Rebel Uprising Podcast

Creating Time & Focus for Your Speaking with Jessica Abel

Is time not on your side when it comes to putting in the effort with your speaking?

There just doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day to pitch for speaking gigs, to write your signature talk, and to really put yourself out there as a speaker.

If this is you, and I'll raise my hand right now, this is totally me, then you'll want to grab a pen and a piece of paper to listen to our guest expert today, Jessica Abel.

She is a cartoonist, an author, an educator, and a speaker, herself. And she knows all about the challenges around finding the time to do work that matters to you.

Jessica's the author of the book “Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You're Drowning in Your Daily Life”. She's also the chair of the illustration program at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

And she loves to help creative people with big ideas, and that's me and you, get past procrastination and anxiety and get on with the business of making their game-changing creative work real in the world.

Welcome to the Rebel Speaker Podcast, Jessica.

Prefer to listen?

Jessica:              Thank you. It's so much fun to be here. I'm really happy to be here.

Michelle:          I'm so excited to have you. People in our Facebook group were so excited when I told them  I was having someone come on to talk about finding time for your creative work as well as time for your speaking. Time and focus is one area where we all  really need a lot of help.

So, to start, here's the question for you. Why do people struggle to create time for their creative work? Or, in this case, with speakers, why are they struggling to create time to write their signature talk, or pitch for speaking opportunities?

Seeing Speaking as a Vital Task

Jessica:              Well, I think the core of the problem is that it is self-generated creative work.  Speakers are not the only people with this problem, there are plenty of other creative people who have parallel problems.

In self-generated creative work, nobody's assigning it to you.  There's no boss who's like “Where's your speech or talk?”. There's no deadline for this except there are deadlines over and over again for pitching, of course. But there's always going to be another deadline. There's always going to be another thing.

And the fact that it's self-generated means that what it requires is a level of self-belief that's really difficult for people to maintain day to day.

A level of believing that this way of spending your time is the most important way to spend your time.

Of course,  people give lip service to it all the time. I'm sure you have people in your group who say, “This is the most important thing for me, this is what I want to be doing with my life.   I want to be a speaker it's so important.” However,  when it comes down to actually putting it in the calendar and spending time on it, everything else comes up first.

It's about holding on to that belief and saying, “Okay, yes, this is important enough to me to take this other thing that's also important and put it on the side.”.

I am sure you know about the Eisenhower Grid, that uses urgency versus importance.When I work with my students, I've translated that because urgent and important doesn’t mean as much to me as vital and pressing.

Vital work is what in an Eisenhower Grid considers important work. Vital work is the work that builds your future, that builds the life you want to have; both on a personal level and on a professional level.

The other side of the matrix is pressing work, which is work that's right there in your face. This is work that screams “do it now,” and “You gotta do this thing, it's coming up!”

The pressing work can be work-related, or family related.  But it’s work that needs to take precedence, of a kind.

The absolute hardest thing to do is to prioritize work that's vital, but not pressing at all.

Michelle:          There are several things I want to unpack in this.

First, this notion of self-belief is that you have this deadline, or you don't have a deadline. There's no one who's checking in and seeing if you're doing your talk or pitching.

And even though we say to people, “Oh yeah, speaking is my thing. I'm going to do this.” How do we increase our self-belief so that it's worth it? Especially if we have tried pitching in the past. And maybe you get crickets in the inbox or thanks, but no thanks. And it starts making you feel like “Oh, this work isn't important.”.

Jessica:              I think that's a really tricky question. And I don't know that I have a really great answer for it. I think that the main thing, for me, would be simply acknowledging that it's hard.

This is something that's hard to believe. Starting there, with the sense that, it's okay to have doubts about this. Everybody has doubts about this. You know, it's an imposter syndrome problem to a certain extent.

But the way that you get better at writing talks, giving talks, pitching for talks is by doing it. So if you are doing it – then you are a speaker.

That is your thing, if you're doing it. You have to embrace that day to day action without necessarily paying too much attention to results, initially.

