Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Just Can't Find The Time (To Be Creative)

I recently attended a gathering of a few friends celebrating one of my friends’ acceptance to university. During our general catch-up, we started discussing something that comes up regularly in conversations now - I’m so busy, I can't keep up with all my obligations. Yes, this is really common now in this always-on, digital age. But it’s a more complicated problem for creative people.

I find that my list of creative projects that I want to get to is ever-increasing. And yet the pile of projects that I actually complete is ever-dwindling. Now this is incredibly frustrating to me, even more so because I dedicated this year to being more productive and accomplishing a lot more. I have been researching ways to harness technology and psychology to getting more done. Despite this, I find some weeks are a struggle just to get the urgent tasks done, and I can't seem to make time for my larger creative projects.
I feel incredibly guilty about this - partly because I don’t currently have a day job, I undertake projects and can in theory, get the work I need done. And yet entire days go by without my being able to make any headway on my current book project, which is already long overdue. Partly this is because I took on some research projects, and have been finishing up work that is due to collaborators for projects begun some time ago.
Usually the reason for not accomplishing tasks is squandering time on wasteful activities like social networking sites or just putzing about on the net. That wasn’t the problem for me, as I keep a log of the work I do on projects, and have an idea of where my time was being spent. The main problem is that I knew where my day was going, and thought I didn’t have any control over it. I had a number of non-work, but important, obligations come up over the space of a few days. An acquaintance of mine was having an impromptu party to celebrate an important life milestone, so I needed to buy a gift. I agreed to make a presentation for a voluntary organisation I am involved in, for a semi-formal occasion, and had to get my speech approved. I had to attend a number of social functions, which took up two weekends consecutively. All of this meant a lot of extra prep work - either in writing multiple versions of the speech, or in buying and wrapping gifts for the various social gatherings. Additionally, almost all of this was completely outside my comfort zone (I never know what to buy as gifts for babies, and I hate public speaking).
I spent a lot of time simply agonising over the logistics, and how much I had to do. Also, the various obligations spread out over two weeks meant I had to try and get my work done in the spaces between - which is really not something I'm good at. Much of my work requires research, analysis and writing, and I need a few hours at a time to really get into it.
The result of all this activity - my projects took a backseat and I got stressed over all the work I wasn’t doing. It’s easy to conclude that I should have turned some things down, and cut down on my obligations. However, it occurred to me after the fact that a large amount of the time I spent was a result of creating unreasonably high expectations from myself - the speech had to be just right (and since I didn’t know what that was, I kept putting off writing it, but suffered from stress all the same), I had to buy just the right gifts, I had to be right on time and perfectly attired. All of this raised the stakes much too high, and prevented me from using the slivers of time I did manage to find, because I simply can't do any deep work when I'm stressed and anxious.
Yes, I had a lot of external obligations taking up time. But I also made it worse for myself by procrastinating, insisting that everything be perfect, and wasting time and energy trying to make that happen.
Often when people ask us to do something, we are unable to say no, for some reason or the other. But this we then tack on expectations and ‘shoulds’ to this obligation, increasing its potential to disrupt our routine further.
By contrast, my mum told me about how she recently learnt the lesson of being more relaxed and getting things done without stress. She lives alone, and has patchy domestic help, which makes entertaining more than a few people difficult. She recently had to host a meeting for a voluntary organisation at home, for which she needed to provide refreshments. Usually she gets panicky and stresses about how much there is to do, and she realised this was because she compared to how others had hosted similar meetings previously, and felt she had to keep up. This time she ditched the comparison, and provided refreshments that were easy for her to buy or put together, and kept them easily accessible so everyone could help themselves. She reported having a much more relaxed time, being able to really engage with everyone and not feeling stressed or tired.
What I learnt from my mum was the crucial point of not comparing to what you think others will do. My stress about the speech was mainly that I must be as good, if not better than the others also speaking. Regarding the social functions, I was worried about not being upstaged by others. It’s natural, even essential, to make an effort, to look as good as you can, or give a nice gift that will be appreciated. But it really isn’t necessary to compare oneself to others, and try to show them up, or to stress out about being the best.
This made me think - where else am I creating unnecessary tension for myself? Where else could I do something well and yet quickly enough to devote more time to what matters? I am still finding answers to this for myself.
Where can you free up more time and head space by letting go of outcomes?

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