We all have goals, but if you’re like me (a neurotic mess of untreated ADD and undiagnosed but very real depression) your own ambitions can be as sturdy a barrier to success as a lack of training or connections. For my entire childhood and the better part of my adult life, failing to meet my own expectations and standards could send me into a confusing spiral of bad thoughts and inaction.
It’s a constant fight to stay productive, to push through the brain fuzz and self doubt to make anything much less things I like, but in the past couple years I think I’ve found a rhythm that works for me. But it’s always going to be a challenge.
Case in point, look at this drivel! What is this, a self-help essay? I HATE THE ENTIRE IDEA OF THE SELF HELP MACHINE!!!!
I really do.
And what’s more, I’m not going to pretend to be qualified to help anybody figure out how to fight their demons to become a successful creative person. Hell I’m not remotely successful myself. But I AM productive, and I THINK I’ve figured out how to maintain that productivity… For me… For now.
I’m not going to say what works for me will work for you but if nothing else maybe you’ll see that a person who struggled to finish anything for the first 30 years of his life can actually get his shit together. So here are a few things that keep me working. This isn’t a process or a system, it isn’t anything that tidy, but tidy was never going to work for me anyway.
Set deadlines, then say fuck deadlines
For a long time deadlines were the bane of my existence. When I’m depressed I’m not going to meet them and even when I’m feeling fine, let’s face it, I’m still going to wait until the absolute last minute to get started, so of course I’m not going to finish on time, which leads to a spiral of the bad thoughts, which means the project is even later or, more than likely, in the garbage.
It probably goes without saying that this pattern of failure followed by shame followed by more failure was reinforced by every school I attended or job I scraped by at. When I finally realized that, at least when it comes to my own work, deadlines don’t actually matter, I became immensely more productive.
I still set them. But I make the conscious decision not to hate myself if I fail to meet them, and you know what? I meet them a hell of a lot more often now. It took a couple years, but my calendar isn’t this looming specter of doom and anxiety anymore, it’s just a friendly reminder that I have stuff I wanted to work on.
Set goals around what you want to make not how successful it’s going to be
In 2019 I decided to make a comedy album. This isn’t something anybody asked me to do, and seeing as I’m essentially an open mic comic who gets booked on showcases a few times a month and does not tour, it probably wasn’t the “smart” thing for me to do. But I knew if I wanted to get better I had to do something ambitious. I also knew, realistically, not that many people would listen to it.
And I was right on both counts. I am a markedly better comedian than when I set out to record “This Was A Bad Idea” (What like I wasn’t going to plug it) and not that many people have heard it. I essentially recouped the cost of recording by selling CDs and every three months or so I get 10 or 15 bucks from the aggregated streaming services of the greater internet.
So the album isn’t paying the bills, still I’m so glad I did it. It’s the thing I’m proudest of in my creative life and making it forced me to become a better comic.
And perhaps more pertinent to this discussion, it proved I could meet a big goal. I don’t know what kind of creative opportunities I’ll have in the future, but if I can write, work out and record a comedy album, I can take on whatever comes next.
Work on multiple projects at once
Again I feel like I should highlight this is what works for me. This could honestly be terrible advice for somebody with a different brain. Now with that being said. If I only had one thing to focus on I’d never get anything done at all. I’m pretty sure that’s the ADD at work.
At the moment I’m typing this blog, I need to post it tomorrow so it’s taking priority, but I’m also about a third of the way through a short story I’m aiming to release the first week in september, I’m interviewing a very talented musician for my podcast tomorrow evening and I also need to work on the third draft of my first novel, which I’ve kept on the back burner all summer because, honestly, I needed a break from it.
As a younger man, leaving a project alone for so long would fill me with guilt, but I’ve learned that just because I can’t focus on something right now doesn’t mean I can’t focus on ANYTHING. I can still work, I can still be creative, I just need to use that energy on something else for a little while. Maybe if I went back on Adderall it wouldn’t be so complicated, but meds always seem to ramp up my anxiety to the point I can’t even appreciate what I’m doing. So I built these coping mechanisms that work FOR ME.
Again really not trashing meds. If they make your life more bearable please don’t stop taking them because some asshole with a keyboard told you they make him think his friends hate him.
Keep pushing the boundaries of what you are capable of
Six years ago I started comedy and it was probably the most important turning point in my life when it came to figuring out who I am and how I want to live my life. I’d been a writer for years, even made a living as a reporter for a while, but if nothing else, I think this bizarre overshare of an essay demonstrates why journalism was never going to be a lifelong career for me.
In the first couple years in comedy I just threw myself into doing as many shows as possible, then I began to stagnate, so I started producing shows. Then when I finally began getting the hang of that, I started writing again and started this blog. Then I recorded my album, and now I’ve started a podcast and I’m nearly done with my first novel (maybe).
This sounds like bragging, which is laughable because in terms of financial or critical success I’m a nobody, but at each step along the way, as I grew more comfortable, more creative space got freed up in my head. I couldn’t do a podcast in those first few years of comedy, I know because I tried and failed. I can do it now because after everything else it’s literally easier to do.
Alright that’s the end of the blog for today. I don’t know about this one, guys. It still feels way too self-helpy to me. My essays are usually much snarkier and way less self serious, but hey I set the goal to put one of these out every week and this week I’m meeting that goal. If you liked it let me know in the comments and all that jazz. I’m going to go take a shower to wash off all this sincerity.