Inspiration is for amateurs
The thing that’s got me through the ups and downs, the fear, the uncertainty, the confusion, the anger, the frustration and the sheer bizarreness of 2020 is the daily routine I established for myself in early January.
I spent the last chunk of 2019 hopping from tour to tour to tour, winding down a long running music project, wondering what to do next, and how. I played 35 gigs around the UK, France and Germany between September and Christmas. There were ups and downs; some great shows, some awful ones and, as always, a hell of a lot of travelling time to ponder life, the world and my place in it.
I realised that, above anything, I was craving structure, routine, something I could be in control of. Time to develop ideas, time to reflect, time to get fitter, healthier and happier. I’ve always been a bit of a productivity nerd, reading all the major works on the topic throughout my years of freelancing, trying to learn how to run a small business and, in more recent years, how to be a better, nicer boss to my one employee (me!), with varying results.
For me “productivity” isn’t about being the most efficient machine possible, squeezing every last drop of usefulness out of yourself in an effort to “kill it” or “smash it”. If, like me, you’re someone with a lot of ideas and a burning desire to make or do things, getting organised is essential – however you do it.
Over the years I’ve tried different ways of trying to be able to make steady progress with long term goals while having manageable and enjoyable daily and weekly plans that incorporate exercise, reflection and introspection, deep work on the things I care about and healthy food that gives me the energy I need to have the most pleasant day possible. This is the ideal and, while I’ve occasionally managed it, I’ve often felt like the classic duck on the pond analogy – giving off the impression everything is calm and under control, all the while paddling wildly just beneath the surface.
I love the fresh start of a New Year, so in early January I set up some new daily routines for myself, started The Artist’s Way for the third time (and actually completed it, woop!), got serious about being consistent with exercise and meditation, and almost immediately started feeling fresher, clearer headed and more galvanised than ever to make my best work possible. On bad days, I trundled through the hours, tried my best and then moved on. On days when it all seemed utterly pointless, I tried to do a little exercise anyway, knowing that every deposit of good faith I put into myself would do *something* positive, whether I felt it immediately or not.
So, what’s my secret? Planning, showing up, trying my best, tracking my progress and then showing up again tomorrow. That’s it.
There’s something about drawing a tick on a piece of paper that just makes me happy. I get a jolt of satisfaction that makes me want to keep going so I can do it again. Where the dopamine hits we get from seeing notification alerts on our phones can actually make us feel worse, there’s something wholesome about crossing off a task in my bullet journal. Knowing that I’m one step closer to reaching a goal is part of it, but I think the knowledge that I’m living an intentional life full of useful things is also a big driver.
I’ve been keeping a bullet journal for a few years, and would highly recommend it (I use it alongside Trello for longer term goals and moving tasks around easily, Evernote for storing information, Bear for writing without distractions and Google Calendar for scheduling things), but how I do things isn’t perfect, or fixed, and I’m always interested in tweaking and improving.
Last week I happened across this video by Thomas Frank about habit tracking. At the start of the year, I had added columns in my bullet journal for tracking exercise, meditation, drinking enough water, taking my vitamins, stuff like that, all of which really helped me be continue to be consistent with all the ingredients of that happy, healthy life I was aiming for.
The key difference between my old system and this new one is the accountability aspect. If I didn’t manage to meditate three times a week in June, I just shrugged and thought, “I have to try harder to do that next week”. This month, every time I don’t manage to achieve one of my small goals, I have to write down why that happened.
One of my July goals is to get to bed by 10pm (so I can read for longer!) and another is to get up at 7.30am to exercise. The latter I can usually manage, the former I find really hard. So far this month I only have three + signs in my “go to bed by 10pm” row, and by the middle of the month when I make the next tracker page to take me to the end of July, I might choose to revise that goal, if it’s clearly not working, or have a think about how to achieve it, if it’s something I still really care about trying to achieve. I like this. Instead of feeling like I’m failing at a simple thing I think will improve my life, I can look at whether it’s actually achievable given everything else I’m doing, and adjust it for the next batch of 15 days if necessary.
It’s easy to feel like we have no control over our futures, but we all have at least some control about how we spend some of our minutes, hours and days. I work in the nebulous art of translating feelings and ideas into audio that moves other people, which is why it’s so appealing to me to be able to do concrete things every day that have an effect on how I feel, and therefore how well I’m able to move through my day, working on the things I have decided are important.
Getting back into running has been one of the best things I’ve managed this year, because it shows me that’s true every single week. Every time I run up my local steep hill I’m able to take a few more steps before stopping to walk for a minute, and every week I consistently run twice a week (21 in a row so far, yay!), I can write that down and feel proud of myself just for showing up, again and again.
You may not be able to run, or want to, but I’m sure you could find a little something to do for yourself every week, or every Monday and Friday, or every day, that you can feel good about ticking off each time, and that will show you what you’re capable of as time goes on.
It’s not about being the best at something, it’s about showing up, trying your best and then doing it again. I feel the same way about making albums. I could make the best album in the entire universe, and I still wouldn’t have any control over how it’s received in the world. Once my work is “out there”, all I can do is go back up to my studio and make some more.
I choose to keep turning up because, as photographer Chuck Close so wisely said, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Over to you:
What could you do towards your big goal next month?
What could you do towards your big goal next week?
What could you do towards your big goal today?
Let me know in the comments. I believe in you x
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Have a lovely day xoCreativity Homepage Feature Letterbox Mindfulness Process Productivity
I think all of your points are very good, but I also think I’m still an amateur.
Hey Kirk! I think of myself as an enthusiastic beginner in most areas of my life, but I like the idea of applying professional methods of improving at the things I want to do. I will always be an amateur / beginner push-upper, for instance, but if I don’t schedule training in I will never get better at the things I want to. I’m going to be making a tracker for things like guitar and singing practice next month, because I really want to keep stretching myself and this stuff certainly doesn’t just happen, not for me anyway. I love that you’re humble about your position, there’s a lot of strength in that. It’s dangerous to think you’re an expert in anything, but the methodical approach certainly takes me closer to my goals, without planning I don’t really move forward.
Really like the bullet journal idea – think the bit that would be difficult would be not setting too many targets. Will give the video a watch over the weekend.
What was different about the Artist Way this time? I’m three weeks in and feel like it is taking over my life! Agree that the making sure you show up is important – if you don’t then you’re not giving things a chance to work out well (and I need to believe that they just might!).
Things definitely have more chance of working out well if you show up 🙂 And definitely, setting targets gradually is the key. I added a chunk in in January because I knew they were “keystone habits” I’d had success with in the past – I know I’m happier when I run and do yoga for example, so really I only added in Pilates and then, when that was an established habit, I started pushup training.
I think the difference this time with TAW was knowing that I’d been so close to completing it the last time, and that there was no good reason not to have done so! I had regret for not just pushing through to the end, and having picked up the Morning Pages occasionally in the years since trying TAW and then writing some of my fave songs of mine as a direct result, I knew I was missing out on something really good. I think also I was in the headspace for creating more time for reflection time generally, so between the Morning Pages and 3 x 10-15 min meditations a week, it’s quite a change for my brain, and it’s had such great benefits I can’t foresee a time when i’d decide not to do those things any more. Keeping up with them is much easier with the tracker, though! I know what’s good for me, it’s just not automatic that I would do the things, so I need the little boxes to tick.
Good luck – let me know how you get on!