Tag: productivity

margin – or, panic early

I first published this post more than two years ago. In all of my 11 years of blogging it is one of my favorites. It is also still my biggest struggle. I’m sharing it with you today for two reasons:

  1. For the first time in a long time I haven’t got a blog post this week. I’m occupied with filling orders, details for upcoming workshops and beginning to plan new classes and workshops for 2018 (including at least one in Europe…… stay tuned).
  2.  The message, the idea of margin, is one I need to hear and apply again and again but especially right now. It boils down to this – when there is certainly and officially too much to do – the only sensible thing is to decide to do less. Ideally before it gets decided for you.

I’m forcing myself into my high gear, last minute place, that magic spot where priorities are crystal clear and hard decisions get made easily. I’m forcing myself into that place a little early so the week before I leave to teach I’ll be one of those super chill prepared people. For the first time. Ever.

(This post was originally published April 2015 – I’ve updated with images of preparations for my natural history workshop)

Had I already mastered the idea of margin in my life I wouldn’t be editing this post 20 minutes before I need to publish it. But I have not mastered margin, not at all. Margin is the space between, the room left for error or chance, the cushion, and I rarely have any. I’m the guy hand making one more Christmas gift at 2 AM on the 24th, 10 year old me was adding glitter to my styrofoam ball planets on the bus to the science fair. It isn’t really about procrastination (although I’m great at that too) – it’s more – I see some space, some room and think “why not add something?! Why not make it better?! Let’s do both!”.  It is a kind of misguided enthusiasm – it’s hard to say no to something I’d love to do even when I know there isn’t enough time. It also comes from fear of lack – fear that the universe will find me ungrateful and opportunities will disappear, it’s living in fear, fear of scarcity. And I am a wishful thinker, I catch myself all the time planning for things to go perfectly, filling every possible moment with commitments, scheduling things back to back or overlapping. It feels like I’m being diligent, a hard worker, but I’m setting myself up to fail – when there is no room for error some little thing, like the printer breaking, can become a huge deal.

When you have margin you have options – so often in this life that I supposedly designed to afford choice I feel I have none. And I need to fix that. Fix it or miss out on my best work. Fix it or be swept along in the chaos – just reacting to emergencies.

I came across this article recently and for some reason it penetrated in a way that the idea just hasn’t before. It got my attention and it stuck with me and I understand something new: margin isn’t something that happens when things get magically better, it is a decision.

It’s a choice.

It’s a choice and a discipline, something you plan for. I don’t have a busyness problem I have a decision making problem.

It sounds simple – just plan for extra time  – but It means fighting against life long inclinations and habits, the temptation to fill every available minute is strong. My first move in the right direction is to figure out how to take one day a week completely off. Oh boy. My current situation is so far away from that I can barely get my head around the idea and at this point I think it’s going to take a while to make it happen. I’m hoping for progress, not perfection, for improvement, some sense that this is attainable for me.

So much of the new stuff I’m trying is working but I think this one issue is the lynch pin, the biggest obstacle, the thing between me and real improvement in my work and my life.

are you spinning your wheels on something? chunk it

hand stitched bat

hand stitched bat

Take my word for it – I’m an expert at being super busy without really accomplishing much.

I don’t know if it’s a seasonal shift or anxiety about how much I’ve got to do right now but I’ve been waking up super early – 5-ish.  Man, those early hours are good. And quiet. I’ve been devoting them to things that have been getting away from me – mostly sewing patterns and kits. It’s amazing  how much is getting done in those small, early chunks of time.

I do so much better – daily schedule-wise –  when I assign blocks of time instead of tasks – it’s all still guided by the big list but it’s way harder to procrastinate and avoid stuff if the commitment is a chunk of time.  It’s also easier to start – less intimidating and once I get passed starting I usually get interested – even in the really dreaded stuff like accounting or editing.

It’s effective  because I always – ALWAYS – overestimate what I can do in a day but usually  underestimate what I can do in an hour. Lately by 8 am after a couple chunks of time devoted to creating pattern documents or illustrations I’m feeling pretty good about what’s done and start my other work with less distraction.

