My Year Of Less - A Guest Post From mikey
Greetings! Lordcloudx here. If you've been following my blog for the past half a decade or so, you probably wouldn't realize this, but I was once an active member of the English Visual Novel scene... well, that was a horrible decision in hindsight. In any case, I made quite a few "connections" with people there whom I will always consider to be my liftetime friends. Today's guest post is from said friend.
Also, I am still participating in the 365 project mentioned in this article through 365 Nagi wherein I take a pic of one of my Nagi dolls or figures every day for 365 days. At the moment, there's only two of us left and we're in the home stretch so wish us luck.
Anyway, I leave you with mikey of ATP Projects:
Also, I am still participating in the 365 project mentioned in this article through 365 Nagi wherein I take a pic of one of my Nagi dolls or figures every day for 365 days. At the moment, there's only two of us left and we're in the home stretch so wish us luck.
Anyway, I leave you with mikey of ATP Projects:
My Year Of LessDear reader, imagine the following inner creative monologue:
Arrrgh! There's just not enough time to do it all! Too much to dooooo! Okay okay, stay cool - let's make the list here:
Well, dear reader, you already probably know what will happen to this person in three months. They will have just as much open projects and upcoming cool games to play, series to watch or read, or controversies to voice their opinion on as they have today. Additionally, they will of course not manage to keep their 3-month plan, because unexpected life changes and situations will happen - crunch times at work leaving them with almost no energy, a new relationship that's now more important than most things, a health annoyance that leaves them with less time to spare or makes it harder to work, or some administrative nightmare with lots of paperwork and errands hits their life. And that's before we count the inevitable delays in the above mentioned projects, not finishing the game jam on time, commissions by unexpectedly difficult people, and of course hitting those walls in games, getting sidetracked while watching a series by jumping on its spinoff... in the end they will be - just like now - at full capacity. In fact, probably attempting to do 120%, while being frustrated that they instinctively don't see how to make work the 170% they would actually like to accomplish.
While not in the situation above, in 2016 I did nevertheless experience that same feeling of "if I push a little harder, I can fit it all in, and then it'll be all over and I'll enjoy a slower pace of everything". But just like in that example, that relief never truly came. In 2016, inspired by having Aurora Fall done, I enjoyed randomly doing small creative projects and treating myself to (also random) entertainment - games I've been meaning to play "once Aurora Fall is finished". In other words, a guilt-free creative and entertainment life. But as time went on, as a human, I fell into some less-than-optimal patterns. I took on a bit here, a bit there, and while fun, I did find myself at the end of a seemingly "impressive" 2016. I released more VNs than any year ever, with several running projects, many of which were longer term regular commitments, a backlog of games I bought to celebrate my "freedom from Aurora Fall", a hard disk full of "stuff I finally get to watch", and last but not least - a note book of great little ideas that may or may not potentially grow into something.
It was at the end of 2016 when I realized that now, almost two years after completing my creative "life's work" in the form of the "Original 22" visual novels, the way I was making my small post-retirement VNs, the way I was watching those series and movies, and how I was playing my backlog of games was leaving me with a sort of disjointed sense of progress and completion. Meanwhile, a difficult leftover project from the old "Original 22" days (the SSV project) was still unfinished and started to weigh on me... and so, after having the time and space to think about it over the year-end holiday season, the idea of the "Year of Less" was born.
In general, if ever the "Year of Less" had a tagline, it would be "no, you can't fit it all in". This was a key point in all my decisions, and it addresses exactly that feeling which I described in the previous paragraphs. The feeling you get that the overwhelm you feel today is only temporary, that if only you get this current workload done, if you just push through this time, that there is a peaceful, non-hectic life waiting on the other end. That the games that will come out in 6 months will not be as tempting to me as the ones that are out right now, and that I will manage my time and energy much better, and will not be going to bed late just because I was so involved with whatever I was doing and it felt like a good idea to stay up.
My heart was saying yes, it's true - I will definitely change how I approach things in the future... just as soon as I finish what I have going on right now.
