In the search for simplicity, many of us have tried every time management technique under the sun: itemizing and prioritizing to-do lists; subdividing each day into smaller increments, hoping that small accomplishments will beget larger ones; working through the night according to preferred biorhythms; day planners; Post-it notes; Evernote; and all the apps. Being an organizer is hard. Being an artist is harder. Managing a career with simplicity in a fast-paced world is hardest. The time required to track down calls for art, grants, exhibitions, and more simply flies in the face of true productivity. Life’s complexity often inhibits the faith necessary for art itself.
Yet in our efforts to simplify, to zero in on what is truly worthwhile, we also want to get better at the things we care about. We want to improve, work harder and smarter, and dedicate our time and attention to doing our best to be our best. Within the limitations of a 24-hour day, how do we know when we have done enough? Sadly, the effort we expend is not always reflected in the fruit of our labor?
This question of “How do we get better at the things we care about?” was the topic of a recent TED talk by Eduardo Briceño. His quest is to discover the key to using our time and resources effectively for maximum results while avoiding stagnation and expenditure of unproductive energy. Briceño’s answers are found in the practice of deliberately alternating between what he calls the learning zone and the performance zone.
As an illustration of a problem we all share, even while you are reading this essay, in the back of your mind, you may also be thinking of a thousand things you might be doing instead. This is the bane of our age. Information overload, competing demands, limited time, short attention spans, distraction, and self-doubt are the norm. Many of us are torn by these challenges. Do we produce art, look for opportunities, live our lives, get smarter, shut down, hole up?
Enter Briceño. He explains that breaking down activities into deliberate, practice-able components is key—much as it is for many of us in our studios. We have an area for painting, one for framing, one for research and writing. We have learned from experience that simplified studio practice involves ten or twenty minutes of fully concentrated effort on the one thing we are doing at the moment. If we are conducting research, then we should be fully engaged in that task—not simultaneously trying to paint our magnum opus. This is simplified focus, and it is also high performance practice.
Briceño suggests that there is more the performance and learning zones can teach us than simple time allocation. By alternating our zone modes, we pave the way to ever-increasing opportunities to excel. In the learning zone, we can enjoy exploration, play, mistake-making, growth, and trying new things. It is a zone for bewilderment, for the unknown, for embracing failures. The learning zone is all about attempting, testing, and exploring the simple and the complex— without judgment, without overinvestment, without filters. According to Briceño, this concentrated learning leads to enhanced performance.
On the other hand, in the performance zone, we are in the flow—where we do what we do somewhat effortlessly. When we are performing, we are expending all that accumulated learning zone goodness and channeling it into excellence. But because we do not have to worry about learning when we are performing, we are able to resonate with the full force of the performance itself, much as a musician might.
One of the tenets of simplicity is an acute awareness of the time we are active in each of the zones, compartmentalizing our lives in order to maximize the function of each. This effectively disrupts the habit of scattered thinking and (often ineffectual or, at least, dissatisfying) multitasking, as is our accustomed conditioning.
Artist Steve Loya demonstrates this pursuit of simplicity—toggling between learning and performance zones—via the splotch monsters he creates each day. They begin as simple watercolor washes—where he gets to play with paint, color, and form. They end as fantastic, whimsical creatures, bearing the marks of a highly imaginative, skilled illustrator.
The pursuit of real simplicity involves an ongoing editing process, stripping away the excess, the unnecessary, the ineffective, and all that does not fit our goals. In paring these things away, we remember that major change and improvement need not be a total life overhaul. New growth can be attained with slight shifts in perspective, a one- or two-degree repositioning from where we are at any given moment. And, maybe, what is really needed to achieve high performance simplicity is continually embracing the play of learning so that we can better execute—and savor—professional performance.
Steve Loya maintains his Splotch Monster watercolor blog, complete with process images, at http://asplotchmonsteraday.blogspot.com/. He teaches art and produces artworks in Northern Virginia, where he lives with his wife Kris and a tiny turtle friend Gammera. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article by Shauna Lee Lange originally appeared in CIVA Journal: Christians in the Visual Arts.