Herding Fish

coaching for artists and makers

One Piece at a Time

28 February 2021

Johnny Cash would have been 89 this week and Letters of Note marked the date by sharing this delightful list in the master’s hand. Personally, I’m probably a bigger fan of lists than Mr Cash seems to be here. I love getting stuff out of my head and onto the page – it frees up operational brain space, and lets me focus on whatever needs to be done next.

Recording your thoughts takes all sorts of forms from mind maps to bullet journals to sketchnotes. Once I have a bigger plan sketched out, I pick the most important things for the week ahead and keep only them front and centre, so I don’t freeze at the thought of trying to do it all at once.

Aside from the relief of not having to remember everything, the other great thing about lists is the joy of Ticking Things Off. The satisfaction of completion generates a pop of Dopamine, a hormone that helps us feel happy and motivated. So when we’re deep in a creative project, working in steps is really helpful. Johnny Cash might have sounded glib in this list, but he certainly understood the value of addressing a bigger project One Piece at a Time.

The benefits of this kind of pacing are all very well, but our brain chemistry evolved long before smartphones, and studies have shown that clearing notifications stimulates those same completion pathways. When we jump into a response cycle every time a ping goes off it generates some of the satisfaction we’d usually get from doing something useful, and it’s horribly addictive.

David Sivers has some great advice when you have a project you want to complete and are fighting with those attention-seeking gremlins:

Shut off your phone, kill the distractions, make it top priority, and spend the time. It takes many hours to make what you want to make. The hours don’t suddenly appear. You have to steal them from comfort.