But of course, today is the future of six months ago, and at that time I was also saying the same thing. The conclusion is simple - the "calm" future never comes. Which is why for the "Year of Less" I relieved my delusional, optimistic heart from command - and decided to give the helm to the analytical part of my brain - and let it run the show this year. I was kind of hoping for a "new CEO" scenario - when a new CEO is appointed at a failing company, often heads start to roll, and instant changes are made. And as 2017 nears half-time, here is all that my analytical CEO brain and I have done so far and how it's worked out:
1. Finished last long-term project (SSV)
By far the biggest reason to start the "Year of Less" was to finish my screenshot project (i.e. converting all the visual novels from my "Original 22" set to screenshots). This was a grueling and time-consuming project that I was doing manually. Even in December 2016 I still had the biggest visual novels yet to go, and I felt if I wouldn't make this the absolute top priority, it would drag on for a year longer. Add to that the fact that even though this was a monumental undertaking, it was always just "creating new versions" of existing visual novels, and so there would be no single "project" I'd be able to claim to have accomplished.
And so, much like with my very focused first half of 2014 when I was completing Aurora Fall, I decided to subordinate every other thing to the completion of the screenshot project. It was too much on my mind, too much of an unfinished business. And so I did. Save for "The Buzz", I pretty much stopped all activities, and focused only on the SSV project, still fueled by the rush of the glow of the New Year's resolution (which it kind of was). But much like with Aurora Fall, any progress was good, and if I should slow down after a month, I would have at least made intense progress.
Did it work out? It did, and quite fast, it turns out. Not two and a half months later, and it was done. And much like Aurora Fall, it wasn't so much the time needed to complete it that was the problem, it was the uninterrupted time I needed to focus on it, which, once I managed to free, made the whole project possible. The problem was, that in order to gain this focus, I didn't really have time to finish all the commitments and projects I had going on - I merely ignored them. So after I was finished, I had to call on my sense of discipline and NOT say "mission accomplished".
Because this was not a sprint. Yes, I did want to primarily finish the SSV project, but the euphoria about finishing should not mean I should now forget why I did this in the first place - I wanted to have a slower year, do things more judiciously. With the SSV project done, I now had more time and less obligation, and I needed to spend that extra time to FURTHER REDUCE everything.
If you are into cars, imagine the Rolls-Royce Wraith (a luxurious and powerful car). Unlike many other cars, it has no rev counter - instead it has a "power reserve" gauge. So while in other cars the rev counter shows you how close to its limit your engine is, the Rolls-Royce's power reserve indicator tells you how much power is still available to you. "You have 80% in reserve, sir". And it's the same way I wanted to think about my own "energy" as well - rather than measuring how much I can accomplish, how "productive" I am, and making tweaks so I could do and jam in a little bit more here and there (equivalent to car that's being tuned to give more and more power), I wanted to focus instead on increasing the margin - to get my "power reserve" as high as I could, all the while still moving forward.
So instead of having all those 15 projects and commitments kind of going on at the same time, I wanted to have just 3, or 4. I wanted to have the space, the buffer - especially because so many times I've been operating on 95% capacity and when suddenly something unexpected is thrown your way, you have to drop something else to deal with it. I wanted my "power reserve" for this exact case, because in fact this is what happens all the time. As an example, I really wanted to finish that website update tonight (because tomorrow I must finish editing the podcast so we can release), but my son woke up and I had to put him back to bed, I lost a lot of time... and just hearing myself saying that felt so stupid. I shouldn't be in a position where I'm stretched so thin, that even a relatively small interruption causes a chain reaction of missed things, and broken commitments.
That's why I had to remind myself of this - I have freed up this time to continue the Year of Less, make more space, make the space nicer and cleaner. And not to throw it away or fill it with more of the same. And the next thing really helped in that:
2. Finished several small projects
One of the mottos for this year was "finishing, not starting", and this encouraged me to officially end some of my ongoing smaller projects. For example "Penshooter II", which was going on indefinitely, as well as discontinuing maintenance for some websites I ran, such as the list of VN podcasts. I also rummaged through my archive of unfinished articles and overviews, and put together a few "final lists" that I published as a way of closing all of them. And after that, I deleted all the unfinished stuff that remained (but more to this point later).
How did this feel? It felt kind of like when you tidy up and clean out your house. It's not the most fun thing to do, but it feels great and freeing when you're actually done. More to the point, getting small projects out of the way feels like you're removing a lot of the distractions and creative "mess". I was especially surprised how many "unspoken" commitments I had, where I realized that something I had somewhere was in fact kind of unfinished (like an article I took screenshots for, or that website that I neglected for so long). There were loads of things like that - small, seemingly insignificant little pieces of silent guilt, failure or unfinished business.
