Monday, November 29, 2010

warning--lists may be dangerous to your art

Let me be blunt this time. Too many todo lists may be dangerous to your art.  There--I've said it. I know that most art consultants recommend that you create these detailed lists to maximize your studio time. My quilting friend Lisa Call in one of her blogs stated that having the list allowed her the space to create art. SAQA even has a whole group devoted to setting visioning goals for an entire year. Lisa and I have been having a discussion about lists and systems on our blogs--here is one of my posts--you just need to have a system. Her blog site is

Now if it works for you--fine.  Isn't there a saying, if it works don't fix it. Pretty good advice, don't you think? And I would never say you shouldn't have goals--of course you should. To achieve them, you may need a plan of action--those steps you need to take to get from one place to the other. Think of the plan as a recipe--to cook the delicious Moroccan squash and chick pea stew I made for Thanksgiving, I had to write down the ingredients and figure out the important steps in the recipe. Without the curry powder, the recipe would just not have worked. But there is also room for improvisation--I forgot to get the spinach, I added frozen peas. Still tasted great.

No, the problem I have with lists is they can be overwhelming and distract you from the quilts that you want to make--the art you want to produce. Let me explain.

Take my friend--I'll call her Mary. Now Mary quit her successful job so she could fulfill her lifelong dream to become an "artist." More power to her I say. She does have talent at design.  She has a studio, a considerate husband. And a lot of lists. She goes up to the studio and starts to tackle her lists--clean studio, done. Do bookkeeping, done. Take out stitches on quilt 23, done. Soon she has spent her time in the studio. She rewrites her todo list--notes all the things she has yet to finish and feels discouraged. Though she has made the space for her art, she has not made her art and her list is just as long if not longer.

I read an article on becoming your own personal coach. Great advice. Chris Brogan says we all have our own inner critic that tells us everything we do wrong, every failure. Just count the times during the day when you criticize yourself--he got up to 37 times a day.  However, there is a solution-- we can train ourselves to have our inner coach. We need to visualize this coach and keep telling ourselves that we are doing things right. Great point. Isn't the list becoming part of the inner discouragement--can one ever get to the end of a todo list.

Lisa sends me a link to her blog post discussing a Zen approach to making art. Forget those lists
Zen Habits advocates. Just do something, make something, surprise yourself. Yes, Lisa is right, I like parts of this post. Why get bogged down with too many lists? After all, if I don't create the art that I want to make, why do I even worry about getting things done to allow me time to create art.

Now I will be the first to admit that I can't just follow this Zen approach. I am also in business. I need to get work shipped off to shows. I need to finish orders, buy fabric, send postcards. Check the colors of placemats. So many little things I need to organize.

Right now I am in one of those between seasons--in between shows, waiting for the Connecticut couple to purchase placemats. Wondering if I will get the order that I promised before Christmas--I will give the customer one more day and then move on--she knows that time is of the essence.

These are the between times--in March it is called mud season around here--winter has ended but spring has not yet come. There is the waiting. Bed and breakfasts have specials just for mud season. Same thing for the week or so after Thanksgiving--not quite time for most holiday parties, too soon for winter sports, but not much work in the garden left. For me, the times when I can do the little endless things that will give me the space to work.

I also have these down times throughout the day--when I am puzzled about a quilt, when I am tired of sewing, when I am waiting for a customer. That is when I prepare the postcards for mailing, do the bookwork, pay the bills, check out the applications. Why spend good creative time scratching things off an endless to do list? This is the filler time.

And the Moroccan squash recipe--it came from Cook's Illustrated and is very simple.

1. Saute 2 diced onions with 1 TBSP curry powder and 2 tsps cumin in oil until onions are soft.
2. Add 6-8 minced cloves of garlic. Stir quickly. Add a diced jalepeno pepper--or other hot spice.
3. Add 3 cups roughly diced yellow squash or sweet potatoes. Cook for a few minutes. I also diced a bell pepper. Mushrooms or white potatoes could also be added.
4. Stir in one large can tomatoes--could be diced or use whole tomatoes and cut them up a bit. Cook until the squash is soft. (It takes a while--at this point there may be a bit of harshness from the curry powder--don't panic--I did.) Drain one or two cans chick peas and add to the stew.
5. Open a can of coconut milk and reduce it by half--it does sweeten the flavor. Interesting.
6. I added about a cup of frozen peas, Cook's suggested some spinach. I also added the coconut milk and the flavors came together.
7. I used some of the leftovers with chicken over rice--also delish!!!

