I'm embarking on a couple of exciting new projects and, as usual, I'm looking for inspiration and sharing what I've found with you. One of these projects is a book about focus, so I'm interested in finding out about how other people balance the need for variety with the need to concentrate enough on individual projects to make successes of them.
1: Can We Have Focus AND Variety?
On Behance.com, I found an article about a creative couple, Craig Kanarick and Rebecca Odes, who work singly and together on a dizzying array of artistic projects.
Kanarick says, "...Having so many different kinds of projects and ideas in the works at one time makes it difficult to prioritize, but it also means there's always something interesting and productive to turn to when burn-out strikes.
He describes their strategy: "We tend to rotate through things, but it definitely helps to have a deadline for each individual project to give it the big push it needs to get done."
He adds, "At any given time, only a small amount of the work is active, meaning that we are dedicating a good chunk of time toward making it or promoting it. But what often happens is that one of the backburner pieces generates some interest and gets kicked up a few notches. It's an interesting model in that it allows us to focus maximum attention on whatever's most current and demanding until something else demands more attention."
ACTION: If focus is a problem for you, consider embracing the variety of your work but set deadlines for each project, and periodically reappraise whether you're working on the right thing.
2: Science Proves Your English Teacher Was Right
Your English teacher probably told you to use active verbs, not passive ("Ralph Smith gave a speech," not "A speech was given by Ralph Smith") if you want to engage the reader. Now science supports the idea.
A study using brain imagery showed that when people read active verbs, they experience increased activity in the parts of their brains that control the action described. The researchers said, "Just the reading of feet-related words such as dance makes the brain move its 'feet'."
ACTION: Check our own writing to make sure you're using the kinds of verbs that will make the reader's brains come alive. This is just as useful for memos and letters and emails as for writing for publication.
3: The "Yes, and..." Technique
When I lived in Los Angeles, I trained for a while with improv group, The Groundlings, and ever since I've found the "yes, and-" technique useful.
Whatever comes up, you avoid the temptation to say "But-" and instead say "Yes, and...". On stage, that means agreeing with whatever anybody throws at you and then adding some further information. If another male performer says, "Hi, Dad," you say, "Hi, son, I'm glad to see they let you out of jail," not "But I'm not your father, I'm the gas man!" Agreeing and adding moves the story forward, disagreeing tends to lead to static conflict.
It turns out this is a great communication technique off stage, too. If your colleague says, "I thought you'd have your report ready by now!" the temptation is to say, "But Walter didn't give me the information I needed!" Better: "Yes, so did I, and now that Walter has provided the information I needed, it won't take me long to finish."
Or your partner says, "You're spending too much money on your hobby again!" Bad: "But look at how much money you spend on (whatever)!" Good: "Yes, and maybe both of us could sit down and figure out how to cut back a little without missing out on our enjoyment."
ACTION: If you get stuck in any conflict situations, or just want to experiment with smoother communications, try the "yes, and..." technique.
4: Your Two Imaginations
In an article in the Boston Globe, Dale Dauten tells about overhearing a conversation between a father and son about what might be the next generation of the Wii video game system (the one where you move a small controller around in the air to make things happen on screen).
The son suggested that it might be gloves, with the movement of each finger creating a different response. The Dad replied, "Yeah, but what about somebody who'd lost a finger?"
What's amusing in this instance is the far-fetched nature of the objection. Would missing-finger people put a dent into the sales of the glove? Would they organize a protest at being excluded on the basis of their other-digitedness? But it also illustrates one of our basic impulses: to jump immediately to what could go wrong.
As writers (or other creative people), we are probably well-served by being able to imagine what could go wrong. At least in fiction, we're in the business of making stuff go wrong for our characters. The more the better. In most kinds of creative work, we begin with thinking about problems.
The difficulty may be turning off this side of our imagination when we go about the business part of our craft. When we think about sending our work out to agents and publishers, or pitching a project to a boss or colleague, we're equally quick to imagine what could go wrong, and sometimes that inhibits what we do.
ACTION: Maybe it's useful to remember which times it pays to be the aware of what could go wrong, and which times to focus on what could go right.
5: Weird Science: What's Influencing You?
Recent research at Yale suggests that your subconscious mind may be controlling you more than you suspect. How's this for weird science: students on their way to a lab bumped into a research assistant loaded down with stuff, who asked them to help for a moment by holding either a cup of hot coffee or iced coffee.
Later the students were asked to rate a hypothetical person. The students who'd held the cold cup rated this person as much colder, less social, and more selfish than did the students who'd held the hot cup!
An article in the New York Times reports that similar studies have shown that "people clean up more thoroughly when there's a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there's a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like 'dependable' and 'support'-all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.
Psychology professor John Bargh says, "We're finding that we have these unconscious behavioural guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness."
ACTION: Experiment with surrounding yourself with prompts (images, words, smells, music) that put you into a pleasant or productive mood, and if you're organizing a meeting or workshop, provide some prompts (again, these could be images, music, or words highlighted in hand-out material) that are likely to evoke the responses you want.
6: And a Quote to Think About
"One of the illusions of life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive one." - Ralph Waldo Emerson