Especially in the cases where I ran "service" websites, such as lists that needed to be periodically updated, it was especially hard to take the decision, because even though I know how very little traffic they get, there was still a (disproportionate) sense of obligation from my side towards their visitors. I felt like I was letting them down, but I have realized that it makes a huge difference that I publicly stop the commitment as opposed to simply letting it lapse and not update silently. I am the kind of person who needs the closure to be public in this way. So I announced the end of all those sites as I was closing them down and formatting their data as "articles".
The result? Fantastic. To beat the house analogy to death, if the SSV project was the old furniture that I finally threw out, these small projects were all the "could-be-useful-one-day" type of clutter that we hang on to. And much like with those things there is a bit of sadness when we finally eliminate them from our lives, but that's the price. And since the analytical brain was in charge, it helped to overcome a lot of the emotional resistance to officially wrapping these projects up.
3. Said "no" to NaNoRenO 2017
Did it work out? It did. I never felt like I was missing out when I was reading other people's updates, and afterward I had no regrets whatsoever. Watching from the sidelines (and putting together a summary later on) was plenty.
4. Tracked stuff
In fact, it wasn't as much about tracking, but more about reminding myself every day what is most important in my life. Spending less than a minute to check off (or not) a few boxes on my phone has done wonders to my awareness of what actually matters. I would also export this data into a spreadsheet and make monthly "reports" on how I did. The results didn't really surprise me, except one which was a simple question of whether I achieved what I planned for that day - here, courtesy of the planning fallacy, the logs showed that I did really badly. The only remedy was to just plan less, or plan more realistically, which helped, and I came to around 50% plan achieved versus not achieved in a month, which I was quite content with - especially when I often miss a "plan achieved" by a single simple todo, which means that I still managed to do most of the tasks.
I also found it helpful (another practice I borrowed from the "productivity" world) to define my "MIT", most important task for the day (best determined the night before, maybe as a part of the daily tracking process), that if I finished, it would already be a success. These aren't necessarily "important" tasks, but they are important to happen on that day for practical, but also emotional reasons. Sometimes it was important to me to change a light bulb that started to annoy me. Sometimes it was that we have a nice dinner. Other days it was a phone call that I have been putting off for too long... and sometimes it was as simple and non-negotiable as "tomorrow the kids have their play in the kindergarten" - there is nothing more clear about what's most important for me to do on that day... (it's being there, in the audience, of course).
The thing is, as silly as it sounds, we don't seem to distinguish between the importance of todos very intuitively - and having a constant reminder or a very simple way of quickly find your bearings during a busy day adds a huge sense of control and confidence. I even have a sticky notes app with a single item on it, the most important thing to do on that day, but one tip - if you are going to do this, don't put vague things on it - just really specific things. I remember back in the days when I wanted to motivate myself to work on Aurora Fall, I would have something similar on my phone, but it would just say "Aurora Fall". And that actually achieved the opposite, because it just reminded me of this big obligation to myself. So best to define your MIT as something - as they say - "actionable".
5. I started to reflect regularly
Secondly, in the same session, I will also go through my personal mantras, and remind myself of the things I value, my priorities, all mostly boiled down to short little "do's" and "dont's" like for example "don't write after midnight", or "family comes first, not only on weekends".
Finally, I found it especially helpful to write out more detailed accounts of things I disliked in a particular project, and created short "cautionary tales" to remind myself of the negatives I often kept forgetting once the projects are done, and which makes me susceptible to engaging in something similar again - and I desperately want to avoid that. I wrote these things down as if speaking to myself - warning myself, in a way. For example: "Hey, remember how much of a pain it was to maintain this one list up to date, how you made website crawling scripts and how you spent hours formatting it, checking and verifying the information, every week, and it took almost an entire evening, and for what? In the end no one really cared, no one noticed when it was not updated for a month? And then you had to migrate it to another site? Do you remember that it took three evenings to find a new theme and format that you were happy with, and move all the metadata? This was fun for the first few months, but then it became just awful, wasted time - you should never do this kind of thing again".
