I was at a book club a few weeks ago when it came up that the guy I was sitting next to was a poet.
"Well not a real poet," he told me. "I haven't published anything yet. But I'd love to write a book of poetry."
"What's stopping you?" I said.
He just laughed and tried to change the subject.
"No. Seriously. What's stopping you?" I asked, leaning in.
He hemmed and hawed a bit, but then told me this. "I just don't know that I have enough time. Sometimes I think about taking three months off my job and really focusing on it."
"You and everyone else. Seriously, I've work with thousands of writers, and all of them have that fantasy. But the truth is you can absolutely write a book of poetry in just a few months without quitting your job."
His wife leaned over. "I have the same problem with painting. I do commissions, but I would love to produce my own work. It's so hard to justify spending the time though."
And then I told him what I teach thousands of writers, the process I have used myself to write fifteen books. I told them about the two ways that people actually finish their creative projects.
The first way is through small, achievable daily deadlines.
I told the poet, "What if you wrote a poem a day. It might take you five minutes, certainly no more than an hour. But after three months of that, you'd have enough poems to write a book."
His eyes lit up. "I could totally do that." I watched as his face changed while he imagined a future where he was a published poet.
The second way is through painful consequences.
I told the painter, "Every working artist I know has expositions every year or so. They're scheduled in advance, and if they don't produce enough pieces, they're screwed. Their agent or gallery fires them. They have some kind of financial consequence. And they might never get another show."
"If you had a show right now you were on the hook for right now, would you miss it?"
She shook her head.
"No, of course you wouldn't. You'd probably procrastinate for six months, but then you'd get into gear and pull all nighters for the last three weeks until you were ready."
"Since you don't have a show right now," I said, "you have to create your own consequence."
Then I told her I what I did to finish my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris. "It was 2016, and I wrote a check for $1,000 to the presidential candidate I most disliked. I gave it to a friend and said you have to send this if I don't finish my book by my deadline. I was the most focused I've ever been, and I finished my book in nine weeks."
"You need to treat your own art like you treat your comissions. When you don't finish a commission, there's a financial consequence. You need to treat the art you actually care about the same way. Give it a deadline and a consequence, and then get it done."
She got an excited look on her face. She had been working so hard at her art, but hadn't been producing the work she most cared about. I saw as she started to imagine finally achieving her dream.
And that's it. That's how all writers and artists and creatives make work that matters. They use one of those two rhythms.
- Daily deadlines. Small progress every day.
- Big deadlines with consequences. Just like your "real" work, give your creative work a consequence to get it done.
Some people are better at daily work.
Some people are driven more by consequences.
Others do both.
But if you want to create work that matters, you have to choose one and make it work for you.
This Week in Photos
How about you? Working on any gardening projects this week?
Alright folks, that's it from me. Have a great weekend, and see you soon.