The Art of Setting Speed Limits

The smart, cool, yet slightly generic-feeling, thriller Limitless deals with a man who embraces a drug that gives him an unlimited capacity to access his brain.  This is the dream drug.  Learn anything, master anything, remember everything.  Who doesn’t want that ability?

Creative people want to work to the very edge of their gifts, and then some.  I read a New York Times article contesting the idea that willpower is limited.  It says people have as much willpower as they believe they do.  I’m not sure if that’s true, but I’m willing to test the theory, cause how cool would that be?

What I believe people do not have, is unlimited focus.

And focus is the key ingredient to writing (and most other worthwhile things in life).

When I work with clients – or honestly, even with myself – I notice the tendency to beat up the self.   I didn’t get as much done as I’d wanted.  It took so much longer than I planned.  I thought I’d get more accomplished.

When excuses start to show up – you can be sure you are doing a little bit of self harm.  You are venturing into fear and ego, and those are the enemy of your process.   Not working AND feeling guilty about it  – that’s an unfriendly combination.  More carcinogens than a Happy Meal.  The excuses are a response to an internal pressure that has been externalized and which you are then using to crush yourself.

Wow.  We are such interesting creatures.  It’s the internal pressure that needs releasing – and as long as we keep transferring it to the external, we cannot address it for what it is, we can’t look at it, for we can’t see it, and then we have absolutely no way to solve it.

Stay focused – absolutely. 

Stick to your plan – that’s where your will comes in.

But rest.  Take time away.  This is so important.  This is what allows the work to happen.  It lets ideas percolate, and it lets your brain breathe.

Washing dishes can have therapeutic effects on the creative process.  Easy repeatable tasks are great.

So is doing nothing.  Nothing.  Stare at the sky.  Lay down on the grass.  Walk to the beach and just look at the horizon.  For as long as you want.

Clearing your head may mean meditation to you, but maybe meditation is another thing on your to-do list.

Go off list.  Just be.

When you feel the strangulation of guilt, fear, resentment, constriction, step back.

Take a look at what you have done – it’s probably significant.  If you like, identify (but don’t even bother to write down) two or three key problems you feel you’re facing in the work at this moment:  the introduction isn’t clear, the set-up doesn’t work properly, one of your characters feels untruthful.  Just identify them, then take a walk, or clean something.  Let the slow and easy part of your consciousness work on this problem while you shine your favorite shoes.

You’ll get lovely shoes and you’ll probably get a great solution to the problem.

We all know we have to sit in the chair and do the work.  Even on a deadline, everyone needs breaks (and protein) to promote mental clarity.  I don’t know how the supposedly sodden Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner wrote what they did without it.  I know I couldn’t do it.

If you’re working on multiple projects requiring strict focus – be gentle.  Some projects will feel like they’re fueling each other and some won’t.  Find your limits – test the boundaries.  You can improve your focus over time, but I don’t believe we were constructed to be engaged at this level on the regular all our waking hours.  Go ahead and downshift sometimes.  Voluntarily.  Don’t wait for the adrenaline drain to hit.  Sleep 8 hours.  Each night.  Give your subconscious the time it needs to construct its particular brand of magic.

My will and my focus are my best assets, so I try to treat them well.  My insight, perspective, and even my drive are fueled by what these two things can do when I am connected to my source.  I don’t like to burn out the focus, I like to stretch it, push it, exercise it and use it.  Then make sure to get my ridiculous on somehow and shake it all out.  (Oooh, that seems like a Florence and the Machine song cue!)

When you feel the focus ebbing, when you feel brick walls growing up around you, when your mental landscape starts looking like a cell block, it’s time to step back.  Take a real break.  Laugh with friends.  Garden.  Stretch.  Cook.  Go to the batting cage.  Take a nap.

Change it up.

You’ll return fresher, clearer, with ideas and energy to fuel the next stage in the work.

People don’t come with speed limits.  You have to set your own.  It’s worth taking the time to figure out what yours really is.


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For information on E. Amato’s writing and editorial services, coaching and consultations click here.


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