When good habits aren’t

Back in October of last year, when I decided to do Inktober, I changed my schedule around so that I would have time first thing in the morning to draw: after shower, breakfast, walking the dogs and all the other necessary tasks of the morning, I would set aside at least half an hour before heading to work. That way, regardless of how much overtime I would run up, or what kind of busy situation I would return to afterwards (2018 was that kind of year), the goal of one drawing per day would be feasible. Or at least, because working in pen and ink means that sometimes you have to leave a drawing along to wait for ink to dry, there would be something ready at the end of that morning session that I would be able to finish very quickly.

This strategy was based on a combination of tips that I would often read from successful artists on social media: give yourself half an hour instead of always trying to carve out a four-hour block of time, find a time slot where you’re unlikely to be interrupted, work daily, challenge yourself with a difficult but achievable goal, get up early to do it, simple and done is better than highly advanced and stuck in your head, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. You can find advice like that from pro artists all over the place, whether you ask for it or not. It was also, on the terms of the Inktober challenge, very effective for me. I got 30 out of 31 drawings done, including two where because the prompt didn’t do much for me, I quickly made the choice to draw a different topic instead. I missed one day because I was a bit under the weather, cheated a little bit on one day by digitally fixing up an older drawing that was on-topic for that day’s prompt, and the final day of the challenge, I made the conscious decision to call it quits, then later drew something anyway. And in the evenings, I still had time, just about, to train for the 4 Mijl van Groningen once a week.

So far, so good. I was proud to have finally developed a habit that I could stick to, and continued working through November and December on a slightly modified version of the same schedule, using different challenges: NaNoManGo in November and Fatvent Calendar 1in December2. But over time, sticking to that early-morning half hour became harder and the productivity effect faded. I did not have a succesful NaNoManGo and the Fatvent Calendar thing sizzled after just a week. Worse, I started to feel increasingly frustrated and stressed, and my physical condition and sense of well-being declined. What did I miss?

Well, the first part of it was that I am simply not a morning person. For every half hour that I get up earlier, I gain maybe 15 minutes of usable time, and that ratio gets worse the earlier I get up. That list of tasks I need to do before I could start on the half-hour time slot? easily adds up to 90 minutes, so to start drawing at 8, I have to set my alarm to 6:30, and there is no way I can even get to bed in time to get eight hours of sleep. Also, I especially hate getting up before dawn, or doing real work before dawn, so by the time Daylight Savings Time ended during the third weekend in October, I had a real problem. In hindsight, it was at that point during Inktober that I started to struggle.

In addition, I mentioned training for the 4 Mijl during October, but in reality, that was only two Thursday evenings in the first half of the month, sustaining momentum built up in the months before. After that, regular running was over. And because I had also sacrificed bicycling to work in order to carve out the time slot (saving 20 minutes each morning by taking the train), I was not getting the exercise I needed. Even though I was only aiming for half an hour to an hour, the measures I took to ensure I had that time were harming me physically and mentally. And that was before they stopped working altogether. The annual ebb and flow of work meant that my hours would lengthen, but early in 2019, as the company was reorganizing, meetings were out of control and the expected ebb didn’t happen, they didn’t shrink back again. We had our vacation in Spain where, it turned out, trying to be productive while traveling had its own problems, and by March and April I was suffering chronic stress and had to seek professional help.

Only after I sought professional help, the situation at work became more regular and predictable again, and by the time I got to speak to someone about my stress problems, things were already getting better by themselves. I dodged a bullet there, but I have had to rethink whether my new good habits were really all that great.

For now, the reasons I’m doing better seem to be:

  1. I recognised I had a chronic stress problem that I couldn’t solve on my own;
  2. The days were getting longer again so getting up early became less of an ordeal. At the moment, I wake up before the alarm because there’s sunlight and a dawn chorus. I still don’t get enough sleep, though;
  3. I recognised that other things than art practice were more vital to my health and well-being; instead of having comics or drawing as the non-negotiable thing that I have to practice, I now ride my bicycle to work five days a week again, and make myself available for more running events. After two months, I am definitely feeling much better even though I exhaust myself every day. I have more stamina and am more emotionally regulated. I am sad that art and comics cannot give me these things, but that’s how it is. 3
  4. I am a little kinder to myself: I let myself arrive at work later because that is both allowed and more compatible with my circadian rhythms; I have given up on daily art challenges for the time being, and I’m embracing the fact that my mind will always flit between projects. The worst thing that can happen if I add another project is that instead of, say, six projects that will progress at a glacial pace, I will have seven. Whereas if I don’t add it, it will sit at the back of my mind, in a holding pattern, and the six projects will still progress at a glacial pace but I will also be frustrated that I cannot get started on the seventh one.
  5. I take naps, because I’m not 20 anymore.
  6. Bicycling is so much fun! I had my road bike fixed and I now zoom zoom zoom through some of my childhood stomping grounds in search of longer routes to ride.

So I’m not out of the cult of the hustle yet; I’m just applying it differently, in more conventional ways. Sadly, the side effect of prioritizing physical activity over art means less art from me. But I will have a longer and healthier life to produce art in, I guess?

As I type this, a commercial social network with very clever algorithms is showing me Science tells us rest is vital. So why do we glorify sleep deprivation in our careers?, a post on the Dropbox blog making some of the same points. It makes for good further reading and suggests that the fact I’m still racking up sleep debt is a problem I will need to focus on some more.

Footnotes:

1

Fatvent Calendar is not an official, participatory event, but I did not know that at the time.

2

I am now working on comics started for NaNoManGo and will soon resume posting work from art challenges on the blog and Patreon.

3

Also, per extra hour spent, I am getting much better results from exercise than from art. I progress faster and the rate of progress improves.