It’s Okay to Squirrel
Since becoming a semi-adult, I’ve had three creative careers. I started as an actor (mostly 90s sitcoms and early 2000s indie films), transitioned into touring rock musician (as the lead singer and bassist of 7k), then became a writer. It wasn’t a very linear journey. It still isn’t.
Now, I write books, produce a podcast, and play in an 80s cover band on the weekends. On top of being Dad to my kids (you know, the make-lunches, drop-them-off, stay-home-when-they’re-sick-like-today type), my creative pursuits demand significant and varied output.
On a given day, I’ll edit audio for an hour and write for two. I’ll fiddle with a blog post for forty-five minutes before it’s time to pick up kids. Then I’ll pack up my gear and head off to a show.
I’d like to claim that all this is intentional, and that it requires a herculean effort to switch gears so often. But the truth is it’s just how my life unfolded, and the task-jumping comes rather naturally to me. That’s not to say the work isn’t difficult—it is—but the content and form have emerged without my consent or design.
I just don’t have much power over my process.
My son’s ADHD diagnosis turned my head. I’ve got my own neurodivergence to contend with, but seeing my son struggle in an education system not designed around his type of learning—it’s been an education of its own. He’s an auditory learner more than a visual one, and can’t seem to focus on one thing for very long. Some of that can be tweaked with therapies and practice—but some of it can’t. Which means he has to adapt.
But sometimes, he can’t. Sometimes, he’s right in the middle of someth—SQUIRREL!
See what I did there?
Some of you may experience squirreling—sudden and total diversion from your intended object of attention. The beloved and dreaded SHINY THING that wrecks your focus like a typewriter hurled through a plate glass window.
I’m here to tell you THAT’S OKAY.
It may even be useful if your life is as jerky and multifaceted as mine. Some people produce more with hours of concentrated work—but some of us are more effective in little sips. Out there in the Twitterverse, I see a lot of superlatives about how you should or shouldn’t work, and some of them have hurt my own sense of self and productivity. I write this to debunk them by sharing my own quirky process.
I do best if I can switch tasks fairly often—sometimes every 2 hours, sometimes every 20 minutes. It varies, and I have to listen to my brain. When I start getting ansty and distracted and wanting to check Twitter, it’s usually a sign that I should switch to a new task, at least temporarily. Once I’m interested again, I can engage in a useful and productive way. Otherwise, it’s like being up at 3 AM before finals, just rereading the same incomprehensible paragraph of Medieval and Renaissance Lit, amirite?
Day Jobs, Too
You may be surprised to know that I’ve held many random jobs: bus boy, computer consultant, personal assistant, caramel apple maker, apartment supervisor, purchasing & import manager, director of sales and marketing, and record store clerk. My proclivities helped me in some of my jobs and hurt me in others. But until I got honest with myself about my tendencies, I couldn’t communicate to my bosses or co-workers what I needed to be effective. You’d be surprised how bosses will flex when you show a desire to be more effective.
There’s no quick or easy fix. But being real with yourself will help you navigate your current job or find the next one that’s better for you.
No Flow to Go With
If I read one more blog post or MRI study about flow states, I might shove bamboo shoots under my fingernails. Flow states apparently occur when you are so wrapped up in your work that you lose track of time, forget about your worries, even experience losing your sense of self. We are assaulted incessantly by a legion of books and apps designed to help us get into flow states more easily and more often. And maybe I need one of those. But allow me to confess: For me, flow states come few and far between. I had one last week, and one a few weeks before that, and they felt great! But if I attach my sense of progress or competence to the frequency of flow states, I would have quit by now. Flow states are like very satisfying sneezes. The just happen, and you better have a tissue handy. Wait. That metaphor is completely wrong. Ignore that.
Goals and Compassion
The trick is to set goals, manage your tasks, figure out how YOU work best, and then be compassionate with yourself. We all want to write that next first draft in 90 days. We all want to publish that book by XX age, quit our jobs, and buy that apartment in Paris. But try to keep in mind that while beginnings and endings are the most satisfying and memorable parts, they’re also the rarest. We mostly find ourselves in the middle, trying to keep our eyes to the grindstone. (Wait what) So, give yourself permission to switch from thing to thing. Flex a little. And be compassionate with yourself when you can’t squeeze out those 2,000 words you promised. The words will come—just not always on your timeline.