Work on letting the action itself be the reward. That sounds completely unsatisfactory, I realize that. But everyone has to work on ways to banish that feeling of “I am not worthy of this and people don't care.”.

We're talking here about self belief. It's about saying “I deserve to spend time with myself and my own ideas are worthy.”. It comes down to that.  At this point it has nothing to do with whether other people accept your ideas, or want to hear them, or care or not.. It's about whether you feel like what you have to say is worth saying.

Can you find a way to reaffirm to yourself that it's worth saying? Can you tell yourself that this is worth doing because the activity itself is worth doing. And I think if you can get to that base level then you can use that as sort of a jumping off point.

Michelle:          Yeah, I think you're hitting the nail on the head. That makes a lot of sense because it is about the activity, the pitching, the writing, the signature talk. And controlling what you can control.

For example,  I can control the effort that I put into writing my talk, or getting better at speaking, or doing outreach. I control all of that.

But I can't control what people will say or do as a response. So, it's really about reframing it and saying “It's a worthwhile investment of my time to do this no matter what the results are.”

Jessica:              Which is so hard. Because if you're not getting results, you're going to feel  “Ah, forget it, I mean, what's the point?”, right? But the way you get better at it, and the way you start getting results, is by continuing to work down that path.

The training that you do, Michelle, and the kinds of advice that you give about finding the idea at the core of your talk, and really braving that out. I think that really that fits in  super nicely with this.

The idea that you do need a big idea at the core of your signature talk. And that big idea is your idea. It's what you want to share with the world. You need to concentrate on what you want to share, what you want to bring out in other people, what you want to help them with.

Having a well thought out big idea sort of calculates that even if you aren't getting the talks that you want to get, you can still share that idea in lots of ways and start getting responses on it.

You can start  feeling like you are talking about something that people want to hear and begin to build an audience around what you want to talk about. So, blog posting, doing social media things on this big idea, this all builds up  as your platform.

Michelle:          I love that. I think that's really actionable. It also reminded me of Stephen King's book On Writing.  He talks about when he started out, how much writing he did and sending things out to people who might want to publish him and never hearing anything back. And he was just at it all of the time and as he was doing it he was getting better at his craft. So, he got to the point where he could get accepted.  Writing was a priority for him. If he didn't do it he wasn't breathing. So …

Jessica:              Right.

Michelle:          But, I think that that's a really high bar and that could be a problem.

Jessica:              It could be a high bar, but if you feel like you have something to share that will help people, start sharing it!  Start helping people and that will help reinforce this idea that it's worth doing.

Michelle:          Yeah. Absolutely. So, in your book which I love, I really needed to go through and read very carefully because there's so many great actionable ideas on how to create time and find your creative focus. What are some of the big obstacles that get in people's way from actually doing their creative work?

The Biggest Obstacles Keeping You from Your Creative Work

Jessica:              Well, there are all kinds of individual things in people's individual lives, right? So the laundry list of obstacles could be huge!  But I think the biggest obstacles fall under the big heading of dilemma.

When  I wrote the book I  brought together threads from many various places that I'd written before.  And when I did that I found that the number one thing that stops you from taking action is a dilemma.

A dilemma is a situation in which you have more that one option.  And of course, everyone will have different dilemmas depending on what they are struggling with at any given moment. The dilemma is that when you look at those  two or more options – knowing the positives and negatives – you still have to make a decision between them.  No matter what you do, you're sacrificing something, but you're also gaining something. And you have to make a really difficult decision between them.

Jessica:              So, an example of that would be, you can either work on your talk or you can cook a nice dinner and eat dinner with your spouse. And that’s hard, you know?

If you spend that time writing your talk you have to get take-out or eat frozen food. You're gonna eat, but it's not going to be that much fun and you're not going to have that much time.

This also means that you lose out on this time with your spouse, and the cooking which you may really enjoy, and having the perfect dinner, whatever it is. But you get no time for writing. Now, you see how this is a dilemma, right?

