Friday, February 26, 2010

Creating Time Awareness OR The Ultimate Love/Hate Relationship: Time & Creativity

In college, I had a French teacher who, when teaching us to tell time in French (it was a remedial level class, languages not being my strength), would meander off into enthusiastic philosophic musings about time and his unique perspective that the round face of the clock was a pie constantly being devoured.

While the French language has not stayed with me, the vivid image of the disappearing hour-pie has. In fact, I can’t think of time—the artificial, man-made version of it, that we use to measure things such as arriving promptly, being up late, the duration of a task (or amount procrastination)—without thinking of a pie chart. Mainly because, by its very own definition and act of measurement, time is limited resource no matter how we “slice it.” We all have the same amount of, and personal struggles with, time especially when it comes to bringing ideas into action. How we spend our time is, on a very simple level, based on our own choosing and an act of creation/creativity in itself. Our relationship with time can be a powerful force for, or against, creativity and ideas.

The ultimate love/hate relationship is time and creativity. While ideas need time to incubate, they also need a certain amount of pressure to force them into being. This is why we live in a world of schedules, weekends, vacations and deadlines. One of the most important things that you can do to bring ideas into action is to create an equal balance in your schedule of time for doing/creating/producing and time for daydreaming/ playing/relaxing. While it is somewhat natural to consider things like vacations and intense work areas in the course of a year, I find it to be very helpful and refreshing in a small-scale way on a weekly basis. (Also, when you use mind-mapping as a planning tool, it is often a good chance to visually make sure that you have equal goal time and down time.)

The first step to creating that balance though, is creating awareness of how you use your time. There are a numerous ways to do this but being the paper person that I am, I find that even more than lists and digital calendars, graph paper keeps me honest. My strategy, in a very large horizontal graph paper notebook, is to map out the entire week. I block out all the things that I have scheduled, pencil in all the things that may change, add the time that it will take to travel places (this is a very important thing) and then, as the week goes, I block out the things I have actually spent my time doing. This effective technique allowed me to see that parts of my work day were spent in unproductive flurries of 15 minute chunks of multitasking, which were adding to my feeling of never getting anything finished, and that I sometimes easily lost a couple hours in the evening to the television. It helped me decide that I can close my email for an hour, and that I probably don’t need to watch the eleven o’clock news, giving me more time to accomplish the ideas and tasks that I had on my creative project list.

While beginning this task is easy, maintaining it, being honest and not passing judgment on how you spend your time is challenging. On the other hand, once you begin the exercise, just the act of mapping out the week by hand brings attention to areas that you have to work on projects, or to identify areas that you may have over-scheduled. (Note: It is important to fill in the tasks as you go, rather than wait for the end of the day.)

In the case that your schedule is (at least for the time being) no-way-around-it intense, I recommend the following to at least give you the impression that you have some creative thinking time:

• Write, sketch, or read for pleasure in the 15 minutes before bed/falling asleep
• Walk when you can, whether it is on your lunch or to run a local errand
• Take 15 minutes at the beginning and end of the day to do something of your choosing that is purely enjoyable
• Take 5 minutes during the day to stare out the window, meditate, do nothing, or listen to a favorite relaxing song. I like Chopin’s Nocturne No. 5 in F Sharp that has an ending I could listen to forever. (Five minutes! You may even find several five minutes time blocks in your day.)
• Use a timer. This is one of my favorite ways to balance the desire to clean and organize my work space and home with the promise to myself to play or work on creative projects (that don’t feel like work).

By keeping track of your hours on paper, I at least hope that this little task helps you with the big topic of time and creativity. Bringing awareness to your daily devouring of every 24 hours, will hopefully help you see opportunities and find creative ways to take back your time in order to create new ideas and bring them into being.

