Imaginative people tend to gravitate toward creative work. Makes sense right? Imagination and creativity seem to go hand in hand. But what if I were to tell you that imagination can stop your creativity in its tracks? That's what happened to me.
Prolific imagination = prolific problems
I have a prolific imagination. In fact, I imagine working much more than I actually work. This causes problems for me.
Throughout the day, even when I'm not working, I think about the work awaiting me: the latest runtime error from a programming project, the article I was too tired to edit yesterday, the bills due before the 15th. I imagine other people annoyed, impatiently waiting for me to do those things. This storm of demands gathers in my mind.
Future, imagined work is not real
The more I think about them, the more difficult and unpleasant the tasks seem. These imaginings are little stories I tell myself. They're based on projection and speculation ... work to come, not yet done. They're not real.
The problem is, when it comes time to do those tasks, my imaginings can stop me — that is, if I believe them. For example, believing my mental stories of dishwashing has caused me to dread doing dishes. I picture myself standing at the sink, feeling a little grossed out by the leavings on the dirty dishes, the bits of food floating in the murky dishwater, crusty cheese caked on a plate that won't scrub off. I picture being forced to stand there, subjected to those small revulsions while I would rather be doing other things (watching Bates Motel, reading October Country, playing with the dog, just about anything). I picture myself feeling tired and annoyed. I picture myself suffering through this for a long time.
Forcing yourself grows the dread
Who wouldn't avoid doing something that seemed that unpleasant? We are wired to avoid pain and approach pleasure. My mental stories cause the perception that dishwashing is painful. When I do eventually go wash the dishes, just by sheer force of will, the stories play in my head all the while I wash, reinforcing that perception of pain.
Dread forecasts that an experience will be painful and then fulfills its own forecast.
This habit of dreading work went on for me for a long long time. I dreaded doing it. But I also dreaded NOT doing it, because then it just sat there, waiting to be done.
Do the work for a few minutes — set a timer!
Then I read about a technique this woman used to get started cleaning her house amid overwhelm and inertia (http://www.flylady.net/). She set a timer for 15 minutes and told herself that she would work on one cleaning thing for 15 minutes. Then, if she hated doing the work and found it to hard and painful, she could stop. So I decided to try that. Fifteen minutes sounded very short. You can do anything for 15 minutes no matter how distasteful it seems. I told myself, "I'll wash dishes as fast as I can just until this timer goes off." Then I could could take a break and do something fun if I wanted to.
To my surprise, after 15 minutes, there were no dirty dishes left!
Timers teach truths
My mental stories were tricking me. I was not forced to stand there doing something unpleasant for a long time at all. The truths I learned from this were:
- I can finish a sink full of dishes in 15 minutes or less almost every night, even without a dishwasher
- Washing dishes is not inherently unpleasant.
- I don't have to believe my mental stories.
Realizing that my mental stories often turn toward the horror genre and that I don't have to believe them has given me incredible power and freedom around my work. I have found that I don't need to tune into any particular mental channel in order to do a task. I don't need to feel good about doing it. I don't need to get a positive or realistic mental image even. I can decide to do a thing (like washing the dishes), aim myself at the process, and work through the steps.
You will be liberated when you stop believing your stories
Not only is this liberating for household chores, it's revolutionary for my creative work.
When I think about writing, my mental horror stories nearly always kick in. They tell me that my brain's not working as well as it has before, that it will be unpleasant to sit and write words, that the words will not be good, that my neck will hurt for sitting still at the desk, that my posture's too bad to sit at the desk for long ... you get the picture. But I don't have to believe any of that. I can aim myself at my writing process. And I can break that process down into the smallest steps needed to do the next thing to start.
Break it down ... waayyyyyy down!
You want a process much more refined than the usual all-encompassing phases like 1. Draft, 2. Revise, 3. Proof, 4. Publish. Those phases are made up of smaller steps, that are, in turn, also made up of smaller steps. You want to break down the steps until they're so small that they're ridiculously easy to do. Sit down at your desk. Pick up a pen. Open a file.
For example, here's the writing process I follow for blog articles today:
My process today
Open Notion (the app where I plan, outline, write, and organize my writing: https://www.notion.so/)
Select a topic from blog ideas in my blog content calendar (in Notion)
Set my Focus at Will timer for 20 minutes (https://www.focusatwill.com/app/music)
Start the timer and free write on my topic until the timer goes off
Stand up and walk around for 5 minutes
Sit back down and start the timer again — use my probing questions to tighten my draft until the timer goes off
Stand up and walk around for 5 minutes
Sit back down and start the timer a third time — rearrange and proof my draft until the timer goes off
In my content calendar, move my draft to the In Review stage
Check off "Write 1-hour blog" in Habitica
You'll notice there's no step for conjuring up or considering a mental horror story about writing. I just do the first thing. I commit to just 15 minutes. Anyone can do anything for 15 minutes.
You'd be surprised what you can accomplish in that time if you don't believe your mental horror stories.