by: Vicky Rubin
Many artists feel difficulties with motivation and focus. We all want to get to the studio as we were meant to do. But no matter how important making art is to us, we can easily settle into a habit of putting it off.
Digital distractions are especially lethal. There’s always email, Facebook, the latest binge-watch temptation on Netflix. Sometimes anything seems better than picking up that paintbrush.
We alone are in charge of our creative time—time we know we can’t afford to lose. Why is it so hard to be productive as an artist, and what can we do? Let’s zero in on two things: avoidance and distraction.
At first glance, these two things seem almost the same. But looking more closely, they are distinct. “Distraction,” while it sounds negative, can be a healthy coping strategy.
For instance, if you bang your knee on a door (as I did yesterday), finding a distraction from the pain (in my case, it was ice cream) can actually make you feel less pain. Or you might distract yourself by pacing up and down while waiting to get news about anxiety-causing events, such as test results. Distraction in these cases is proactive and beneficial.
But then there’s the other kind of distraction: the temptation to Twitter away time and check Snapchat every few minutes, or chat with a studio-mate for hours instead of mixing the perfect clay slurry. Distraction in a passive, unhealthy sense makes us feels like we have no control.
Avoidance, on the other hand, is by definition negative. We may avoid cleaning the house because we’re overwhelmed. We may put off delivering bad news because we fear the reaction. Avoidance, in these situations, is easy to understand.
Avoidance means you fear something painful or conflict-ridden. So why avoid the art studio, which should be a sanctuary.
You wouldn’t think doing what you love is driving conflict. But it does, because fears of criticism, disapproval, and rejection affect nearly every artist. When you’re finally at the studio, does “I’m not good enough” and “what’s the point” run through your head over and over?
Suddenly, on cue, your next impulse is to check Facebook. “It won’t hurt to see what my friends are doing,” you tell yourself as you again put off confronting that blank canvas. Thoughts such as the obviously dishonest “Checking email will only take a few minutes” are the voices of distraction gremlins.
Distraction is a choice you’re making to avoid feeling rejected or inadequate. That impulse to protect yourself conflicts with your desire to create, and that conflict can drain your creative energy.
So what can we do?
Artists often report loving something they’re working on, then hating it a few minutes later. This is normal. Try to get to neutrality and reality. In that creative phase, you came up with some great stuff. Now, be gentle with yourself.
Go back and edit. Realize that it’s slow and steady, perhaps even dull, work from here on in.
Questions can help you quell your fears. Here are some to start:
Don’t analyze, just sit down and do something. To ease yourself into a productive mood, try something creative but not too challenging, such as coloring. Doing something soothing and pleasant eases you into work mode and shuts off the gremlins.
Note what’s going on in your mind when you’re avoiding. How do you feel? What distractions did you turn to? Write it down. You may notice it has to do with tiredness, outside pressures, what you ate/drank or didn’t eat/drink, or other things.
Once you notice patterns, you can use your knowledge to gain control. At the same time, keep track of your progress. Hopefully, your time spent avoiding will grow smaller in proportion to your time spent engaging.
Enjoy and experience sensations of smell, feel, and touch. Feel your connection all forms, from trees to rocks.
If you work on a computer, take a moment to appreciate all the wonderful things you can do with your creativity on it, rather than escaping to the online world.
A change of scenery can help you focus. Taking a walk or a workout is a healthy and inspiring distraction. Every day I take a 40-minute hilly walk and use the time to think about whatever project I’m working on, or come up with new ideas. Exercise and museum trips, with time boundaries, are guilt-free breaks.
Mainly, relax. Don’t deny that you have fears and doubts, just let them go by. They are background noise.
Avoiding avoidance is not easy. It’s an ongoing battle. But little by little, you can get the upper hand. Once you come to a place where you don’t need to distractions, where there’s naturally nothing to avoid, the gremlins will take a hike, and you’ll be working hard but happily.
Vicky Rubin is an illustrator and writer who tries to avoid avoidance. She studied liberal arts and art. She has worked as a teacher, copyeditor, and hand model, like George on Seinfeld. She works in traditional and digital media. She scribbles at Doodlesoop and muses at Tablets for Artists