And yes, that's worded quite harshly, but in fact that's the point - I do want to keep myself from doing this, so I intentionally speak of the lowest lows in the given project - it's a warning. And there's a reason why warnings always shows the worst case scenario.
Anyway, a mild example of something that I would like to stay away from for at least a while could be my 365 project, which you can read about in the next point. Though I will be much kinder in my wording this time.
As with any of these productivity methods, it's the underlying thought that is most important. Whether you follow the "GTD method" of a weekly review, or simply sit down and look at some giant list of everything, what matters is that you reflect on the past period of time, and plan the next one. The fact that this is a very important habit to try to form may also be underlined by my experience with it which was that it's not easy to build up and keep. It takes quite a lot of mental energy to do this, but on the other hand it does provide a lot of benefits. I can say that I have so far this year not missed a single week, but a few times I was close to skipping the weekly reflection, which is why keeping this process is now a part of my to-dos.
It's just too valuable to let go - chiefly because if you have the total picture of all your obligations and tasks, you will (especially if you have it on paper) visually see just how much there is. And that's the thing - it gets easier to say no to new things once you know of every one you already have. I have of course always had the feeling I have "a lot going on", but it wasn't until it was actually quantified and listed that I realized the extent of everything. Reflecting on everything periodically is one of the toughest things I had to do in my "Year of Less". But I do feel that without it, making a lot of the positive changes wouldn't have been possible.
6. Finished the 365 Kei project (kind of)
How was it? Well... generally it was great, but then... not so great. Actually it was quite fun close to 80% of the way, but in the last two or so months (which I will focus on, but which should not detract from the overwhelming net positive) too many small annoyances have piled up and the project turned into a bit of a chore.
The breaking point however came when I forgot to take a picture one day, roughly two months before the end. It wasn't a big deal at the time, I took a picture straight away the next morning with the argument that "technically it was still yesterday's date in America" (I live in Europe). I even turned it into a feature when I took another picture when it was "already the specific date in Australia". In hindsight, I can say that it was then, that internally the project lost purpose for me.
I of course understand that for many photographers a 365 project does not fail if they miss a day (and they either catch up the next day or skip that day), but as this process showed me, I had a very personal definition of "daily". And no matter what I did, there was no convincing my inner self that skipping a day was okay. Conclusion? I have failed in the daily photo project, and almost from one day to another, the project got incredibly frustrating, amplifying all the small nagging irritations that I was able to overlook when the project was still giving me joy.
For example: I recalled how on a few occasions I have missed photo opportunities, and had to settle for less interesting themes - be it because I forgot to always have the toy car on me, or because taking a photo in the particular situation would be socially inappropriate. All this is eating away at me, and yet it doesn't matter, because if I just took the same picture of the car every day, I'd complete a 365 project. So why was I even worried about what the photo looked like when it seems like deep inside the day-specific nature of the thing is more important for me?
There were more troubles, too. Even without the missed picture, many days I just felt uninspired to compose a picture, and that should have tipped me off that the 365 was (if I'm honest with myself) more about the gimmick to me. I also often felt I was spending way too much time mentally scanning my surroundings for a unique shot, and my frustrations rising as it became obvious that I'd have to settle for a sub-optimal shot. And many times I'd be out with my kids, and I'd have to stop and take a picture of the toy car, not because I wanted to, but because I knew I wouldn't get a nicer opportunity that day. It kind of took the fun out of it.
It was on Day 312 that I missed the shot, and after two weeks of increasingly demotivating photo taking after that "failed day", I admitted failure, and decided to end it at 333. On that day, I had 3 pictures left. I announced it on Twitter, and - quite surprisingly - at a stroke, everything changed.
The moment it was "official", I felt like I had to make the most out of the last 3 images. And no, in the end they were not all that spectacular, but the process and the pictures felt genuine and fun again. It was almost like a bittersweet ending - the good kind, much more sweet than bitter. I even ran out of work earlier to buy the car some "friends" with which I ended the set. And then, gave the cars to my kids, because they weren't "subjects" anymore. They were toys again.
