Pushing Isn’t Pushing

We’re all familiar with pushing ourselves. Upping caffeine, lowering sleep, focusing intently, and sometimes actually getting something done before we burn out and pretend it was worth it. Creatives also push themselves, but I think we’re facing double trouble when we do – because there’s pushing yourself and pushing yourself creatively.

Pushing ourselves alone is a gamble – as I sarcastically noted above. You can try to go above and beyond in effort and hours, but also risk burning yourself out for nothing. Many a creative has a sketch or rough draft that makes them wonder “what the hell was I thinking” during their last caffeine-and-dubstep binge.

(I just assume dubstep keeps you going. Look, I’m in a retro jazz/exotica phase right now.)

But pushing oneself creatively and just pushing oneself in general is not the same thing and I think many a creative confuses the two. To push oneself creatively is to try new things, imagine different, try a new style. It’s to go to the edge of what we can do and dare to step over into unknown territory. It’s not the same as just plain long-haul overtime.

In fact, I’d say treating pushing yourself creatively as some punishing march produces too little payoff for the damage and gets it wrong.

Pushing oneself creatively is a case of openness, of wandering, of experimentation. You have to do things more, different, and in other directions. Yes you may have to push yourself effort-wise, but it’s to push past boundaries and blockages and habits, not just sheer head-against-wall effort. Treating it as some kind of struggle like a marathon studying session puts you in the wrong mindset and focusing in the wrong thing.

Pushing yourself creatively always has an element of unsurety, of play, of going in circles for the sake of seeing what happens after a few rotations. Turning it into a grind, of “I have to ram through this,” or “I have to try these six different things no matter what” really just means you stop focusing on creativity and focus on metrics or just plain making sure you suffer appropriately. It’s not going to make you more creative, it’s going to make you more miserable.

There’s a time in place for a creative to push themselves in sheer effort. Sometimes it can help creativity, with some boundaries, like seeing how fast you can write, or trying a scene differently, or, hell, ALL of NaNoWriMo. But you need to have the space to push your creativity by being creative and that doesn’t always lend itself to the grindset mindset.

In closing, let me recall a friend who went through some tough times. They focused on their creative projects, which did take effort, but they kept that state of play. They not only improved on their own projects, it also got them through said tough times. It was a push, but a push that was fun and actually sustained them.

Next time you’re on the creative grind, ask just what you’re trying to do. You might do more with less pushing. In fact, you might find it’s time to get more done by playing.

Steven Savage

Grinding On In Hope

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

2022 seems to be a line of unmitigated tragedy.  COVID continues to rampage, Russia invades Ukraine, the economy teeters, the news is full of bullshit, and there are multiple school shootings.  Even though we see hope in Ukraine, the other issues wear on us.

I’m sure you feel that grinding awfulness, and in time you want to give up.  I can offer you this advice – don’t.  Take a rest, take a break, get away, but don’t give up.

The one thing we can do is keep going in the face of all this awfulness.  We can fight for what matters, we can stick to what’s meaningful to us, we can not quit.  Quitting is the one thing that guarantees a worse world.

This isn’t just a moral statement, it’s a statement about meaning in our lives.  When we give up then we’re no longer ourselves, we’re a shadow waiting for harsh light to erase us.  In motion there is hope that what matters to us can continue to matter, to sustain, to grow, to return.  We need this motion not just to be good people but to stay sane.

Humans are a process.  When we stop, we’re just not people, just not ourselves.

So as hard as things are now – and I know they’re hard – don’t give up.  Keep going, even if “going” involves a rest for now.  Keep being you – that you, that process, might just get us out of this mess, or at least you.  Until we get out of this, at least you’ll be yourself when you’re in motion.

Steven Savage

Stress Management As Productivity

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

We’re awash in productivity advice telling us how to get things done, how to prioritize, and so on. I should know, I give some of this advice, but I’d like to pull away the curtain a bit and discuss what a good chunk of productivity tips involve.

They involve stress management.

Sure, productivity gurus and coaches won’t say that. In fact, they may not even realize it – they’re all focused on how much you get done and how to make it easier. But to get things done requires focus, reduction of distraction, and reducing mental friction – which is really a form of stress reduction. These gurus and coaches, even the good ones, may not see it.

So, I’ll put it simply: a lot of productivity tips involve preventing, reducing, or controlling stress and worry.

A lot of productivity advice will have you review and be aware of what you’re doing, from backlogs to graphs to BVBs – Big Visible Boards. Though this may sound anxiety producing, it gives you an idea of where you are and what’s going on – it reduces the anxiety of the unknown.

“Responding to change” is a big part of productivity advice, and a core part of Agile philosophy. But by saying you can respond to change, all the advice-givers and coaches help you acknowledge and cope with change. By admitting things change and you can to, a lot of anxiety is removed.

Review sessions, retrospective, backlog polishing? All those times we productivity enthusiasts tell you to look at what’s coming up, prioritize work, and ask what’s important? That’s stress-reducing as well – because you’re able to ask what’s in the future, then get back to the present. It’s a trick for helping you stay aware – so you can stop stressing.

Breaking work down to manageable chunks? Next steps to take? That’s all helping you stay aware and take manageable bits of work you can get done – so you’re productive, aware, and not overwhelmed. It’s simple time management, but it reduces fear and anxiety.

Most productivity advice has a strong element of stress reduction or is about stress reduction. I just like to admit it now that I see it.

However, this truth also conceals something else – if methods of productivity cause stress, it’s important to ask why, because that’s revealing.

Is it because you’re focusing on the method and not the results, worried about dotting every “i” and doing each task perfectly? Then you’ve learned something about YOU.

Is it because external factors are keeping you from working? Are you organized but there’s so many dependencies and problems and needs you can’t work? Then you learned something about your ENVIRONMENT.

Is it because the method isn’t working with your life and challenges? Then you learned you NEED A NEW METHOD of productivity.

Productivity tips and systems should reduce stress. That’s the point – directly or indirectly. If we admit it, we can be more productive.

Which is, if you think of it, less stressful.

Steven Savage