Creating takes monumental focus and concentration. It's no small thing, to take an idea to fruition. To see it through the entire birthing process, when family commitments, life, work and a myriad of dazzling distractions could get in your way or lead you from the path. And I'm no different from anyone else, in the way that I too get distracted, or demotivated or derailed by the vagaries of life. But, over the last few years, despite often waking up with an already crying kind of depression in the worst of times, a hectic workload and a global pandemic, and a desire to improve and hack my insomnia, I've managed to knuckle down and apply myself to writing numerous short films, four feature film scripts and producing two short films and beginning pre-production on two more. But it wasn't always like this for me.
I used to be very unproductive. In fact, there are distinct periods when I tried to ignore the muse when it visited. There are periods where people died, or relationships ended and it just wasn't important to follow your creative passions when you're crushed by grief and possessed by life feels. There were also opportunities in my day job that required more than an appropriate amount of time and energy, leaving me drained every night. And no small amount of extra curricular investment - like working from 7am till 9 almost every night, sometimes beyond that. And my colleagues and I used to joke, as we cried into our drinks when still working on a Friday evening about being in the 9 O'clock crew... those times are far from conducive to productivity. Yet often, these are the times when you are at your greatest need to express yourself and vent. They're also the times when you have the most to say.
So what changed?
Three things had to change:
1. Focus – I had to learn how to focus.
2. Creative flow – I had to learn how to get into a flow quickly and easily; maintaining it during a given session of work - even if pressed for time.
3. Organisation and sacrifice – I had to decide what counts, and then putting some other shit aside to get shit done.
I needed to fix what wasn't working. I needed to produce more content. I probably need to stop swearing next…
<<WE INTERRUPT THIS MOMENT WITH A BRIEF MESSAGE:
If you don't need any advice of guidance and are doing pretty damn well on your own, re productivity and creativity, then move along and catch the next random issue... I'm not trying to teach anyone to suck eggs. Just hoping to share a few things that work for me.
Also, apologies for swearing. But there’s going to be far worse things in these newletters at some point – especially when I get to the horror part and feature occasional pictures of gore etc. But probably best not to continue if such things do bother you. END MESSAGE.>>
Sacrifice isn't great for one's poor suffering partner or family - having the creative YOU be absent from them for these periods of time. Or even to have you there but be in the zone and not really keen to engage in conversation while you're trying to get shit done. Or even to find out that you've temporarily relegated their concerns to the 'not as important right now' pile, or that you might be using noise cancelling headphones and merely nodding to the beat and you're not in agreement about what one facsimile of humanity just said to another flickering image on a reality TV show... but just know that you will need to find a balance once you unlock the key to increased productivity. It can be addictive.
I'm going to share a couple of tips. They're my own rules on creative life, if you will. But you can definitely read about such things elsewhere. I've just taken what I've picked up from other life hacking websites, books and courses and synthesised them to what works for me. And I'm sharing this, hoping that at least one of the tips helps another creative, such as YOU, who might be in need out there.
IMPORTANT!!!: If anyone is interested in learning more about these things - shout. And share some questions - I'd be happy to cover this in more detail. Otherwise, this is the last I will speak of it.
Meditation - I am either in an emotional turmoil or a devoid of emotion dead mess. There's very little middle ground with bipolar disorder. I started looking into meditation and finding ways that it could help ground me and keep my sh*t together a decade ago. I have found that it really helps. I've used it daily ever since - to get me in the right head space, to help me stay focussed, to help me sleep. It doesn't guarantee a lack of meltdowns, but there's an improvement overall in how I approach life and to help me climb down the walls after I've accidentally let my anger run loose.
I've used Mindfulness as a way to gauge where I am, and try and adjust accordingly. And to try and be looking out for potential triggers.
Rules to live by:
Less time dealing with emotional shit = more time to focus and write.
Less meltdowns = improved sleep = improved creative energy levels.
Less distractions / improved focus = more chance of finding creative flow.
Binaural meditation and meditation apps - I use two forms of meditation daily, Binaural meditation Mp3s (free on Soundcloud, Youtube etc, or paid e.g. Centerpointe) and apps such as Waking UP and Brain.fm to help automate the process. Why? - because it's usually music without any voice, so less distracting / annoying, and it contains two sound waves within it, which are designed to help you quickly get into an 'alpha state' which is most commonly associated with meditation and creative flow. They're regarded as a useful 'tool in the fight against anxiety, stress, and negative mental states.' And to me, what's better than a form of meditation that you can use to focus, whilst also kind of meditating at the same time? Bonus.
