Don’t Break the Chain!
Practice, practice, blah, blah, blah….
Okay we get it.
By now we’ve all heard the great secret of success is that you have to sit down and practice more.
Then again if we did everything we are supposed to do, we probably wouldn’t have all of these infomercials trying to sell us the latest exercise gadget, and Taco Bell would go out of business.
It turns out that knowing and doing are two very different things.
I think most of us know that we could be more focused and disciplined in our creative life. We know that we should probably spend a little less time checking our Facebook page and a little more time doing the thing that we are always bitching about not having enough time to do.
So if we get it, then why don’t we do it?
The Tribe of 365
In recent years you’ve probably noticed more and more of these project 365 “accountability” groups online.
In these groups, visual artists and photographers promise to create something small everyday, and then post their work online. The thought here is that if they skip a day, they will face the ridicule of their creative peers or at least feel the need to explain themselves.
This taps into a truth about human nature that we tend to perform better (or at least more regularly) when we think someone else is watching and will hold us accountable. Part of the problem with the creative arts has always been that there is that small voice in our head that tells us that no one else is really going to care (or even notice) if we slack off a day or two.
This is especially true for non-visual artists such as writers, poets, and musicians. For us it’s not quite as easy as snapping a picture of our latest work and putting it up on Flickr or Facebook. I mean who really wants to post some crappy first draft of a poem or read through some sketchy 1/16th of a chapter from our latest novel?
So we simply tell ourselves that we’ll just wait until our latest project is finished, but at the same time, we secretly suspect that no one is going to give a crap if we ever post it or not. So as our initial excitement and motivation begins to fade, so does our productivity.
We create our habits and then our habits create us
You’ve probably heard the rumor that it takes 30-60 days in order to create a new habit.
These 365 projects are not really about whether or not other people see or comment on your artwork every day. In the end these groups are about holding yourself accountable. They are about you putting in the work and getting to that place where you are going to feel worse if you don’t do it, then if you just sit down and do the work.
It’s not just about making yourself feel guilty, however, it’s also about building momentum and that sense of pride when you look at what you’ve accomplished. In other words, once you get to a certain point, you don’t want to stop because you can see how far you’ve come.
Okay that’s great, but how do we actually do this?
Don’t break the chain
Not to long ago, I read something in the book “The One Thing” that changed the way I approached this issue.
In the book there was a story about the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He said that one of the keys to his eventual success was that he found a way to sit down and write new material for his act every day, even in the beginning when no one else cared.
He created a system for himself where he would hold himself accountable for sitting down and writing every day. What he did was to put one of those big yearly calendars on his wall where he would see it everyday. Then he would put a big red ‘X‘ across every day that he sat down and worked on his material.
Seinfeld said that, “After a few days, you’ll have a chain [of red X’s]” and then if you “just keep at it, the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing the chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
Once you have created a long enough chain, you’ll discover that you’ll practically do anything to keep going and not “break the chain”.
The genius to his system, I think, is in the visual feedback of the calendar.
Using a system like this, it’s no longer about whether or not other people can see it. Instead it becomes a type of game or contest with yourself. How long can you make it? How many days can you go without breaking the chain?
Although I prefer using a paper calendar because it’s right there staring me in the face every day, there are a few smartphone apps that could help you as well. If you have an Android phone, the app “Habit Streak” (free) and “My Daily Success Checklist” (free) might work for you. If you have an iPhone, the popular app “Streaks” ($1.99) might also be an option.
The great investor Warren Buffett once said that the “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” He understood human nature enough to know that this combination of momentum and pride can be a very powerful motivating force.
Now of course we would all like to look good in front of our peers, but even more than that, we want to be able to feel good about ourselves and what we have accomplished. In order to do this, however, we need to find a way to keep us motivated and moving forward every day.
Keep in mind, however, there’s a fine line between motivating ourselves and just making ourselves feel like crap because we can’t keep up with our endless to-do lists and goal charts. So if you do find yourself “breaking the chain” at some point, please don’t beat yourself up about it — it happens. All you can do is let it go and then get back to work building yourself a new chain.
The key is to start today.
Now it’s your turn…
What’s your secret to motivating yourself?
How do you keep your creative momentum going?
What do you do to keep yourself from burning out?
About the Author
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.