Time for creative projects
As promised last month, this month I thought I’d write a bit about finding time to do creative projects. People often ask me how I do it—especially when they find out I’m a parent of young children. “Where do you find the time?” they say.
168 hours a week
The thing is, I don’t have to find it; I already have it. You do too. We all do. We all have the same amount of time in our lives—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, 8,760 hours a year (and 8,784 in a leap year). We may feel like we have less (or more, though people generally don’t feel like they have more time). But in reality, we all have the same amount of time. It’s just that we all have different demands on our time.
See, we all have time, but we don’t always have control of how we can spend that time. A certain amount of time must be spent on certain things—housework (as I discussed at length in this post), eating, sleeping, commuting, working in your paid job, raising children, maintaining your relationship with your partner (if you have one) and so on. Some of that time is non-negotiable: if you want to earn your salary, you need to put in the hours and have something to show for it, or you’ll get fired. If you want your kids to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, you need to spend time feeding them, clothing them, talking to them, nurturing them, shuttling them to and from school and other activities, being there for them, and so on. And if you want to prevent your marriage from disintegrating, you have to spend time working on the relationship—checking in with one another, having fun with one another, being intimate, working through problems together, maybe even going to marriage counselling together. (Please note there is no shame in going to marriage counselling. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you’re willing to work on stuff. More couples should go—and long before they find themselves on the brink of divorce.)
That said, there is always some portion of time—no matter how small—that is negotiable: there are no particular demands on it and you can choose how you want to spend it. Most of us tend to spend that time on rest and recreation, which is a perfectly wonderfully way to spend it, because rest and recreation are important and restorative, and act as valuable fuel for the rest of your life. But some of us choose to spend at least some of that negotiable time on making art. And because that time is so small, often we yearn for more.
The thing is, for all for us, time is a finite resource: once it’s gone, you can’t get more of it. There’s no way to increase your 168 hours per week to 170. You can’t buy more. You can’t steal more. You can’t get time from someone else to extend your life the way that people do in that 2011 Andrew Niccol film In Time, where time literally is money. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). He’s right: you can’t. (Believe me, I’ve tried!)
Instead, our task is to spend our time wisely—to make the most of what we have—what we have been given. As Moses sang in the Book of Psalms, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). We all have 168 hours per week; how are you going to use yours?
That said, not all time is the same: it changes throughout the day. Or rather, our experience of it changes throughout the day. At the risk of repeating myself in this post, I’ve found the chapter on the daily pattern we all traverse in terms of our energy levels and output in Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing quite helpful: after waking, we rise to a peak at around lunchtime, which is then followed by an afternoon trough (or “slump time”, as I like to call it), a smaller peak in the late afternoon/early evening and then a gradual decline towards bedtime. Contrary to what many in society might actual think, we are humans, not machines; we can’t be “on” all the time.
Our days follow roughly the same shape (peak, trough, smaller peak, decline), but as Pink also points out, we start that shape at different times, according to our chronotype. Some of us are larks and rise early. (I’m definitely not one of them.) Some of us are night owls and rise late. But most of us are what Pink calls “third birds”: we fall somewhere in the middle and wake—not as early as larks, but not as late as owls. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was rather disappointed to discover that I was a third bird and not a natural night owl, which is what I’d been calling myself). If you’re interested in finding out your own chronotype, do the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ). If the results of that aren’t satisfactory, another way to figure it out is to fill out Pink’s daily tracker worksheet, which directs you to write down what you’re doing, how alert you feel mentally and how energised you are physically every 90 minutes. Depending on your chronotype, you’ll start the daily pattern at a different time of day to the rest of the population, so the shape of your day—the rise of your energy levels—may look slightly different.
