Maybe you should give up on your dreams

Not ALL of them, but some.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

I have loved reading forever.

Okay, fine. I have loved reading as long as I’ve known how to read, which is just shy of forever.

From there, my love of reading morphed into a love of writing, to the point that an elementary school teacher told my parents with certainty, “she’s going to be an author”. With time, that love of writing became a piece of my identity.

I’ve nurtured that piece throughout my life, studying and practicing the craft. I completed National Novel Writing Month 5 years in a row, and started half a dozen other novels besides.

Despite this deep connection to writing, I made the decision in early 2021 to do something drastic: I decided to stop working on novels. No novels, no short stories, no creative writing at all.

I put that work aside completely, giving up on my dream.

Months later, as I write this, I’m happy that I did. Let me explain.

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Time isn’t the only resource

Writing is a part of me, but it’s not the only part. I’ve talked before about my wild dreams: I’m always inspired to set new goals, start new projects, new hobbies.

Long aware of this facet of my personality, I spoke in my timeblocking article about the process I use to tame this overabundance of ambition. I block out tasks on a timeline, in order of priority, ensuring that I save time for wellness and rest.

For the most part, this process worked then and it still works now. It’s useful to visualize tasks on a timeline, and align my expectations with reality.

However, there’s another resource that I didn’t give the weight it deserves. Something that goes beyond the time it takes to physically do something: creative energy. Focus, flow, deep thought.

Creative work is somewhat unique in that the work doesn’t necessarily stop when you stop doing it. Physical work (and to some degree, social work) is taxing when you’re doing it, but your muscles get a rest when the work is done.

Creativity, on the other hand, lives in the mind. Your mind doesn’t stop working when you put the pen down, or put the paintbrushes away, or close the code editor.

It’s been shown that the more focus a task requires, the longer it takes to re-engage when that task has been interrupted. And each time we switch tasks, we need that time to acclimate to the new task.

This is referred to as “attention residue”. It’s explained in Deep Work by Cal Newport (a great read), and was originally studied by Sophie Leroy. This is an example of how time doesn’t translate directly to productivity: if you’re moving frequently between creative projects, you lose precious time shaking off the residue and getting focused.

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It’s all about the work you don’t do

Another consideration that applies uniquely to creative work goes beyond the time you spend on it. The time you don’t spend on it may be just as important.

Many people report coming up with solutions or “becoming inspired” when they’re doing something mundane or repetitive, unrelated to their work. Software engineers will find the fix for a bug when they’re in the shower. Writers will find inspiration or resolve a plot hole while taking a walk.

Medical dramas use this phenomenon as a device: the doctor is engaging in an unrelated activity and suddenly, inspired by something around them, they see their solution clear as day.

While these anecdotes are not really scientific, it’s hard to refute that creative projects take up some mental real estate all the time. Our brains love solving problems, to the point where they will continue churning long after we’ve made the decision to do something else.

What does this have to do with giving up on your dreams?

Consider what happens to your idle time when you have two projects taking up space in your noodle. Or three. Or four. What does your brain spend its extra cycles on?

For me, there is a drastic difference between how effectively I can create when I have one focus and when I have multiple foci.

Those National Novel Writing Month wins I mentioned earlier? Each win came after a month of living, eating, and breathing my novel’s story.

I wasn’t spending energy on anything else. Writing was my entire focus. I thought about my characters on the train to work, and when I went to bed at night.

Similarly, in 2020 after I was abruptly laid off from my job, I made the decision to spend 30 days working on game development. I wrote here about how in just the first two weeks of that experience I saw more tangible progress than in years of “multitasking” on a very similar game project.

During each of these 30-day spurts of activity, I typically spent 1–3 hours on the actual work most days. If I was really in the zone, maybe 4 hours, 5 tops. The difference wasn’t in time spent, it was in committing my attention to that work, day after day.

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Theory is one thing, practice is another

It took me a while to see these patterns in my own life. Even when I did, I was really hesitant to put any project on the back burner. I loved them all. It felt like I was giving up a piece of myself.

In the end, it took a hard look back on the year of 2020 to convince me that it was at least worth a try. Each year since I started my YouTube channel, I’ve done a flip through of my Bullet Journal at the end of the year. I try to keep these light, like a sketchbook tour, reminiscing about the fun journaling spreads I came up with.

But, as I looked back, I saw a pattern in how I was setting goals. I saw months half-devoted to writing projects, with nothing tangible to show for them. I worked every day in June on a game project that was immensely fruitful, but fizzled out when I added other projects back to my metaphorical plate.

I saw an entire year of “productivity” that was too diffuse to have produced anything. It seemed that writing and my game development work couldn’t coexist — every month that I tried to juggle both, I ended up doing neither.

It was discouraging, but ultimately it led me to a powerful decision.

Photo by Issy Bailey on Unsplash

So, how do you know when to give up?

The takeaway here isn’t that two concurrent projects is “too much” for everyone.

In fact, I would bet that many people successfully manage far more than I do on a daily basis. There are also probably creative projects that coexist more peacefully than writing and game dev, or day jobs that free up more creative energy than mine does. These examples are specific to me.

Instead, what I want to encourage is introspection.

If you’re unsatisfied with how a project is going, or if you are stuck at a plateau in your creative work, consider letting something go.

Pay attention to… well, your attention.

How easy is it to get into the right headspace?

What occupies your thoughts when you’re not working?

Which project feels more “you”?

In talking about productivity, there’s always the urge to do more. The underlying idea that we need to go faster, do better, and earn that cheddar.

More planning, more creating, more working. But, we aren’t machines. By juggling too much, we can unknowingly disrupt creative processes and diminish output across the board, losing resources to attention residue, fatigue, or aimlessness.

Sometimes the only way to do more is to start doing less. So, that’s what I did.

I weighed writing against game development, and, while I love both, I found that game development was closer to my heart. The combination of technical challenge, design work, and artistic expression gave me more to engage with.

I committed 2021 to be “a year of game dev”. Aside from some gentle non-fiction work (like this article), I haven’t done any writing at all.

My game project, meanwhile, has reached a stage of development that almost feels unreal. It’s still a fairly ambitious project (it wouldn’t be my project if it wasn’t), so it’s far from done, but I can see glimpses of something beautiful as I chip away at my work, like seeing the statue in the marble.

There have been ups and downs, lulls and slumps, but the project hasn’t stopped. It hasn’t fizzled out. Working with one dream at a time, I can see real movement and the path forward is (usually) clear.

I don’t want anyone to give up on all their dreams, but it might help to give up on some.

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A software engineer and artist interested in self-development, creativity and becoming a better version of me.

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Alyssa Blackwell

Alyssa Blackwell

A software engineer and artist interested in self-development, creativity and becoming a better version of me.

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