Look back to move forward.

 

We writers and artists tend to beat ourselves up all the time about procrastination.

I guess everybody does at some point, but when you have a dream you’d like to achieve, it’s an easy trap to get caught in: focusing on everything we should be doing and could be doing, but we’re not doing it, not now.

We’ve all been there: we would really love to write more, or paint more, or dance more, move forward, but somehow we end up being too busy with other things, we have excuses not to do it. At the end of the day we look back at all that we did not do yet, and feel bad about it and beat ourselves up about it.

I know I’m quite good at it, myself, both the procrastinating and the beating myself up.

Then I read an article that opened my eyes to a different approach, and I must say, it works wonders.

It reminded me of my visit to the Grand Canyon with a friend, years ago.

We had been hiking down into the canyon in the morning, and were going back up in the afternoon. The thing with hiking into a canyon is that it’s an inversion of mountain hiking: the relatively easy descent comes first, when we’re fresh and full of energy, and the hardest part comes last: that steep ascent.

My friend was in slightly less good shape than I was at that time, and she started to get a little desperate, looking up all the time how far we still had to go. She was struggling, and I saw how she was getting close to an anxious breakdown. We couldn’t afford to get stuck halfway up: we had no gear, nor enough water or food to stay the night out there. I had to motivate her to keep going.

When we took a break, I pointed out to her where we had been, deep down in the canyon. We could just make out the little house where we had taken our lunch-break. I emphasised that we had  already come up so far, that we’d passed the halfway point more than an hour ago, that we were probably two-thirds of the way up already. I never once made her look up to the rim, which was still intimidatingly far above us.

She calmed down, and felt reassured. If we had made it up already this far, she felt she could do the rest as well. Inside, I heaved a sigh of relief.

When we started walking again, I made a point of stopping frequently to look at the view below us, constantly taking her attention away from the slope looming over our heads.

We made it back up before dark. It had been a challenging day.

When we have a big dream, a future goal we’d like to achieve, the long and steep road towards it seems to be full of daunting obstacles. We focus on all the hard work we still have to do, all the things we need to learn, all the steps we have to take, that will constantly pull us out of our comfort zone. The sheer vastness of our project can be overwhelming and intimidating, and make us want to hide in bouts of severe and prolonged procrastination, right?

Now this is the trick: instead of looking forward and feeling intimidated by all we still need to get through, we can look back every day, and see what we have achieved that contributes towards fulfilling our dream.

We can look at the small steps we made: we’ve connected with someone in our peer group today, or we’ve read and commented on a relevant article, establishing more connection in the field. We collected a couple of contacts that we can add to our database for that newsletter that we are planning to make (sometime soon, but not quite yet). We played with a creative idea for an article, a painting, a new product. We looked up a couple of words or expressions that caught our attention when we were reading and copied down a quote that inspired us. We browsed a book on painting, on composing, looked into a course that could help us with that one skill we think we still need.

We opened our computer, sketchbook, piano and sat down with the intention to write, paint, compose. 

We listened to a podcast that inspired us or taught us a productivity hack. We had a decisive moment in which we put our phone down on purpose to do something more meaningful instead.

When we take a few minutes at the end of each day, to see how we’ve grown and moved, even just the tiniest bit, towards our goal, we reconfirm our motivation with ourselves. This will make it easier tomorrow, to take another few of those little steps, and the next day, and the next.

Whereas the focus on everything we haven’t done yet will paralyse us and grind us down, working at all our mini-achievements can lift us up and push us forward. It is all about the momentum: it is easier to keep things in motion, than to put something in motion from a standstill position.

We can combine this little achievements-assessment with a gratitude practice, and feel grateful for all those things that we did do, that we did achieve, even if it was just writing our morning pages. As long as we are showing up in some minute way for our inner artist every day, (s)he will be more likely to come out and play and work a little harder every time.

Let’s look at how far we’ve already come, and not worry about how long we still have to go.

 

Just Start

 

 

Painting a mandala on a wall has taught me many lessons. One of them is: Just start.