You can read more about all the ways I trick myself into being productive here and here.

the positive snowball effect of finishing things and a new workshop

ann wood

It’s such a mistake to let too many unfinished projects pile up. The weight of all that isn’t done can really mess with a person’s momentum and momentum is key.  When it happens the only way through is to start finishing things – one at a time. This week I’ve been finishing stuff – big stuff and little stuff. A wooly edwardian owl was the first – he was nearly there so it was an easy win.

hand stitched owl

He’ll be in the shop next week with some songbirds and other creatures – you can sign up here if you would like an email notification when the new things are available.

Crossing just one thing off the list makes a huge difference, the shift is instant and it’s easier to tackle the next – as each task is completed momentum starts to snowball and replace the self perpetuating overwhelmed and stuck feelings.  My next project was finishing up my improvisational doll experiments – also lingering in “all most done”.

handmade dolls

handmade soldier doll

He stepped right out of a Jane Austen novel, one of her steady hearted colonels. I love him. And he is excellent at guarding books.

A large project got finished too,  creating a new workshop for this September.  Come see me in Boulder!

ann wood

That’s me – in my middle aged art lady uniform. The linen smock (by Cal Patch) really is my uniform – if you run in to me in Brooklyn or come to Colorado there’s a pretty solid chance I’ll have it on. This is my first 3 day workshop ever and it’s presented by the Makerie  September 22nd through the 24th.  3 days to explore something with a small group sounds marvelous. The title of the work shop is Natural History.

little fly

I can share all the details with you next week and registration will open then too. For now I’ll leave you with this very little fly I made to bring to Boulder with me.

deliberate daydreaming

deliberate daydreaming

deliberate daydreaming

Sometimes focus feels impossible. Sometimes your imagination, your creativity and your drive seem to have vanished without warning. Sometimes thoughts and ideas spin so frantically you can’t catch them.

And, there are moments when it all seems to magically work – the better part of a day slips by without notice while you’re completely lost in a glorious flow state – effortless, creative and productive.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have it all at your command, to be able to summon deep focus, motivation and drive, ingenuity, and sparkling original ideas as needed or desired.  But our minds don’t work like that. Our minds do what they like and so often just the opposite of what we’re looking for.  Practice, training and attention help though and I’m always on the look out for ways to improve – stuff to try – ways to reach the deepest parts of my imagination and creativity.

Something I have come across a lot is the idea of alternating focused work with distraction in an intentional way – one example is The  Mac Gyver Method – which I love and use all the time.

And Earnest Hemingway talks about the value of letting things percolate in The Movable Feast :

“It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything.”

Last week I heard the term “deliberate day dreaming” for the first time In this podcast episode  (If you are curious about why your brain does what it does you will particularly enjoy this episode).  I even like the sound of it – deliberate daydreaming – I like the idea of an intentional, daily invitation to let your mind meander and watch where it goes.

My mind wanders off all the time without permission – especially while I’m doing pleasantly (for me) repetitive tasks. I think it’s part of what attracts me to things like hand sewing and paper mache.

tiny rag doll

So I wonder what the effect of intention and daily practice will be. I’m test driving the idea for the next month – devoting 10 minutes everyday to “deliberate daydreaming”.  I will let you know how it goes and if you feel like experimenting with me I’d love to hear about it.

curating, focusing and finding your voice – part 1 : practice every day

fortuny fox

I consume tons of information – often via podcasts while stitching – a lot of it around creativity – and some around business and marketing – they often overlap and intertwine. There is a lot of discussion and advice, especially lately, around finding your voice, curating and focusing.

I have struggled with all three – especially the focus and curating. I’m all over the place and I think there is validity to the argument that it’s easier to make progress if you focus your efforts narrowly. For example – I know I could grow the sewing and craft pattern business – my newest venture – much faster if I focused solely on that. Maybe I should. I also know there is a lot more to explore and experiment with in my own stitch-work and I could sink into that exclusively. Or I could dive deeply into painting and drawing – It would be an adventure and I would love to spend a bunch of time working out exactly who I am and what I want to express in that.  And there is the question of what to share publicly – is it smarter to only present one sort of work? I feel the conflict – the conflict of posting work that I can imagine seems out of place or for a different audience. I’ve considered and am considering possible changes and solutions – like having separate homes for the different kinds of work I do. A home devoted exclusively to the craftier end and another home for projects that are more experimental – I love both and don’t want to stop sharing either. It sounds reasonable and I’m not ruling it out but I can’t imagine running two sites – the time and expense and also I immediately see places where the two would overlap – for me it is all deeply connected.  I remain puzzled and conflicted.