I usually start the day with Waking Up and affirmations to get my head right. I'll stretch to some ambient music. Then when I'm going to start the day of work, I use Centrepointe's 'Dive' track to give me a half hour meditation while gearing up to begin. And then throughout the day I'll use either brain.fm to help me focus in Pomodoro sessions, as I carve up the day's tasks into distinct blocks, and then seque into ambient music / film soundtracks if really trying to get into a vibe for that creative session - with some specially chosen music to write to.
Affirmations - We've seen the cliche of a haunted soul staring into a mirror and telling themselves "You are awesome. You deserve to be a millionaire." etc or another character imparting some choice words of wisdom. And we've mocked it. But get this... it works!
Plot twist. The human brain is suggestible. So why not program it for positivity?
A real battle for depressives is to put happy or more constructive thoughts into that brain pan. But I find that affirmations, when combined with meditation, do help you to learn more positive and constructive ways to reframe your thoughts and to help elevate you to a more positive place. They can also help to pre-program you, so that you can overcome obstacles e.g. when blocked on a tough scene you need to crack, and telling yourself before you go to sleep:"You are so creative. You will find a solution. You just have to wait for it and listen. But you will solve this. It's gonna be great!" - and yes I am aware how dorky that seems. But it works. It's like a muscle. It requires training. But you will see results after regular practice. And there are sources of affirmations out there for creatives.
Exercise - Find what works for you and do it. Your body needs it and it will give your brain the energy it needs.
I do a modified form of Power Yoga / Callisthenics. It's short, Takes no more than 15 minutes and gets the blood flowing and unkinks everything. And originally I took it to help fix some injuries caused by imbalances I had in my muscles, due to poor training regimes and martial art injuries. But I realised that the ritual movements of it help ground and centre me and were a perfect way to start the day, and even finish the day before sleep, especially after a day spent hunched over a desk and needing to unfuck one’s back.
An alternative, or useful addition is a good walk. Walking is an excellent form of exercise for a creative life - I find that it places you in a perfect mental space to focus and get things done. And I don't do enough of it. This is something I need to get back into doing. But even if you've done all that, if you're in the middle of a good session and suddenly flagging, do get up and stretch, walk around etc, do something to get the blood flowing. Juggling is fun and actually enough to get my brain firing.
Planning - The key, from a writing POV, to getting off to the races quickly the following day, is to try and leave the previous creative session unfinished. Sounds weird, right? But When I'm in the middle of a page or a scene, as long as I leave it in a place where I know what's next and could easily do a little more to nail it, it's often good to leave it unfinished. That way, when you pick it up the following day, you slip right into that same headspace and carry on to the next scene - assuming you've planned it and already know where you want to take it. It's nice to gift yourself a quick win that way, starting the day in a positive way.
So what is also implied, is that there will be times when you need to put some effort into planning - e.g. plotting - before you can then enjoy the later creative flow / creating sessions. It sucks. But I've been a pantser, and without a plan, you're unlikely to ever really get to the end with a consistent quality product to show for it, unless you do a LOT of editing / touching up. My overall creativity has increased once I respected the need to plot and plan. What I mean by this is, if you’re stopping in the middle of a scene you’re making up and have no idea how to finish / where you want to get to, that will just cause you to start the next day with stress. So learn to plot and plan and things will go more smoothly.
Rest - You need rest. You need sleep. You need down time. Don't assume you don't. I’m an insomniac, and often sleep badly if at all, so rest is always in a deficit for me. I’m always yawning and cursing the rest of the sleeping world for their abundance of energy.
For me, as writing is also my day job, if I want to rest, this means two things:
1. Set and respect down time limits (I do not use a device after 9.30pm at night and try to switch my brain off and either watch a bit of a film, or read a book for pleasure - often while listening to music - to relax).
2. Your health will suffer if you push too hard for too long without ample rest. The quality of your work will also suffer. And you will not enjoy the process as much. So do try to find a balance.
It's one thing to light a fire under your ass to get things going. But don't keep piling more fuel on the fire without being aware of the damage you could do.
2. CREATIVE FLOW:
What is creative flow? - There's a very good book about it - "Flow - the psychology of optimal experience" and I thoroughly recommend reading it at least once. But briefly it is the a ’flow state: where creative work thrives'. It's that feeling when your fingers glide over the keyboard, and can't keep up with the thoughts trying to leap onto the page. or when you and your band mates hit that perfect groove, when jamming and everyone's in sync. It's like a drug. And once you've tasted it, you always want more. To me, it always seems like I've allowed the restrained and critical me, to fuck-the-fuck-off and allowed the lunatic me to take over the wheel and stomp on the accelerator, with no consideration for the consequences. You can write a feature film in a week. it might not be any good. But it's doable. But at what cost?
