Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.―Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Not long ago, a creature died in the walls of my home. To be precise, it gave up the ghost in the heating system, so that death fumes were conveniently deposited directly into my bedroom.
My girlfriend and I discovered this around 11 p.m. as we tucked into bed. We could turn off the heat and freeze, or we could bathe in the stench of what I assumed was a raccoon carcass. The whole thing made my eyes itch. I imagined it downing a last meal—pig entrails? moldy socks? nattō?—before defiantly jamming its bloating body into my HVAC.
But the kamikaze raccoon was just the first surprise guest. The opening act.
In short order, my dog got horribly sick, overdue paperwork popped out of nowhere, and onboarding new contractors ran into trouble. Then I pulled out of a parking spot and scraped the entire side of the car next to me. Later that afternoon, Christmas presents I’d ordered online ran out of stock and were auto-cancelled, sending me scrambling. More and more clowns kept piling into the clown car for a shit show that lasted 3–4 weeks.
There are rare times when I feel like I’m in the zone. Those are great.
Then there are times when I ask myself, “How in holy hell have I become the janitor of a mountain of bullshit?”
Put another way, sometimes you’re the boxer and sometimes you’re the punching bag. We all get our turn as the punching bag. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter how “successful” you become, you have always grabbed a number at the deli counter of getting your ass kicked by the universe.
During these periods of fire fighting, I get fidgety and frustrated. I feel like I’m treading water, and patience wears thin, especially with myself.
My instinct is to try to fix things as quickly as possible. That’s all well and good, but I’ve realized that from a place of “WTF?!,” I often rush and create more problems. This is particularly catastrophic when I try to sprint immediately upon waking up.
The mantra that saved me during this most recent 3–4-week period was simple:
“Make before you manage.”
Each morning, before plugging holes, fixing things, calling vets, answering text messages, delegating things, or yanking out dead raccoons, this mantra was a reminder to make something.
Even the most time-sensitive items can usually wait 60 minutes, and by make something, I mean anything.
You just need to feel like you’ve pushed a millimeter ahead in some creative direction.
For me, even a 90-second video of calligraphy could set a better emotional tone for the day, helping me to more calmly handle problems. Or maybe I attempt to jumpstart my writing with an Instagram caption. It’s practically nothing, but it’s enough. Even token efforts allow me to reassure myself with “Don’t worry. You did produce something today.”
The psychological difference between zero acts of creation and one act of creation, no matter how small, is impossible to overstate. If you’re lucky, sometimes that one idea, one sentence, or one shitty first draft can turn into something bigger. But the point is to be able to say to yourself, even for five minutes, “Hark! I am a creator, not just a janitor of bullshit! Here is proof that I can—and will!—do more than just manage minutiae… ”
We all spend time on the struggle bus. At the very least, this mantra has helped me to find a window seat when it’s my turn.
When in doubt, try it out: make before you manage.