The Dumbest Good Advice I Ever Got

As a writer and an artist and a creative person in general, one hears a lot of advice on how to complete projects.  A LOT.  A LOT A LOT.  And I’m even thinking back to before there was the internet.  But now everyone with a blog is trying to cash in on how to help their fellow creatives be more productive.  There are a bajillion blogs out purporting to teach you how to stick with it and finish that screenplay, complete that painting, or write that book.

All that advice boils down to one seemingly necessary and unbreakable axiom:  work on one project at a time and stick with that one project until it’s finished.  Devote time daily to work on that one project and do that every single day for however long it takes.

ONE project.  Only one.  Attempt more than one at a time and you’ll scatter your energies and end up accomplishing nothing.

Moreover, stick with that ONE project until it’s finished.  Don’t quit.  Don’t swerve.  Allow no detours or distractions.  No matter how long it takes.  Forever.

Until you die.

Okay, maybe I added that last bit.  But it might as well say that, because that’s how I feel if I am stuck doing only one single project.  Or if I feel I can’t do anything else until that one thing is finished.  I feel trapped and like I’m going to suffocate to death.  No thanks.

That took me years to learn, though.  And until I learned it, I always felt as if there must be something wrong with me because I couldn’t finish anything, because I’d get stymied on the one project, feel trapped, feel suffocated, feel stuck.  Sitting down to work on only one project felt like torture, like practicing piano as a kid, alone in my room, with the kitchen timer ticking off my 30 minutes and forbidden to do anything other than the assigned exercises.   Oh my god let me out already!

My mind has never worked that way.  And there is nothing wrong with me.  I know now that I have a designer’s mind, an explorer’s mind, a scanner’s mind (to use the term coined by Barbara Sher), a mind that must be allowed to explore and learn and create and run free, a mind that should not be locked in a cage and forced to do one thing over and over ad nauseum, ad infinitum, ad mortem.

But for years, I tried to keep myself in that stultifying cage: do one thing and only one thing until you finish it.

Even thinking about it makes me restless and looking for escape routes.

Perhaps that works for some people.  But not me.  I’m too curious.  One thought or question opens the door for a thousand connected thoughts down endless rabbit holes.  But if I don’t allow myself to explore and enjoy rabbit holes some of the time, I don’t get anything at all done.  I shrivel up and die inside.

So, I have several writing projects that I bounce between, sometimes jumping back and forth between two of three a day, in the same writing session, following the stream of consciousness that flows through whichever storyline dominates at the moment.  I have several paintings and drawings in several mediums ongoing all the time, and I work on them according to whichever one calls to me at that moment.

You may think that working like this, I never finish anything.  It’s true that I have a lot of unfinished pieces, abandoned because I lost interest in them, or couldn’t make them work the way I wanted, or just set aside and forgotten.  But also, I’m constantly working.  Constantly learning, improving, and actually enjoying the process.  And, surprisingly, getting much more work to a state of ‘finished’ than ever before.

So, for me, the advice to do only one thing is dumb if for no other reason than it made me unhappy for years.  Now, my body of ‘finished’ work is steadily growing.  More importantly, I’m creatively productive and happy.

And happiness is worth ignoring any dumb advice for.