sharable, improved process, and/or helped me sell something I’d made before. I kept the threshold of success low so I wouldn’t freak myself out; I was happy if I carved out the time for myself, which I think is an important habit to cultivate if one wants to achieve personal growth.

I didn’t know what I would take away from the experiment, though I knew that I wanted to do something during the month of Nanowrimo. As expected, I enjoyed the process, and have come up with takeaways that will affect how I approach creative acts in the future.

Dealing with Low Energy

I’ve been feeling really time-starved with regards to my personal projects, which are overshadowed by the major contract work I have going on. Because this work looms so large in my conscious, I constantly feel I don’t have the time to spend on other activities. After a few weeks of this, I inevitably reach the point where I binge on something like TV, video games, or food from the sheer monotony of trying to stay focused on a single project.

The binge pattern is not a particularly sustainable one, and it doesn’t contribute to an even positive attitude. I think the trigger for the binge happens when built-up frustration reaches the point where my ability to to direct my attention toward tedious work collapses. Rather than work on my personal projects to feel better about them, my belief that I don’t “have the time” to make appreciable progress on my own projects makes me loathe to start anything. I don’t like starting projects when I don’t feel I have the resources to finish them, and so I end up feeling stuck and frustrated.

One thing I’ve been learning, and have again relearned with the November Challenge was that the best counter to that feeling of not having enough time is to MAKE the time. So there are TWO RULES that I try to follow:

I am allowed to take the time, because it is MINE to allocate.

and

Progress is allowed to be slow. It is worthwhile even when nothing ships right away, because it is a designated act of self-progression.

Other people, no matter how nice they are, will prioritize my interests ahead of theirs, unless their interests are also mine or it is somehow their job. This is especially the case when it comes to the esoteric and highly personal work that drives us, because this is the kind of work that only I understand. It’s important to retain a modicum of active selfishness in these situations!

Accepting Myself

As the month progressed, I affirmed what I thought would happen: I loved making stuff for myself and sharing the progress on the blog. This is a big deal because progress can be very slow in comparison with clicking on the Internet to see what’s new and awesome. I’ve been learning to accept that working on my own stuff, even in small chunks, still takes a significant amount of time. There is always a huge difference between the amount of time it takes to consume versus create, and accepting this is part of the creative process.

During the challenge, I found that I spent 1-2 hours working on the “thing”, with another 60-90 minutes preparing the blog post. This included photography, image processing, and writing up very terse copy. Even relatively simple tasks like opening a box of paper currency bands and playing with them took a couple of hours! That drove home the second rule above (“progress is allowed to be slow”). Being fine with the time the process takes is part of the unforced creative process that I’d like to enjoy more often. Which lead to the formulation of a new rule:

I can trust myself to make sense of the creative process as I discover it, and adapt on-the-fly.

This is really important for someone like me because I feel great resistance to starting when I don’t know what is coming. I like to be prepared, and I don’t like the feeling of being caught off-guard. While this is a prudent attitude to take, it is not one that works when (1) learning something new or (2) creating something that doesn’t exist or have a recipe. It also leads to a poor attitude when faced with incomplete instructions and reference material, generating frustration that saps me of the desire to work. I came up with another rule based on this realization:

To be productive, I need to spend the time to reformat information so it works with my style of learning.

The above is probably obvious to most people, but in my case I have always felt tremendous disdain for terrible reference material. This affects me in all walks of life, from choosing a new health care provider to learning Javascript Web App development. The negative reaction comes from my youth, when I had allowed myself to believe I was stupid when I didn’t understand the instruction material and instructors who were parroting it at me. Now, I can recognize bad (or rather, not “Dave-ready”) material in a less personal way, and instead of getting mad I can get on with creating the materials that WILL help me learn. Negative thinking is a huge distraction. The less of it I have in my life, the better I can focus.