These are both very important things and I would not say either one is necessarily the correct choice on any given day. But at some point if you want to write the talk, you've gotta make some choices. And you have to make some sacrifices.

Another thing that  stops people and causes procrastinations, is not just having the choices to make, but not even knowing what the choices are. Not only do we have dilemmas, but they are hidden dilemmas. You don't think about the fact that the reason you don't want to sit down and write your talk tonight is that you haven't seen your spouse in, like, a week.

You know, you've been working late and busy, busy, and you really want to have this time. You don’t think about what the specific thing  that is what's stopping you on that particular day. And so, the key then is to really think about it and say, ” Why am I getting derailed here? What's stopping me? What is the choice I'm making?”.

Often once you do a little detective work you can often find that the choice is perhaps relatively easier to make.  After you are made more aware of what the specific choices in your dilemma are at any given moment.

Michelle:          Yeah. Well I love that idea that, it's a dilemma. You're weighing two things against each other and wondering, “I can spend time with my spouse and that's going to be really fulfilling, and it's good for our relationship, or I can spend time writing my talk and that's going to be fulfilling, as well, and it's gonna get my message out there.”  And, yeah, it’s about dealing with the trade-off. I like that way of thinking about that, so that you can actually prioritize.

Decide to Prioritize Speaking Ahead of Time

Jessica:              Right. And a lot of it depends what you actually need to do, really, it will help a lot if you can stop and figure out ahead of time what those choices are gonna be. And once you figure out what the choices are, then you decide before you get to that point which choice you're gonna make.

It could be either choice. I'm gonna sacrifice my writing time to have dinner tonight because it's really important, or vice versa. But, you decide before the point of decision so that you're primed for that.

Michelle:          Exactly.  Then you’re not spinning your wheels and wasting time thinking about your options – you know what they are and you know what choices you want to make.

Jessica:              It’s easier to keep to the decision because you have already made the decision. And yeah you might backslide and not do the thing you said you were gonna do. That always happens, or can happen, but it helps you along the way. And, also, the cost that you are paying, whatever the price is you're paying, the thing you're sacrificing feels like you've already taken it into consideration.

How Idea Debt Could Derail Your Speaking

Michelle:          Yes. So, one of my favorite concepts from your book is this idea of idea debt. Your blog post on this subject  went, pretty much, viral! I found it fascinating, so can you explain what is idea debt? And how do you think it impacts speakers?

Jessica:              Idea debt is a term that Kazu Kibuishi, the cartoonist, came up with. Basically, it's about getting too invested in an idea before you actually put the work into it.

His  metaphor, which I thought was really good, is that he's a snowboarder.  When he goes snowboarding he would see these young guys  at the top of the jumps.  They are just standing there looking at the jumps, like, studying, like “How is that gonna go?”

Basically, those guys they are getting idea debt as they stand there. They're getting physically colder, so less capable of actually making the jump. Also,the image of what the jump should look like is getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger until they're overwhelmed by it. And they're becoming less and less likely to actually make the jump.  This taught him to “either take the jump, or skip it, one or the other.”

And both those sides represented something very interesting to me. The “Take the jump idea” is basically talking about perfectionism. Having image of, in the case of your listeners, what your talk is gonna do, and the change it's gonna make in the world, and how famous you're gonna be, and all of this stuff.

And, so, you can't even figure out what your big idea is or write your signature speech because it's just too overwhelming. You know, you can't hit that “imagined” mark.

The  other piece of it, which is the “skip it” part, was equally interesting to me. I don't think Kazu was really talking about this, but to me it immediately brought up this idea that most people who are big thinkers, creatives have so many ideas, all the time. And often you'll end up carrying around  some idea for something you wanted to do ten years ago, but you still feel like you have to do it. Because you had that idea, you think you somehow owe it to yourself to finish this thing.

You know one of the things you talk about a lot, having one big idea,  I think is super smart. And not just for your talk, but in general. This is the thing you talk about, this is what you are  known for.

