We know how it feels to be in a state of flow.
Our work seems so effortless. However, we almost seem to be rushing to meet a deadline and work seems—well—just like work. We've always thought getting things done on time is a good thing, and it is.
But is it possible that getting things done on time is one of the biggest reasons why we always feel behind?
How do you get into a state of play if you're always stressed?
Let's find out.
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In the past two years, I've taken close to 22,000 photos of strangers.
Pictures of women picking flowers in a commercial shed, firefighters on firetrucks on their way to an emergency, sheep being reared, chefs making pasta—all kinds of professions have captured my imagination.
However, almost always, there's a feeling of tension when I first enter the room. You'd think the people photographed felt the pressure—and you'd be right. However, despite the sheer volume of work, I, too, am unsure of what to do.
I'm not in a state of play.
I'm not wound up either, but there's a distinct feeling of uncertainty. I get my best pictures an hour or two later. I'm also enjoying myself so much that the subjects relax. Their smile goes from plastic to shy, warm smiles.
Most of us want to be in the zone, in a state of play. We think it's something that happens spontaneously. However, this flow or form of play requires a bit of work. That's because getting into a state of play takes time and, ironically, effort.
Let's find out what's essential to consistently get us in this state of play.
1: Being ahead vs being on time
3: Tools matter
1) Being ahead vs being on time.
If you do your assignment on time, you will always feel stressed. Why? Because we always want to get things right.
What's the point of writing an article that needs to be rewritten? Why would you want to draw a cartoon only to be told that much of the stuff needs to be moved around? We want to get it right, and working at it is the only way to do so. If you look at any task, there are several stages of preparation.
Hence, if I look at my podcast, I can't enjoy myself at all.
I have to think of a topic, write the outline, write a 2000-3000 word script, edit it (which is very time-consuming), put it in my teleprompter, record it, do post-production, write the teaser and headline, and finally send it to the guy who adds the music (His name is also Sean).
You'd be mistaken if you thought I didn't enjoy myself at all.
I enjoy the process, but only when I have enough of the elements under control. If I have done my preparation, I will already have a few topics. I will have at least a few paragraphs on every topic underway. Since the podcast goes out on Saturday, I will have most of the preparatory work ready by Friday at the latest.
However, I am more in a state of play if I'm on Friday by Monday. Which means I'm already several days ahead. I've somehow gotten ahead, and that puts me in a great mood. At times, this mood has caused me to have so much fun that I'd be several months ahead.
The same concept applies to my cartoons.
I have been drawing for as long as I can remember. However, the moment I realised that my work had to be of a certain standard, it stopped becoming as playful. This shows that you and I need to consider what makes things stressful for us. And almost without exception, it's when we're not as prepared.
To prepare, I clip references in advance.
If you look at my iPad image folder, the reference images are in place well before I start any drawing. To suggest that they're “always” in place is not valid. There are days when I sit down to draw, and I can spend an hour or more and not end up with anything.
Well, I do end up frustrated! The only time I start having fun is if I'm well ahead of the game. Being on time is almost always a pain.
When we do things because we're reaching a deadline, it's always stressful. It also gives us only one shot at success. We are so tired from putting things off that by the time we are done; we don't want to try anything else.
As it is, learning is tiring. Any new style, any new angle is always taxing on the brain. To have to add the drama of last-minute work is what we all do, but the brain loves to have lots of space. Unless we are ahead, we are never in a state of play.
And it's when we are ahead that we can work with angles.
If you're asked to take a photo of a glass of water, you'd quickly get bored. However, if you're asked to take twenty photos of a glass of water, you get creative.
It happens to everyone without exception.
If you only do what you're supposed to, there's little chance for play to enter the domain. It's easier to do the task assigned and then move along. However, the moment you do as you're told, it's much harder to get into play mode.
You know you're in play mode because you're not doing what you're asked to do.
You're doing MORE than you're asked. You're approaching the same project from a multitude of angles. Which means you're going to need more time. You'll need additional time for some reference material but also more time to complete the task at hand.
This is why it's essential to reduce the complexity.
If you're learning to draw, you almost always want to colour what you've just created. You don't want to leave your work in black and white. Yet, that strategy is not ideal. You should stick to the bare minimum if you're strapped for time.
You then use the rest of the time to go after angles.
No one is suggesting twenty drawings, though doing two or three will ramp up the range of your work. You don't need to practice as much as you need to see the world from different angles. The more you can “see”, the better your overall drawing gets, with no practice at all.
Even when you're learning something complex—like article writing—you can break up things so that you're not writing twenty articles, but instead just writing many “first lines” or many “headlines”. While the goal is to become great at “cartooning” or “article writing”, it's better to do a less complex task and do it from several angles.
Once you've already done the primary assignment, there's less pressure.
Even when you are in play mode, you still want to get things right, but there's still less pressure than if you pour all your energy into one piece of work. It's crucial to finish the first task to the best of your abilities and do so in a fixed amount of time. However, when you go back, you will find your mind frees up, and you're almost always more creative and in a state of play.
This takes us to the third point, namely the tools you use. Play gets worse or better, depending on the tools on hand.
3) Tools matter
When I first started with digital art, I was stunned.
For years, I'd been using paper and watercolours, and it took a lot of time to get things right. I'd do a job for a client, and they'd ask for a small colour change. That request meant I had to start all over again. I got more innovative along the way, photocopying the original black and white artwork and then using several different colours. Nonetheless, it was all a lot of work.
Then along came the computer, and Photoshop.
I say Photoshop, but my favourite tool was Fractal Design Painter, a stunningly good artist program. However, the computers were slow, with pathetic amounts of RAM. Buying 32 megabytes of RAM (yes, MB, not GB) meant spending close to a month's wages. Despite all the hurdles, I could do the work in a fraction of the time. When a graphic tablet like Wacom came along, all was well with the world.
Nonetheless, by 2015 or so, my graphic illustrations had crawled to a halt.
I got tired of having to sit at my computer all day long. When I was a cartoonist, my job was just to draw cartoons and then quit for the day. However, once I got into marketing, I'd spend time with e-mail, with posts on the membership site, and writing books and courses. Spending even more time chained to the computer was something I wanted to avoid.
Along came the iPad—and early versions of a stylus.
They were all reliably terrible styluses, so I returned to the land of infrequent Photoshop illustrations. When I got the iPad Pro with the pencil, my work exploded. In a single year, I went from three drawings to over a thousand. I could watch Netflix and draw, sleep on the sofa and draw. I could draw at the cafe or even at my desk.
It's important to note that my skill level hadn't changed—or didn't need to change.
All that mattered were the tools. A lousy carpenter may blame his tools, but a good carpenter has excellent tools. Not everyone can sidle up to an iPad Pro or get fancy software. You should have a reason if you struggle and wiggle your way through life. There are challenges, but it's time to make some changes if you're the one creating roadblocks.
Professionals know this fact and ensure their tools are in order and the best they can find. If you're slowing down because you need the right tools. Get the best you can afford. The more you're struggling, the less you're likely to play.