Recommendations & Further Reading
My intention of writing this post was further inspired after reading posts on two of my favorite blogs in the past week that, I felt, spoke to this desire for time in balance when nurturing new ideas. The first is Pam Slim’s winter musings on her blog Escape from Cubicle Nation and the other was Havi Brook’s post about a fragile new idea on her blog The Fluent Self. Barbara Sher’s book Wishcraft also contains, in my opinion, the best practical advice for time management when working towards achieving a dream. It is optimistic with a touch of kick-in-the-pants. For building a better relationship with time, I recommend Waverly Fitzgerald's book Slow Time or visiting her blog Living in Season. Last but not least, for those of you who like ready-made and despise graph paper, Paper Source has a great perpetual calendar planner that is not unlike my current time tracking system, but much more fun and colorful.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Follow Up to Four Blank Books

My brother, song writer and historian-in-training at UVA sent me this picture and the following note, that was too good not to share as a follow up to the last post:

"I'm going to become a student of Paper Compass. Although I've already failed the last post because I have a different notebooking system: one which is a quasi-personal journal in which I track my academic progress, the other is a raw song/poetry notebook, and then I have an intense archiving system for all my school notes. Nonetheless, I know when to admit I need help. See attached photo. I was looking for some song lyrics that I wrote in 2007, and still haven't found them. Feel free to use this as an example of what happens when you don't properly organize creative thought."

PS. E, there is no chance of "failing". It is all about creation and customization. And by its very nature, creativity--the act of creating--means it is always a work in progress.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Four Blank Books for All Seasons

I am a firm believer in all things cyclical. Like the seasons, my desk and work area have a tendency to mimic the progression of nature’s wild abandon through the seasons. Come spring, new projects are usually in the works. By summer, the file folders are full. And by the end of autumn, papers have piled up like so many stacks of leaves, along with notes, ideas, sketches on scraps of paper, articles and images to be housed and projects started only to become TBR (To Be Resumed) after the holidays.

So winter finds me in a desperate frame of mind for a clean slate, a neat desk and all things tucked away like the severity of a frozen landscape. My tendencies for organizing and mission towards a personal inventory (another thing ingrained in me from my eight years of retail) are slightly held in check by the amount of time I have to dig into them, but even if I have to work small (like drawers and file folders) the sense of well-being is immense. (I will confess to mind mapping the areas I am going to organize in the winter, which does prevent this from becoming a daunting and unrealistic task as I am too “creatively minded” to be a neatnik.)

Like the possibilities of the blank page, a fresh work area is like a launch pad for projects—especially ideas in progress. Part of my customized system of organizing includes four very important blank books where I store all the ideas, images and scrap-paper notes of inspired brilliance (which sometimes make no sense several months later and go in the recycling bin). It is a system I have had going for a few years, and it comes in very handy. Especially since, once the blank books are filled, I put them in the bookcase and can reference them later, when hunting for inspiration.

Here are the four all-important books: one is an image-based sketch and idea book, where I keep everything from drawings, to images that intrigue me to gift ideas and recipes (I cannot tell you how handy this is during the holidays). The next is a notebook for everyday plans, ideas, and raw thoughts. There is also my journal (in which I also put photos and mementoes) and the last is a notebook I reserve for any and all things that have to do with writing stories. The last notebook, by the end of the year, usually has become fat and lazy with plot twists and character sketches that get stuffed into it when I have to sacrifice my time for writing creatively. (If you are not a writer, I would still recommend this for any pursuit, whether it be painting, decorating, cooking, or even business ideas.)

If I was to recommend any of the above books as a must-have or a “start with this,” I would go for the imaged-based sketch book. You will never need to keep magazine around for longer than a month. Plus, over-time, it becomes a lush visual journey that tells its own interesting story and/or is usually good for some idea inspired lateral thinking and random connections.

For me though, just getting the desk clean and all the ideas sorted into their respective notebooks (with all the glue stick and tape that involves) gives me a sense of tying up loose ends. For the unfinished projects, or ideas that still make sense, it gives me an important overview of what projects I have to return to working on—usually when I have no excuses and more time (which sounds like a good topic for next time.)

Further Inspiration
I highly recommend having some sort of blank book in which to store images or things that make your mind light up. If you would like to use this as a creativity tool rather than an idea system, I suggest using it as Sarah Ban Breathnach does in her year-long meditation book, Simple Abundance. As part of the self discovery process, she calls it an Illustrated Discovery Journal and uses it to give insight into things that you may not recognize as points of inspiration, but will reveal themselves throughout themes emerging in the images.