Choosing Better Projects In Tricky Times
Times are tricky and our well-being is critical. Critical because we matter, and because we are all deeply interconnected and we have friends, families and communities to show up for.
We can make choices that impact our well-being without drastically changing our lives.
By well-being I don’t mean standing on a hilltop in golden light with our hands in the air. I mean feeling well. Not happy but OK. Feeling that we have the resources available to us to get through our day no matter how splendid or devastating that day may be.
The basics of well-being are of course getting enough sleep, eating well, moving our bodies and having shelter and belonging.
And then, if our survival needs are sorted we can look at our emotional needs, the components of well-being. Well-being as a practice of managing our emotional health by actively creating an inner life that is well nurtured.
There are a million ways of thinking about how to have an inner life that is well nurtured. Philosophers, writers, artists, psychologists, scientists, teachers and electricians have been pondering these questions since time began. And we can use any of the frameworks out there to think about it but for ease of explanation I am going to talk briefly about one.
PERMA: is a recipe for flourishing put forward by the Positive Psychology movement a couple of decades ago. It suggests that when we engage we consciously engage with these five elements to actively enhance our well-being.
Engagement or flow
Relationships - I think of this as connection.
When I talk about craft I often say that making supports us in our everyday, connects us to ourselves, our values, our community and our world, and ultimately changes us.
I believe that how it supports us and connects us and changes us is because we are engaging with PERMA.
I believe making has the power to profoundly impact our well-being when practiced with consideration and intention. And it impacts our well-being even when we are simply dabbling. But by practicing it with consideration and intention then we can use it to deeply nurture ourselves. To take it to the next level - so to speak.
Now obviously PERMA is just one framing how to think about well-being and what it is to live a good life but I believe it is a really useful structure as it is practical especially when we overlay this thinking onto our making practice.
Regardless of what framework we use it’s important to note that the choices we make about how to spend our time influence how much fuel we have in our well-being tanks. And these choices include the choices we make in our craft.
Better choices can help us fill our tanks.
So… often what happens when we hit overwhelm and things feel big and uncertain is that that is when we tend to toss our good habits out the window. We feel like we are a bit in survival mode and so we make allowances, which is really important. Sometimes survival mode is all we can do and that is of course fine.
But often there comes a point in time when we need more than survival. When we need true nurturing. When we get to that point, it’s really important that we try to clear our head and make better choices.
Now better choices are hard. As I’ve been writing this post I’ve just eaten 7 chocolate eggs. Seven. Even though I know that in an hour or two they are going to make me feel tired and right now they have made me feel a bit sick. And they were milk chocolate and in my old age dairy isn’t going so well for me.
So I’m not saying it’s easy or that any of us are good at it. Well some people might be, but I don’t know many of them, and all the people I love struggle with it.
What I am saying, is that while better choices are hard - in the words of Glennon or Brene - we can do hard things! Especially when by doing those hard things we make ourselves feel much much better.
So what does this have to do with our craft?
So glad you asked.
Our craft is often a source of support, connection and becoming for all of us. And yet, when things get tricky my craft behaviour tends to disintergrate. Because I have fewer emotional resources to call on I start making some really non-helpful choices in what to choose to make. I begin making choices that do not serve me as support, connection and becoming, and instead, like the chocolate eggs, make me feel a little sick.
Overwhelm for me means that I start starting projects - quick projects, easy projects, shiny projects. I start a lot of things because starting is fun, full of possibility and is yet to have anything difficult associated with it. And so I start fun thing after fun thing after fun thing until I am swamped by half-finished, half-baked, meaningless projects that I won’t remember in six months time. It is junk craft. But it is also junk craft that adds to my sense of out-of-controlness and overwhelm. The number of projects I start begins to make crafting feel like an overwhelming chore - a responsibility to get this stuff done.
We all have ways to numb - wine, food, scrolling, shopping, criticising, bingeing of many assorted kinds. And numbing can sometimes be an incredibly important tool to manage when times are overwhelming, it is also important to be conscious that that is what we are doing, because numbing doesn’t refill the tank. In fact numbing can even deplete the tank further.
Like junk food makes us feel bad and actively decreases the health of our bodies so do junk craft projects. And for me this is because I know in my heart of hearts that my time would be better spent elsewhere doing something that is deeply nurturing for me. This kind of craft is numbing the feelings rather than sitting with them.