I hoped that the work and exploration I did last year ( My Big Creative Year series) would somehow work this out for me but it didn’t. Something did emerge though – maybe the beginning of some clarity through the daily sketchbook work. I recently passed the one year mark – 52 weeks – what I committed to – but it’s been so good for me I decided to keep going. It has not been at all convenient but it has been undeniably good for my creativity and imagination. If you can find and commit to a little space each day to play, to listen to yourself (on the good days and the bad days) and experiment interesting things will happen.

sketchbook work

That relatively small daily practice of showing up began to reveal things to me after about 9 months – I began, or really am beginning to recognize my own voice in that medium, a voice that feels natural to me. Themes, imagery and a vocabulary are emerging as well as a sense of what I’m attracted to and what my strengths and weaknesses are.

sketchbook favorites

When I went through my big stack of little squares (it weighs  3 and 1/2 pounds!) I saw that many of the ones I like best, the things that felt the best to me felt connected to the other work I do. I couldn’t quite articulate how though. And then – while packing and shipping paper flamingos I addressed a box to someone who lives on Fable Lane. I thought – what a charming address to have – I bet Fable Lane is lovely.

fortuny fox

The word kept popping back into my mind and it occurred to me it’s a common thread in so much of what I have done – for the last ten years especially – the idea of fable – all the meaning and sensation that word conjures. I think it’s something to explore intentionally – I’m not sure exactly how yet but the idea of investigating that passes the first test – I’m having some ideas that make me happy and curious. More on this soon.

harnessing the power of your curiosity to get unstuck

overwhelm

overwhelmThere are so many reasons not to start, to feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed, afraid and stuck. Maybe something feels too big, the hill too steep to climb, or you’re afraid of failing  or being disappointed or disappointing.  Maybe your momentum gets hijacked  by some bit of drudgery – some unpleasant, boring but necessary task that has parked itself between you and everything you’d like to be doing.

Whatever the reason stuck is stuck. When you are stuck you lose your clarity, focus and drive. It is a place of frustration and a spinning anxiety and inertia that develops a momentum of it’s own- feeding and compounding and perpetuating the stuckness. It is not a creative place and certainly not a happy place.

Curiosity can break that cycle. Curiosity is an energetic place and you can apply your curiosity to stuckness with a very simple exercise: make a list of questions – at least ten.   To get started the questions can be small or absurd or silly – in fact absurdity can be good for waking up curiosity. And I have found the more questions I can come up with the better they get but the exercise is less about finding solutions ( although they may occur) and more about tapping into the energy of a massively powerful part of your mind.

Even in the case of drudgery, when the objection is  that a task is boring or unpleasant I might ask myself questions like – How could I make this better?  Is there ANYTHING fun or interesting about this? What if there had to be? How could I segment  or order this differently? Could I ask someone for help?  What part of this is not essential? What could I take away? What happens if I don’t do it?  What if I only had 15 minutes?  How could I apply a system here?

There is an element of novelty and perhaps a refreshing of perspective at work here too but it’s curiosity that gets you there. If you can spark your curiosity – even just a little – you can get yourself moving.

building the focus muscle

fortuny velvet

I’m working on a large project for Fortuny – I can’t show it to you for a couple more weeks but I can show you some of the fabrics I’m working with – their new cashmere velvets – I wish you could feel them – and the colors are glorious.

fortuny velvet

It’s a project I love and one that makes me wish for more hours in the day which of course I can’t have. But maybe I can increase the depth of my focus and attention to make the absolute most of the time I do have. I know the sensation of deep focus but it’s a place that has become increasingly difficult to get to.

I think of my creativity, my imagination, as a muscle – something to be cared for, fed nurtured and exercised.

