Sunday, April 6, 2014

Stress and the Artist

Taking a hike is a great way to reduce stress.

In the bohemian, carefree life of an artist, where's the stress?  Well, the fact is, the life of a professional artist is anything but bohemian and carefree.  These qualities are quickly dismissed by discipline, which I wrote about in an earlier blog post.  This discipline can result in stress.  Many  professional artists are self-employed, and for the self-employed, the burden of stress is not light.

A reader recently commented:  "My 'do list' caused me so much stress, I lost my joy and contentment."

A "do list" can certainly seem overwhelming when it is packed with tasks and deadlines.  Other elements of stress for the self-employed include overwork and the physical, emotional and interpersonal difficulties it can cause; financial worries that come with irregular income; plus, the inability to separate work from a home life.  Stress comes in many flavors, and I'm sure that there are some causes that I've not noted here.

Now, I'm probably one of the last persons to write a prescription for stress.  Here's my story.

When I left my "day job," I left the security of a weekly paycheck, but also a job I didn't really enjoy.  I reasoned that working for myself in a creative endeavor that I do enjoy would make up for the lack of security.  Sure, I knew I'd work harder and longer hours.  But the benefit would be a healthier lifestyle.  I'd be setting my own hours and thus more likely to keep to a beneficial exercise schedule; my eating habits would be healthier because I'd be eating at home rather than at restaurants where food is over-salted and over-sugared; and I'd save money and time on transportation, since I wouldn't be commuting.  Best of all, of course, is that I would be painting.

But self-employment is a tough row to hoe.  More so, maybe, if you really love what you do and tend to put all your energy into it.  Stress is one weed we don't want growing in our garden, but it's so easily cultivated, right along with the good stuff.

So, for me, stress took a firm roothold.  I won't go into how it manifested itself, but I will say that I'm not a drinker or pill-popper.  I didn't  resort to these to mask the stress.  Instead, the following  approaches helped, and I continue to use them.

I prioritize my "do list" better.  Rather than put down everything under the sun I want to accomplish, I add only the things that I feel are important.  Then, I prioritize it further, by rating each item as an "A," "B," or "C."  "A" items absolutely have to be done.  "B"s need to be done, but can be pushed aside so the "A"s can be completed.  The "C" items are important, but if after a few iterations of the "do list" they are still on that list, I scratch them off.  Obviously, they aren't that important!  You need to recognize this to lessen the stress.

I evaluate my goal list in a reasonable way.  Goals need to be easily-defined with deadlines.  Some goals, like finishing my second science fiction novel, just may not happen in this lifetime.  I've accepted that.  Other goals more pertinent to my chosen career as a painter are more realistic, but if they are too long-range or too nebulous, I redefine them or break them up into shorter-range goals.  As with my "do list," the goal list is prioritized.  Some things (like that novel) are "C"s, and if they never get done, so it goes.

I build more exercise into my day.  Having a dog is a great way to motivate you to take walks, but our dog is now 13 (that's 77 in human years, apparently) and she doesn't hike like she used to.  Rather than slow down with her, I give her a short maintenance walk, one we can both enjoy, and then I go off on a more ambitious hike for myself.  I also restarted my yoga program.

I don't work all day long.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have really three jobs:  painting, teaching and writing.  Any one of these would be enough for a full-time job, but I like the variety.  I balance my day.  I work perhaps 10 hours a day, but it's not all one thing or the other.  I may paint four hours today, maybe only an hour tomorrow, but I'll make up the rest with one of my other jobs.  When you're self-employed, it's all too easy to overwork yourself.

I should mention that all three jobs revolve around art.  The teaching is art instruction; the writing is for art magazines.  What that means is everything I do is about art.  That's dangerous.  One tends to get monolithic.  I know I sometimes focus too much on art.  Even my reading and movie-watching tends to be art-related.  I  recognize this and make sure my day has some diversions.   Driving off for a special, day-long expedition (non-painting, of course) with a hike is something I particularly enjoy.

I don't drink much coffee.  Coffee and yes, even tea, make stress just that much worse.  I drink mostly half-regular, half-decaf these days, and even so only a cup or two in the morning.  Sometimes even that's too much.  I listen to my body; it tells me when I need to cut back even more, or when I need to cut back on sugar and other carbs.

I'm sure there are many other "proven methods" for reducing stress, but these have worked for me.  I'm still stressed, but not stressed-out, and I like to think that much of the stress is positive and not negative.

As for that "do list," if your joy suffers, pare it back.  Turn that "do list" into a "joy list."

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