Even accounting for the daily pattern, our energy tends to fluctuate in 90-minute cycles: Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project says these cycles are derived from our ultradian rhythm: we rise to a peak part-way through the cycle (which is roughly 90 minutes long—so the peak occurs at about 45 minutes in) and then decline towards a trough. He recommends taking a 15-minute break every 90-minutes before getting stuck into things again. He also recommends doing things (like resting) to boost your energy, as energy, unlike time, is not a finite resource, it’s a renewable one. (For more about that, check out his talk, “The myths of the overworked creative” or this summary.) Your energy levels are obviously affected by all sorts of things—how much rest you’ve had (or not had!), how much exercise you’ve done, what’s currently stressing you out, and so on. But according to Schwartz’s thinking, if you can manage and control those things, you can boost your energy and thus your productivity in the time you have.
That said (and as I said earlier), not all of us have total control over our time: our time is often shaped by external factors—even for those who lean more towards the unstructured/spontaneous end of the spectrum. The patterns of the day can end up falling into blocks that fit around, say, the 9 to 5 workday, the school run or the baby’s feeding schedule. I don’t see this as a negative: if anything, it’s a positive, because endless time actually isn’t actually that helpful for productivity. In fact, having endless time can be absolutely terrifying because it contains so much potential and it can be wasted in so many possible ways. Having pre-existing fences around your time is actually quite helpful in the same way that having good interpersonal boundaries helps you to thrive.
Making the most of the time
So to bring all this together, where can you find the time to fit in creative work? Here are a few suggestions that might be helpful, depending on your circumstances:
- Schedule it in: Figure out your chronotype and the periods each day when you are more likely to be productive. It might be in the early morning before the break of dawn. It might be late at night after the household has gone to bed. It probably won’t be after lunch during the afternoon slump. Once you’ve worked that out, look at your daily and weekly timetable, and the natural rhythms/externally imposed boundaries they place on your time. See where you might be able to fit in some creative work—but make sure that these blocks of time are as close as possible to your most productive periods. It may not be possible, but perhaps there’s a morning or two—or an evening or two—that you can reserve for yourself. An hour and a half is ideal (bearing in mind your ultradian cycle—90 minutes). If you can’t manage that, see if you can squeeze in even 30 minutes. Anything is better than nothing. Once you’ve scheduled it, stick to it. (For me, I currently have Tuesdays child-free, so after I’ve finished drop-offs, I go to a café and write for a bit, and then move to the library and write for a bit longer. I usually stop around lunch time and try to spend the rest of the time on R&R.) You may not get much done in that 30 minutes. But remember that a little is better than nothing. And maybe once you get into the routine of things, you may be able to block out more time.
- Use your incidental time: Incidental time happens in the corners: it’s the time you spend standing in queues, commuting to and from work, sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms, or even watching your kids play in the playground. If you can, try to make the most of that time: get out your phone and scribble down some story ideas; let your mind chew over that plot problem you’re having trouble untangling; daydream and let those unrelated connections come together to fuel your creativity. It’s surprising how much creative work you can actually do in the corners of your time—often when you’re supposed to be doing something else. (Remember the Zeigarnik effect, which I talked about in this post.) I once outlined the plot for a children’s picture book on my phone while following my then two-year-old around the IKEA showroom floor. Normally parenting and writing don’t mix, but it did that time.
- Boost your energy: If you have no choice but to schedule creative work during slump time, one way to make the time work better for you is to make sure you take decent rest before you go into slump time. Daniel Pink has a list of helpful ways to reinvigorate yourself in When that don’t actually take up much time. But, as Tony Schwartz says, energy is a renewable resource, so boost your energy by trying to make sure that you’ve slept well and rested well before you embark on creative work during slump time. If that doesn’t work and your mind and body are still choosing to rebel, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, roll with it: make the most of it by using the time to feed yourself with creator medicine. Watch a movie. Read a book. Passively consume things that will enrich you creatively. And don’t feel guilty about doing any of that: it’s still creative work.