I think of time as a precious and finite commodity and I manage and protect it thoughtfully and carefully.

I am realizing that my ability to focus needs to be cared for, exercised, managed and protected too. I know it has been diminished by constant connectedness, the myriad of small grabs for my attention that were not there 20 years ago. So I work at it, plan for it and block out chunks of time away from distractions – internet and phone free time to sink into deep focus. I thought that was enough until I listened to this episode of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast :

Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World with Cal Newport

It’s a great episode and I hope you’ll listen. What struck me most was the idea that some habits and behaviors outside of those chunks of protected time have undermining, damaging effects on my ability to focus deeply, to manage my attention.

Newport offered the example of waiting in line at a grocery store – I pull out my phone – and so does almost everybody else. I notice the same on the subway – the train comes out of a tunnel and everybody pulls out their phone. It’s a habit and such a small thing – what harm could it do? Why not fill that little bubble of grocery line time with instagram or email etc.?

“Both our personal and professional lives are increasingly built around these sources of distraction. From a cognitive perspective, that’s like being an athlete who smokes.”

Cal Newport

It’s teaching my mind to run away from boredom – to fill gaps with novel stimulation from a never ending source, It weakens the muscle that resists distraction, the muscle that helps me stay truly present in the moment, the stitch.

songbird work

Since I first listened a couple weeks ago I stopped pulling out my phone in little downtime moments like waiting in the grocery or post office line and it’s uncomfortable – alarmingly uncomfortable. In fact it’s easier not to bring it. I think it’s good practice for pulling my attention back to the present or an opportunity to daydream – that little device steals so much daydreaming time. I am far more likely to have an idea while day dreaming than I am while looking at twitter.

I’m not giving up my phone or the internet – but I am working harder to put them in their place. And I do feel a strong nostalgia for the pre- connected life.

* Further – If you’re interested in this sort of thing you might enjoy another Unmistakable Creative episode on focus and productivity too.

advanced beginner : ten years of blogging

paper birds 2006

songbirds 20016

Ten Years!

This February marks the ten year anniversary of my blog. 10 years of trying stuff and sharing it.

Posting my efforts and experiments has made me braver and continues to help me push myself to keep moving, take chances, and get over myself. And I love having a record – evidence of small consistent effort over a long period of time, evidence of growth, a catalog of moments and sensations I would have forgotten. It is also a catalog of missteps. I looked through the entire blog over the last couple days – I never have before – and a lot of it makes me cringe. Not even just the really old stuff. There is a shocking amount of things I felt good about at the time that I see now as terribly flawed or awkward. Part of me wants to edit that all out but that is not the spirit of this effort – the spirit of this effort is reaching and sometimes reaching is flawed and awkward. In all of it that is what means the most to me – I tried stuff and I will continue to try stuff and share it. I’m deeply motivated by the idea that my best work is always ahead of me – I feel like I’ve barely gotten started.

To mark the occasion I chose a photo from each year to share in this post – some are images I loved, or times when I felt like I got somewhere new and some are just little moments I’m glad were preserved. Some of the images remind me of collaborators I was lucky to have and people who have been showing up here for the entire ten years – I am truly touched and grateful for that.

Beginning with 2006 – paper birds.

paper birds 2006

2007  –  the ginger rose

the ginger rose 2007

2008 – snapshots from Camp Wapameo for Birds

camp wapameo (for birds) 2008

2009 – diorama/illustration – theater

diorama 2009

Read More

the beacon, the compass, the driving force – my list

flamingo kit work

Are you a list maker? I work best and most happily when I am diligent about creating thoughtful, daily to do lists. I’m moving multiple, large-ish projects forward at the same time and I would be lost without my list. My list gets me to do things I don’t want to do, things I’m uncomfortable with or intimidated by. One of my current projects is putting together my first kit- paper flamingos. I love creating the instructions but there are tons of other details to work out, details I don’t love dealing with – wholesale suppliers, packaging, printing, assembling and distributing. It is on my list and I chip away at it every day.

flamingo kit work

The difference in what I accomplish and how much happier the work is when I take the time to carefully and thoughtfully make my list is so remarkable, such a dramatic shift, I’ve spent some time thinking about why. Why beyond the obvious benefits of being more organized, not forgetting things etc. I came up with some reasons and I saved the one I think is most important for last:

* I tailor my lists to my own personal brand of nuttiness – the anxiety and procrastination, indecision and overwhelm I’m so prone to. Tasks I REALLY don’t want to do get assigned small chunks of time – 15 minutes – 30 minutes etc. So much easier to start and to focus when an end is in sight. A surprising amount can be accomplished in 15 truly focused minutes. I use a timer for these sorts of tasks. I mix those short bursts with longer,  more open ended work. My day feels designed.

