You focus by using focusing strategies that work for you (keep experimenting!), and by establishing realistic attitudes about art and creativity.
We need focus to dive deeper into what we do. It’s unlikely to experience our own greatness without intention, attention – and focus. This takes time. Experiment with focusing strategies, and establish realistic attitudes about art and creativity. Processes don’t just work out of the box, but might need adaption for your situation. Success benefits from appreciating the small steps.
- Active focus phases: Experiment with active focus phases, meant to make you 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 (lol), detach it. Commit to doing this in increasing time spans – you can start with fifteen minutes, and then double it to thirty once you feel ready for it; or you simply use it for the amount of time that feels right, without measuring. You will ultimately find your own path and rhythm.
(Understand that apart from focus, 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 have more power and potential than the decisions made intentionally.)
- Form habits: Focusing on work promotes the rewarding possibilities of flow states and progress, but requires much more dedication than procrastinating or staying inattentive; doing anything is more challenging than doing nothing – activity requires more than passivity. Once you want to get something done, your mind will usually offer tempting alternatives: being on social media, replying to messages, etc. These actions offer quicker rewards to the brain than the slow-roasting complexities of most work tasks, which make them tough competitors for your attention.
Establishing habits that define when and how you work can lessen the hurdles of actually pursuing your work. The less you have to think about the setup of work, the more likely you will “simply slide” into doing that work. Identifying and disabling distractions (leaving your phone outside of the work area; setting it to “do not disturb”, using white noise via headphones, or noise cancelling technology, etc.), establishing specific work routines (when to be in the studio, when to take breaks, when to do phone calls or replying to mails), using habit stacking (“after I prepared coffee, I sit down to read my emails”; “after I mix colors, I sit down to clean my brushes”; “after I got up, I take ten minutes to write my morning pages”, etc.) are powerful strategies to enable your mind to get into working mode – and to stay there. Consider reading more about habits, it is very powerful knowledge.
- Identify your needs for a conscious lifestyle: Your mind needs clarity to focus on your work. While artistic processes can benefit from subconscious decision-making (e.g. by being tired, exhausted or intoxicated), there is power in consciousness: to have the mental capacity to understand what you do. The less distracted your life setup is, the more focus you will have for your work and its challenges. Removing alcohol and drugs, identifying toxic relationships, limiting partying, establishing good sleep and fitness routines – these will enable a more quiet life, at the cost of missing out on drama that can fuel your work and passion.
The challenge is to find a path through your life that isn’t ideological (“Drinking is obviously wrong!”, “I need to be in bed every day at 10pm, so I need to leave your party now”, etc.), but self-aware and dynamic. You want to party and meet friends, you want to experiment outside the ordinary – it will make life worthwhile. But you want to end the toxicity in your life, because it does the opposite. Consider coaching, psychotherapy and deep introspection to understand and establish somewhat “ideal” surroundings for the life that you want to live.
- 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 aren’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 active introspection. You can create inspiration: Sit and think about what work to do next by going through its various aspects: 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 proactively create space to 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 is 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 life and to your interests, and inspiration can be found in unexpected places.
- 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 making it yours. The idea is not to create a direct copy, but to appropriate the original into your artistic universe; to see it through your lens, and let that lens define the result. To imitate with the goal of creating something new and personal. This way you don’t need to worry about plagiarism: if your focus is to find and establish your own voice, you won’t 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 totally coincide with the work you reference. 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: Entering a new field confronts you with your curiosities, but also brings in new frustrations – no matter how experienced you are in other fields, entering a new territory will often make you feel like a rookie. Expect to misunderstand timings, processes, materials and tools – and your abilities. See the power of accepting these frustrations: as a beginner, failure is often all you have – because it only serves as the starting line. Every skill you acquire will stay with you, and will work for you henceforth – and no skill was ever acquired without a person’s 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 in your art making, 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 judgment about what you do, until you really, really know what you’re doing.