From the moment I entered the restaurant, I fell in love: cozy wooden booths, deep purple and red tapestries adorning the walls, the air seasoned with cumin, paprika and other warm spices. My type of place.
To the far right corner, there were two people wearing strange costumes (that can only be found at a circus, I’m sure) and spinning plates. I stopped and stared. Frozen. Maybe paprika had gotten into my eyes. My friend asked if I’d never seen plate spinners before. I hadn’t. Not in a restaurant, at least.
That evening, I couldn’t help thinking that plate spinning isn’t all that unusual. It’s what I do every day, balance multiple creative projects. But I had been feeling mounting self-doubt about my work style, though, and I needed to see those plate spinners at that precise time.
grappling with self-doubt
I had started to doubt whether managing multiple creative projects was smart, and was having more days of doubt than confidence. This doubt stole a few precious nights from me. I lay awake, staring upward as if the ceiling housed answers to my angst:
What am I doing?
Maybe the experts and critics were right, and I’ve been wrong all along.
What if I am just stubborn and scattered and doomed?
Do I need to stop all of this and do one thing and one thing only?
Before I began my mix--and-match portfolio-style career, I spent years feeling stuck and terrified that something was wrong with me. Why did I yearn to do multiple things, instead of just focusing on one? I was a nurse, seemingly satisfied on the outside, while feverishly craving to do something else….many things else.
I since uprooted much of that fear and fed those cravings, primarily by walking away from nursing and starting one creative project, then another, and then more. But every once in a while the fear and insecurity about my multi-project-style career would come back into sharp focus. That was exactly my focus the week I saw the plate spinners. Seeing them spinning away with confidence and flare (and cheesy smiles on their faces) felt strangely reassuring. I’m spinning plates, too, except my plates are my projects. It’s the life I’ve created.
Then, just two days after the plate-spinning-restaurant date, I read a book by Barbara Winter (How to Make a Living Without a Job). In the book, she likens managing multiple projects to spinning plates. I couldn’t believe I had found this. In the book, Winter explains how this way of working fits perfectly with many creatives—if managed correctly.
I’ve now been doing this for over five years. It’s not always graceful, and I do still have those moments of self-doubt. But I manage, and I thrive on the variety. I don’t know if balanced is a term that fits for my life, at least not in the idea of equal amounts of time and energy being portioned for different areas of my life. That’s far from the truth for me. Every day, week, year is different. But it works. For now. There are a few ‘rules’ I’ve set for myself to make this work:
when I’m working on a project, I deep dive
Unlike the plate spinners, I give each of my projects undivided attention while I work on them. I have to do it this way or I drown in overwhelm and my work suffers from distraction-itis. When I am working on something, I deep-dive-laser-focus. It’s taken me years to build my focus, and it takes effort to maintain. There are specific habits that help my focus and concentration stay sharp:
*Reading a book every day, taking notes about it, then recalling the notes the next morning
*Minimizing social media to timed, intentional use
getting one plate spinning
before picking up another
I skate. It’s my meditation on wheels, second only to making a mess with watercolors (I take that back, skating wins!) But getting started is the hardest part. Building that initial momentum to get rolling at a good clip on my skates takes a lot of energy.
I apply this to my projects. I know that it takes a great, concentrated effort to get something spinning. So I ONLY start one big project at a time. Once it’s spinning (systems are in place, etc), I can then start something new. But only once the other is spinning.
This is the glue that holds me together.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, I stop and breathe and do whatever it takes to help feel grounded again (usually a short meditation or walk).
There will be times when I feel like I’m drowning, hopefully not often. But with multiple things spinning at once, it’s inevitable. I accept this, but I’m fully aware of how to handle those times when they do arise.
I’ve long let go of the fantasy ideas of having it all or doing it all. If you take a snapshot of my life from week to week, things look lop-sided in a different way each week. There’ve been times I’ve been at dinner parties and had to leave at 8 o’clock because I have several deadlines coming up, and my task list runneth over.
I’ve stayed up till 2 am, slept for 3 hours, and woken up again to finish the launch I am frantically working on that goes live the next day.
Then there are the months I do less work. One month I had a major family crisis. I probably turned on my laptop to write and do work for a total of 20 hours…for the whole month. And I don’t feel any regret about it. My family will always come first.
I also take time each year to unplug. This year I’m hoping to go someplace nice (like Bali–suggestions, anyone?) and lounge around reading (physical books) and handwriting (gasp!).
I know I can’t have it all, not all of the time. And I hold no idealistic idea that I can. I’ve come to let these romantic ideas go. They don’t fit with my life. And I don’t want them to.
taking care of myself
I used to run myself ragged with work. I all but forgot I had hobbies and things I enjoy outside of my creative life.
I’ve stopped that. Now, I have aspects of my life I do not compromise. The same way I wouldn’t go to bed without brushing my teeth, I wouldn’t go a day without these:
I walk every day. Sometimes I go in a totally different direction than my usual walk. I set out, and when I’m about 45 minutes out, I turn around and walk back. If I have a day where it’s just impossible to give 1.5 hours up, I do something else: 20 minutes of burpees, squats, jumping jacks, pushups, jump rope. Something. Anything. I don’t plan it, I just do it.
Food that fuels, along with lots of water
I’ve tried surviving on 5 cups of coffee and take-out. It doesn’t work. My body suffers, my mind suffers, my work suffers.
Non-stop work is lame. And, of course, unsustainable. I’m so much more effective (and likable) when I take scheduled breaks throughout the day.
I write poetry or make a mess with my watercolors. It’s a quick, relaxing break and fuels my creativity. It takes just seconds to grab a pen or my paint. No excuses for not having my playtime. Every. Single. Day.
This is an obvious one, but it’s so easy to get on the treadmill of work that it can be pushed to the back-burner. I choose to make a conscious effort so this doesn’t happen.
accepting that this busy-ness is what I signed up for
And ultimately, it’s what I love. I am creating. Madly. Passionately. In multiple directions and with multiple formats. So, no, it doesn’t look balanced, at least not compared to mainstream ideas of what balanced work-life is. And it’s also not always peppermints and roses. But it’s what I choose:
Every blog post
Every. single. creative project. I choose, not because someone told me to or ‘you-gotta-do-what-you-gotta-do’, but because I, at some point, opened my eyes to a new opportunity. My heart said yes, and so I chose.
This work style may not be for everyone, but it sure feels good to me.
What do you choose?