For the past couple months I’ve been wrangling some artist’s block. (Thus the lack of new work.) I’ve come up with a decent number of ideas, but whenever I start working on one, it begins to rot and slough off before my inner eye. (Uncomfortably visceral metaphor in preparation for Halloween: check.)
I hope I’m near the end of this particular hiatus, but part of me can’t help but wonder if I’ve stumbled into the final block, the one that never goes away, the end of making art for me. And yes, I wonder this every time I get blocked. A precarious path, this is.
I see myself as building a corpus of work, not as guaranteeing a constant stream of new things. I care about stock; flow is incidental. So in a sense I’m okay with projects coming to an end (as we’ve seen with Mormon Artist, Mormon Texts Project, etc.). I’m a seasonal maker. And perhaps this season — the artmaking one — has concluded, making way for something else, something new.
But maybe it isn’t over yet. Maybe I just need to work harder and push through the block like a professional. Or maybe I need to change style or process or subject. Or maybe all I need is another month off to let my brain finish recharging or healing or whatever it does in these fallow periods.
This time the chart doesn’t have a specific year baked in, so it’s reusable. (And there’s a variation for leap years.) It’s freely available as PDFs in both portrait and landscape. Currently just letter size, though maybe someday I’ll start including A4 and other sizes.
We’re overdue for some kind of general life update, I think. Weeknotes-that-are-not-weeknotes:
The health issues I referred to in May are still largely unchanged, though I’ve come to terms with it enough that I should probably stop using it as an excuse for lower productivity. (I do need to rest more than I used to, but I also feel like I’m spending proportionally less time making things than is warranted. I’m now tracking my time using a completely rewritten version of Momentum, so I should hopefully have more actual data to work with soon.)
We’ve also had a month of worrisome family medical issues (including two late-night ER visits) that have been weighing me down.
On the plus side, I got some lab results that finally motivated me to start exercising more and make real changes to my diet. I’m three weeks in and the lifestyle adjustments seem to be sticking. Fingers crossed.
The rising case counts and Delta situation certainly is discouraging. My faith in humanity in the aggregate has eroded significantly over the past year and a half.
In spite of a spectacular lack of public results, I’m still writing, slowly. (Much more successful at avoiding it.) In the middle of figuring out a process that consistently gives me a) results that b) don’t make me cringe.
I’ve been trying to keep artmaking to the weekends so I have more of a chance at making progress with my writing, but it doesn’t seem to be working as well as I’d hoped.
Another thing I’ve been itching to do is get back into making web-based art tools like Cirque (which needs a lot of improvement). Several ideas here I’m excited to work on.
Quick update on projects, or rather the general lack thereof these past few months.
Since messing up my back again in late February, I’ve seen a mild level of recovery, but I’m still far from where I used to be (which itself was far, far from normal, those good old days before I slipped on some ice and got spondylolisthesis). Some of the things I used to do (like art) now cause enough pain, whether immediate or delayed, that I have to avoid them.
I’ve also been dealing with some out-of-the-blue episodes of vertigo. So much fun, let me tell you. The worst seems to be over, but every time I turn my head things still get a little woozy for a couple seconds.
On top of my lovely collection of physical ailments, I’ve also been feeling mentally drained and exhausted after work each day. Not sure if it’s a side effect of the back and neck pain or if it’s 2020 finally catching up to me or if it’s the new job. (If it’s the job: my company just got acquired, so I’m effectively starting yet another new job. Exciting. I’ll write more about it soon.)
With all of that, I’ve effectively been taking a forced mini sabbatical from project work. Thus the prolonged silences.
The break has certainly been restful — lots of reading — but I do want to find a way forward with making things, even though it’s fairly unclear what that will mean. Whether I’ll ever get my back back to where it was. Whether the vertigo is a new long-term companion. Whether I’ll be able to keep doing the same types of projects. (Writing and programming are still fine, physically, so I expect more of both. Not sure about the rest.) Whether this begins the inevitable slowing down in life and what then follows. (Hopefully not yet!)
A quick endnote lest my somewhat bloodless portrayal of the situation keep humanity from seeping in (and to mix metaphors post-haste, I’m not casting my net to catch any pity here, just documenting what this experience is like in the hope that maybe somehow it’ll help someone someday): there have of course been many moments of frustration and anguish and discouragement. It’s devastating not being able to help out nearly as much at home. Not being able to roughhouse with my kids. A lot of time lying on my back trying to relieve the pain. (And a corresponding bump in the number of accidental naps. C’est la vie.)
