Jun 082014

People love to measure their physical exercise. A pedometer to tally thousands of steps per day. Counting push-ups and crunches. Devices on exercise bikes to track time, distance, and velocity. And of course, stepping on the scale to see if any pounds are coming off.

Why does measuring our workouts seem so important? One reason is that consistency is the key to success when you’re trying to get stronger. And the way to stay consistent is to measure and plan.

Doing creative work also means showing up and continuing. A fulfilling creative life requires attentive focus from you almost every day, just like physical exercise. Here are a few simple suggestions to help you track your time on your artistic work.

Set an hours-per-week goal.

You need to put in significant time per week to do fulfilling work. Whether you’re uber-busy with other obligations or have all the free time in the world, choosing an hours-per-week goal will help you progress toward finishing your projects.

Say you are a fledgling writer who wants to break through and see her first published short story. Your first goal could be to write 10 hours per week, including at least one hour per day. Your second goal could be to spend three hours per week researching the business side, so you understand the steps for getting stories published.

Keep a log

Write down how much time you spend each day on your work. It may sound tedious, but it takes just a moment if you keep the log close by. It may sound like overkill, but do it for a little while just to see where you’re at. You might think you spend ten hours a week on your poetry, but maybe it’s closer to four or five. You won’t know if you don’t measure it.

Stay accountable

Find one or two friends to share your artistic goals and ideas with, including your hours-per-week goal. There’s nothing like having someone ask, “How you doing?” to keep you honest. And you can return the favor for someone who is also on the artistic trail.

Remember to keep yourself accountable too. Write down your goals. Put reminders on your calendar to check those goals every few weeks or months. Getting support from others is necessary, but no one can get behind your work if you’re not behind it first.

There you are, a few small things to help track your creative time. Just like your physical health, your imagination will thank you down the road.

May 132013

Every few days I end up in a conversation with some musicians where the topic is, “Why we all hate marketing and business stuff surrounding our music.” Musicians hate marketing, hate cold-calling DJs, hate negotiating gigs, and hate asking to get paid to play.

In his new book, Making Your Creative Mark, Eric Maisel gives some great reframing or thought-substitution techniques to get through the discouraging stuff. The basic idea is to be attentive to your inner conversations, and eliminate thoughts that do not serve your interests.

Here’s an example:

“I have to call three or four people today to start setting up gigs for this winter.” OK, that’s a good, sensible, useful thing to have in your head.

Then along comes the next thought. “I hate calling people. I wish I didn’t have to do that stupid stuff.” OK, this is where you need some substituting. You hate making business calls, but it’s not useful to think too much about that. What could you substitute?

“I don’t like making biz calls, but it only takes about twenty minutes. Then I can get on with something more interesting. Besides, I haven’t talked to Carol in Colorado for a while, and she’s always great to talk to.”

That substitution will give you a much better chance of actually getting those calls done. Kind of obvious? Yes. But discouragement and procrastination are built on gloomy moods, not following what is obvious and logical. And as Maisel points out, it is often very useful to let go of a thought even though it may be true. You hate doing something, fine if that’s true. But let go of that thought if it doesn’t serve your creativity.

Of course artistic passion means more than simply finding ways to get tedious tasks done. Obsessed, devoted, impetuous, falling madly, lustily, foolishly, hopelessly in love with your creativity. Forget discipline–this isn’t military training. It’s your romance with that instrument, that moment of writing, that dance, applying tools to wood and stone, speaking to the canvas with your brushes.

In the same book, Maisel writes that passion is what separates artists from dabblers. Some people can create casually, occasionally working at something, but usually one must stay passionate and be in the work day after day to create well. The concept of “getting into flow” is often spoken of in terms of immersing into something for several hours. But flow can also be a way of life, where artistic passion is a driving and directing force behind everything you do day upon day.

A runner must have strong mental and emotional focus during a race. But she also trains day after day with that same competitive drive and intensity. The passion to succeed is not a switch she can turn on right before a race and then forget it afterward. Success comes from wanting it and living like she means it. That’s the same kind of passion needed to live a fulfilling artistic life.