I've been know for all kinds of things in the past. And I'm known for lots of different things. But the thing I'm working on being known for right now is helping creative people actually make their work and get it into world. I don't have a one word description for that yet, maybe  you can help me out with that, Michelle.

So, that's what I'm doing and I'm trying to keep it very, very focused like that. And if I have other ideas, which I do all the time, I have to just jettison those ideas. Or, if I feel like they are too important to lose I'll keep a list of them.  But even keeping a list of “something I can do someday”  can be a burden. You think,  “Oh, I've got my someday, someday maybe list.”

And that can keep you from focusing on the thing that's right in front of you. It can break your focus to have more than one project.

So I teach my students to have one goal at a time. And, so, idea debt is having too many things and trying to  juggle them all. Trying to, basically, allocate brain space, and time on the calendar to all kinds of different things instead of choosing one.

Even for people who do have multiple things they want to do, I say “One now, do one right now and finish it, and then move on to the next thing.”And the act of doing that, making that decision is transformational. You know, it changes everything.

Michelle:          Now, I love that because that's where I see speakers really getting stuck.  They have all of these ideas for their talk. Or, “Oh, I could talk about this, or I can talk about that.”. And they haven't focused on the one thing they want to be known for.

Just  getting started in speaking is pretty overwhelming. And there are all these experts with their “shoulds.” New speakers hear people telling them “Oh, you should have a sizzle reel. Oh, you should have a speaker's one sheet. Oh, you should be making ten cold calls a day. Oh, you should, should, should.”

I know you also talk about the should monster, so we are kind of going into that. But, “should”  takes them away from their focus and acting on that focus.  Since you have such a clear goal of helping creatives get their work into the world, you can evaluate an idea and say “Is this going to help with that? Or is it a distraction?” And if it's a distraction you can just clear away.

Jessica:              Right! For example, I'm also really well known for storytelling, and for storytelling. . And full disclosure here, I am one of Michelle's clients and we wrote an awesome talk, which I have not pitched anywhere.

And part of the reason I’m not pitching is that I did all kinds of speaking and workshops in the last year, but all on storytelling. And all because people came to me and I didn't pitch my talk on creative, so the gigs were just coming to me and I was like “Okay, well, my speaking calendar is full, but I'm not talking about the thing I want to be talking about.”.

So now, whenever I have ideas having to do with storytelling, even though I'm really well-known for that and it's something that I really enjoy doing I have to say no. I very painfully have to take those things and set them aside and tell myself “Okay, maybe I'll get back to this.” It's not that it doesn't dovetail with what I'm doing, but if I try to talk about the storytelling  it's really gonna distract from what the message is right now. It's really hard. I mean, I know it's hard.

Michelle:          Oh, I know. You are literally slamming the door on an opportunity and saying “No, not that, not right now, maybe someday.” And there are people out there who say, especially for speakers, “You should speak any time you can.” And you have to be firm with yourself, and so nope, not if it derails me.

Jessica:              Yeah. Let's say if somebody calls me up and says “I've got a gig for you.” And they ask me to talk about the storytelling or talk about my book “Out on the Wire” and I'm like, “Okay, I'll go.” ‘ll do it, but I don't pitch those things. I'm not trying to build that topic out. That's where I draw the line for myself. I still have to do work on those things, but I try to draw a line somewhere.

Michelle:          Yeah. So, what's one thing speakers can do right now to start creating the time for their speaking? What's one good action?

One Action to Start Creating Time for Your Speaking Right Now

Jessica:              Okay. They should plan tomorrow. They should plan out tomorrow. Plan an hour by hour calendar for tomorrow. And if tomorrow's completely full, make it the next day.

They should print out or draw a calendar of Take a calendar of their full waking hours, and start by marking out all the time that's already committed. So, if you're going to be at your job and you can't do anything you have to mark that out. If you're gonna be commuting, you have to mark that out. If you're gonna be eating breakfast, or taking a shower, you have to mark that out. If you, every night, watch a T.V. show and you're gonna watch a T.V. show, mark it out. Don't pretend that you're not the person you already are.

