“Post-project let down.” What is it? How do you deal with it?
I’ve got a few things to say about this today as the year winds down because journal keepers often experience a form of post-project let down at the end of a year.
If you feel you might be prone to some form of this momentum draining “condition” I’m not going to bury the lead—go to the shelf or drawer where you keep extra journals and decide which one you are going to start next.
Maybe you had no intention of ending your journal with the new year because you have several page spreads still blank. Doesn’t matter. Select a new journal today even though you won’t start working in it until you finish the current one. Put it on your desk or somewhere prominent to remind you as you walk by on the way to other daily activities that it has your back, it’s ready when you are.
Because when you finish the final page in your current journal you want to be able to immediately reach for this new journal and continue the stream of observation that is already part of your life.
Remember we want to keep up our momentum. The best way to do that is to keep those habits we have already established, such as daily sketching and journaling, going forward without a hiccup.
A Common Issue
Post-project let down is very common with artists of all types. I’ve seen my friends fall into it when they finish hanging a show, or writing a book, or finishing any large, creative project to which they have devoted their time for months and months.
This summer a student wrote to me explaining that she’d had a dry spell after finishing a very creative project for her child’s teacher.
She didn’t realize this was normal. It can come about from the stress of working hard on a project—yes there can be stress even when the project is fun.
And this can leave you feeling ungrounded or separated from your regular drawing practice.
I have a simple fix for this.
Regardless of what creative project you are involved in, keep up your regular drawing practice, even if it means you simply sketch a pear or a pepper in the evening just before you go to bed.
Pages and pages of monochromatic or contour or color studies of pears and peppers all executed in 15 minutes or less might not seem like a useful tonic against post-project let down (PPLD) but you will be grateful to your muses when you finish that project and feel odd about what you need to do next, and pick up your sketchbook and see all those sketches! They will tell you to draw, and keep drawing, until the next project develops and emerges. And by picking up that sketchbook again and adding your project time back into your drawing time, you’ll feel a sense of relief and comfort that the momentum is being carried forward.
Where most people seem to get stuck is at the abrupt end of the project, with more free time. They may have been working so hard and under so much stress that they believe they need a vacation.
Nope, it’s that momentum issue. You want to keep it going.
If they have been doing their drawing practice during their big project they can maintain momentum while continuing the drawing practice as I just mentioned, while waiting for another project to suggest itself, but there is an even better solution.
In addition to doing your daily drawing practice even when you have a large project going on remind yourself it’s time to think about what the next project is going to be so you can start it right away, almost seamlessly.
How do you work out a new project when another seems to require all your attention?
Take a moment one day during the first project and ask yourself these types of questions:
What else am I interested in? (Let things bubble up from your mind to answer that, jot them down.)
What did I overhear yesterday that sounded strange, funny, odd?
What did I see that caught my eye when I was running errands?
What does everyone else seem to be interested in (trends)? Why are these interesting to me? Or (and I think more importantly) why aren’t these trends interesting to me?
What is a trend? What was treading in 1873? What was the popular dress fabric color in 1873? How was that dye developed? What is the history of the industrialization of dye manufacture?…
See what happened there?
I started to ask myself one question and now all of a sudden I’m asking myself lots of questions about dyes. Is this important? Probably not. Am I going to start a project about dyes? Probably not. But I may go to the library and check out a lot of books on the subject and that may lead to me discovering something related to dyes that will become my next project.
And all of this is happening while I’m involved with my other project and of course doing all the aspects of my life that need doing!
Now you have a list of things in your journal that are of interest to you. Put one of those Post-it™tabs on that page labeling it so you can find it again at a moment’s notice. Do this at least once a week.
Pretty soon you’ll have more than enough projects to last you the rest of your life—which means some of them will never be explored because they will keep being replaced by new projects you come up next week.
The point is, your brain will offer you an endless source of ideas if you take a couple moments every week and talk to it.
OK, now you have all these possibilities how do you select one so that you can have a smooth transition from that large project you’re currently working on to the next one?
First there is continuity. That’s served by your drawing practice. Keep that going even 15 minutes a day and it provides continuity. Keep checking in on your brain, more continuity.
And while the large project is going on, select a project to investigate further—to test out whether it’s as interesting as you think. It will either prove not as interesting and you can go on to something else, or it will prove so interesting that you’ll start taking notes and making plans for what shape that project will take when you can devote attention to it.
If you are in the middle of a large project and you do your investigation into something your brain is interested in and it doesn’t pan out, it doesn’t matter, because you still have lots of time while the main project is going on. In other words there is no stress attached to whether this project is what grabs you or not, you still have time to find something.
Simply go on to the next thing in your research list next week.
This may seem daunting and it may also occur to you that you could run through a lot of research and end up at the end of the large project with no new project in sight.
That could happen. But I’ve never see it happen. I’ve seen in my own process that something always turns up before needed. And I’ve seen that in my students who are doing their research and keeping their daily habits.
Because you’re keeping the channels open, and you’re keeping up your momentum.
