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Everyone Needs a Side Project

July 26, 2018
A pen and watercolor sketch on the old Gutenberg paper. I was working from a Sktchy muse photo, stuck at home while sick. Since I couldn’t go to the zoo and practice with live birds I decided to sketch at home. When I started off with too large an eye for scale to fit the full head on the page I turned my session into experiments in texture.

A few weeks ago my friend Danny Gregory called me up to discuss my thoughts about projects. Most readers know my Daily Dots—daily drawings of my Alaskan Malamute bitch Dottie made the last 4 and a half years of her  life. But friends and students know that I’m always engaged in whatever the latest project is.

Danny turned our discussion into episode “04: The Power of Projects: Roz Stendahl” on his “Art for All” Podcast.  It lasts about 20 minutes.

Despite my croaky voice that day, Danny was able to cut out the coughing so that you can hear what I have to say about the important role that projects play in my life—a role I firmly believe they can play in yours as well.

Projects build momentum which then will ripple through the rest of your life, giving you a sort of energy that keeps your wonder and engagement in the world alive. It doesn’t matter if you work as a “professional creative” or just have a hobby you want to master. Momentum feeds momentum.

In the podcast I mention of the importance of just starting. Don’t wait for a special day and heap the endeavor with all sorts of trappings of “importance.” For many people that’s the kiss of death for a project. The weight of starting becomes overwhelming.

Instead, let’s do this. Listen to the podcast. Then come back and read the suggestions I have listed below. Think about what you want to do. Think of something manageable that you can accomplish in 30 minutes a day. Gather a few materials. Tomorrow start your project and work on it every day for 30 days.

Why 30 minutes a day? Let’s keep it simple at first. You can find 30 minutes in your day. Cut out a favorite TV show, stay up 30 minutes later—you can find 30 minutes.

Why 30 days? There’s actually several sound reasons for having a 30-day project.

First, studies show that in 28 days of daily reinforcement you build a habit. I’ve mentioned this before. Good or bad, if we do something every day for that long it becomes a habit. So let’s build a great habit of creative activity on each of our days.

Detail of the eye area. Dry strokes of paint stumbled over the top of dry lower layers take on texture from the paper’s texture, creating a fun broken-color effect that helps mimic the texture on a chicken’s face.

Next, realize that as you start a creative habit like drawing every day or working with a particular art medium every day to improve your skill, at first the project is all is excitement and ease. The first few days adrenaline might just carry you through. But around day 14 something else happens as you build a creative habit: the adrenaline dissipates, life rises up to challenge you with disruptions like family emergencies that end at Urgent Care, or rush jobs at work. It can be anything that comes up and gets you to think for a moment, “OK maybe I’ll skip it today, I’m exhausted.”

That’s when you have to step it up. Some of you may be fighting a particularly strong internal critic who wants to tell you that your work is garbage and you should pack it in. That’s resistance. Steven Pressfield writes about this in his gem of a book “The War of Art.”  Danny Gregory writes about the internal critic getting in the way of the creative process in his book “Shut Your Monkey.” Whatever you want to call this pull to give up—you can get past it. Creative momentum is the best tool you have. So keep going.

The third reason to keep going when things start to seem difficult is that you’ve gone through all the easy approaches. If you’re working on painting the same subject for 30 days for instance by day 14 you’ve got to the point where discovering a new approach is going to be a little more difficult. You’ve explored the obvious or easy approaches. You may even feel discomfort.

If you keep going now, despite the discomfort and doubt, that’s when you learn to sit with the discomfort of the creative process—the sense of chaos and sometimes a sense of overwhelming choices, “what do I choose now?”

If you keep pushing at this point in your project you WILL get to the other side. What is at the other side? Better answers, quirkier approaches, something that isn’t stale but fresh and new. 

You might find that it takes you from day 14 until day 30 to get to fresh and new, but if you keep going and show up each day, new ideas and approaches will come to you.

If you’re perfecting a skill, such as learning to work with the brush pen what will happen is that your skills might plateau. But if you keep practicing with your goals in mind you will develop mastery.

OK, that’s my case for projects in a nutshell. I’ve written about projects a lot on my blog. Use the category list and blog search engine to look up key words: projects, creativity, process, productivity. 

Be sure to look up “Project Friday.” That’s a long-running series I do on the blog. Each of those posts outlines something you can do for a short weekend project—but remember to push it to 30 days and really build some momentum.

One of the things Danny and I didn’t get to talk about is what happens after the project is over. Obviously you start a new project. But I also do one other thing—I do a self-evaluation. I look over all the work I created on the project. Compare my results to my goals. Look at where my goals shifted or where I lost track of them, I look at what I learned and still need to discover. I write a little report for myself and I use this to refine parameters in other projects—because this is how we find out about ourselves. Use my blog search engine to look up keywords like goals, self-evaluations, self assessment.