The situation isn’t ideal, but situations rarely are. I’ll still keep trying to claw my way back up to better health, of course, but if this is my lot going forward, so be it. There’s not much use in pining after what’s unattainable. I’ve adjusted, and I’ll continue to adjust as necessary, and I’ll be fine.
Anyway, that’s the far too long explanation of why I’ve been mostly derelict in posting work here these past few months.
Ordinarily I work on projects and then, when they’re done, I post about them. Occasionally I post about work in progress (something I’m trying to do better at as part of working in public). In both cases, though, the project work comes first.
This idea flips that around: start writing the blog post first, from the perspective of your future self after you’ve already finished the project. Then do whatever backfill work is needed to turn the post from optimistic lie to settled truth. (And when the work is actually done, publish the post.)
My brain tends to think of it as an extremely loose analog to test-driven development in software engineering.
It’s not anything particularly novel, but it intrigues me and who knows, maybe there’s something there. (In some cases, for some people, your mileage may vary, etc.)
This is almost certainly not novel, but the idea came up when I was talking with my friend James the other day and I figured I’d write it up in case it helps someone somewhere.
The idea is this: you set up a new email address (or use filters with your existing email, whatever works for you) and then make a shortcut on your phone so you can easily add to your journal by emailing that address. A private email blog, basically.
It’s low effort in that you don’t have to open, say, a Google Doc and find the right spot to start to write. The corresponding disadvantage is that you can’t see what you’ve already written that day. (That said, this method would also work fairly well as a lightweight way to take notes during the day, to be written up into a full journal entry later somewhere else and then archived.)
I made a sample shortcut for doing this in iOS (and I’m sure there’s a way to do something similar in Android):
From left: the shortcut (using the Text and Send Email blocks), the running shortcut, and the resulting email. The shortcut can be saved to the home screen or used on an Apple Watch or put in a widget.
With this setup, I’d recommend regularly downloading your mail to your computer, through a local mail app or something like offlineimap, so that you have your own copy you can use for exporting or printing or whatever.
Note that I don’t use this myself because I already have a homegrown journaling solution (with Gate and Vinci), but I’m planning to use a variant of this shortcut for emailing notes to myself from my watch.
Anyway, if you try this out, or if you have an interesting system for journaling, let me know and I may do a followup post.
No, not the headphones. Or plotting. Less exciting than either, it’s a new productivity technique I’ve been using lately and oh my goodness it works well (for me).
Let’s rewind. My problem has been that I work on projects in several different areas (writing, art, coding, design, etc.) and would like to make progress across all of them, but in my mortal frailty I instead tend to spend most of my available project time on whatever is easiest.
A while back I read Andy Matuschak’s reflections on 2020. The “Executing alone” section talks about the costs of context switching, which gave me the idea to spend a week at a time working in any one area (or track, as I called them). A week on writing, a week on art, etc. Advantage: much less context switching than I’m used to. But it also meant long stretches of time between tracks (depending on how I rotated through the tracks), which wasn’t so great.
Next attempt: slicing time into days instead of weeks. I created a new calendar in Google Calendar to track my daily track assignments — one day for art, the next for writing, the next for working on tooling, etc. I also opted to give myself some flexibility to work on a track for more than one day in a row if I was on a roll. Better, definitely. But it didn’t stick. I don’t know why.
Finally, at long last, I found the right thing for me: the beat. The way I’m using it, it’s a flexible unit of time ranging from a minute or two up to however long is needed (so far ten or fifteen minutes). Even with a busy schedule, I almost always have a handful of free beats scattered throughout the day where I could get something small done — a next action, usually.
That’s all well and good, but the part that changed things for me was this: when I have an available beat, rather than having to decide in that moment what to work on, instead I just press a button. It’s a random decision. And it’s amazing (for me).
To get this working, I set up a list (in the iOS Shortcuts app) that has each thing I want to work on. The projects or tracks I want to work on more often are duplicated, so it ends up looking something like this (heavily redacted, ha):
Writing — project 1
Writing — project 1
Writing — project 1
Writing — project 2
Writing — project 2
Writing — project 3
The shortcut then uses a Get Random Item from List action followed by Show alert: Item from List. Super simple, took about thirty seconds to put together. I have it set up as a widget on my phone and as a complication on my watch, and I find that I use the latter the most by far.
I’m not sure why this works so well for my brain, but moving the choice out of my present and into my past (where I can prioritize better) has worked wonders — most notably for me, I’ve gotten unstuck on several projects I’d been avoiding for months.
Anyway, I have no idea whether it would work for other people, so if you try it out, let me know how it goes.
The release bundle idea did not age well. It may be the right idea somewhere down the road, but this past week and a half it stifled my projects more than it helped. Putting it on the backburner for now.