But sometimes creative flow is genius. Sometimes what flows is gold…
Getting into that flow state - For me, there's too much to do in my life to find time to write in the mornings before work (save when I used to commute to work and I could write on the train and in breaks / lunch times). I am an evening and weekend writer. I usually have a maximum of two hours to get shit done. And I approach it with that intensity. Why two hours? Because as part of the rest aspect of creation, I set a hard stop at 9.30pm - see above. But that can often put pressure on you. So firstly, meditate. Use affirmations to prime yourself that you can do this. Find a place of calm. Find a way to block out the distractions. And no matter how reluctant or unsure you might be, begin. Actually do the thing, rather than fretting about the thing.
Every great task seems daunting. But usually it's not done in one huge blast of power. It's achieved in repetition. By showing up daily and PUTTING IN THE WORK. Once you begin, and once you get out of your own way, you will create the conditions to help you find a creative flow. And you will build creative muscle.
No DO = No creative flow.
Getting into that flow state - when you can't - There's a different between creating and getting into a flow state.
There are times when everything sucks, like you're walking through a huge muddy field and in danger of losing your shoes in the mire, kind of suckiness - and the flow never happens; and then you find that it wasn’t even mud, but a mix of cow shit and rot and it never washes out… erm, let’s try that again… There are times when you show up, you've done everything and you feel like the gas tank is empty and you've got nothing and it all sucks and you want to give up as you pound the keys like a talentless chimp waiting for the next banana…
Usually, this is down to lack of sleep, and lack of light (like when suffering S.A.D.) or burning the candle at both ends for far too long - as in working for the man and hitting tough deadlines and then trying to gee the [horse]body to gallop for a few hours more. Or all of the above... (I like naff analogies and mixed metaphors ).
Sometimes - not recommended - a little vodka helps me. Seriously, sometimes we do try to chemically create the conditions to convince the critical self to leave and let us get shit done. But it's not recommended! It's a cheap shot. That's when you begin to rely on a crutch, if it becomes a regular thing. But usually, if even considering such techniques, this is when you need to work out the answer to two questions:
1. Do I actually need rest / down time?
2. Am I in need of a kick in the ass to get me started?
- you will only know the answer by trying to put in a little work.
I've had sessions where it seemed impossible and I should give up and then suddenly I'm in the flow again. But there are also sessions when it felt like you're only showing up and doing the work because you said you would and not that it was in any other way a good idea. At those times you’re probably just phoning it in. And it will show later on, when you read the thing. Do listen to your body. Do rest if you need it. There's nothing worse than burning out.
Plan for these sessions - and keep those plans - There's nothing worse than getting into a flow state and then being yanked out of it, by the interruptions of life. Try and plan your sessions, so that you ignore the phone. Put it on mute, turn off the net and make sure your bodily needs are dealt with (go to the loo, eat and make sure you have refreshments etc). Tell the people in your life that you're going to DO THE THING. And if they can't respect that, go somewhere else to DO THE THING. But do DO THE THING. There's one thing you should be aware of, the muse loves attention. But if she shows up and you're not interested she gets proper snarky. So do not take her for granted. Do show up, put in the time and she will show up more often.
Visualisation is a different energy - Don't underestimate the need for creating a different kind of energy - when needed - the ability to daydream. It's key to visualisation. Just be mindful that often, this phase may be needed before you can then later get into a creative flow. Hot baths, walking, or listening to some music, may help you get into this space quicker. For such sessions, I've found that switching to working by hand, pen on paper, and doodling and mindmapping, and even just writing down all the doubts and questions in your head, and trying to answer them, can be enough to unblock things and fill in the blanks - once you've created the mental calm needed to do so. The Pen seems more connected to the mind than the fingers hitting the keys.
3. ORGANISATION AND SACRIFICE:
Be more systematic - This is more about writers, plotting and pantsing, but applies to any creative task. You learn by doing. You learn how to DO better, by studying what the masters DO or DID, and by trying out those techniques and things and incorporating it into your DAILY PRACTICE. Yes you might stumble upon a technique of your own through random experimentation, but ultimately, reading books by experts and articles written by your peers, doing courses etc, and then applying what you've learned, is essential to effective practice. Although try not to slip into a formulaic rut too…
I was a pantser, and then after madly fun and super creative writing sessions, I'd get bogged down in the mire of editing; and hate myself for the poorly penned excesses I was then supposed to polish and fix. Often I'd come to a stop with no shiny finished script at the end of it. Yet while writing at work, with a specific template and process for each stage, there was no time for writer's block or a lack of productivity - not if you want to keep your job and get paid and high satisfaction was a must. So eventually it sunk in, that I needed to actually find a process that works for me one that could deliver the satisfaction I required….
