A strong work ethic is a good thing, but sometimes it gets in the way of our real work.
|Soft September Morning, by Carol L. Douglas.|
Everyone has bad weeks, including me, although I’m usually so annoyingly chipper that it’s hard to tell. This week was a challenge to my sang froid; nothing major (thank God) but a concatenation of little things.
I started the week feeling bloated and out of sorts from too much holiday. My studio is a mess. Then there are the usual stresses of the Christmas season. Like many of us, I suspect, I went back to work on Monday morning in a deflated mood.
On Monday night, I managed to drop my still life—a pie plate filled with water and warm wax—directly into my laptop’s keyboard. I turned it over and shook out the water. My students are smarter than me; they told me to stop our Zoom class and dry out my laptop. My long-suffering technical support department (my husband) disassembled and dried it for me. Other than the sound and mouse, it appears to be working. However, since both of these things are critical, I’ve got a new laptop in my near future.
|Add five or six more tealights, then dump in your keyboard. It turned out to be a lousy idea in so many ways.|
Of course, I wasted hours of our time. And that made me grumpy. It’s backed up, but shopping for a replacement and recreating a work environment is no simple matter. In the past, this might have thrown me for days.
The Power of Ten is a simple game I play with myself to overcome a bad mood, inertia or paralysis. If I’m facing a mountain of laundry, I tell myself I’ll fold ten items. If my dining room table is covered with papers, I tell myself to file ten of them.
|Mess? What mess?|
This is not a way to fool myself into doing more; I do stop at ten. It’s a method of staring down what gets in the way of my real work. Like everyone else, I’m the product (in part) of my childhood programming. A strong work ethic is a good thing, but sometimes it gets in our way. Mine tells me I have to finish my chores before I can paint. Doing just a little work gives me permission to ignore the bigger mess.
Taken into the studio, that means I pick up and put away ten things. My suitcase on the floor that still has stuff from my Tallahassee workshop? That counts as six items, once I’ve put them back where they belong. The pile of frames that Colin Page gave me? That will be eight of today’s items.
Over a week, of course, I’ve managed to put away fifty items. Imperceptibly, order is being restored. More importantly, I’ve not stopped and spent a day cleaning my studio; instead, I’ve painted.
|My ten brush strokes took the form of branches on this canvas, which I keep around just for fun.|
My problem Tuesday was not just disorder, but worry and distraction about my laptop. That can completely derail me. So, I applied a variation of the Power of Ten to my palette. First, I laid out fresh paints; that always helps. Then I told myself I could make just ten brushstrokes. Voila! I’d eased the transition to real work.
Ten brushstrokes is a great limit when you’re having trouble concentrating. It’s also helpful when you’re confused about how to finish a painting. It makes you stop and think intentionally about each mark you make. That stops you from noodling, which has been the death of many fine paintings. Limit yourself, and see how quickly your mind zeroes in on the real issues.