I watched a video from Adam Duff recently with a very catchy title — Your Procrastination Has Nothing To Do With Being Lazy. He was talking about how procrastination and avoidance of work often isn’t born from laziness, but rather a bad feeling about your work that comes from constant discomfort.
You don’t know how to make the thing you’re imagining, so you have to figure out how at the same time as making it. The creation process is long and filled with trial-and-error stumbling that doesn’t make you feel masterful. It makes you feel clumsy and ignorant and like you can’t do anything right. You feel bad about yourself and your ability, so you divert attention to things like TV shows and video games to get temporary relief. That leads to guilt and poor self-image.
Not being able to execute the ideas you have comes from a lack of fundamentals, but studying the fundamentals alone is often boring and difficult — a recipe for avoidance. That’s a self-perpetuating situation that needs a stick in the spokes. Establishing a Comfort Zone disrupts the cycle by getting you to start feeling good about your work.
How a Comfort Zone leads to more productivity
My brother’s girlfriend was not a super confident driver at the start of this year. She got a new job in an unfamiliar area so on her orientation day, she left half an hour early. It was a good thing she did, as the car had trouble starting, then she had to turn around halfway when Google Maps took her to a road closed for resurfacing, so she took a toll road to the other side of town and and came back in from the opposite direction. A very stressful experience!
She’s now a week in and has no trouble. The car sorted itself out after a good run, and now she knows the way there and back by heart while avoiding the toll road and roadworks.
Never doing work you’re comfortable with is like going to a new place with different requirements every time, full of unknowns and unexpected road bumps. Working in your comfort zone grants you clarity as to what lies ahead. You know the way because you’ve trodden it many times before, and so you’re very likely to succeed.
Success leads to confidence — If you know what you’re going to do and you’ve done it well before, you have reason to believe you can do it again. The more times that belief is confirmed, the longer that history of wins, the quieter the voice of anxiety gets — or the easier it is to tell it to shut up. It also works long-term. Even if this piece turns out bad, even if the next ten do, it shouldn’t affect your mood overly because you’ll have confidence you’ll get out of the rut eventually, as you have before.
Once you are doing things within your ability and you have proven time and again you can, you will find yourself enjoying the process of creating. When you feel good and even excited about the idea of working, you’ll run towards it instead of away, and so produce a lot more.
A good visual analogy is of a war map, though instead of fighting an intelligent enemy, you’re against something slow and inexorable, like a mould. In art, your goal should be to “capture territory”, to make it into an area of mastery. If you make spread-out strikes, sporadic and quickly abandoned, you don’t make any progress as it’s quickly overrun. You forget or only half-remember what you learn.
If you want to keep the knowledge you’ve worked hard to learn, you need to establish a safe territory and keep it secure by doing regular sweeps of practice. If you have a home ground, a base you know like the back of your hand, when things get overwhelming you have the third option of retreat over victory or death — that is, working on something comfortable instead of either forcing yourself to work in discomfort or giving up.
That’s the main benefit of knowing and having a comfort zone — it’s somewhere you can go to can relax and feel good, but still work and be productive.
Knowing your comfort zone
You might already have a comfort zone. How do you know it? It’s usually what you do for fun. Something that comes naturally, and that you’ve done a fair amount before, with no barriers between you and pure creation. It might not be anything especially challenging, but that’s not the point of it so is entirely fine.
Ideal comfort zone work hits all of these:
- Know the Process.
If you know the steps for what you’re going to do, it’s then not a big scary unknown, it’s just a matter of execution. There will be far less anxiety because it’s known ground, you can see the road ahead and have walked it many times.
- Like the Process.
If you enjoy the process of creation, it will be easy to continue it without getting fatigued, and look forward to the prospect of spending time making the work rather than just the final result.
- Know the subject matter.
If the subject matter is already in your visual library, there’s no barrier to putting it directly on paper, which means it flows easily. Using reference works too, if you know where to get it and how to use it.
This also counts for technique. Using techniques within your current means, you won’t be stymied by perspective, lighting, rendering or whatever fundamentals you’re not familiar with.
- Like the subject matter.