So in the end, I had a positive experience, and when all was said and done, I decided to call the project 333 Kei. That also contributed greatly to all the frustrations and resentment towards the project being gone, and I was reminded of how wonderful it was that despite the failure to complete the project, I managed to capture (almost) a whole year going by, and inserted symbols of things that happened or have been at the front of my mind into some of the shots, a few of them even representing personal things, friendships, or memories. It's nice as a record of things, and even visually I think it's quite diverse and interesting. Even the uninspired photos now symbolize those emotions now, and I'm glad they are there.
And if you wanted to shoehorn this into the concept of the "Year of Less", I'd say the decision to stop it was the link. I was ready to accept it as "cutting my losses", and not engage in an activity just for the sake of completing it, making it a case of sunk cost fallacy. That it ended up feeling like an accomplishment was a nice bonus I didn't anticipate.
7. Killed my creative notes periodically
I do want to acknowledge however, that most people might think this is too radical. After all, what's the harm? So I keep my old notes somewhere in the cloud - they are my inspiration, and I never have to feel anxiety over ideas that I lost. Except that while I do feel like this works for your todo's (always write all your tasks down in the same place), with creative ideas it's a bit different.
In April, I made a short visual novel, Oliver Renhelf. It was a "fresh" idea, I was happy with it, and it felt just as "me" as any of the other ideas I had archived before. And it just confirmed to me that our ideas and concepts don't really define us - they don't own us, because they are not what's important - what's important is that we express ourselves through them, no matter the form.
Crucially though, Oliver Renhelf could never have been done had I had my old notes - I would rummage around in them, synthesize from them, and never really experience the fresh mindset of a truly blank slate. For me, it's like when I began creating stuff. It's a happy process that lets me experience the freedom of being able to imagine anything I want. And knowing that it's not the idea, not the story, not the design that matters, but rather that it's what the work expresses (or how it expresses you) which gives it soul, has given me the confidence to throw away ideas, because I now know they are not what really matters in my works.
I continue to periodically delete all my notes and incomplete projects now.
8. The end of The Buzz's run
So I don't actually see this as a year-of-less-accomplishment in that sense - but because The Buzz was a very demanding project and commitment, wrapping it up in early 2017 freed up yet more mental energy for me. The "power reserve gauge" was now at a reassuringly comfortable 50%, since together with completing the screenshot project, I had no large projects and no major creative commitments anymore. Yet again though, there was a trial to be passed before the gauge really settled down.
You see, there is this instinctive reaction I seem to have whenever I finish a project - I feel like whatever "void" was left, I need to fill with something right away. This doesn't just happens with creative projects, though. Also in the area of entertainment, when I finish a game, I feel the need to start a new one right away. It's sort of a creative / entertainment inertia thing, and I try to remind myself about it whenever I am about to finish something large - and in this case, I kept telling myself - "hey, when you release the last episode of The Buzz, you will probably want to start another podcast.
9. Implemented a "weekly watch & play list"
Well, no more. I wanted to get more deliberate in what I'd watch, and make sure what I watched was not driven by other people's opinions or recommendations. And so I implemented a simple rule - Sometime during the weekend, I needed to write down what I'd be watching the next week and could not deviate from that plan.
At the end of the week, I'd see what I watched and what I didn't, and make a new plan for the week ahead. And if I got the urge to watch something that wasn't on the list, I hoped that the knowledge that I'd be able to put it on the list for next week would suffice - after all, it was at worst just 7 days. I could wait that long, right?
Yes, it turns out.
In fact, I can't sing enough praises for this decision - this method is something that has worked wonders for me. In practice I would typically choose:
In terms of numbers, compared to often 10 different entries on my to-watch list in January, my to-watch list in the following months was just around 4 items, into which I quickly started to include video games as well - one game I was actively playing, one movie and one TV series. While we were on skiing vacation for instance, I only had a single item on the list, and I really literally only watched a single TV series for the whole week (I left my 3DS at home, so I really had nothing). The whole system also helped cut down on random Youtube watching, too, because it was unrewarding and bureaucratic to watch short videos (I had to in some way bookmark or download them for later), a perfect side-effect, because short-form or non-continuous entertainment was the main reason I felt my experiences were so unsatisfying and inconsistent.
No surprise then, that will continue to use this approach, probably indefinitely. I've even been able to make this into some kind of a habit, in that I now find it "barbaric" to just randomly watch something. It's kind of funny, but actually, it's exactly what I wanted, and I'm really happy to have brought back watching from being something to pass the time to feeling special again.