If you want to learn even more about setting and meeting goals you can sign up for my Drawing Practice class where I help students set up six-week plans. The next session of that course will be in 2019. Check my classes page at the end of the year when I post the schedule.

What If You’re New to Creating Projects?

You can still start tomorrow. Head over to Sketchbook Skool and take “Beginning” which is the six week course which includes my week on drawing animals. Each week a new artist will present great ideas on working with your sketchbook. We give you guidelines for homework. Make that your project and do 30 minutes of homework each day. Build momentum that way and get accustomed to the concept of doing a daily project. Then, around week four start thinking about what you will do for a self-guided project as soon as the six week course is over. 

If you have another project set up and ready to go when the first ends, you can slip right into it—keep that momentum going.  

Remind yourself to be flexible. If you wanted to sketch for 2 hours every day and you got your family to sign on (it’s important to let people who depend on you know that you need some “project” time), but the universe throws a wrench in the works because a coworker quits and leaves all his work on your desk, or you end up breaking your wrist on a skateboarding fall—remind yourself that it’s OK. You’re flexible creatively. You can still find 30 minutes a day on a project with tighter parameters. The new goal might be to do one simple, 30-minute pencil sketch of your wrist in a cast with your non-dominant hand. Yes, it’s not painting for two hours, but I guarantee you’ll discover things on the new project as well, and you have a project to do in the future!

Another goal that leads to a project might be to take the favorite art book you have sitting unread on your shelf—and do all of the exercises every day for a month. Really, your next project is already sitting in your house staring at you. (Especially if you have a dog, or a cat, or a budgie…)

The point is to keep going, to do a project and start building creative momentum.

To help yourself build momentum why don’t you subscribe to Danny’s podcast today. You’ll be able to listen to fun discussions on a host of creative topics. Go to Danny’s website and see the bright pink subscription box for “Art for All” in the right column. 

No Judgement

One crucial thing to remember. For the duration of your project you aren’t going to judge how wonderful or awful it is. You’re going to show up, do the work, set it aside. At the end of a week you might want to look back with a fresh eye and see how things are going—are you cutting corners on time, do you really hate working in acrylics, are you out of your favorite pigment? The answer to these questions will tell you that you need to stop by the art store on the way home, or simply set a timer so that you put in your full time.

But the one thing you won’t do throughout the entire project is judge whether or not what you are doing is “Art,” or “worthwhile,” or “good.” If those thoughts come up you are simply going to tell yourself, “I’m experimenting,” or “I’m in process.”   

At the end of your project you’ll have plenty of time to do a self-evaluation (remember all those posts I mentioned that will help you with this?). During the project the only thing you’re thinking about is doing the project. You can’t start a distance running program and on the first day assess if you’ve “got it” or “will get it.” You have to put in your time.

What if It Isn’t Fun?

“OK,” you say to me, “Roz, I’ve shown up every day for my 30 minutes to do project X and it just isn’t fun. I want to stop.”

Nope, that’s the worst reason to stop. I guarantee you that’s your internal critic talking. Instead of letting him get hold of your momentum think of this: projects are about goals and skills and things you want to do and create. Fun is part of the creative process, maybe not when you’re sweating for the right word choice, or deciding on which pigment to use (actually I find both those actions a lot of fun, but you can fill in what isn’t fun for you). Fun is what happens when the new ideas take place on the page, when you start to see the pages fill in your sketchbook, or the canvases line up on the walls. 

Maybe you need to redefine fun. Maybe you put all the emphasis on the end product, creating a final piece that you can show to people. Reset your expectations. See my image today. I goofed up on the scale. I didn’t stop sketching I shifted to experimenting with texture. I kept working and having fun. 

In every piece of work you do start taking the time to find one bit of it that you love, that you enjoyed making. It can be something small like a single stroke, or it can be a portion of the piece. Find it and savor it. If you do that each time you create something it won’t matter if you have a perfect piece. What matters is that you are learning and improving. If you savor even one small piece of each work you do fun will come flooding back. It will be an attitude shift that creates its own momentum. You’ll be anxious to do the next piece and build on that small gain.

If you’re involved in a project and you feel no part of it is fun that’s when you ask yourself about your goals and start breaking things down into smaller, bite size pieces that you can achieve each day. You’ve just started out trying to do too much. If you break it down enough you’ll find a good place where creation is still fun, and your expectations are not on finished product but on the process. So don’t quit, rethink. And if you’ve never done this before find a friend who has; and talk it over with her to see if she can’t suggest a way to rethink things. Remember the goal is to keep the momentum going.

What if You Think You Aren’t Creative?