As you may have read in an earlier blog, I never planned to paint a giant mandala on a wall. It wasn’t my idea to start with, but my friend’s, and she was supposed to paint it for me.

But life took her to a different country before she’d even made a start, and I was left with a blank wall staring at me, a box full of paints and brushes, and the colourful design in my head.

I realised I probably just had to do it myself. Then I had to convince myself that I could do it. That wall is big. Well, not that big, but definitely a lot bigger than a sheet of paper in my sketchbook.

Big as in overwhelming, maybe even intimidating.

Big enough to put me off, to make me procrastinate.

Big enough to make me doubt that I could do it, to come up with all sorts of excuses why I couldn’t just start the work:

Too hot, too late, too busy. Don’t have a ladder. I need scaffolding, but there’s no one to help me build it. Don’t have anything to copy an enlarged version of my design onto that wall. Don’t know how to do this.

That wall was big enough to make me want to stay in my comfort zone forever. Because starting that wall-painting would definitely be an out-of-my-comfort-zone experience in many ways.

This was a conundrum. I didn’t like the empty wall. But I didn’t like getting out of my comfort zone either. Which was worse?

Then it dawned on me that if I would just start by drawing one little thing, that wall would be “broken”: not empty anymore and thus less intimidating. By stepping out of my comfort zone for just a little bit, the whole situation would start to shift. By shifting my focus from the biggest (read: final) goal to the smallest (just get started) I was able to drag myself out of the rut of fearful paralysis.

So I went and borrowed my neighbour’s ladder. Fixed a stub of pencil on a string, and stuck a nail in the centre of the wall. Then I drew a very big circle (I had to move the ladder several times to cover the whole wall).

Stepping down from that ladder, looking up at that big circle (10 feet diameter), I still felt intimidated by its size. But the wall wasn’t empty anymore. It was now carrying the first seed of a big project. The first sketched line of a huge painting. It occurred to me that no big painting has ever been painted overnight. I heaved a sigh of relief.

I had started. And it was no big deal after all. I even felt like pushing on, and wanted to make a start with the actual design on the wall.

So I found a wooden bench, stacked some blocks and boards on it to create an even higher level, and got myself some improvised scaffolding. No help needed.

A compass, a ruler, a protractor and a pencil became the toys for my creative brain. Oh, and an eraser. Before I knew it, almost two hours had passed and the centre of the mandala had been sketched in.

What do you mean, difficult or scary? This was fun!

I was doing something that I had never done before, that nobody had ever taught me, but I managed quite alright. Of course it didn’t go flawlessly, but I’ll spare you the details of all the mistakes I made, of the eraser that I rubbed to shreds on all the lines that I put in the wrong spot at first.

The only thing that counted in that moment, was that I had started. I had begun a huge project, and the fact that it sits in a public place makes it impossible to give up halfway in. Now that I have started, I will have to keep going.

And that was the lesson I learned that day: if you want to achieve something big, all you have to do is just start with something small. Breaking through the wall of our own resistance, we find out it is just a sheer layer of false beliefs that was holding us back.

We are capable of so much more than we want to believe.

All we have to do is just start.

Happiness is an inside job

 

 

We all like to have a view from our window, our balcony, our porch. 

Spaciousness is good for the soul, I believe.

To grow mentally and emotionally, we need to open our mind. “Broaden your view, extend your horizon”, they say, when someone seems stuck in life.

This is much easier when you have a good view than when you’re staring into a dead-end alley or up to a blind wall.

It might be one of the reasons why people love watching sunsets or sunrises, since it always involves wider horizons, offering a broader perspective.

So when I was confronted with a newly constructed blank wall without a single window right in for of my little house, I felt my mind narrowing, my heart closing.

I had a hard time not feeling a little depressed and invaded.

There is something about walls without windows, that makes them extra imposing, almost unfriendly. Nothing inviting about a blank wall, right?

It was just a big empty wall. Lifeless.

Then a friend suggested painting a big mural on it, with lots of colour. Something fun to look at. Now there was a great plan. Even better: she’s an artist, and said she would love to paint that mural for me (I am not a painter, so I would need her to do the job for me, I thought then).