How to keep coming back to your creative projects
My draft didn’t publish last Friday. My first inclination, when finding out several hours later, was to quickly type up another post. After all, I had a schedule going with the way I wrote on Medium.
But I didn’t.
I stopped myself from writing another article even though I could because I know that having that patience is going to keep me invested in this.
The inclination with creative projects is to push onwards until you can’t think straight. We hear about people who write stories in one sitting or recording an entire album in a weekend. Some people can do that, sure.
But how many people can successfully do that constantly without burning out?
I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve let my enthusiasm carry me on interest, only to break the habit quickly.
My first-time rock climbing, I played around for nearly 3 hours.
The 2nd time I was supposed to go, which was later that week, was canceled because every single muscle ached even two days later.
You don’t go 100% on exercise, 24/7. That’s a good way to tear muscles or injure yourself. Most exercise goers know that resting is a part of working out.
What’s less well-known is that you can have active rest days, to lower the intensity but still keep moving. This is a useful habit to not completely start and stop the exercise process and is a great way of keeping a habit. After all, it’s a whole lot harder to go from eating chips on the couch watching TV to running 5 miles than it is from walking a mile every day.
So can you have ‘active rest days’ for creative projects? Sure. Ironically, I learned how to do them on TV. It wasn’t from any show: it was by the way TV shows are structured.
In specific, I’m talking about cliffhangers.
Cliffhangers: a great method for working.
Why do most TV shows end their seasons on a cliffhanger?
It’s to make sure people watch from one season to the next. If the season ends with all problems resolved and all characters happy, why continue? That’s almost like a built-in stopping point.
So some new problems arise: a new love rival, a hidden enemy, a new mystery. If it’s well crafted enough, it generates enough buzz and interest to keep going. If not? The show gets canceled.
Think about it another way. The time between TV seasons can be half a year to a year. If the cliffhanger is good enough, people may be talking about the show for the majority of that time.
So structure your work like that.
The last creative mile
When we’re growing tired of working, we often search for a good stopping place. The end of a chapter, the page, or tackling one last small problem.
But that’s not a good cliffhanger. That’s a way to stop thinking about the project until the next time it comes up.
So how do you have an ‘active rest’ with whatever you’re working on? Two simple rules:
- If there’s something that comes next, do a picture preview.
- If there isn’t, stop before you reach the end of your idea.
Establish context through a picture preview
In Learning how to learn, they talk about two parts needed to form a ‘chunk’, which is how the brain weaves together bits of information through meaning. To have a meaningful chunk, you need two things:
- the ‘chunk’, which is the actual information,
- and the context, which is how the chunk fits into the big picture
Unlike the chunk, which requires you to sit down and study whatever the topic is about, the context can be established ahead of time.
You see this all the time in TV and movies: in season previews, teasers for next episodes, and also in trailers.
It piques interest, causing the audience to discuss what might happen in the days or weeks leading up to the release.
So, for example, rather than finishing up by reading to the end of Chapter 2, do a quick picture flip-through of Chapter 3. Don’t read everything: instead, just look at section headers and pictures to get a general gist of what’s coming next.
That way, your mind can begin to ponder the questions that might come from this:
- What do I know about X?
- How does Chapter 2 relate to Chapter 3?
- Why did they use those section headers?
What if the next part doesn’t exist?
Stop before you get to the end of the idea in your head (assuming there’s no looming deadline!)
If you stop before you’re fully done with an idea, you know exactly what happens next. As a result, you have a built-in thing that you need to do when you start. Rather than staring a blank page, you at the very least have a paragraph you can write.
Besides, you also have a starting point for your ideas that you can explore even when you’re not directly working on the project.
As a result, your thought process might be something like this:
So I know I need to do X to make this code work. But then, if I hook up the code to do this, will this cause any problems with the database? How do I structure this to do Y?
When people talk about doing work, most of the time it’s on how to start or continue. They rarely talk about how to end your work, but that can be just as important to the process.
Making sure you end your work in a good spot can make it much easier to re-start it the next time and have less trouble continuing a habit. So make sure you are active in your creative patterns, and you just might find yourself coming back for more.