Building Momentum: Cultivating Sparks and Getting Things Done

Before I presented my first HappyPhD seminar I booked a coaching session with a public speaking coach. We talked story-telling technique, commanding the energy in a room, and we brainstormed about some aspects of my workshop. The conversation meandered and we ended up talking about creativity, and how to bring your work into being. At this point in the conversation she drew me a stick figure:

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She told me there are basically two ways to get stuck when you are creating something (and in life. It was that kind of conversation).  You may have no ideas, or no inspiration. You feel limp. You have lost your sense of wonder. Life is a drag. That’s when the vertical arrow gets blocked. Or, you may have problems implementing those ideas: translating them into reality and communicating them with other people. That’s when the horizontal arrow gets blocked. Releasing these blocks means momentum is restored.

(If you hadn’t noticed yet – this is a bit of a ‘spiritual’ post. No academic references here. Think metaphor, think model. Don’t take it literally.)

Translated to academia it presents a rather fabulous model for building and sustaining momentum.

We need the muse: the being enthralled, the giddiness of ideas and the excitement and thrill when inspiration strikes.

But we can’t stop there.

We need to capture those thoughts and ideas, order them, structure them, put them onto paper, fine-tune, fine-tune more, and present them to the world.

Moving ideas into form (and publication).

I believe the vertical arrow to be responsible for the spark, in our work, in our eyes, in our life. It ensures quality and originality. We cultivate it through feeling and noticing: we need to notice what uplifts us.

At work, we need to notice which ideas speak to us, which words need to be written, which argument needs to be explored. Even if the (desired) outcome is intellectual, the process is one of tuning into our feelings, navigating on inspiration.

More broadly, we need to notice what makes us come alive.
Where does excitement live?
And nourishment?
These aren’t fixed entities: what is it you need right now?

For sparks to show up on a regular basis you need to pay attention.
You need find out where they like to hang out;
they are not that visible to the untrained eye,
and if you get too caught up in the stresses of things (the deadline, the difficulties, the expectations, everything that doesn’t seem to go your way) they fade.
Or we think they do.
We fail to notice them, even if they are still there.

I believe the horizontal arrow to be the motor behind ‘success’. It is the ‘showing up and getting things done’. For academia:

It is the sitting down to do research or write when you do not feel like it.
It is ignoring the inner critic.
It is setting yourself a challenge. It is meeting that challenge.
It is thinking strategically about your work and how you want to position yourself in your field, and in the academic community.
It is being professional and engaged in your work relationships.
It is stretching beyond what you think you are capable of, beyond what you think you are ready for, beyond…
It is being courageous and bold.
It is joining the academic community by participating.
It is, as my mentor Gordon Smith would call it: ‘getting on with it’.
It is coming out of your shell and showing up.
Show up. Show initiative. DO something.

I believe there is great value in learning to tune into what we need: do we need to show up and get things done (horizontal arrow), or do we need to let go, surrender and allow things to happen (vertical arrow)? Do we need to put ourselves out there (horizontal arrow), or do we need to soften and pay attention to inner needs (vertical arrow)?

In my own life I find there are often subtle shifts I can make to restore momentum. When I am being too controlling, when I am too invested in an outcome, I remind myself to let things happen in their own time (vertical arrow). I step back. At least I try. At the same time, I work at those things that require my energy. I determine what my priorities are and I take action if I can (horizontal arrow).

These days I am pretty in tune, in the sense that I at least recognise when I am ‘in the flow’ and when I am firmly out of it. The two feel completely different, and I am highly sensitive to the difference. If I push too hard, for too long (and I tend to, still) everything comes to a halt very fast. So I reconnect, and figure out what I need to allow things to happen more effortlessly.