Work out what your obstacles are, and plan a way to remove or go around them. Develop a system. I've got one. It's not the same for every project. And there's still problems to solve, skills to learn. But it's a huge step forward from where I was a year or so ago.
By being systematic, even if I plot but later abandon it, I usually know more or less where I want to go, which rules I want to break, why and end up with a more pleasing end product when done. And there's usually less editing to be done.
Know what you’re going to work on before you get to it – so you’re fired up to do it and will fight for the time, if someone tries to take it away from you. And try to stick to that plan.
Learning the process by doing - and then hack it - I'm very much into shortcuts, developing templates for things, taking webinars and making notes, to help shorten the time to refresh your memory of a thing.
A recent example is the beat sheet. Often with writing books, they'd talk about three act structure (or one of the many variations). But rarely would they talk about how you get from 7 or 12 key story beats, to planning out all of the scenes needed to create a robust feature film from it. But I'd done a writing course for short story plotting, which I adapted for writing short films, and knew there must be one out there. Luckily, Pat Higgins came up with his version of Save The Cat, and the three act structure, to explain 40 story beats as a way to help you write a feature script in 30 days. This fit in very well with a template and process that I'd been developing and became an instant favourite of mine.
And when I get into the dreaded 2nd to 3rd Act territory, 'the badlands', and I get scared or uncertain of how to define those beats, I know I can now mindmap or doodle my way out of it eventually – through much experimentation.
There's still more work to be done in this area for me. But it pays to seek out whatever works for you and try it out. You won't know if it works until you do it.
This process works for film creation and not just writing and probably extends to other arts and skills. It can be as simple or as complex as needed.
For me, for every concept (before writing), first you need to break story, come up with a working title to give you an idea of tone, think about what's on the poster, do a pixar pitch and rough synopsis, then identify characters and conflicts, and so on before you even get to the beat sheet and long before a script...
Yes, I've become a plotter. And I am a reformed pantser. I still do it occasionally, but only when I already know where I need to get to and how I can get there and that it will work.
Pomodoro technique - the old Tomato timer technique aka The Pomodoro Technique – where you carve each day into hour long sessions with set break periods - is amazing for one’s focus. It has been a life saver, when trying to get my shit together on Mondays and Tuesdays, when being battered by the work email system and trying to get stuff done between meetings, and your focus is scattered - after a pleasant weekend doing non work things or having been on holiday. Usually I only need to rigorously apply it in times of deep stress. But once you get the hang of it, you'll easily be able to apply it without having to be too rigid about it.
There are Pomodoro apps - where you can decide what you're doing to do, then start and finish a session, before rewarding yourself with a break - and they can enable you to track what you did and for how long, when later doing your timesheet.
The breaks are essential. You need a period of a reward, to clear your head before then starting again. That's when you can check social media briefly or get a cuppa or hit the loo.
That's how an urgent script for a 30 minute thing gets written in a week. You break it down into hours and you grind your way through it.
Even better, brain.fm allows you to target sessions of a specific duration, so it does the timing for you and creates a binaural soundscape to match the length and helps you get it done and finding your flow. And then applauds you if you get it done. Nice. Sadly it can't block Karen from accounting, calling to query your expenses, or stop Derek in Tech, from pestering you with dull tales of his weekend in Scunthorpe.
Learning to say ’NO’ – “Hey Lee, do you want to go to this party on Saturday?” or “Hey Lee do you want to do some ironing?” or any other variation like that, will usually get the answer: “No.”
Learning to say no to things, is essential if you want to get shit done. It sucks. But when I already have a day job, and I’m trying to focus on my ‘side hustle’ and get more shit done on top of that day job, the last thing I need is things to entertain or distract me. And for you, this should be a no brainer. But remember, occasionally to say: “yes”, like when you need a rest or some down time, or another Vodka… or some life stimulation to help reinvigorate you; and you need to maintain those close relationships – so do find a balance.
I haven’t ironed a damn thing in over a year. I have a pile of laundry still waiting to be addressed. That’s how [idiotically] hardcore I am about putting tasks aside, that can be put aside, to get the real work done. My rationale was, ‘there are no f2f meetings, so who cares if I am not wearing an ironed shirt right now?’
If you have some valuable free time to spare -
Study from the masters. Pick up tips and tricks. Do courses and webinars and sift through articles to find tips and ideas to help you DO THE THING better. I know it's mentioned above, but that's how I learned about the benefit of a good walk, or found some time saving techniques or templates to speed up a task etc.
###PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF ANY OF THAT WAS HELPFUL.
PS. Apologies for any typos.