In my part-time, unpaid job as an art coach, I hear from folks who are suffering from lackadaisicalitis. While they may be naturally talented, they seldom produce art and have little motivation. It’s easy to say they don’t want things badly enough.
One of my suggestions is to try to rewire the habit patterns using the “power hour” system. This is where distinct times are set aside for concentrated, all-out easeling. The idea comes easily to some and runs against the grain of others. It may have something to do with fear of failure. “Organizational fatigue” is where a person gets tired of being in systems that are frequently aborted. In supposedly self-motivated lives, I call this problem “the contrarian trap,” and some folks have it in spades.
To make the power-hour concept work, you need some sort of day-timer. While regular calendars will do, I recommend a custom one pushed out by your printer. While mine is nothing much, we’ve included sample close-ups here.
Entries can be made before or after the fact. Sometimes it’s not nice to push yourself around but nice to make note of missions accomplished. At other times it’s valuable to pencil in distinct power hours for the day ahead. Sometimes, minutes of preparation and starting at the top of the hour are good moves. I like to squeeze out first and get my ducks in a row. It’s amazing what you can get done in one golden hour. I’ve found the system works best when I’m not to be distracted and treat the exercise as a bit of fun. Music helps.
Theorists like Thoreau and Emerson looked at the value of self-regulation. While some of us are unexplainably driven, my experience is that the Achilles’ heel of many artists is simply lack of self-regulation. Further, many say “I don’t want to go there,” and that’s fine. For those who want things badly enough, a few items pencilled in before or after the activity might just become the tiny habit that produces big dividends.
Seeing motivational techniques as games may be key to their success. To be simply on the field, playing, is great, but those over-the-fence hits that you get with steady application can make it total magic.
PS: “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Esoterica: Many self-regulating artists simply put in long hours and just keep chipping away. The word “sacrifice” often comes into play. Seemingly stubborn and limiting, artists often report they don’t do TV, card games or other frivolities. Surprisingly, many don’t put much emphasis on food. Some, particularly those with wider responsibilities, sacrifice sleep. Most value regular exercise as “brain changing” activity. One artist friend describes his daily life this way: “I’m like a zombie — the work rules me — I keep on plugging and smiling.”
Following the head-machine
by Richard F Barber, Watford, Hertfordshire, UK
From dawn till dusk I’m in my studio. My daily routine is to open my computer and check my email. Once done, I start working on whatever painting that I have started on, or check out my art supplies. My head seems to be like a machine that projects images for me to paint. At times it’s hard to choose which one I do next. I have no time in my life for TV or computer games, I have the occasional outing with friends but little more, having said this I have no wish to discard my best friends — my studio, and my art.
Motivated by time squandered
by Carl Purcell, Manti, UT, USA
I’m sure everyone in art has hit blocks at times, where the impetus to get going just isn’t there. I have found that drawing pulls me out of that quickly and restores excitement. Also time has the ability to motivate me. Now that I am pushing 65 I realize that I have less time left than I have already squandered to do all the art I want to do. I retired from full-time teaching three years ago, and now only put in about 12 – 14 hours a day in the studio. Seeing the increased production alone is a stimulus. I find so much enjoyment in the work I hate to call it work.
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The crisis of uncovering
by Bruce Meyer, Arlington, MA, USA
Lately, I’ve found that as I’ve tried to push myself into doing art, I’ve provoked the mental and emotional crises that the avoidance of art has allowed me to cover up. Fortunately, I am under the care of both a physician and a counselor in a team of counselors and they have both worked to help me negotiate this crisis of uncovering. When I make art it is very similar to the eating habits of an anorexic — tell her, “Why don’t you just eat something? You know, take a forkful, open your mouth, and eat? What’s the problem?” Well, there’s a giant problem. And for me to make art, the Big Issue was sitting behind the door patiently like a cat waiting for the door to open up. If I walk away from the door, my cat will patiently just sit there for another hour until I come back. Likewise the Big Issue will patiently wait for the next time I do anything creative, play or write music, start a business or go on a job hunt, create a comic strip, paint a nude, whatever. For all those things I just mentioned, I have started them and stopped as soon as the Big Issue started to emerge. What’s happened lately is that I’ve gotten on the kind of productive schedules that you and others have mentioned, so that my clever avoidances failed to stop my train crash.