Nonsense, everyone is creative. We each use the creative part of our minds every day whether we get paid to do so or not. If you feel that you don’t, think about what you do all day. Did you put an outfit together before leaving the house? Do you manage 5 kids, 3 pets, and an absent-minded significant other every day? Do you have long looping conversations with your father who has Alzheimer’s? Then you’re creative. You just need to rechannel some of that creativity into other areas.

How Do I Start? 

So start right now. Just jump in. This is what you’re going to do:

1, Listen to the podcast.

2. Read the suggestions of blog posts by searching the blog for key words like projects and Project Friday.

3. Think about what you want to do. Think of something manageable that you can accomplish in 30 minutes a day for a month. (Think also how and when it will fit into your day.)

4. Gather a few materials.

5. Tomorrow start your project. Show up every day for 30 days.

6. On day 20 think about what you’re going to do for your next project—after you’ve clocked your 30 minutes that is!

7. At the end of the project do a project and self-evaluation.

8. On day 31 start up your new project. Keep that momentum going.

Get going!

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  1. Reply

    Thank you! I listened to the podcast, really enjoyed it, and learned several things I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve listened to podcasts occasionally in the past but typically found them not enjoyable although sometimes I would listen to all of one because I thought it was something I **ought** to know about.

    Here’s what I learned. It’s much more enjoyable to listen to a podcast on my new laptop. Twenty minutes is just about the right length for me. It really makes a difference if the podcast is recorded and edited properly. (There’s no excuse with today’s technology for anything less.) A conversation between the host and only one guest is just right. Although I’m an introvert and enjoy my alone time, listening to this podcast put me in a good mood. I think that’s partly because you and Danny are friends so it was like being part of conversation among friends, something I realize I don’t get enough of.

    I’m a retiree and have plenty of projects but sometimes get bogged down. I especially like your idea of parameters and I’m thinking a new project where I set a timer and stop no matter what (except of course for any essential cleanup) could be energizing.

    1. Reply

      Susan, thanks for the feedback on the podcast. I am so glad you enjoyed it, and I know that Danny will love what you have picked out as its virtues because he has worked to make his podcasts digestible, inviting, and inspirational, both for the participants as well as the listeners. I hope you subscribe to his podcasts and continue to get this type of inspiration coming to you.

      As for having plenty of projects—yep sometimes we can have an embarrassment of time and we load it up with all the projects we’ve been hoping to do and it definitely can bog you down. Besides setting parameters as mentioned in the podcast and my post I’d like to suggest that you think about doing only one or two projects at the same time. There’s a reason for this—it will keep you fresh and it will allow you to use the rest of your free time to enjoy your friends, family, and events that might not be related to your projects, in other words you’ll keep touching all the wonderful things in your life and bring those things and that energy back to your projects.

      Too many projects can fill our schedule and become a burden. So how would working on two projects work? Perhaps you want to get better with the brush pen. So that’s something that you can do in 30 minutes a day, any time of the day with any subject matter. You might keep that practice in one journal or on loose sheets you put in a box. (In the latter situation you could use different papers as your skill with the brush pen crystalized after using one type of paper for the first two weeks perhaps.)

      Starting a week later you might begin another project which, because you’re retired and have free time would take a little more of that time. Perhaps that would be a sketching out in public session every day, where you work for an hour (with transit time if applicable). For the next 3 weeks the 2 projects would over lap. You might even use the brush pen on some of your sketch outs as the month of brush pen continues and your skills improve. As brush pen winds to and end you’ll have been sketching for a combined 90 minutes or more each day between the two projects. You can think what your next project would be when brush pen is ending—but you would keep in mind that it would overlap with one final week of sketching out daily. So obviously you wouldn’t make that next project a 2 hour a day project. It would be too intense.

      This is how we look realistically at what projects take and the time they take in our lives with all our other tasks and obligations.

      If you have a pet at home one of the things you could think about doing is a daily drawing of that pet like I did with Dottie, and when brush pen is over put that in for 30 minutes a day.

      In this way you begin to find the balance between your projects and your life as they are integrated into your life, and they don’t become burdensome.

      Additionally you’re not doing so much that your mind has trouble concentrating on the task at hand. Too many projects will have you worrying about how you’ll get them all in when you really want to be focusing on the task at hand—staying in the present moment.

      And most important, all the while you’re doing those daily projects you’re still going to the art museum, catching a concert in the park, and seeing a movie or theater production now and then; as well has having time with friends and family. All those activities help inspire you and it is from those activities, from the passion in your life, that the next project will emerge.

      If you’re so busy doing projects that they are a burden you’re not allowing yourself time to absorb life and find where your passions are.

      As you plan your projects keep these items in mind and I think you’ll find a balance that allows you to feel energized by your projects.

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