There is a point that happens to all creative types when we realize that we have too much to do and not enough time to do it. The costume and makeup professor I studied under in college called this, “Chicken lost head!” She was from China and did not quite understand American idioms. But after we stopped laughing and asked her to explain herself, her point was this: You cannot run around in a panic looking for your head. It fell off. It is too late. The crazy chicken is already dead, he just doesn’t know it yet.
There is only so much time in a day and only so much you can do in that time, if you want to do quality work. You have to eat, you have to sleep, and it would be nice to those around you if you actually stopped to brush your teeth and bathe. Many of my friends are amazed at how much work I can get done, when I actually sit down to work. I can write a thousand words an hour, no sweat. I can crank out forty leather masks in a week, when I have to do so. I can juggle an insane number of projects in the air and seem like I am making progress on them all.
Part of this is simple focus, and part of this is pure illusion.
For starters (with the exception of those mask weeks), I don’t work for a solid twelve hours a day every day. I probably do not even work on product for a solid forty hours in a typical week. I get frustrated, I get overwhelmed, and some days it is all I can do to get the kids to school, make their dinner, and do the dishes. I can go (and have gone) weeks without creating anything new. Nobody can be on ALL the time. We all need time to chill, to recharge, and to think.
The truth is that I know this about myself. I know there will be days (like this past weekend) where I should be writing, I want to be writing, but I just can’t get any writing done. I have to be ready to maximize the time I do get to work and have something ready to be picked up at a moments notice. For that, there is trick #1,
At my desk right now I have a white board with game and story ideas. I have a cork board with scraps of paper pinned to it, and a pile of 1/4 sheets of paper scribbled with lists and notes beside my mouse pad. I also have running scratch pads on Google Docs where I jot down brainstorming ideas. These lists help keep me sane. They keep me from staring at the wall unable to get started. I may not have the time in a particular day to start something new, but when a good idea comes to me, I do take the time to jot it down. Then, when I find myself uncertain what to do next, I shuffle through my lists, find something worth doing, and I do it.
As we approach a show, I will start jotting down everything that needs to be finished, packed, or purchased for the event. I don’t try to come up with it all at once I just put down the items as they come to me. The best part though, is that I cross them off the list when they are done. If it is a really rough day, I may add something to a list that I know I will cross off almost immediately. Crossing things off lists is therapeutic. It gives you a sense of accomplishment! It keeps your momentum going all day long. Which brings me to trick #2,
Cut What Can’t Be Done!
I have way more ideas that I will ever be able to bring to fruition. There are stories that will never be written. Games that will never be played. Books that I will never get to read. I actually have not been to a movie theater in forever, and often forget to watch the ones I really wanted to see once they come out on DVD. Time is the most valuable commodity we have, and none of us know how much of it we really have. In life we have to make choices on what to do and what to pass on, and you have to do the same with your work as well.
Did you have an idea that you loved at first, but the longer you slog away at it you just get further from what you wanted? Cut it. Have a stack of goblins half sewn that might make it to completion if you stay up around the clock for the next 5 days? Cut it. Don’t waste time and effort on the things that will drag you down. Work on the things that fire you up. Work on the things you can complete. Let the other stuff simmer, and if one day down the road you want to give it a second shot, go for it. But when you pick it up again, make sure you have the environment to succeed. Which is trick #3,
We all think that we are masters of multitasking, but the simple fact of the matter is that human beings are not computers. Every single study I have found on people’s ability to multi-task shows that they take longer and perform poorer when trying to do more than one thing at a time. We don’t have the ability to equally split focus. But we do have to ability to narrow our vision and chase relentlessly after a single goal.
So do one thing at a time. And while you are doing that one thing, don’t allow yourself to get sucked away by other things. Turn off facebook! Silence your phone! Set a time that you will break for lunch and don’t wander away every half hour before then for a snack. Pee when you need to (because it is really hard to stay focused when you body says you have to stop) but get right back on target and don’t wander to other things on the way back.
Don’t let anyone else interrupt you (unless they are bleeding or something is on fire.) I wear headphones when I am writing if other people are home. They know if I am wearing them that I can’t hear them and I do not want to be disturbed. Likewise, when I can’t wear them because I am the only adult around and have to be listening for sounds of blood and fire, my kids know that if I am deep in concentration on something I will put up my hand to stop them when they enter the room. They have never needed anything so badly that it could not wait for five more minutes. And now for trick #4,
Set A Schedule!
This goes hand in hand with eliminating distractions, but you have to plan to work when you are actually able to work. Find the time to get things done when you won’t be bothered by interruptions. Schedule work time when there is not something else that has to be done. It would be silly for me to decide to write from 7am to 9am every morning, as I have other responsibilities during that time and would just wind up frustrated and annoyed. Nothing productive would get done.
But if I don’t set a time for when work will get done, if I just leave it at the lists that say “Do this!”, it is not going to get done either. I know that from 9:30am to noon is my most productive, uninterrupted time of day. So that is when I schedule to do my writing. I know that after the kids go to bed is the best time for me to paint, until my eyes give out at about 11pm. So that is when I paint, if I have painting that needs to be done. I know that the weekends, when my wife is home, is the best time to do work that doesn’t require absolute silence and benefits from feedback, so that is the time I do layouts and designs.
So make a schedule that works for your life. Most importantly though, STICK TO THE SCHEDULE! If you plan to write from 3 to 6pm each evening, then do it. Don’t use that time to make dinner one day. Don’t decide to watch a TV show instead. If that is time scheduled for writing, then you cannot use it for anything but writing. The more you stick to the schedule, the easier it will become, and the more ready your brain will be to work when that time comes around. Also, by sticking to the schedule and actually working when it is time to work, you will feel more accomplished and happier at the end of the day. Finally,
Don’t Be Chicken Lost Head!
It will happen. There will come a point when you start running around looking for your head. But in your panic, you won’t realize that you are already doomed. Stop. Take a breath. And take a step back. Freaking out does not solve a problem, it only confounds the issues. If you reach that point of insanity, it might be time for a break. I find that taking a shower always helps to relax my body and refocus my brain.
And then, make a list of everything that needs to be done. Write it down. You will be surprised how manageable things are when broken down into steps. Start crossing things off, and cutting what cannot be accomplished. Eliminate distractions, buckle down, and get the work done.
My professor might have been strange. She might have had some really bad ideas (like the time she wanted to shellac my hair for an ancient Chinese method). But on some things she was spot on. Chicken Lost Head is a bad place to be, but it is not a place any of us ever really have to go. It is a mindset very easy to avoid. You can be awesomely productive, and there is no need to go insane to do so. Don’t be the Chicken. Don’t loose your head! (Also, no matter what the Chinese lady says. Never put shellac on it either.)