Not enough time
by Mary Rich
As an ex-professional illustrator, I know quite well the value and necessity of planned hours. That is not my problem. Rather, as a current high school teacher, my off hours are so taken with meditation (first and foremost to transition from 170 teenagers during the day), to exercise (before or after work), shopping for groceries, laundry, housekeeping, time with my husband, and then I find I absolutely must, for my sanity, have some unplanned time for doing nothing. This leaves very little time for my own work. I do get a few things done a month but I have to admit, sometimes reading your letters and replies from other artists, I do long for the day after day of being in the studio, even though I absolutely feel blessed to be ‘in art’ with the kids.
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by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA
My notion is “to wet a brush every day,” even if my intent is to keep the session short — even just 20 minutes or so. No matter how tired, spirit-worn, or disinclined, I can do anything that’s good for me for 20 minutes. The trick is that once into it, I spend a good, productive period at it. This has worked exceedingly well for me when I had a day job, which I lost last February and have not been able to replace as yet. It kept me at it, and more importantly, daily. Anything you do every day, you’re apt to be good at doing. I am now enjoying 1st career status with my paintbrushes, and am enjoying it without having to resort to trickery.
No waiting around for inspiration
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
The more I’m in the studio, the more I want to be in the studio. What was an effort when I was younger has become something I want to do and look forward to doing. When you have a regular schedule it becomes a part of what you do, and when you haven’t been at the easel for a time you miss it. On the other hand, if painting is a hobby, it is perhaps fine to do it on weekends or when you feel like it. But if you want to improve and become a better painter you have to work at it regularly. There is no way around it.
Some of my students used to say that they only worked on their own when they were inspired. Sorry, that is not the way it works. Professionals know that there is no such thing as waiting around to be inspired. As someone said, “Inspiration favors the prepared mind.” The American artist Lucas Samaras noted that those moments when you are totally tuned-in with what you are doing are so rare that that was the reason he worked all the time, to experience those moments more often.
Covering all the bases
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA
The demands and the emotional pull of family always derail me. Everyone else and our home come first! It is admittedly self-imposed. Still it IS and can’t be changed. And yet, the desire to paint is strong still! I never totally give it up. I do use scheduling and lists for most activities in my life, but, when I am finally into painting, I don’t need one. There’s nothing much on the schedule except “Paint”! Further, it seems I have a compulsion to finish what I start. Seems the best way to include more time for painting is to keep something on the easel at all times. So having more than one idea actually started, helps. Doing this gives me a chance to use your power hour example. Since things are out and ready to go, I can take some time to paint without feeling guilty. The other jobs are still getting attention. Oh yes, I want it bad enough. I’m just not smart enough or rich enough to do it all.
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Hyper-focusing time problems
by Karen Meredith
Once I’m in the studio it’s hard for me to leave. Thus one hour seems like it would be hard to manage. However, it’s getting to the studio that’s difficult. I once was told that this could be a sign of a form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Hyper focusing is a common trait and changing between activities/focus areas can be challenging. Thus, doing things only in one hour spurts might not be best suited for those who like to work in blocks. That being said, I often tell myself that I know that I need to get these other things done but I will get to them after I get that one hour in the studio under my belt. Of course I might be lying to myself — since that one hour will probably lead to many more! Then again, some of the other things pulling at me might become less important when time is more limited.
by Casey Craig, Wimberley, TX, USA
As an artist with two kids and a nearby mother who sometimes requires assistance, I have to be extremely organized to accomplish anything. I started printing out weekly calendars about two years ago and it has made a huge difference in my productivity. Granted, some days are artistic write-offs if I’m to be attending school functions or helping my mom run errands, but having these written into my schedule forces me to take advantage of the unscheduled days to work on my art. At 3:30 I morph back into mom and my art day ends when I meet my kids at the bus stop and then supervise homework and get ready for dinner. If the homework is light, I can sometimes return to the studio to do something more mundane like varnish a painting, but the real creative zone is best attempted when I’m alone. I’ve frequently heard artists claim they can’t do a schedule — it’s too restrictive for their artistic spirit. I guess that’s great if you have no other obligations, but a schedule keeps me working and sane.
