Monday, April 30, 2012

Making Time To Create

When I give workshops or panels or even when I'm just hanging out, the number one question I get asked is "How do you have time for all the things you do?"

Now some people get asked this question and they can point to the fact that they're one steep staircase away from a heart attack and they'll look to their marriages disintegrating in the few minutes they pry themselves away from their cubicles, and they say, "I work really hard."

But that's not a really satisfactory answer, because everyone works hard. I mean, yes, there is that segment of the population who espouses the philosophy that life shouldn't be work and it shouldn't be hard, and while they're partially right, these are also people I've noticed who do a lot of wishing about how their life will be later, like they're waiting for the Life-bus to pull up and whisk them away to Happy Success Land where they don't have to do more than blink and be showered in fat stacks of cash.

That is an awesome lifestyle. For most people, that's also an awesome fantasy. You say that to people coming out of offices and sitting in rush hour traffic, you'll be lucky if they don't break your nose and fatten your lip. We are raised to understand that doing work generates rewards, most often financial. And over time we've evolved this idea to separate the fun out of our jobs, so that we work "dayjobs" and like Batman (minus the wealth, minus the costume, minus the utility belt) we prowl for fun once the sun goes down, or at least until the alarm clock goes off and you have drag yourself kicking and screaming to that building with that job and that boss and deal with shit.

I decided when I was sixteen that I would never work a "real" job that wasn't fun. I decided this while working a register at my local pharmacy, handing out drugs, condoms and wine (that store sold everything) to local people. That job was not glamorous and I often ended up sitting on a stool behind a counter listening to soft-rock and waiting for the local drunks to show up to buy lottery tickets. I had to manufacture my own fun. I wrote, I read, I kept myself out of trouble. That job did teach me a lot, I learned way more chemistry and science than I ever did in school, and I also learned how to make my own schedule. I was in charge of me and my time, so I could, if I wanted, block myself into one task for hours (as I had already discovered that if I moved slowly enough, refilling a beer cooler could take 3 hours).

What I didn't know is that years later I'd be taking that same scheduling mentality with me wherever I went. These things don't occur to teenagers I guess. So now, more than sixteen years later, I have an answer for that question.

I make time.

Now, (and thankfully) I don't have to drag myself out of bed when some alarm clock blares. And I don't have to slog my way through some commute to sit in an office, probably while wearing a tie, and deal with paperwork and projects and action-items. I get to roll out of bed, make breakfast, check my Google calendar and then start reading or writing. Then I get hungry, so I eat something (or I get reminded to eat), and then I repeat the reading/writing portion of the day until I get tired of it, then I go play a game or watch TV or something. That's my whole day. And I do this, every day, all day. #notbragging #hatersgonnahate

There are books out there you can buy that say what I'm describing is a "dream" and that you too can live that dream if you outsource your scheduling and get really lucky. But, to be honest, I'm not comfortable employing someone half the world away and I'm certainly not comfortable giving them access to my life. So I do these things myself. (Lately I've been getting help, but it's more a collaborative help and not a "do-this-for-me-random-Indian-sweatshop-worker" way)

But let's look at how you can do this, even with your job or school or responsibilities or kids. No really, the only reason those things are obstacles to you doing what you want is that you're making them obstacles, and not cheerleaders (we'll get there later in the week).

Go get a legal pad, or a blank piece of paper. I'll wait here.

Ready?

Now let's look at your typical work day. I want you to roughly sketch it out by the hour on the page. Maybe it looks like this:

6 am Wake up 
7 am Commute to Work
8 am Work
1pm Lunch
2 pm Resume Work
6 pm Commute Home
7 pm Arrive Home
7:30 pm Eat dinner, pay bills, deal with kids
8:45 pm Kids go to bed
9:00 pm Watch TV
10 pm Go to bed

Admittedly, I'm speculating here. I don't have kids and I don't commute (unless you want to count my steps from the bed to the bathroom to the office to the kitchen and back). Your schedule may be different, and that's totally fine. Notice I didn't break down "Work" because a) it's not important to this exercise and b) I really am not going to understand why you do it. Also c) You're not Batman, Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Dirk Pitt or Harry Dresden, therefore I am not interested in what you do at your job.

