Avoidance, Creative Work, and Balancing Multiple Interests

Writing, Reading, Hacking and Making Music: My Room
My Room

This is a bit of a personal ramble.

Gerald Klickstein had a great post on the Music Think Tank blog about avoiding avoidance:

Do you ever dodge your creative work? Say, your practice time arrives, and you race off to do some chore. It might be a chore that you detest, but now it calls to you. Then, instead of refining your music, you start cleaning the house or doing whatever. […]

When we practice, write, or otherwise innovate, we stretch our limits. We strive.

But striving takes us into the unknown, and that brings uncertainty. […] If the uncertainty of creating unsettles us, then, to escape the discomfort, we might seek refuge in a mindless task: “This really needs doing,” we’ll congratulate ourselves as we reach for the mop.

So true. I set aside afternoons to work on my music, but often end up catching up on email, cleaning, doing laundry, or running errands. It’s so easy to avoid that difficult creative work.

Klickstein has a solution:

First we have to notice an avoidant thought before we fall under its spell. Next we must act to do what we intend. […] As I see it, we’re all going to have avoidant thoughts, so we need to keep countermoves handy. Here’s my anti-avoidance formula:

Counter Avoidance

  1. Notice an avoidant thought.
  2. Dispute it. (Laugh at yourself or just say “no.”)
  3. Replace it with an affirmation: “Music feeds my soul.”
  4. Act with full intention.

It’s great advice, but I still find myself struggling. I have so many distractions that aren’t just chores or busywork. I spent a lot of my “music” time in the fall revamping my website, which is important for my music, but it isn’t my music. Also, there’s always the temptation to put more hours in to my other jobs, especially when I have clients waiting on me; it’s hard to spend an afternoon focused on songwriting when I have a separate deadline with a client bearing down on me. And, lately, I’m spending a lot of time on music, but not my music; I’m writing arrangements for the Hart House Chamber Strings pops concert, which is an amazing opportunity for me to write arrangements and work with some of my favourite local artists, but only a small percentage of the concert involves my songs. Even when I work on music, it’s not always my own.

Then, there’s the issue of multiple creative endeavours. I’m a songwriter, but I also try to set aside time for writing (like this) and for programming. It’s easy for one of these activities to overshadow the others.

I defer to Adam Singer, someone whose several steps ahead down a road I’d like to travel:

By day I work for one of the top search/social marketing firms globally. At night I keep this marketing/media/PR blog and participate in industry conversations around the web. I also write music. In between all of that I read 1-2 two non-fiction/sociology books and some 300 blogs monthly (I’m a knowledge-junkie). I also don’t do any of these things halfway, they are not fleeting interests – I’m fully committed.

[…] It took me years to develop the self-discipline necessary to split time across interests and get fulfilling results in all of them.

Today I thought I would share the process I took to get to the point of balancing multiple pursuits. If you also have multiple interests and are frustrated you’re not able to devote enough time to them, this might help.

He lists 10 pieces of advice (I’m just listing the titles, but you can read the post for more detailed descriptions.)

1. Internalize what outcomes you want from each interest first
2. Define what specific activities support your desired outcome from that interest
3. Remove everything else

It’s an ongoing process, but I’m inspired by the steps I’ve made in the past few years in narrowing down the sorts of things I want to accomplish in different areas. The picture is constant evolving, and becoming clearer. One of my goals going forward is to speak more publicly about the things I’m working on.

It is a challenge to remove everything else though. I have a hard time saying no to many things (e.g. I need to do less Windows tech support…).

4. Automate or outsource all collateral activities

I lot of the time I’ve spent working my website, or figuring out 64 Studio factors into this… At times it feels like I’m spending so much time not making music, but I’ve been streamlining my process of recording and sharing recordings, which is essential going forward.

5. Your career should be an interest


6. Learn to ignore others who tell you to focus on one thing

This is incredibly encouraging. One of the common sayings that haunts me is “jack of all trades, master of none.” (I prefer “master of some.”) Sometimes, I feel like I’m spreading myself too thin, trying to be too many things. There is a way.

7. Focus time where your mind is naturally drawn during free time

This is also encouraging, given the variety of my pursuits… but, I think it’s also essential to make sure there is time set aside for each activity in the long run. While it makes sense, on a micro-level, to focus where the inspiration and motivation is present, on the macro-level I’m still trying to find the best way to make sure that none of my interests are neglected for too long. That’s the real challenge.

8. Learn patience and dedication
9. Be grounded in reality, realize life is short

Sound, but basic advice.

10. Remember that focusing on one and only thing is mentally limiting

I don’t need to be reminded of this. Some people have one thing that they can do well and focus on, but I’ve always had multiple passions.

About 10 years ago, I remember my mom sitting me down for one of those overly-concerned parental talks. “It’s great that you’re so passionate about music and computers,” she said, “but… you need other interests too, you need to be balanced.” After listing off a variety of other hobbies at the time (basketball, skiing, cross country—just in the athletics department), I reassured her that I was interested in a healthy balance of things—and that I just really enjoyed music and working with computers.

That was Grade 7. Five years later, applying to universities, I was looking at music and computer science/engineering programs. I ended up choosing computer science at U of T, not just for the program (which is fantastic), but because it allowed me maximum freedom to study other things as well; music and engineering programs offered very few electives. I began thinking I’d do a music minor, but ended up choosing English instead. Last June, I graduated with a major in computer science, and minors in English and philosophy (as I like to say: Plato, Python and Shakespeare).

And now, I’m continue to work part-time at Alleyne Inc., while the rest of my time is spent on music and writing. (I’m also doing a couple graduate-level credits in theology this Spring, but not quite sure where that will lead…)

For me, it would be extremely mentally limiting to focus on just one thing.

The challenge, moving forward, is to find balance between multiple creative interests, avoiding avoidance and narrowing in on my creative goals.

Rambling out loud like this will likely be part of the process…

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