* Breaking things down into time chunks changes my relationship with time – I am conscious of, and accountable for my minutes – less time slips mysteriously away – I push harder and squeeze things in.

* It’s effective even when I screw up. If I’ve over-scheduled myself – it’s easy to see and fix going forward.

* I’m less anxious about what I’m not doing at any given moment – I know it’s planned for – has it’s own focused chunk of time instead of floating around in a vague and oppressive cloud of things that need to be done.

And the biggest benefit:

It can be hard to feel momentum and progress on large or longterm projects and goals. Checking things off on a list is undeniable evidence of progress and a chance to congratulate yourself a little and build momentum. I save my lists and when I’m feeling frustrated or stuck I can look back and see how far I’ve come.

Lists are a way of celebrating and recording little successes – and that is terribly important in accomplishing big things.

flamingos in love

P. S. If you would like an email notification when the flamingo kit is ready to go you can sign up here.

my big creative year : youness

paper mache ships

“No one is youer than you.” – Dr. Seuss

So lovely and simple and true. A perfect message for a child or grownup. And the idea that is at the heart of all that is creative.

I think the youness is worth exploring deeply and sharing as fully as possible. The world only has one chance at what’s in there – one chance at you. I think it’s worth time, energy, embarrassment, failure and disappointment to work your way through to the deepest, most truly creative work you can do – the youest – the work of your utterly unique, snowflake of an imagination.

My Big Creative Year  moved me closer to that work, closer to my youness. Some of the things that helped:

Showing up – whether I wanted to or not.

Failing and starting again, and again and again….

Intention – making experimenting a priority – making  room for it.

Learning more about how I work (one of the benefits of working) – following my energy.

Listening carefully for the magic – I do believe it is there- waiting to be noticed….  Listening is part of the work and that kind of listening takes practice and patience and the afore mentioned showing up.

I got more tuned in to recognizing where I stumble – I see more clearly what is in the way, what trips me – again and again – this continues to be my biggest sticking point.

paper mache ships

And what’s ahead for 2016:

Blog-wise nothing programmed – except the sketchbook – I need to freestyle for a while- post as the spirit moves me. And work-wise – I have a lot of ideas for the coming year – new patterns and for the first time kits! are on the horizon. Also, Some projects came to me at the end of 2015 that hit me right in my youness – work I’ve been enjoying immensely – I’ll share some of that soon.

And for you, for 2016, I hope you’ll continue to visit here – I am grateful that you do. I wish you a happy, healthy and creative year. I wish you a year of magnificent youness.

my big creative year : can does not equal should

time

time
This has always been a sticky spot for me. I make myself very busy with work I CAN do without carefully considering if it is work I SHOULD do, work only I can do, work I am meant to do. A yes to one thing is a stealthy no to something else. A lot of my efforts this year have been around making those choices more carefully or at least more consciously and treating time like the precious resource it is.

I first came across Elizabeth Gilbert through her Ted Talk on Creativity and just lately put her new book Big Magic on my list (have your read it? I’d love to hear what you thought). And there is a companion podcast series to the book – Magic Lessons. You know I love a good podcast and I listened to all 12 episodes during a marathon sewing session. I love the way she talks about ideas, inspiration:

“Inspiration is looking for you, it’s waiting for you patiently while you’re making your mistakes, making the things that must be made on the way to what it has for you, it is a collaboration and a synergy…”

The podcast is a series of interviews with other authors and artists and conversations with women trying to move past fear,  procrastination, guilt and busyness into their most truly creative work – their big magic.

