Switch off your autopilot

Cool Spring by Celandine, WIP detail

Cool Spring by Celandine, WIP detail

I have these odd little “Aha!” moments sometimes.

Ever since ‘Crossy Road’ came out I’ve been sinking stupid amounts of time into it. It’s an adorable little mobile game where you navigate a bunch of cute pixelly characters across very busy roads, Frogger-style. You can unlock most of the characters by gathering points, but there is a set of special secret characters that must be unlocked by special techniques. Obsessive creature that I am, I had set about this task with a passion.

Four of the secret characters represent the game’s developers, and each is unlocked by achieving a ‘great’ score while playing with that developer’s favorite character. I had unlocked the first three fairly early on, while my overall scores were reasonably low and beating them wasn’t too difficult. Then I had a freak high score that pushed the bar way up, so unlocking the fourth developer became quite a task. The guy’s name is Ben Weatherall, and his favorite character is the Dark Lord. So I set my default character to the Dark Lord and spent a couple of months trying to beat that high score. I didn’t much like him, the game world turns kind of red and moody when you play with him, and needless to say he wasn’t cute at all. But I persevered.

Then a couple of weeks ago, TA-DAAAH!! I’d done it!! My collection was complete, the character was unlocked, much mirth and joy ensued. And yesterday while I was killing time in a bank queue playing Crossy Road again, I thought to myself – why am I still playing with the Dark Lord character?

Then I realized – even though I much preferred playing with random characters each time, even though my favorite characters were the platypus and the floppy fish, even though I had never really enjoyed playing as the Dark Lord – the fact that I had spent a couple of months using him all the time in order to unlock a secret had created an unconscious habit – a habit strong enough to guarantee that, after finally unlocking the secret, I never ONCE considered switching back to random characters. That was just the way I played the game now.

Then I wondered what other things in my life I was doing like that, on autopilot – just because once upon a time I had a reason to do them that way, even though that reason might long since have vanished.

Learning new things is hard. Stepping outside your comfort zone is hard. The other day I was whining to my husband, ‘I don’t want to keep learning all these new things any mooore!!!!’ During the last two years, trying to establish myself as a surface and pattern designer, I have had to learn a ridiculous number of new things. Design skills and photography skills, media and self promotion skills, business and marketing skills, client communication skills, pricing and negotiating, blog writing, website setup (still working on it, haha), engaging an audience, developing a unique style, gosh, so many things. And they keep coming up. And I’m not even talking about the actual technical skills of illustration and design. Every new website you join, whether a new social media platform or a print on demand site or a payment processing or invoicing service – they all have their own learning curve – a new layout, new work flow, new options. Every new client has some new and specific design requirements. I swear, seldom does a day go by that I’m not doing something for the first time ever.

And that sounds great – personal growth and all that. But it – is – exhausting. So I completely understand your desire to keep doing things the way you know how. But this desire is directly damaging your chances of artistic success. There are too many of us, we are too eager and too hungry, and anyone who doesn’t keep learning new things constantly will quickly be left out of the race.

But as with everything, there is a positive side to this – every new thing you learn is one more thing you never have to worry about again. So sit down and reassess your workflow. Is there something you trip on every single time, but you keep putting off learning how to do it properly because you’re already used to muddling through it or working around it in the same awkward way? Resizing? Developing repeats? File formats? Recoloring? Indexing?

Set aside some time, take a deep breath, and do it. Google some tutorials, ask for help in the Facebook groups, if it’s a big and important thing, consider saving up for a proper course and really investing your energy into it. It will save you time, and money, and most importantly, sanity. And we all know what a limited resource that is.

What are you doing on autopilot? What new bit of knowledge would improve your workflow the most? Let me know in the comments! 

If you’d like to keep up with all the new things I’m learning, sign up for my cute monthly newsletter! It’s the place where I talk about all my new experiences 🙂 


4 thoughts on “Switch off your autopilot

  1. Ha ha. So you stopped using the Dark Lord but you never considered to stop gaming at all (tease, tease).
    I had to throw Civilization from my HD during the time I had to do my exam back in 1993 or so because I felt I would not have an exam if I don’t stop playing Civ which I was kind of addicted to. Never returned cause that saved me countless of hours to do other things. But I still feel tempted.

    • hahahaha to be honest I don’t play that much, a few minutes here and there while I’m standing in a queue somewhere.

      I did find that, since I tend to be a bit on the obsessive side with many of my pursuits, it does help me to completely walk away from things rather than to try and moderate myself. So I haven’t turned on the TV in years, for instance, because I know that if I got into some new show I’d be binge watching it for hours each day. So it’s best to just not touch. Last week I gave myself one TV watching day and I realized I didn’t know what to watch, I was so out of the loop.

      It’s similar with books, I used to read a lot but when I pick up a book I have the need to just power through it, no matter how many hours it takes, and this shoves aside all other activities. So I only read on vacations, or while I’m traveling, when there’s naturally lots of free time to fill.

  2. It’s funny, I’d been thinking about just how MUCH learning you have to do as a young kid. It’s craaaaaazy. Everything is new and it’s hard to know how to respond or make sense of it all.

    Lim my experience, the process of learning doesn’t seem to change all that much as we age… Actually, I suspect it probably gets harder because we feel like we’re supposed to know all this stuff already, and we’re not in the habit of learning all the time. I know I sometimes feel stupid or get frustrated with myself when I don’t know how to do something straight away, and I sometimes let it discourage me from doing something new.

    But anyway, I figure if I can empathize with kids who get overwhelmed with all the new stuff they’re faced with, I could probably be a bit kinder to myself about it too.

    • It is really mad how much kids have to learn, and even more fascinating how easily they do it. All those new pathways blossoming in the brain. It gets harder when you grow older but if you get yourself into the habit you can still make decent progress.

      I think embarrassment often blocks us from pursuing things we would enjoy or find useful – we are used to being able to do things well, and we’re not ready to face the vulnerability that comes with being a total beginner at something, and essentially sucking at it for a while before you start to get good. ‘Starting is what stops most people’, as they say. I like to learn new things kind of in secret, so people don’t have to see my initial failures. But I find as I’m growing older I’m finding less and less energy to care about what other people think, so even failing in public is starting to appear less bad 🙂 And learning stuff has definitely improved my life in so many ways.

      But it’s still exhausting to do it all the time.

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