Finding Motivation

Finding the energy to complete the challenge was itself a challenge, especially since I was feeling low on energy to begin with. It occurs to me that the reason I was able to finish it was due to the way I am wired regarding personal commitment. I am strongly motivated to keep my commitments, and this one had the right mix of personal conviction and observable results to be successful:

  • The challenge was 30 days, so it had a definite end date.
  • I had made a public commitment on the blog, and I try to do what I say I will do.
  • The challenge was epic in that it would be complete ONLY if all 30 days were done.
  • I set the threshold for daily success flexibly, keeping it low enough to achieve without too much difficulty yet allow for more if I was in the mood.
  • The proof of doing had to be daily and public, each blog post producing affirmation. I flubbed a couple days, but allowed myself to recover in the following days.
  • Each day’s success produced tangible growth that could be counted on a single page, creating an ongoing sense of accomplishment.
  • I believed that adhering to the project publicly was an important aspect of the work I do, and I believed it would serve as an example that others could assess.

There is a general rule that falls out of the above observations:

My ability to complete a work is directly proportional to (1) the strength of my conviction and (2) the sacredness of my promise.

Personally, I make very few promises to people. I promise only what I can deliver. Along similar lines, I make even fewer commitments to people; that is, I don’t GUARANTEE RESULTS if I don’t know what the EXPECTATIONS are from the party to which I am making that commitment.

While I knew that I was like this, I wasn’t sure WHY until just now; I seek equality between myself and others in the strength of conviction, interest, and intent to keep the promise. In other words, it’s important to me that I believe that we’re both invested in the outcome to equal degrees, as partners. If I see that the strength of commitment is not equal as time goes by, this is a literal deal-breaker. A side effect of this personal foible is that I am very serious when it comes to scheduling face-to-face meetings, because I’ve committed the time and I’m all-in. If a life-or-death situation comes up, I would make arrangements to postpone, but otherwise I see every one of my personal convictions being equally important, and my ideal is that the commitment is two-way. This is the best situation that I can work under. Equality in conviction and action is really, STUPIDLY important to me. It’s a double-edged sword, capable of breaking relationships as well as making them. It’s something I need to be aware of.

Dealing with Distraction

One of my biggest hurdles to productivity is just getting started. As I mentioned above, when I am unsure of what I’m supposed to do, I feel reluctance to start. Intellectually I know that the answers are behind the uncertainty, but when my energy/interest is low it’s a lot easier to not face it head on and go click on the Internet for a few hours. However, since the desire to have answers / vanquish uncertainty hasn’t gone away, this creates tension and anxiety. It can be really subtle in its lack of direction, which is how it gets you. You know you feel bad, you know that you want answers that you don’t know how to find right away, and yet you don’t have energy so you lack the presence of mind to go into the unknown. Surfing the Internet, watching TV, and stuffing your face has the advantage of being something you know how to do. It feels like motion, when it really isn’t anything.

I’m increasingly seeing the solution to my procrastination as a willingness to take whatever energy I have and pushing into the uncertainty.

The answers are on the other side of the unknown and the uncertain. Invest every scrap of energy you can muster into investigating any path that presents itself. Even if progress isn’t made, possibilities are eliminated, and uncertainty lessens.

The way I have been applying this, when feeling low on energy, is to ask the simplest possible question, and only ask one at a time. I can trust myself to figure out what it means once some data comes in (part of being mindful toward mastery, I’d say). And so, I am learning to make the space for uncertainty, welcome it as a stranger, provide it some space to make an impression on me. More questions naturally follow, and become a stream. I’ve just been writing them down on paper, and it seems to work for me as a way to keep my mind engaged in the flow of an activity.

  1. I start with a single how-to question.
  2. I give myself all the time and space in the world to answer that question (or 15 minutes before discarding it).
  3. I trust myself to follow the trail and figure it out as I go.
  4. I create as soon as I can, as simply as I can, even when designing complex systems. They just take longer.
  5. So long as I am fine with the pace of my progress, I can keep the negative thoughts at bay.

This is, I think, my formula for entering and maintaining FLOW. The lack of anxiety about my speed and the lack of worry about what I don’t know yet seem to be critical at this stage of my process development.

In Conclusion

So that’s what I learned, process-wise, from my month of Thing-a-Day-ing. If I can always be adding to what I make and what I learn along the way, and if I can keep myself engaged in communicating what I’m doing with conviction, I seem to do all right.