Now obviously what is junk craft to me isn’t junk craft to you. While I start things in overwhelm I have another friend who finds that in overwhelm the idea of starting anything just feels too big. So she doesn’t start. She thinks about it and procrastinates and thinks about it and avoids some more. And yet she knows that if she had a project going then it would be a source of well-being for her…..
But for me overwhelm looks like starting things that don’t make me that happy in the long term. At this moment, over the last few weeks I have started a sock, knitted two baby sweaters for unknown babies, unravelled a shawl and started reknitting it, cut out two pairs of baby pants that I don’t know when I have time to do them. I have also started and ripped out two other shawls and written about 15 half-arsed unpublishable blog posts.
None of these projects have made me feel good because none of them are the types of projects that matter to me. Some of them were fun in the moment. And so I could give them a tick for support. I could also give them a tick for connection because they were connecting with the part of me that needed to numb. But then didn’t fill the tank because I don’t care about them. And they increase my overwhelm dramatically as I can see them littered around as evidence that I am not finishing things and not following through and am overwhelmed.
In the language of PERMA - while they had positive emotion (and were somewhat fun) this was diminished by their junk food nature. They also had a small sense of achievement. They did not however have any engagement, connection or meaning to me. In fact looking at them from where I sit now just makes me feel annoyed by myself and the time “wasted” that I could have spent on projects that do have meaning for me.
Often it takes me a while to notice I’m numbing. But when I do, I try to stop, take a beat and choose to do something life affirming and tank-refilling.
But what does a tank-filling, deeply-nurturing project look like?
Well I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and I’ve come up with a really simple way of figuring it out. All it takes is a simple wander through my house - because the things we care about are visible to us, because we are so deeply connected to them!!!
As I wander through the things that I’ve made that are most meaningful to me - that give me a long term sense of joy and satisfaction and engagement and achievement and meaning and connection are the things that I have made that;
are things that now give me positive emotion every time I see them - POSITIVE EMOTION
were deeply aligned with my values - MEANING
were things that I have made that have made me feel deeply connected to the people I love - CONNECTION
were things that were technically hard or challenging or slow or required some kind of emotional omph from me - ENGAGEMENT and ACHIEVEMENT
Again it comes back to these key ingredients that fill our tanks.
So when things get tricky and I notice myself choosing to make things that are like popcorn - delicious in the moment but don’t fill me up - then I consciously try to sit down, take a beat and choose a good mean - projects that I know will give me the tank-filling fuel I need to elevate my well-being.
I’m still crafting. I’m just consciously choosing the projects based on what I know will give me the most life-affirming, deeply nurturing outcome.
A simple example of life-affirming, deeply nurturing craft is the number of people around the globe that are making masks at the moment. Masks that are meaningful, that are incredibly connected, that engage us in this moment, fill us with positive emotion and give us a sense of achievement. Masks that are all about our collective well-being and an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness that has become so obvious in this moment.
For me I know that it is projects like the quilt I am working on for my daughter’s 10th birthday in October - a quilt that brings us closer together as I make it - and that allows me to sit in meditation around who she is growing up to be. This quilt - like the two I have made for her brother and sister before her - are some of the most special things I have made. They fill me with a sense of connectedness, every time I pick it up off the floor of a bedroom or watch them snuggled under it doing homework.
Or the sweater I am making for my partner. Version II of Hugo by Brooklyn Tweed. It isn’t numbing craft as I have to have some level of awareness to engage with it but knowing that he loves the last version to literal pieces AND knowing that his old version is now more darn than moss stitch makes the concentrating feel meaningful and provide me with a deep sense of achievement.
The choice to engage with these projects rather than to crack out another baby sweater is part of my making practice as it is to choose well-being, active becoming, and deep nurturing. Put simply, they make me feel good in a lasting way.
So while numbing craft, comfort craft, mindless craft are all incredibly valid choices at this time, for me I’m at a stage now where I need to do something more nurturing. I need to make a conscious choice to actively look at what projects best provide me with well-being and choosing them.
The three steps in this “process”…
Wander around your house (or your phone assuming you take photos of your makes) to find the things you have made that give you the most lasting joy/achievement/connection/meaning/engagement.
Understand what it is about those projects that gave you that sense.
Actively choose more of those projects even if that is harder than mindlessly carefreely moving from thing to thing.
Love your thoughts… what do you find yourself doing in overwhelm?
* This post is written based on the assumption we are mentally well. When we are mentally unwell this is not always easy and often best done with the help of a professional mental health provider.