How do I focus?

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It’s unlikely to see greatness (or even progress) without focus and attention. Consider experimenting with the following focussing strategies, and see which work best for you:

  • Active focus phases: Experiment with active focus phases that allow you to be radically present for a limited time: disable all notifications on your digital devices (buzz, sound or visual cues from your smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc). If there’s a landline, detach it. Commit to doing this in increasing time spans – you can start with 15 minutes, then double it to 30 minutes once you feel ready for it; or you simply go along as long as it feels right. This will help you to ultimately find your own rhythm.
    Understand that your artistic practice can also benefit from inattention and subconscious actions: being tired, exhausted or inattentive can still bring your work forward. It might temporarily create uncomfortable results, which can prove to more power and potential than your active decisions.

  • Form habits: While focusing isn’t painful, it’s still way more work than procrastinating. Once you sit down to get something done, your mind will offer various alternatives that can suddenly feel overwhelmingly more interesting than to pursue what you intended to: meeting people, checking social media, reading a book, etc. This can be countered by establishing work habits that define when and how you work – to lessen the hurdles of actually pursuing your work. Consider how to make focusing easier and more attractive: is your table clean? How’s the lighting situation? Can you disable interruptions? Can you schedule specific times to focus? The fewer stressors there are, the better your habits will get established. In addition, consider having dedicated work environments: a table, room or studio solely for your artistic work, where you don’t pursue anything else. This enables your mind to expect to get work done, and be just a little less distracting.

  • From itch to urge: Sometimes you feel an inclination: a word, a feeling, a tendency towards a process, material or medium. Let this itch become an urge: doodle around with the prior, to create space for the latter. What starts out as curiosity about a certain aesthetic or semantic, can lead to the absolute self-demand for a deeper inspection and inquiry about that curiosity’s potential. Don’t ignore your itches. Listen to your inclinations, and implement them. See where they lead you.

  • Demystify inspiration: Inspiration is one of the buzzwords of creativity, often thought about as appearing out of nowhere, especially to the lucky and talented few – with the implication that the rest of us simply isn’t that lucky. This is not true: inspiration can strike you randomly (on the bus or when watching TV), but can also be fostered by actively thinking about topics. You can create inspiration: Sit and think about what work to do next: what material and content will you use? How might these influence the work’s interpretation? How do you feel about this interpretation? Do you want to wiggle it a bit further?  What describing attributes come to your mind – do these support your vision? How can you strengthen or weaken certain interpretations? What other works might make sense to get created alongside? How would you envision an exhibition featuring these works? Take a pencil and paper, or whatever other low-commitment tools work best for you, and brain-storm away.

  • Find inspiration: Even if you feel to be entirely without ideas of your own, you can make it a habit to proactively work on finding inspiration, by exposing yourself to the world: become an active experiencer of life. Visit exhibitions (museums usually charge you, galleries won’t) and libraries, read books or magazines, watch documentaries, participate in discussions: inspiration lies everywhere, as long as you actively want to find it. What were the last events that really excited you? Was it a sports game, your cat or dog, the way someone treated someone else; someone’s voice, a movie or TV series, a tune or perfume? Increase the awareness of your passions, to understand whether you want to investigate them further for your art practice. Become attentive to your interests, and inspiration can be found anywhere.

  • Imitate others: Imitate other people’s work to learn more about yourself, by using appropriation as learning strategy. Understand whether it’s a certain topic or aesthetic that excites you – and see what happens upon copying it. Your goal doesn’t have to be a total, direct copy – it’s usually more exciting to try and appropriate the original in the imitation process, by adding your own touch. This way you don’t need to worry about plagiarism: if your focus is to find and establish your own voice, you won’t ever become a copycat. If you pursue your own path deeply and authentically, you will only ever appropriate specific fragments, ultimately establishing your own themes and forms – simply because your interests are unlikely to coincide with the ones of those whose work you imitated. This way, imitation can help you find your own voice – with the works that might have excited and triggered you years ago, often no longer being quite so exciting to you today.

  • Understand your apprenticeship status: No matter how experienced you are in certain fields, entering a new territory always makes you a rookie. Starting something new inherently marks a new territory: as such, you need to expect mistakes – that’s simply how beginnings are. Expect to ruin works that felt good until you took a wrong turn and messed them up. Expect to misunderstand timings, processes, materials and tools – and your abilities. At the same time, do not let your novice status belittle you: while mistakes are expected, they don’t make you or your work less important, they don’t diminish your relevance: as a beginner, failure is all you have. Understand that to a beginner, failure is only the starting line: every skill you acquire will stay with you forever, and will work for you henceforth – no skill will ever be acquired without the rookies’ openness to failure. Accept the journey into the arts as  a brainstorming process within which there can’t be any actual mistakes; since every mistake will help you grow, the only way to fail is not to try.

  • Withhold judgement: Accept that there are no quality standards, except the ones you define – and even these are subject to change (through time or modified aesthetic ideals). Accept that in the arts, there can be no tolerance for other people telling you about allegedly “correct” ways of using tools, materials or processes. Become an empty mind, a beginner’s mind; become accepting of whatever inspires, motivates and enriches you. Withhold judgement about what you do, until you really, really know what you’re doing.

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