Obviously, you have to figure out ways to create spaces in the schedule to do this work. And, so, maybe you say “Okay. Tomorrow, I'm not going to watch the T.V. show.”

Or, more likely it's “Okay. Well, instead of sitting around the office for another half an hour talking to people and having coffee, I'm gonna get right on the train and get home. And on the way on the train I'm gonna start writing out a list of things I'm gonna work on when I get home.” And, so, then you’ve created the time that you're gonna work on your talk.

But this mitigates the idea of dilemma by making these decisions ahead of time.

Not at the moment, but beforehand. Decide, what are you going to do and then what time is available to you. And over time you will  find efficiencies. Not necessarily by cutting things out, I mean, you  still have to  shower, you're still gonna eat breakfast, you know? But, by grouping activities together you leave a little bit more time, and that's when you can find a window for beginning to work.

Ideally do this a week out ahead and you plan chunks of time throughout your week that you've got time to work on your talk. Or work on pitching. But, just to keep it as ultra-simple, just plan one day at a time so it doesn't get overwhelming.

Michelle:          I love that because it's a twist on time blocking because everybody tells you, “Oh, time block your calendar.”

I have tried time blocking and I have failed miserably at time blocking.  What  I like about this is I can sit down tonight at the end of my day and look at tomorrow and see what I'm doing when, and block out the time. So great. So actionable.

The final question I have for you was  the biggest question everybody was asking in the Rebel Speaker Facebook group. So, you're making progress. You're doing work. It's going well. And then all of a sudden, you get derailed. You know, your car breaks down. You get sick. Your child gets sick. How do you get back on track after you get derailed?

How to Get Back on Track with Speaking After Life Got in the Way

Jessica:              My number one tip for this is forgive yourself. Just start by forgiving yourself, by saying “That's life, it happens.”

It's not even really being derailed, it's just a pattern that happens in life. That you have times when you can work really hard, and times when you can't because something else happens.

Looking at it as a repeating pattern instead of like you're on a train and all of a sudden boom you're crashed and everything's ruined, that's self defeating.

You know? This is life, this is what life is like. I was teaching a cohort of the Creative Focus Workshop last November. Do I need to say anymore? (The US election)

We were in the middle of week three in November, so, yeah, people got super derailed. And for a really long time, it really took a while to get back but it's like “This is what life is like.”

So, start with forgiving yourself and saying “Normal, it's fine.” And make a schedule for tomorrow. Block out tomorrow. But, start with the forgiveness, please.

Michelle:          Yeah. Because I think people are really hard on themselves. Like, “Oh, I was doing all of this great outreach.” Or, “I've been really working on the talk.” And then bam something happens, and they’re like “Oh, I suck.”

Jessica:              Even if it's like “Oh, I started reading a novel and I couldn't put it down and then I didn't get enough sleep and so I couldn't work for, you know, I had to catch up for a couple days.” Okay. Welcome to life. You know?

Remember how we talked in the beginning about this is self-generated creative work? There's no deadline. There is no deadline.  You just need to keep  moving toward the goal that you want to hit. You know, it's gonna be intermittent, but if you know you're moving the right direction, then you're doing what you need to be doing to do your vital work. And that's what's really important.

Michelle:          Yeah. I love that. So, Jessica, this has been amazing. So many great actionable insights for speakers to actually create that time to do their creative work to get their message. Where can people find you online? And where can we get your book?

Jessica:              Oh, well, it's easy to find me. I'm at and you can find my book at And also, on Amazon it’s available as an e-book, or an actual print on demand paper book, which is way more fun to me, but, you know. Depends on how you like to roll.

Michelle:          Yeah. And I have to say do pick up Jessica's book. It has been really great for me to re immerse myself into your work, because it's so applies to everything that I'm doing as a creative entrepreneur and somebody who is trying to get my message out into the world. So, pick up “Growing Gills” at Jessica's website or at Amazon. And, thank you so much for spending time with us on the Rebel Speaker Podcast.

Jessica:              Thank you for having me.

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