May 5, 2020

Mind Your Substitutes

what feels productive might be procrastination.

This essay is Day 18 of The 100 Day Project, where I’m creating #100daysofartandessays based on the Word of the Day.

Word of the Day (April 25, 2020)

succedaneum [ suhk-si-dey-nee-uhm ]


  1. a substitute.

Last month I tried a new note-taking app. Last week I wrote a post about it. I was going to use it for this word because it was a substitute for my previous note-taking app. But I accidentally stumbled onto another, more relevant (and more interesting) example of substitution.

I had ended that post by mentioning a piece of writing software I wanted to test. I ended up downloading it this past weekend, excited about a shiny new app. Instead of writing in it, I promptly got sucked into the customizable themes because that’s the kind of person I am.

Fortunately I realized what was happening. This was the Shiny New Toy Trap, the subject of an email by Khe Hy last week. I’d fallen right into it.

often our investment of time in a new system or software isn’t productive at all (even though it feels like it).

It’s a substitute for actually doing the work. A clever method of procrastination. By downloading and setting up a new writing app I felt like I was accomplishing something, but without applying any real effort. Awareness provided the opportunity for change (this is the power of mindfulness).

This post is day 18 of my 100 Day Project, which we’re 30 days into. I’m creating every day, but not trying to keep up (in case that wasn’t obvious). I have to create art I’m happy with, whether it takes 2 hours or 2 days. My end goal for this project is simply to establish a sustainable routine around painting and writing.

So far, the pace I’ve been setting is anything but sustainable. I’ve been painting late into the night because it’s the only time I won’t be interrupted. It’s been wonderful and exhausting and it’s starting to catch up with me. I have no doubt the timing of this software detour was tied to my exhaustion and the frustration of constant interruptions. It’s become increasingly hard to stay focused, and it’s led to unhealthy substitutes:

  • I’m substituting art for sleep
  • I’m substituting app setup and testing for actual writing
  • I’m substituting low-value work (trying to regain control of the inbox) for meaningful work
  • I’m substituting glances at my phone for progress on things that matter

What I wouldn’t give for a couple hours alone at a coffeeshop like the good old days. To have the mental space of knowing the Hulk is not going to come crashing in, derailing my train of thought to demand video games and snacks…

This is my life now.

I was exhausted before writing this. We had just spent the entire afternoon getting most of the garden put in, throwing together dinner, the kid’s bedtime routine. I sat down and knew if I closed my eyes I would be out for the night (which is not normal for me).

But instead of going to bed right then, which is what I wanted to do, I trudged upstairs to my studio for my end of day bullet journal habit. I saw day 17’s painting, Silvics, sitting on my art table, sketched earlier in the day (first photo in the progress shots). I was there and it was ready, so I forced myself to sit down. One hour later I had a completed painting.

In another well-timed email last week, Shawn Blanc divided time into two categories: 1) things that slow time down and create a “restful pause” and 2) things that speed time up, sucking you into a “black hole.” Completing that painting was definitely a restful pause. I was completely in the moment, surprised it was only an hour. It felt good.

I started thinking about practical ways to create more of that. To fix the unhealthy, unconscious substitutions I’ve been making. Here’s what I came up with:

Find activities that reenergize you.

What kind of projects create a state of flow and leave you feeling rested? That’s a question only you can answer, so make sure you’re the one answering it. Don’t do something because it looks cool or photographs well or everyone else is doing it. Do whatever makes you “come alive.” If you need examples, I have 17 in my Introvert’s Guide to Quarantine Bliss.

For me it’s painting and writing. But because I tend to be all or nothing, focusing too much on those things have led me to neglect sleep and reading time. Books are the only thing I love more than art supplies. I need sleep to not die. Balance.

Make those activities insanely easy to do.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates “art traps,” which is what I accidentally did with the painting. You don’t need to have a studio–any organized workspace can be inviting. Want to play guitar more often? Hang it on the wall near your favorite chair. Make it so easy you can’t help it.

As a mixed media artist, it would be endlessly frustrating if I didn’t have all my materials easy to find and sort through (I often don’t know what materials I’ll be using until I’m in the middle of a painting). My studio is also my office, so I leave paintings leaning everywhere. I’ll inevitably see one, start pondering what it needs next and before long I’ll be pulling out a paint marker.

Substitute a schedule for endless decision-making.

The only reason I was in the right place at the right time to finish Silvics is because of my 4 year bullet journal habit. Thank goodness I have at least one thing so consistent even COVID can’t dislodge it. It also underscores why you need to develop self-care practices before things go south, so the sanity habits are solid.

Most of us suffer from decision fatigue, and when every decision is suddenly up to you (when to get up, where to work, what to eat, will you let the kid play LEGO Star Wars at 3 pm, will you let him play at 3:30, will you let him play at…). Let’s just say your brain eventually short-circuits.

Make a schedule once, then let it make the decisions for you. I had one in progress, but this was the incentive I needed to print and post it somewhere. My plan is to streamline the dinner/kid bedtime routine so I’m in my studio at a reasonable hour. Don’t be overly rigid about it though – a framework is good, but so is experimentation.

Substitute mindfulness for mindless browsing.

Be mindful about your screen time and set boundaries around social media, or avoid it entirely. I planned on 15-30 minutes per day on Instagram to post my 100 Day Project and view others. But it’s amazing how downloading an app also downloads an impulse to constantly open it. I’m practicing mindfulness and using that impulse to my advantage:

I’m noticing that I have a sudden desire to open Instagram and distract myself from… what? What should I be listening to in this moment? What could I be doing that I’ll be proud of at the end of the day?

This is way harder than it sounds.

That new writing app was used to write this post, and it’s lovely. I’ll continue using it for the length of the trial, but I’ll be much more mindful about using it wisely, for actual writing. I’m also going to keep plugging along on my 200 Day Project, but I won’t be making substitutions to do it. I’ll be making space.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

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