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.


  1. Are you suggesting that by mastering the relationship between time & creativity we can construct our own.....Ultimate Reality?

  2. I have tried so many ways and tools of planning my projects and days. On- and offline timers, notebooks, task managers, post-it notes. However, after a couple of days (or weeks) of using them, I feel like I am wasting time by tracking and planning my time, or reading books about new methods that I know I will never use, because - even though I would like to be - I am not an organized person. And I had to stop feeling bad about that side of me.

    For me, it helped to just put some anchors in my week (like signing up for Pilates classes on certain days) and in my days (setting my alarm clock, walking the dog, watch the Daily Show).

    Around that - there is a certain amount of chaos. But that's just who I am and there are other priorities on where I want to improve.

  3. Sylke, you make many great suggestions. Tracking time is good for creating awareness, but the ultimate goal is to find time to advance creative endeavors in a way that works for you and your time-rhythm.

    By anchoring the week with points of routine, you can balance a busy schedule with milestones that set boundaries on schedule-creep. Most important, if you follow this route, is the act of setting the weekly time with yourself and keeping the appointment. For instance, if you are working on a book, define an hour or even 10 minutes, on a set day of the week where you know that is what you are going to be focusing on. Like any new routine driven by self-motivation (think exercise) the first few weeks will be crucial in establishing the routine, after that it will feel more natural. I agree though, tracking time can be ironically time consuming. Knowing how you use your time is important, but actually using your time wisely is key.

    And as for your comment, E:

    If you can think creatively enough to constantly be in the flow, or to know your internal clock well enough to work and live outside the restrictions of artificial time, then yes, you could create the Ultimate Reality. Three day weekend anyone?