Worse case scenario?
You finish the main project, and keep up your daily drawing practice and your weekly check-ins with what is interesting your brain and something comes up!
That’s really not such a bad thing is it?
“Well,” you’re saying to yourself. “this is all so regimented and I really need a vacation.”
If that’s the case and you feel you do, go ahead and take one, but keep up your drawing practice so you don’t lose your momentum.
And keep in mind that all those artists you may admire who seem to be drifting? They aren’t really drifting. If you talk to them you’ll find out that they are holding ideas in their minds and exploring them as they drift from thing to thing—it’s their manifestation of momentum. They are still working.
I believe in intentional practice through which you design and dictate the focus of your practice to meet your stated goals. You can see this in my blog posts and you can see it in my life. It isn’t rigidity, it is efficiency. I know we all have limited time here and I want to use my time in the best way possible. I can change my goals and my direction in the blink of an eye because I choose to.
Impediments and Interruptions
I have students tell me all the time that they can’t get anything done because they have holiday plans, and family commitments, and work obligations.
Everyone has these.
You can still assess your situation and make time for your daily practice (the bare minimum) to keep the momentum going. And at the same time you can find five minutes after you brush your teeth at night to talk with your brain!
I like to plan projects for “busy” times of year to counter this “myth” that I don’t have time.
I have made some of the best paintings of my life during the Thanksgiving 4-day holiday weekend in November. During that time I tend to work in a series. I’ll have one subject, often one image, that I will repeat and repeat and repeat in various ways. So great break throughs also come to me during that time. This is most true when I have duties of preparing a three-or more course meal for lots of family. I find that fitting in time for making another study during the prep of such means a fun challenge, and it takes off the other pressure—I don’t recommend this to people who can’t pull themselves away from work. Some think because it has been my job to do visual work for so many decades I have an advantage here, but the reality is that lifelong journaling has simply taught me how to make use of those moments. In my case I also don’t really care for a lot of the holidays that people celebrate, so scheduling my work and personal projects appropriately allows me to keep going forward as well as having just enough social contact to stay balanced and not grumbly.
Again, if you’re the type of personality who likes to stick with something and not get pulled away frequently and return for only small bursts, that’s probably not the approach for you to take. You might instead just keep with a 15-minute a day approach and plan a new project for when people bug out and social obligations diminish.
The Point of Planning
The point of all this is to recognize what type of post-project person you are and do something about it. Don’t wait to be ambushed by a blank calendar, no goals to meet, and a loss of momentum.
Start making choices about your creative projects before you need to actually start those projects.
More on Transitions
Sometimes it isn’t enough to know what the next project is. You can get up the next morning after a large project ends and think you’re all set to start the new one and find that it simply isn’t going to happen, you hit a wall.
This is again where your drawing practice comes in handy. Take your sketchbook off to the zoo or shopping mall and draw some live subjects for an hour. One or two days of this will usually calm you down enough.
If it isn’t realize this—it’s normal, and you have your drawing practice, and you have the new things your brain wants you to research, so just start going on those things. It will work out.
Every time you make a transition you improve your ability to make one quickly, so remind yourself that you are practicing.
The Role of the Internal Critic in Transitions
Remember, transitions from one creative project to another is peak time for your internal critic. This is when he can get the most traction. It’s when you’re the most vulnerable. Your ability to ignore him is helped if you have kept up your drawing practice, but even then he’ll try to wriggle in.
If you’ve prepared for another project you can dismiss your internal critic much more definitively than if you are just kicking around a bunch of ideas.
If you find yourself experiencing a lot of negative mind chatter, return to the basics, laugh and remind yourself you’re in practice. (See other posts on this blog about the internal critic.) The internal critic can’t stand to see you keep your momentum so one of the best things you can do is get out your sketchbook and go sketching.
One of My Favorite Projects for Keeping Momentum
Making a lot of bad drawings and loving them for what they teach you is a great way to stop the internal critic. I’ve been doing it all my life. In this post I’ve included a bunch of sketches for a little side project I always have going: Drawing from “Perry Mason.” I love the faces, fashions, and the black and white photography of “Perry Mason.” When I’m having a tough time pushing through on something I’ll put on an episode of “Perry Mason” laugh at Paul Drake’s hijinks, and enjoy the experience of putting lines on paper, feeling the pen against the paper, and sometimes even getting the lines right. But the only goal is to keep my hand and my mind moving.
Because drawing portraits is important to me, and actually a rather large and on-going project, it helps to have side projects like this that feed into the big project. After doing several of these warm up sketches this past fall I found myself doing a series of ink wash portraits that I’ll share with you another time. Creativity thrives on connections.
Find a project that you can do (in addition to your daily drawing project) where you practice enjoying the connection between your brain, eye, hand, and the paper. It may lead you to discovering new approaches, new favorite tools, new favorite papers, but most of all it will keep up your momentum for the next project.
I hope that all your transitions go smoothly in 2020.
See Also Daily Projects and Why They Matter.