10. Locked down news and social streams
My second frustration is related to this, too, as in recent times social media has moved to the idea that your stream / timeline will not necessarily show you all the content by people you follow. So if I make a new post, well... there is no guarantee that people who follow me will see it.
And all of this demoted social media in my eyes to more or less a shoutbox. To be able to still use it though, I implemented a lot of news filters, spoiler filters and generally shielded myself from opinions on most hot topics and news. And so, together with using thirdparty clients, I have still managed to make social media work for me, mostly as a way of keeping in touch with what people I like are doing - either by directly following them, or having quick searches saved when I want to see what they are up to on my own terms.
It works quite well, and on any given day my pared down, filtered social media stream produces anything from 5-30 messages, all from people I care about and with information I want to know. It is "less" than the average 300-500 messages that I have been receiving before I radically cut things down, but it has made social media enjoyable again, so much so that I now have notifications enabled to tell me people have posted, because I'm looking forward to hearing from them.
11. Continued with "solitary enjoyments"
I still continue to do it in 2017, but it's not officially a part of my "Year of Less", mostly because the realizations that my opinions or thoughts on things will end up partially disregarded by social media algorithms has made it less appealing for me to share them. Which is, weirdly, a positive thing - I will now just enjoy something and then enjoy something else, without explicitly having to tell myself that this is one of my solitary (or "silent") enjoyments and I must resist the temptation to share it. That temptation is often not even there anymore. The memories of it will just be mine, and actually, there is a certain romance about not having it publicly documented. It's like one of those gentlemen art thieves who steal a beautiful painting so that they can enjoy it alone.
12. No VN collaborations with anyone in 2017
This came about when I first thought about making a visual novel this year, but just wanted to do something simple, and on my own schedule. And since I can basically do everything I need to make a visual novel except the (character) art, for Oliver Renhelf I looked at some free-to-use sprites over at the Lemmasoft forums. I wasn't ever a huge fan of taking "readily available stuff", especially not when it came to characters, but then, as I've pointed out already, I consider myself retired - and kind of free from any philosophical constraints I might have had when I was working on the "Original 22" set of visual novels.
So, you know... why not? Why not take an existing sprite, especially if it hasn't ever been put into a VN that was actually completed, and why not do it? It's less stress for me, because I don't have to coordinate, and the sprites find their purpose. And no, they are not bespoke, but again - the 2017 version of me isn't one that's bothered by this. And much like I used to be protective of my scripts and would always use the packed and scrambled Ren'Py files, post Aurora-Fall-me just releases all the game's assets open and for everyone to see. It's therefore not really surprising to me that I've come around to using pre-made sprites, too - and that I'm finding it to be a really creatively rewarding thing to do.
Which is why this works so well for me, and why I've later formalized it for this year, too - taking a break from aligning, organizing and collaborating on creative projects. It's definitely a change of pace that I can appreciate and enjoy now. Again, a more inward and in a way solitary way of doing things this year.
In conclusion:The "Year Of Less" is still going on, and it confirmed to me once again, that change doesn't just happen overnight - and that's fine. It took time, but it's worth being more resilient towards impulse creativity and impulse entertainment. For example, having bought a Playstation 4, I now have the ability to easily make gaming videos, which has tempted me to make and release something like a video review.
But seeing how much work would go into it, the (thoroughly non-monetary) "return on investment", it is more clear to me that as fun as that would be, I couldn't afford to do it, making me less frustrated that I just can't do everything I would like to do.
In fact, I almost feel like "I have more say in what I choose to do", that my choices are more "me", more honest. And that I have much more time as well as mental reserves for unexpected problems down the line. Implementing my own "Year Of Less" isn't really fun, but... in a way it makes up for it by being very personal and inward-looking process.
I guess at this point you may expect me to recommend you do the same, or urge you to think about these things, but that's not what I want from this, because this isn't a manifesto, or a primer on mindful engagement.
What I'd actually like to achieve is that if you ever come to a situation where you feel like it's time to re-think a few things in your life and that a general idea of slowing down, being more deliberate and doing or engaging in less activities to get back more of the depth of these experience occurs to you, that you will remember this article and read it again. And I hope it will speak to you much more than it probably does now.
And when that day comes, I do wish you the best of luck with your own "Year Of Less".