Now, I want you to circle the activities that CANNOT be changed. I'll make them red and bold here.



6 am Wake up 
7 am Commute to Work
8 am Work
1pm Lunch
2 pm Resume Work
6 pm Commute Home
7 pm Arrive Home
7:30 pm Eat dinner, pay bills, deal with kids
8:45 pm Kids go to bed
9:00 pm Watch TV
10 pm Go to bed


If you laid out your schedule by slot (i.e. 7-8am Commute), then that's what you'd be circling. What we're trying to do is block out the times you cannot manipulate. This is when what you do isn't exactly under your best direct control, because it's a response or reaction to an obligation bigger than you. Translation - It's the shit you have to deal with.

Let's look at the uncircled items. In my example above, I didn't circle lunch because a lot of people don't always have a set lunch hour, it sort of floats depending on how their work day unfolds. If you're asking yourself why I highlighted "10pm Go To Bed", it's because that's the end of the day, and most people I know aren't feeling all that jazzed and energetic at the end of their day, they just want to collapse into bed and somehow hope the alarm doesn't go off in the morning. That means bedtime is a no-fly zone for creativity (unless your creativity involves sexy pantsless time, at which point I think/hope your schedule looks different).

The uncircled items/times are when you can exert some control over your schedule. It's worth remembering - you are in charge of your life, so you get to figure out when you're doing things like getting out of bed and eating dinner and what/who you're doing in your non-work hours.

It's in those hours that I want to break it down even further.

Why do you get up at the time you do? Sure, you might mash snooze on the clock three, four or seven times before you have to rush around, but what if you made an effort to get up earlier? You can "reclaim" some time for yourself. Think about it - the house will be quiet, you don't have to rush anywhere or fight for the bathroom or try and get other people organized, you can just be awake and get things done. And when I say things, I mean being creative. You could get up half an hour earlier and use those 30 minutes to make coffee, shower and get dressed so that when you normally are doing those things, you've got this new set of 30 minutes in which to work. It's like magic how you just created this new chunk of time. Does it have to be 30 minutes? No! It could be an hour. It's up to you. The point is, you could get up earlier, even once a week, and do something creative.

What are you doing on your lunch break? Contemplating how you're going to burn down the office if they take your stapler one more time? Thinking about how you wish you were anywhere but where you are? Try desperately to get that person from some other department to notice you so that you could in theory ask them out on a date? Your lunch break is YOUR time, you're off the clock and therefore free. You could leave or go sit under a tree or go home or do anything you want, because in that block of time, you're the boss. Sure, there's eating to do, but seriously, how long does it take you to eat those carrot sticks and chug that diet Coke? (Fun exercise: Time yourself eating. Not like it's a race, but just notice how long it takes you to comfortably consume your meal. If you're in an office with a cafeteria, include the amount of time spent purchasing the food too).

There are undoubtedly free minutes that you spend staring out the window, leafing through a magazine about the Kardashians (no, nobody knows what they do) or writing and deleting that text message to the person in the other department who you want to ask out on that date. Seize those minutes! Carpe minuten! Even if it's just ten minutes, that's enough to write some notes, or put together a list of characters isn't it? You are in charge of your time!

Do you have to watch that TV show when you get home? I get it, you unwind when you get home from work. It's so frying to your brain that you plunk yourself down on the couch and watch something so utterly devoid of genius, talent or laughter that you sort of glaze over and then snap back to reality after 22 minutes of absolute garbage making its way into the creative parts of your brain. Or maybe you're so stressed from that high pressure job you need to deflate your entire thinking process down to level of paramecium?

