Insight: Slowing Down For Creativity
A couple of years ago I started to notice that people would start telephone conversations with me almost apologetically.
‘I know you’re really busy, but…’ or ‘I don’t like to bother you, you’re always so busy…’
I was busy, ridiculously so. 14 hour days were the norm. Weekend working? Par for the course. Family time was squeezed to a Saturday afternoon, if they were lucky, me time was absolutely non-existent, food was fuel and mainly carb and sugar based, whilst exercise dropped off completely. I went up two dress sizes, went down in energy levels and I was forever telling myself that I just needed to get to the end of the month, every month.
Working in the arts tends to hone this kind of hectic, all-consuming existence. Expectations of creative output versus actual payment are vastly discordant.
It was safe to say, I’d reached top gear. What’s more, I had been full throttle for so long that I didn’t know how to shift back down.
It began to bother me that so many of my work colleagues, clients and even family members felt that I was too busy to talk to them / call them / meet them. I didn’t want people to feel they were interrupting me. It’s not good for business, but more than that, it’s not good for any relationship, not to mention my mental and physical health, but I had committed myself to this workload and this pace and in some cases, I was responsible, for the work and livelihood of others.
Stopping was not an option. Even so, I was sick of being busy and I was sick of being ill.
I want to be productive and effective, but I don’t want to be busy.
Very slowly, I’ve been moving toward a slower way of living. Slow living, or the slow movement advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. It’s about gaining time by doing the things that are most important to you and being more conscious of, and connected to, the choices you make about how you live.
It takes time to un-busy your life.
You can’t just stop working, stop doing the things you’ve always done in an instant. Duty is a difficult thing to shod and expectations – your own or those of others – can weigh heavily, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be reduced or reframed.
All I knew was that I wanted to have more time to work on and think about the things I was particularly passionate about and to feel like I could take real time out with my family without feeling distracted, or that all the plates might stop spinning.
Half way through 2017, I made a start.
I began with saying no, more often than I said yes to things. I realised I was able to do this much easier than I thought I would because I have clarity about what I want to do as an artist and the type of projects I want to work on and the people I want to work with as a producer. As soon as I gave myself permission to do this, saying no to the projects and people that didn’t fit my direction, became so much easier. At some point in the near future I’ll write a post about clarity because it is vitally important to anyone steering their own ship. Because of the way creative people’s minds work, clarity can often fall by the wayside in favour of inspiration and ideation, and that’s why some really exciting projects concepts never get off the ground and artists fail to reach their potential.
I chose to re-work old ideas, rather than to kickstart new ones. One of the best things about good ideas is that they have legs. Massive ones. I realised I owed it to myself to give my work and my ideas the best possible chance of success by investing more creative thinking time into exploring how I could build and develop my existing ideas and projects and what I might need to do to make them happen, rather than reinventing the wheel for new ones. It is a truth universally acknowledged in business and marketing that is much easier to upsell to existing customers than it is to make a new sale, so too, ideas. So many of my ideas had already been validated by funders and commissioners, because they had potential and could spark long term benefit not just to me as an artist, but to my company and to the audiences and participants I was working with, but all too often after completion of the initial project, I had simply not taken the time to consider ‘what next?’. Now it’s the first thing I thing I do.
I started to think about how I could do what I do for a living, differently, so that I could meet the demands of the rest of my life better. More on this later!
I began to instigate ‘Batch Days’. These are days that I put into the diary when I try to do only one thing, but lots of it and it’s usually the things that constantly get pushed down the to-do list because there is always something more important to do. For example, scheduling tweets, writing blog or Facebook posts, or taking and editing photography for projects or the website or even finance admin (hands up if you always find yourself putting that off). I’m sure giving all my attention to one thing delivers better results at whatever I’m doing because I allow myself time and headspace to really think about it. Also, being able to tick off these small, but important aspects to my business makes me feel more productive and in control. Today is a batch day because I have written this. I’ve not yet reached the mecca of batch cooking, however. This life pinnacle will, I fear, always elude me.
I started diarising my ‘life’ commitments and admin, rather than pushing it to the weekends. For some reason, I’ve always been averse to putting ‘life’ stuff in my work diary - I think it’s got something to do with starting a corporate career in the 90’s and the requirement to think, walk, talk and wear ‘business’ at all times. So I reluctantly amalgamated. Initially, I thought I’d move to a digital diary and I tried a few different apps, but actually, I found that an old school physical diary with a colour coded highlighted system is what works best for me. Now, if something’s not in the diary – work or life related, it’s not happening. End of. No more missed Doctors appointments, PAYE payments or school assemblies for me (yes, I have done that and will feel the guilt forevermore).
I had a strong word with myself about the parameters of time, with a particular focus on how getting to and from meetings really does need to be properly accounted for when scheduling appointments. I know for a fact I’m not the only one who is overly optimistic about distance and time, but let’s be honest, Pythagorus was actually on to something with the distance time speed formula.
I began unsubscribing from various email lists. I did maybe 5 or 6 unsubscribes a day. I still do this. I’m forever getting emails from third parties I didn’t sign up to, but who have bought my data from someone I have. An over-crowded inbox makes me feel anxious and I have sometimes missed emails from real people because they are sandwiched between updates from LinkdIn, Twitter and Oliver Bonas. I also tried various automated apps for this too, but I drew the line at paying for someone to stop people emailing me. Decluttering my inbox has become a bit of a habit for me and is often something I do when I’m feeling uninspired, or can’t get down to anything. A quick purge seems to do me the world of good. I’m not sure what this says about me. And I don’t care.
I got a cleaner. This was actually one of the hardest decisions I made because this feels like such a luxury, but when I really sat down and thought about it, I realised that the one thing that was continually stressing me out was the state of my house, partly because I work from home and partly because I like things to be neat and tidy. My cleaner just does two hours a week and focuses on the kitchen, bathroom and floors, but it really helps. Of course, I still clean as well, but it’s more on the scale of maintenance rather than industrial cleanse. And every so often I’ll mange to actually deep clean something and when that happens, I feel like I am winning at life.
I did away with my ironing basket(s). Now everything gets folded or hung on a hanger and put away straight away. Now there’s no clothes mountain to climb over and make me feel like I’m failing at life every day and I just iron what I need when it’s needed. Life changing.
Gradually, I found myself working on four or five projects simultaneously rather than nine or ten. It’s still a lot, but an improvement nevertheless.
Overall, it’s been a process of natural attrition, asking for help and making more mindful choices. (Let me just say now that I struggle with the word ‘mindful’. It implies doing something without really thinking about it. I am always mindful. I think about everything I do in a very considered way, but duty, strategy, the need to earn a living, have always and will always play a big part in my decision making.)
Readers, I am still very busy – the balance of earning a living and creating…. isn’t for the faint hearted, but I’m on the way to tipping the scales toward a more fulfilling creative life. It’s a work in progress…
In case you’re at overwhelm, or if you just need a little help in balancing your creative work with your life a little better, I’ve put together a checklist to help you decide where you might be able to make some small changes. Small steps towards bigger rewards, creatively, personally and domestically.