Find the podcast – Magic Lessons – here:

http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/magic-lessons/

my big creative year : good ideas

ideas

ideas

Sometimes ideas are like mosquitos – a relentless whisper.  Sometimes they are slippery and hard to grasp. Sometimes they flow like a river, tumbling over each other. Sometimes they are lurking in the shadows, maddeningly half revealed.  Sometimes they are frightening – too big to wrap our arms around.

Whether they are big or little, scary, silly, sad, strange, embarrassing or brilliant they are in unlimited supply. You can’t run out.

And this is also true:

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

Linus Pauling

Lots.

And I would add this – have lots of ideas and write them down, record them.

Volume matters not because you’re bound to get lucky eventually but because asking your brain to generate lots of ideas keeps the wheels turning and the machinery well oiled.  It makes you ask the second question and the third and the fourth etc. etc. that will lead you to new places, lead you deeper into your imagination and your magic.

 

 

my big creative year : doll – part 1

doll experiment

Historically,  I’ve gotten hugely annoyed when described as a doll maker. Nothing against dolls – I love them so much – in all their forms – and there are so many incredible doll makers I admire. But still, I have felt resistance about creating anything that could very officially be called a doll.  I told myself – it just isn’t what I do.  Except it keeps coming up….   So I decided to make a doll.  And ran right into a bunch of nuttiness and resistance – all the usual suspects:

  •  I had a million ideas – I wanted to make LOTS of dolls – it felt impossible to choose where to begin – I was overwhelmed.
  •  I got all weird about what people might think.
  •  I wanted to make the best and most perfect doll ever – right out of the gate.

I stayed stuck and thinking for quite a while and then got past that the only way there is –  by starting. By taking a small action – gathering supplies.  Sorting through boxes and boxes of old garments and fabric with doll in mind made me see all sorts of new possibilities and qualities in things I’ve looked at a hundred times before. I got a lot of momentum from that exercise and started drawing, drafting and experimenting – in that good place of letting something evolve. You can see the very beginnings  of  the thinking, experimenting, drafting and refining process – my wonky first steps – below.

doll drafting

Stay tuned for doll #1.

 

my big creative year : perspective

shed skin

When I need to shift my perspective the best thing for me is to wander outside. So I did this weekend, for a little bit in the Adirondacks. I really didn’t think about things or try to figure anything out but while I was smelling moss and tree sap and collecting treasures my head cleared, a lot of franticness lifted.

shed skin

I’m in my usual spot of too much to do, not enough time etc. etc. etc. and I’ve got to let go of something so I’m going to put My Big Creative Year on vacation for the remainder of August. Or, more clearly, I’m going to put posting about it on vacation – I’ll still be having a big creative year and I hope you will too. The timing feels perfect and it takes some pressure off, gives some much needed breathing room. I’ll still be posting about other stuff – what I’m working on etc. and – hopefully later this week- I’ll tell you what I learned in my holiday survey – it was full of surprises. Thanks if you participated – I learned a ton.

my big creative year : the importance of no and what I love about collage

no collage

no collage

“A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”
Gandhi

I say yes when I should say no. I think it’s most often to please or to avoid immediate discomfort, sometimes to avoid taking the time to make a truly thoughtful decision or sometimes for fear of lack. Firm, thoughtful, timely NO and carefully considered YES are things I need to work on.

What I do with my time is defined by what I say yes to – say yes to too much of the wrong stuff and the right stuff – the things I really love doing get squeezed out. Halfway through MY Big Creative Year there is still so much, so many ideas and things I want to experiment with waiting on the back burner for me to be less busy with my busyness.

I came across two great articles about creativity, time and NO I hope you’ll check out:

Creative People Say No
by Kevin Ashton

If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will
by Greg McKeown

A note on the collage:

It was a good thing to say yes to. Collage is something I love playing with but hardly ever make time for. Time experimenting with mood and pallet, accepting and rejecting ideas – trying things on – it lends itself to “what if” thinking and can draw me out of my worn in grooves. My reason for starting was because I needed an illustration for this post and I intended to be efficient about it but as soon as I began it became clear the somebody just really wanted to make a collage. I got lost in it, spent too much time and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

no quote