Now before you get all finger-pointy at me, yes I watch TV. But House is ending in 4 weeks, and I can watch Castle the next day (thanks DVR!) and...my schedule isn't your schedule, and this is about you not me.

I'm not saying you're "not allowed" to unwind after work. Smoke a joint, have a drink, eat some nachos, play with the dog, marvel at what your kids drew today in school. Do whatever you want to do to unwind. Just do me a favor -- stop thinking that being creative is going to feel the same way your job does. Being creative is not work. It's fun. It's relaxing. It will help you. Stop treating it like an impediment to your happiness, and start seeing that it could be a bridge to your happiness.

That hour you spend watching that bankrupt and vacant alleged-entertainment? Carpe minuten! That's a whole sixty minutes you could write a page of dialogue, craft a poem, sculpt or figure out which dice engine you should use to create your new game. In doing that, you're being active, not passive in using your time and saving your brain cells (and creating new pathways for new thoughts, thus staving off dementia, Alzheimer's and decay).

But the magic trick to this is making that commitment to being creative. Yes, it's going to be tough at first. If you're getting up early, you're not going to like doing it. That bed is going to look way inviting, more so if you have company in it and there's a good chance you might get to fool around. It might be easier to come home from work and drop down on the couch and just sit, it might be the first stillness you've had in twelve hours, but you're never actually still. You just checked out from focusing on things, because you've spent the last six-plus hours focused on other people's things (and not in a fun way). It's time to check-in on your own stuff. That's right, this is a commitment to yourself - you have to do what matters to you, because no one else will.

I know this guy, let's call him Ken (because that's his name). Ken is awesome. Ken made a commitment to getting into better shape, and according to his Facebook posts, the dude is totally sticking to it. Now I don't know if his health is the only reason he's doing it (maybe there are some very fine ladies at the gym, or dudes, I don't judge), but I'm so proud of him for sticking to a plan that he's in charge of, a plan that improves his life and makes him happy. Good for Ken. Ken seized those minutes and now seizes new minutes to work on his writing. Go Ken.

Barring the appearance of attractive eye candy, I'm guessing there are days where Ken doesn't want to go work out. And I'm guessing there are days where you're not going to feel all that creative either. Maybe your boss yelled at you about 'the Johnson account' (do bosses actually yell about that stuff?) or you spent the whole day dreading coming home to your spouse/significant other because they were totally going to bitch you out for what you promised you do and you haven't done it yet. Yeah, you're going to have moments where you don't want to deal with the commitments you made. You're going to want to run and hide. Believe me, I've done so much running you'd think I was a Kenyan marathoner, but lately (past 2 months or so) I've stopped running because it occurred to me that I had no idea where I was running to, only that I knew what I was running from.

I didn't want to deal with this person or that responsibility or take on that challenge or do that chore. I thought that those activities and peoples were drains on me, pulling me down and holding me back. And while I was partially right (some of those people and their shitty lives suck ass), what I was doing was choosing to hold myself back. Seriously - I wasn't going to take ten minutes and do the dishes? I wasn't going to call that family member and wish them a happy birthday? What's that take, like 3 minutes?

Carpe minuten. Seize your minutes. You're in charge of you, so you can make the choices. Not all the choices are easy. They're not all fun. Sometimes you're going to feel awkward or embarrassed or humbled or ashamed to deal with the consequences of those choices, but I swear, it's worth it. Sure it sucks while you go through it, but once you've done it, you're totally done. No more shitty people hovering in the periphery. No more annoying activities to stress over later. Just like Andy Dufresne, you crawled through the shit and now you're clean on the other side.

Let's recap:

Break your schedule down by the hour.
Block off the hours you CANNOT do anything about.
In the hours you have control over, make time to be creative.

Yes, you can say that it's only an hour a day, but if you write around 2 pages a day, that's about 100 pages in about 2 months, and don't forget you have free time on weekends and holidays that I'm not factoring in here.

If your creative endeavor really matters to you, make time for it. Carpe minuten.

Happy writing.