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Feelings and fears get in the way
by Patricia Ryan, Beavercreek, OR, USA
“Lack of motivation” is a very big bag filled with as many bugaboos as there are artists, times ten. Some of mine were (and are) focusing on the idea that I have to make a “good” painting, rather than that I’m undertaking a joyful process of discovery. I also find myself thinking that I have to know exactly where I’m going before I start. I worry that I’ll never be able to recreate a previous success. I worry that I’ll have to choose one idea as better than another, as opposed to just painting them both. I feel like I’ve run out of ideas. I feel like I’m not going to make something “good.” Basically, I heap notions of responsibility and expectations on myself.
I’ve found it useful to notice all the thoughts that go through my head after I get that first feeling that it’s time to go paint something. They’re almost always expressing some fear of inadequacy, as if there were some serious negative consequence of my not being able to make this one a perfect painting. I finally started getting past these de-motivating thoughts when I realized that I can’t get to be a good painter unless I paint. So whether I feel ready or not, I have to paint something.
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Scheduling career forward
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
A couple of years ago, I used a variation of your “power hour” concept to move my career forward. Having received what I considered undeserved rejections of my work, I decided that one route to success would be to get into a commercial gallery or two. First, I made a list of the commercial galleries that I decided to approach, and a schedule. The local ones, I visited ahead of time. For others, I reviewed their websites, and checked out the artists they represented to make sure my work would be compatible, but not identical, and contacted them to find out if they were reviewing artists’ work and to obtain the name of the appropriate staff person to contact. (As I hate this type of personal promotion, the list and schedule gave me some discipline. And then, once a week, I prepared a submission package and sent it out.
It wasn’t long before I started hearing back. I still got rejections, but I also got positive feedback, everything from “keep trying” to “let’s see some actual work.” Now, with six galleries in Ontario that represent me, my biggest challenge is making sure that my galleries have the appropriate “product” on their walls, I am in a position to “cull” one or two that aren’t working out for me, and I can rotate work that hasn’t sold.
The “Power Hour” provides focus and discipline: writing down when you are going to do a certain thing makes it more real than just thinking about it. Thank you for sharing another secret to your success.
by Cath Simpson, NF, Canada
For keeping track of the hours, one of the best daily organizers I’ve ever used is the free, fun, and completely customizable “PocketMod,” a wee book made from one piece of paper using downloadable page formats that you can select and personalize. Maybe you know of it? If not, some unsung genius has constructed this useful and rather addictive little website — don’t say I didn’t warn you!
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Enjoy the past comments below for Power hour…
oil on canvas, 24 x 24 cm
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Kim Santini of Lake Orion, MI, USA, who wrote, “My power hour comes in the form of daily painting. It was originally conceptualized as just that — getting myself into the groove of painting, breaking down any boundaries, without fear of compromising a larger piece. Now, beginning my third year of daily work, I find that I immediately slip into productivity once that hourglass starts.”
And also Christopher Marion Thomas of Inglewood, CA, USA, who wrote, “I struggle with artist block often and a fear of failure / success. Your letters have encouraged me and help me to continue to fight the good fight.”
And also Patti Dyment of Canmore, AB, Canada, who wrote, “A wise and generous coach is a special boon, all un-looked for.”
And also Linda Crane of Ladysmith, BC, Canada, who wrote, “To be productive is to be focused.”
And also Judi Vreeland of Cedar Creek, TX, USA, who wrote, “There are no words that can be written to adequately thank you for your generosity, knowledge, support, and the humanity that you share for free. What you do is beyond price, cherished, collectible, dear, incalculable, incomparable, inestimable, invaluable, out-of-bounds, out-of-sight, prized, rare, rich, treasured, valuable, valued, without price, worth a king’s ransom, worth its weight in gold. Ok, so maybe there are a few words.”