Showing up every day, softly
The Internet loves “X Days of [ insert thing here ]” challenges. I love these challenges! The idea is simple enough: do some work every single day related to your chosen activity. These challenges were popularized due to the apocryphal story of Jerry Seinfeld and his “Don’t Break the Chain” method: supposedly Jerry told a young comedian that he hung up a brand new calendar at the start of the year and only crossed the day off with an X if he wrote that day. The idea was to never have a day uncrossed — that is to say, to “break” the chain of X’s. I can’t find the source for this (supposedly this young comedian discussed his encounter with Seinfeld during an interview with Lifehacker), but the veracity of this story doesn’t take away from the point: show up every day and do some work. Don’t worry about quality, just focus on output.
You’ll hear this repeated ad infinitum by SO. MANY. PEOPLE. The current darling is James Clear and his book Atomic Habits, but before him there was Austin Kleon and his books Steal Like An Artist (in one chapter he discusses how if you write one page a day, at the end of the year you have a 365 page book) and Show Your Work (a book on how to show people how your particularly sausage is made). Before him it was Julia Cameron and her infamous The Artist’s Way, which introduced the creative community to the concept of morning pages and more importantly, the idea that you should sit at your desk everyday and worry about quantity, while letting God/Universe/Buddha/The Flying Spaghetti Monster take care of the quality (a nice way of saying that quality is out of your hands: it’ll come when it comes).
This approach has downsides:
- Can generate a lot of shame; negative connotation to “Don’t break the chain.”
- Ripe for burnout; lots of information on how to keep working, no advice on how to…not be working.
- The implication that not being productive = bad It’s not that consistency is bad: it’s a good thing! It has a lot of benefits! You generate momentum. You create a body of work - evidence - that proves that you are capable of putting in the work.
We just need balance
So how do we balance it out and inject some softness?
- Self care. What it is, why it’s important, why it might not be what you think it is.
- Build in days off (The Code Pixi is taking this approach in her 100DaysofProjects: she works on project for five days, takes two days off). An intentional break is not a strike against your productivity; I’d argue that it’s even necessary.
- Gentle ways to work. In art school I had a photography teacher, Duncan, who told us one day that there’s nothing wrong with stopping art, ya just can’t quit.
- You can stop taking photographs, you can stop painting, you can take breaks, but fill the vacuum during those breaks: read about artists, go to the museum, research techniques, etc. We can apply this everything.
- What does productive rest/gentle work/filling the vacuum look like to you? If you’re teaching yourself to code, it could look like reading a biography on someone who made an impact in tech (Grace Hopper, Margaret Mead, Steve Jobs, etc.). Maybe it could be setting aside your big project and working on something small: make a cute nonsensical website instead of your Big and Very Serious App! Write about a problem and how you solved it and share it. If you’re a writer, you could take a break from churning out pages and read something, instead. Try writing in a different form (Comic books? Some weird avant garde Twitter tweetstorm essay?).
Kids are really great for breaking you out of a funk. Borrow one, if you don’t have one of your own. Volunteer to mentor for Girls Who Code. Learn Scratch and make something with a kid. Make a zine with a kid. Make art with kids! Play is how children learn, and that can rub off onto you.
“When I came to the university… one thing that struck me was how miserable the grad students were. I thought, I wonder if I could pair them up with four-year-olds?” She started a program called Draw Bridge that did just that. “What I hoped would happen was my students would learn to borrow the kids’ state of mind and learn to approach problems in a way that was less tight and focused, a way that was happier and set the conditions for discovery.” — Lynda Barry