Getting the Second Marshmallow: Self-discipline for Creatives

Some battles are never won except in continually fighting them. ~~ Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka

There’s a classic study in which a researcher takes a 4-year-old into a room, sits her down at a table, places a marshmallow in front of her, and tells her she can have that marshmallow right now, or – if she can wait fifteen whole minutes – she can have two.  Then the researcher leaves the room and watches what happens through a one-way mirror.  As expected, most four-year-olds devour the marshmallow immediately (after all, they’re four, and it’s a marshmallow, for pity’s sake).  But a few young souls find ways to make it through that agonizing, eternal fifteen minutes.  They sing, walk around the room, count, put their hands over their eyes, anything to distract themselves – and claim the larger prize.

My guess is that a few of those kids grew up to be artists.

This is the unfortunate crux of art-making: once you’re out of school, no one (except maybe your mother), is champing at the bit anticipating your next project.  No one cares if you’re drawing, or writing, or singing every day.  Your life fills up with obligations – your day job is sucking you dry, the kids have to be driven soccer games and piano lessons, your sick dog needs to be rushed to the vet – and before you know it, art-making begins to seem like an unforgivable indulgence.  That’s if you had the time to do it in the first place, which you clearly don’t.  There are just so many other things that need your attention.

But the fact remains: you’re still an artist, even if you’re not engaged in your art.  So what happens then?  You tell yourself it doesn’t matter.  You drink more, eat more, or sleep more to push down your mounting feelings of resentment.  Failure.  Regret.  Discontent.  Life starts to weigh you down.  You begin to doubt you were ever artistic, let alone any good.  You’ve been devouring that first marshmallow the moment it shows up, whether in the form of obligation or entertainment, and now a big piece of your life is missing.  Tina Packer, founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, expresses it well: If you don’t do whatever your art form is, you’re unhappy and your life doesn’t make sense to you.  You want to get that part of your life back, but how?

In a culture that glorifies instant gratification, we don’t get much practice waiting for the second marshmallow.  But that’s what creatives must do, whether they make art for a living, or after-hours.  (Let me go on record here: I disagree that hobbyists don’t qualify as artists. Art-making is art-making, whether you do it eight hours a day or one hour a week. As long as you’re committed to doing the best work you can do, you’re in the club as far as I’m concerned.  One unfortunate aspect of our culture is that as a we’ve given art-making over to the “professionals.”  We’ve stopped claiming our individual creative powers for ourselves.)

This is where self-discipline comes in — now stay with me, because it’s not as dreary as it sounds.  Self-discipline is simply finding ways to distract yourself from the immediate reward (or demand) so you can get to that second marshmallow.  You have to distract yourself from the distractions, because they will always be there.  You have to do the work, even when you’re tired, or stressed, or have a million other concerns nipping at your heels.  It’s about carving out time – even if it’s only ten minutes a day – to do whatever it is that feeds your soul.  Honing your artistic chops requires attention and repetition, lots of it.  There’s no app that can do it for you.  You – and only you – can put in the time.

I can already hear you saying, yes, but I don’t have an entire afternoon to draw!  Fine, tuck a small sketch book and pencil into your pocket or purse and make a quick drawing while you’re on your break.  No time to work on your book?  Keep a journal handy to jot down your thoughts while waiting for your kids to get out of Tae Kwando (and don’t be surprised if you end up writing your entire book that way).  No place to practice your singing?  Grab a handful of Music Minus One CDs to sing along with during your commute.  Use that creative noggin of yours.  People may think you’re crazy, but who cares?  Your kids, your spouse, your coworkers will get used to it.  And I guarantee they’ll appreciate your improved mood.

Like that second group of kids, you have to trick your mind, teach it to wait, especially when it starts yelling about why you need that first marshmallow right now.  Here’s what I do: I make a bargain with my mind: “All right,” I say, “I understand that you don’t know where the hell I’m going with this damn book, or blog post, or whatever.  I get it that you’d rather do anything right now but write.  I know the yard work and the errands and the laundry piling up suddenly seem of national importance.  But I’m on top of that, I am.  Just let me work on this draft for a few minutes, and I promise that afterwards I’ll treat us to a fresh cup of coffee and a killer crossword.”  (For those who know me at all, that’s my second marshmallow.  And when I’ve collected enough second marshmallows there’s an even bigger prize, the Big Kahuna, if you will: a finished book.)

I admit, it’s not easy.  I love writing, but some days it’s excruciating to stay in the chair.  My back hurts.  My clothes itch.  The room is too hot.  The room is too cold.  I had to train myself, starting with a few minutes each day.  And as my sessions slowly got longer, I began to look forward to my time in the chair.  Now I get so absorbed in the work that I forget the physical world exists.  But it didn’t happen overnight.  It took a lot of baby steps to get to the point where I can look up at the clock and see that three hours have gone by.  First I had to commit to getting in my writing time, no matter what.  I call it the BITCH method: Butt In The Chair, Honey.

So carve out time for your art, or whatever it is that you love and that feeds your soul.  Trick your mind.  Distract it.  Bargain with it.

And you’ll soon be enjoying your second marshmallow.

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