What do you think? Should you kill that todo list?


  1. While I didn't discuss that article in my post (I will eventually - I was busying making art this weekend), I'd like to note that it is not todo lists that are the problem. It is BAD todo lists.

    Just like Leo's analogy of a bad boss being a problem. Bad todo lists can be a problem.

    Good bosses to add value.

    It is not the creation of the list that is the problem - but the items placed on that list.

    Also note that Leo created the Zen Habits blog and huge successful following with todo lists and goals, so his advice to get rid of lists should be taken with a grain of salt. It's the "don't do what I did - but here's a really cool idea" kinda of post. He's riding the wave of minimalism right now - great stuff - but it is not how he got his career up and running.

    Learning to create quality todo lists is an art in itself. I think your friend Mary needs to rethink what belongs on her list if the list isn't working for her. Not toss it altogether.

  2. Lisa,

    There is actually a lot of your concept that I agree with--I make todo lists on occasions and do always have goals. Indeed I have had friends who say I am the most focused person they know. But focus and todo lists are in my opinion a bit different.

    A todo list is not the end all and be all of getting work done just like I notice that sometimes your lists don't always get done. On the other hand, I do believe that prioritizing work is essential. I fit the other stuff in around making quilts.

    But I do think it is an interesting discussion. And of course I take Leo with a grain of salt--indeed that is one of my themes--take all experts with a grain of salt and find what works for you.

  3. Yes - focus and todo lists are very different.

    And I agree that you fall very much on the side of setting goals and being organized, which is why I think this post is interesting.

    I think the title should be: warning--lack of focus may be dangerous to your art

    Bad lists are about lack of focus.

    The lists themselves are not to blame.

    While I don't think everyone should use todo lists, I think blaming them for problems they are not responsible for isn't going to help people like your friend Mary.

    And no - I don't always complete my todo lists as that isn't the point. They are simply a structure I use to move myself forward - they aren't rigid rules but guidelines that help remind me me what I want to accomplish. Working a fulltime job while also being a single parent and home owner on top of a full time art career requires a lot of focus.

    Its hard to remember what I wanted to do at lunch time after 4 hours of project management ( - with a list I waste no time context switching from work to art biz in the few spare moments I have.

    I think if all I was doing was making art - there would be much fewer lists - as there is much less to remember.

  4. Oh I do differ with you just a bit--if I didn't the discussion would not be interesting. And in the end, I think that is the focus of the discussion--helping others to find a method that works for them and question authority no matter where it comes from.

    I have been that single woman home owner and let me tell you--being a step-mom and wife is not a lot easier--just different questions. Just like supporting oneself making quilts is not easier than having another business but slightly different questions.

    There is just as much to remember if one is doing the art rather than also having a job and then also doing the art. We both work much more than 40 hour weeks. I am out of the studio for days at a time selling the work. I also have to make work that sells. One way is not easier than the other--they just have different challenges.

    I think the structure is what is important--how one moves forward and keeps going.I can do a bad craft show and get discouraged--but that does nothing for me or my career. Does one use lists--or keep the lists in one's mind? How does one move forward? I no longer think there is the if only idea--if only I just supported myself doing art? if only I had a rich DH? if only I didn't have to make potholders? You get the idea....

    Personally I think the fact that my father was a farmer and my mother and her family ran a small grocery store were really important to my development as an artist--I have always been a small business owner. That is me. I drive my DH a bit crazy since he and his family are/were teachers. How can I deal with the uncertainty?

    And yes, lists have always driven me a bit crazy--I make them, even cross things off the list, but I am not sure they are the answer to my getting things done. I think getting things done is the answer to getting things done.