This new book from Eric Maisel is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while for the creative personality. He covers the most common difficulties and struggles facing artistic people–your thoughts, confidence, passion, identity, freedom, and relationships. If you’re not on the bandwagon reading every new book that coms along for artists, writers, or musicians, that’s cool. But this is one book I’d recommend to everyone with the desire to create.

Mar 142013

A dozen is quite the popular number. Donuts, eggs, cans of beer and bottles of wine all come in dozens. When we want to show an impressive number, we use dozens. “She has dozens of friends in Chicago.” “He has published dozens of articles on the subject.”

If you’re feeling really enthusiastic, you can join The Dozenal Society of America, which advocates a worldwide switch from base ten to base twelve. I am skeptical that base ten will be replaced any time soon., but who knows? Base twelve was in use back in ancient Mesopotamia, so it’s not just a new-fangled fad. Check out the song links at the end of this post, and you may be persuaded to join the ways of ancient arithmetic.

Now, to the real point of all this number talk.

The most common cause of unhappiness and frustration among creative personalities is resistance–the inner resistance that keeps a person doubting, worrying, fearing the vulnerability, and dismissing artistic endeavors as less than meaningful. It may clothe itself in procrastination, laziness, lack of focus, low confidence, or squandered talent. Whatever form it takes, but resistance lies behind anything inside a person that keeps him from doing the work.

Dedicate yourself to a dozen hours of creative work each week. It will change your life.

One musician plans her dozen hours a week this way. She practices for an hour every day. That’s seven. Then she spends five hours on emails, searching for gigs, keeping her website and press kit spiffy. Several months later she is performing more, growing her following, and pushing her music to a higher standard.

Another musician feels he is lacking in some foundation skills. He decides to practice ninety minutes a day. That’s ten and a half hours a week. Plus he puts a weekly lesson on top of that, and his dozen hours are set. He’s going to be a much better musician in just a few months.

Walter Mosley states that ninety minutes a day for a year is the minimum for finishing your first novel draft. Imagine a writer starting on this daunting adventure for the first time. Ninety-some minutes a day, a dozen hours a week. In about twelve months she’ll have six hundred hours poured into her draft, and that might make for a pretty solid piece of reading. Dabbling for a few hours every once in a while on a bored Saturday afternoon isn’t the way to good writing. Putting in the sweat and time is the only way she will get her best writing done.

If you have a job, kids, school activities, yard work, and your volleyball league, finding twelve hours might be tough. You’ll need to scale back on some things. The two-hour volleyball session could be replaced with an hour of running. Some of the school activities you volunteer for could go to other parents this year. Maybe TV isn’t always worth the time.

No one can guarantee that your work will find financial success or critical acclaim if you give more time to it. But it is guaranteed that a second-rate effort will never lead to excellence. Think of it this way: No one could promise that an hour a day in the gym will make you an Olympic athlete. But if you want to feel great and be in the best physical condition possible, that hour in the gym seems like an obvious plan. Work hard and you’re more likely to do very good things.

I’ll wrap up here with those promised songs of historical importance. I do have a soft spot for Mesopotamia from my days in ancient Near East studies. I spent the summer of 1992 translating the entire code of Hammurabi for an Akkadian independent study. So of course I have to point out some great music about the land between the rivers:

Aug 062011

You’ve got some talent? You’ve had some success?

According to hockey star Evgeni Malkin, that’s not enough.

Malkin (known as “Geno” by his teammates and fans) plays for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. He won the legendary Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and was awarded the Most Valuable Player trophy for that year’s playoff season. All this in his early twenties. The man is just getting started.

Malkin missed half of the 2010-2011 season with a devastating knee injury. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he has learned the value of training and improving. This article points out the benefits of the rigorous rehab process for Malkin, who needed to learn better ways to work out.

My brilliant wife Robin points out that legendary NHL player Gary Roberts also learned about conditioning and training only after a serious injury. Roberts was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh a few years ago for his ferocious and tenacious effort on the ice, so I have a hard time imagining him in the skinny-fat club. (OK, why are you all looking at me when I say the term “skinny’fat”?)

For musicians, artists, actors, and writers, there’s a great lesson here. Talent and success need to be combined with self-improvement. Getting better is a skill. You can relax on last year’s success, hoping that your audience will not notice that you’re treading water. Or you can relish last year’s success while working hard to do your best on your current creative work. Nothing takes the place of a serious work ethic.