How to be productive

How is it possible to get anything done at the moment? It’s clearly difficult to find motivation or even time, and like many people juggling young families and day jobs, finding time for other pursuits is tricky, involving negotiations of tactical necessity with your partner. And let’s be honest, when you do have that small wedge of time to yourself, you spend it doom scrolling, so rather than wasting those precious hours, I wanted to maximise the windows I have for creative work, and actually use them productively.

When I last had a studio, I used it as a way to check out, I would do anything but paint and I wanted to avoid those old pitfalls again. I knew I needed to make lifestyle changes, so while I painted I listened to podcasts* with creative or high-functioning people to find out how they got stuff done.

These were my takeaways. The first one was surprisingly common.

  1. Get enough sleep every day.
  2. Reduce the amount of ‘life stuff’ I kept in my head, the to-do and grocery lists, the appointments. Dump all this into phone apps as soon as possible.
  3. Keep commitments manageable.

I have a habit of doing too much, piling external commitments onto my own projects, which usually gets me scrambled and results in nothing getting done. With the third point, I had to make these changes to my workflow so that I don’t get overwhelmed:

  1. Have no more than three paintings on the go. Only start a new one when I finish one.
  2. Agree to do work for other people a project or a commission at a time.

There were other things, such as keeping a regular routine each day for exercise, self care and family time, but no two of my days are the same at the moment, so these seemed like things that needed adjusting on a daily basis, rather than mental shifts that would help me overall.

Prioritising sleep was the hardest thing, especially when sleep has been such a precious commodity at this time, but it was also the most essential. Here’s why:

I am a huge proponent of sleep. When I write, or when I try to think, what I do is essentially make associations between seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts and in order for that to happen those associative chains need to be firing and when I am sleep deprived, I feel like I don’t have full access to my own brain … I think ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honour that speaks to work ethic or toughness or whatever it is, but really it’s a total profound failure of priorities and of self respect, and I try to enact that in my own life by being very disciplined about my sleep, at least as disciplined as I am about my work, because the latter is a product of the capacities cultivated by the former.

Maria Popova on Writing, workflow and workarounds (Tim Ferriss Show)

I finished my first two paintings for the year on the weekend. It was oddly affecting signing them. I’d been working on the reading picture since March, using it to help me shake off the rust after a ten-year hiatus from oil painting. The butcherbird I started last week. It’s much more spontaneous and playful, but you don’t get to the play stage without the practice. And you need to make time for practice too.

*Here are some of the interviews I enjoyed listening to for insights about process, juggling creative work and family, perseverance and making the most of time:

Hurry Slowy

The Tim Ferriss Show, including the Maria Popova interview above, but also:

The First Time Podcast

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