The vertical connection comes relatively easily to me – I seem to always have ideas and a little sparkle going on somewhere. That said, when I am being too goal-oriented, or if fear gets in the way, my inspiration gets cut off and I am absolutely gutted. I feel hollow and drained. I NEED the muse by my side to feel like myself. And I need to be in tune to work and create. I cannot do the go-getter thing. When I trust I don’t have to, my best work shows up.  Opportunities show up. (And, distinctions and good reviews show up). The horizontal connection for me means doing my work (whatever that may mean in the moment), and putting it out into the world (who knows, someone may enjoy it!). I have become a huge fan of simple routines to ensure I indeed do so, no matter the circumstances.

Establishing momentum in this inside-out manner has been key to finishing my PhD, and I imagine it will be key in anything I do from here. Why it works, is because it isn’t imposed. It is not about forcing myself to do things. It is more about alignment, than effort.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me, but I have no idea whether it makes sense to anyone else? Can you relate? How do you deal with horizontal and vertical challenges? Would love to know. If these ideas do make sense to you: could you share this post? As always, it is much appreciated!

Getting Unstuck

The vertical arrow is about spark and inspiration, for which we need to be open, curious and playful. It is about being connected to our inner world and working from there.

The horizontal arrow is about achievement (in an effortless way), for which we need to be committed, grounded and courageous. It is about our connection to others and our contribution in the world.

If you are vertically challenged right now, start creating space for sparks to show up.

Some ideas:

  • Brainstorm creative ideas for the chapter or paper you are currently working on – pay special attention to how each option makes you feel. Use your intuition to make work decisions. (Scary. Exhilarating. Powerful.)
  • Read your favourite scholars (or novelists), and let yourself be inspired.
  • Take time off to do nothing.
  • Take time to consciously stop achieving. Being is enough. You are enough.
  • Start a meditation or yoga practice (resets the brain for creativity, contentment and joy).
  • Notice what you want to do instead of what you ought to do. Do what you want to do.
  • Ask yourself: what do I need right now? Listen. Act on it.
  • Allow things to happen.
    Sit back.
    Wait.
    Be receptive.
    Loosen up, lighten up, relax.
    Be still and listen.
    Feel.
  • Pay attention to the small pleasures. And the big ones.
  • Let yourself off the hook:
    You don’t have to do anything right now.
    You don’t have to get anywhere.
    There is nowhere to go! You are already there.
    Notice.
  • Read, dance, eat, go to the cinema or theatre, see friends etc.: do anything that uplifts you.

Whether at work or outside work, the key to more spark is listening in, instead of pushing forward. It is about noticing joy, and following its path. Effortlessly.

If you are horizontally challenged, take action.

Some ideas:

  • Set up work and writing routines and stick to them (I recommend working in intervals)
  • Set yourself a work challenge that stretches you, and go for it. Maybe it is getting your paper written, maybe it is getting your paper published. Maybe it is trying something new, like leading a workshop or organising a panel at a conference. Maybe it is speaking up more in seminars, or presenting your work. Get excited about it and do it.
  • Think strategically about where you want to go next, work-wise. Plan for it. Act on it. Become the person who can do, and simply does those things.
  • Forget about failure. Failure is inevitable and it doesn’t matter. Just keep trying.
  • Ignore the inner critic. Ignore the inner censor. Be fearless.
  • Put yourself and your work out there.
  • Be open to criticism, instead of being defensive. Connect.
  • Take charge. Take a stand. Become visible.
  • Ask yourself how you could contribute. If you were one step ‘ahead’ of where you are now, what would you be doing? Do it now. Don’t wait until you are ready.
  • Set up self-care routines for exercise, diet etc. Don’t do so because you feel you ‘should’. Only make those changes that feel empowering.

Whether at work or outside work, the key to overcoming horizontal challenges is action and engagement. Show up. Your contribution is welcome and needed.

Sometimes we are challenged in all directions. In that case start anywhere. These approaches beautifully complement each other. Inspiration will help lift yourself above your fears and worries and into action. Action, engagement and movement will help you out of any slump and reignite your spark.

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