- Be realistic with yourself: That said, often creative work is hard going—particularly when other things in your life are going poorly. It’s helpful to acknowledge all of that and be compassionate towards yourself, instead of beating yourself up for not meeting some arbitrary high standard that you’ve set for yourself. As David M Barnett tweeted, “Time to write is an under-acknowledged privilege that a lot of us take for granted.” Not everyone can write 2,000 words a day (particularly not those who have to get dinner on the table every night, says Ann Patchett!) Not everyone can clear some time to do creative work—particularly if you’re a single mother of three who works full-time. Some people have chronic health problems that mean they’re barely functioning for most of the day. Talitha Kalago, author of Half a Million Words in Nine Months: The time management guide for finishing your manuscript, struggles with a range of chronic health problems, but still manages to be productive in the time she has. If this is something you struggle with too, the following posts may be helpful:
- Naomi Dunford on “How To Stay Amazingly Productive On Low Energy Days”: here Naomi talks about how she allocates tasks for different times based on her energy levels.
- Colleen Doran’s series on brain fog: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
- Deal with time sucks: With limited time—specifically limited quality time—for creative work, we don’t want to be wasting it by video hopping on YouTube, getting sucked into games or scrolling endlessly through social media. Part of the problem is that a lot of our entertainment options these days are designed to be addictive: they’re designed to activate the dopamine/reward centres of our brain so that we experience an almost Pavlovian response when we achieve that “win” or receive certain notifications. Some of these things are also designed to be intrusive—to interrupt whatever we’re currently doing and grab our attention so that we’ll be drawn to our phones, instead of concentrating on the task at hand. If you suspect this might be a problem for you, there are apps you can install on both computers and phones that monitor and report your activity so you can see first-hand what is sucking up your time. But there are other ways to deal with time sucks. Try the following:
- Acknowledge to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you depressed? Do you have a psychological need for attention? Are you just bored? If so, maybe it’s better to treat your feelings in other ways that don’t eat as much time and that are more effective than scrolling endlessly through Facebook.
- Limit your distractions during creative work time. Turn off notifications. Put your phone on airplane mode. Use Freedom to block certain apps. Create two logins on your computer: one for personal stuff and one for creative stuff. (This might end up being annoying, though; let me know if it works for you!) “DO NOT DISTURB” is your friend. If anyone tries to contact you, get back to them later; most of the time, it’s not urgent, and it’s ridiculous to make yourself available to everyone every hour of the day.
- Be sensible: if you’re trying to work and you’re having trouble focusing or concentrating, or you’re finding yourself nodding off, maybe the problem is you haven’t had enough rest (and by “rest”, I mean both the sleep variety and the leisure variety; everyone needs to waste time sometimes because wasting time is an important curative for good mental health). Rest, as I said earlier, is valuable fuel for energy, so don’t neglect it.
- Do what you can with the time you have: It may not be much, but it’s all still useful and helpful in the long-run. Sometimes, as a way to warm up, I start with morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way), or I have a dedicated journal that I use for scribbling 100-word exercises—little scenes or flash fiction that aren’t for anything except my amusement only. Sometimes I just write about the thing I’m working on instead of writing the actual thing. (I feel like it’s the writing equivalent of sketching or doing rough layouts in comics, and I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it until I had a conversation with Louie Joyce, who pointed out that often the hard work happens at that stage, because you’re making key decisions about how things should look and work—decisions that pay off later when you’re building on that foundational work during the pencilling/inking/colouring stage.) As I said, it’s not much, but it’s still all valuable.
- Supercharge your creative practice: For some people, showing up is all they need to do to get the creative juices flowing. For others, something more is needed. As I said in this post, sometimes setting timers helps as it puts a fence around the time and only locks you in for a short period, forcing you to be productive. Sometimes leaving things half-finished is an easy way in the next time you have a chance to work on something. Sometimes a bit of preparation is all you need: recently I’ve been struck by this blog post, “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach and what she wrote about the triangle of knowledge, time and enthusiasm: once she worked out what she was writing before she wrote it (knowledge) and she figured out worked best for her in terms of time of day and length of time (time) and she identified the hooks that made her excited to write particular scenes (enthusiasm), her output went up in a phenomenal way. And this was while she was looking after a newborn!
It’s difficult to find time to do creative work—difficult, but not impossible. Life can be very busy and very crowded. But even in the chaos of the day-to-day and your never-ending To Do list, you can still find the time. You just need to want to do it.