If you like the subject matter, you should like what you end up depicting at the end (at least in concept), and it will be easier to feel good about doing another one. If you’re interested in the subject, it also makes it a joy rather than a chore to do research and you care more about doing something interesting with it, which will show through in the quality of work.
- Easy to be creative in.
Having an exciting initial idea is how you get the whole ball rolling. Being able to consistently come up with ideas that get you excited to work, and maintaining a list of things that come to you in idle thought means you’ll have no shortage of sparks to start you off. The question “but what should I draw?” will always have an answer, and with the rest of these in place and nothing in your way, momentum should carry you through.
These five aspects together bring you enjoyment throughout the whole process, from seed idea to bringing it into reality to the final product. With no barriers, you’re free to start it again, and build links in the chain of wins that is the basis for confidence.
Learn more with a comfort zone
You can’t stay in the comfort zone forever — monotony leads to boredom, which is another bad feeling that can lead to the same issues. Never leaving your comfort zone to explore new ideas, even though you want to get better, is another form of self-doubt and fear-based procrastination. That’s why once established, you should work on expanding your comfort zone by gradually building on what you already have. If you try for something too far from your home, you’re going to have similar problems to when you didn’t have your comfort zone — unfamiliarity and fumbling about leading to bad feelings and avoidance.
Going back to the war map, if you have a territory you want to expand to, then you should work out and clear a path towards it instead of dropping straight in. Send out sorties to clear the mould in adjacent areas, rotating out once you get fatigued.
The benefits of this method are similar to why it’s good to use your comfort zone in the first place. You have a place to come back to rest and recover while keeping up your current knowledge, and anything you acquire is easier to keep as it is moved into that area of comfort, reinforced when you use it.
Here’s an example of what a path could look like.
Jeremy likes drawing cars. At the moment he can draw them from the side, but he wants to be able to do full rendered glamour shot illustrations. If he jumps straight to studies of work at that level, the number of things that are different to what he can currently do would be overwhelming — perspective, 3D construction, composition and camera, rendering, how light and materials work, appeal… He needs to work up his understanding in parts to get there.
Form: Flat view from the side > flat from front > orthographic projections (simple 3D shapes > more complex > car parts > full cars) > point perspective (same progression).
Rendering: Using the shapes from perspective practice at each step (simple 3D shapes > more complex > car parts > full cars), Cell shading > edges > ambient occlusion & bounce light > materials > complex lighting.
Appeal: shape language (simple shapes > complex shapes > application to cars), composition (flat shapes > 3D shapes > cars)
It might seem a lot, but it’s all underlying knowledge the original artist had to get that goal result, so if Jeremy wants to be able to create that kind of work for himself, he has to develop it too. It’s much easier to do that hard work when you know its purpose, and you have a safe haven you can fall back on whenever you want. Drawing cars from the side might not be what he wants to do yet, but he’s working on it, and in the meantime he can exercise mastery over this intermediate step.
All things in balance. Set time for learning, and time for fun. Both are important, both are constructive, both are necessary for healthy growth. It’s especially rewarding when you can do the things you used to struggle with for fun, and make things you care about even better.
But where to expand?
When I drew that Venn diagram for what lies in your comfort zone, it reminded me of something, and as I was writing this section it hit me: Skill and Passion are two circles in the philosophy of Ikigai, or finding your ideal purpose in work.
I won’t explain here as it’s a bit much for the last part of the article, but here’s a good video from master designer Chris Do to start you off with.
The first two circles are what we covered before: what you like, and what you can do. The two new ones are what you can be paid for, and what the world needs: work for a higher purpose. Things that fit in all four circles are where you can do your best work and be happiest and most fulfilled for it.
It would be a good exercise to fill out all these circles with what applies to you, find the overlaps and focus expanding and deepening of your comfort zone on things in the centre.
There’s nothing wrong with a little charity, as long as you recognise it for what it is and it’s for a good cause. It can also lead to being rewarded to do things you care about. Either way you go about it, getting paid for the things you love and are within your abilities, and that make an impact is the dream.
This has been deliberately vague so we can all dream different things. We’ll get there. In the meantime, start small. Establish your home. Get to feeling good about yourself. Then push the boundaries. Add more to your zone. Rest when you are tired, push when energised. And aim at the overlap.