About a month ago, I found myself at a crossroads.
The people attending our songwriting retreat back in March asked me where they could find recordings of the songs I’d sung for them and when my Creative Compass book would be available for purchase. I realized that I needed to find an answer for myself to the same question they'd asked over and over during our workshops: “How do I find time in my busy schedule for my songwriting?” (or writing a book, or learning to paint, or starting a band, or building a website, or planting a garden, or exercising…)
Their questions and interest motivated me to search for a workable answer.
Right in the middle of one of the busiest periods I’ve been through in many years—six weeks straight teaching lessons, performing concerts, presenting at conferences and retreats, selling pottery at shows, and hosting family gatherings, all without a single day off—I knew I was overdue for a change. I hoped to find a solution that would work for me, while offering tools and ideas that others could adapt to their own lives.
My creative work is piled up like a logjam in side me. It’s fully realized but not in a form that exists without my physical presence. If I’m not on hand to perform the songs, present the workshops, or sell my pottery on the spot they might as well not exist.
A month ago, on Monday, March 29, 2010 I began by making conscious effort to change comfortable old habits that were obviously stealing time and energy. I needed to remove the virtual drug that had been lulling me into complacency about the work I really wanted to be doing.
I’ve waited this long to post this because I didn’t want to try out these changes in public, only to fall back into old habits and have to confess to my backsliding just as publicly.
Four weeks into this change I feel much more comfortable passing along the specific things that have allowed me to start making tangible progress again toward three creative goals that had previously languished for months, even years, until now:
- Recording my "Dolphin's Daughters" CD project
- Writing my "Creative Compass" book
- Spending time making pottery for the joy of it (and to sell online and at artisan shows)
The change has come primarily by reclaiming time dissipated online, time I was numb to having wasted each day. And a change in attitude.
Recording a CD and writing a book are computer intensive activities. Though my capacity for being glued to a computer screen for hours on end is fairly high, there’s still a limit to how much time I can put in each day, both in terms of endurance and availability. Wasting capacity on mindless internet exploration leaves little for recording a CD or writing a book.
In other words, I can only sit at my desk for so many hours straight before I my backside begins to hurt and I'm overpowered by an urge to run out front door into the sunshine shouting, "I'm free! I'm free!"
I realized that the time I was spending online reading news stories and blogs, skimming Facebook status updates, and watching funny videos must have been meeting some need otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. What I had to figure out was what purpose they were serving so I could find a more satisfying way to meet those needs and free up my computer capacity for work on my projects.
The conclusion I drew was that time online was serving as a poor substitute for real world random exploration and discovery, enrichment, entertainment, and personal connection with others. If I could make a place for more of these things away from the computer screen, then the changes wouldn’t feel so much like deprivation during the crucial early stages.
TIMER FOR A CHANGE
Four weeks ago I set out first to quantify the minutes and hours slipping past in mindlessly screen staring while I read Facebook status updates and browsed internet news, caught up on artists’ and eco blogs, searched for recipes, listened to music or watched the latest viral Youtube video.
I set a digital timer counting as soon as I went online that first day. I needed cumulative total. Each time I went off to do something goal related or respond to a client email I stopped it. As soon as I returned to the internet in an unfocused way I started it again.
At the end of the first day, I was astounded by what the timer showed. And too embarrassed now tell you what it said, though you can read the fine print in the picture of my journal, below. Had I really squandered the entire morning after breakfast morning, and several wedges of precious time between teaching lessons, then another hour just before bed on that first day? Talking with other people, I soon realized that I wasn't alone, only difference was the time of day I was going online, morning vs. evening for most people.
For the next two days, I continued tracking my time online without changing habits. I had to convince myself of the magnitude of the problem. Was this really the way I'd been living? I made little chart and totaled up different kinds of internet use for several days.
Each day yielded the same results: several hours irretrievably lost with nothing to show for them but a nondescript sensation that I had done something vaguely useful.
How had I become delusional enough to sincerely believe that the majority of my internet time was being used for writing and responding to business correspondence or goal related reading, writing, watching, and listening online? The hard data I’d collected on myself showed a completely different story.
Fully convinced by the middle of that first week, I switched the timer from stopwatch to countdown mode, allotting myself only 1 hour, total, each day for online entertainment and curiosity.
My previous pattern had been to check email, read news, and browse Facebook over a bowl of generic cheerios or oatmeal, then loose track of time until mid-morning or even lunch time if I got up late. I work for myself teaching voice and piano to student scheduled to arrive afternoon through evening. I rationalized that my morning was the equivalent of everyone else’s evening, when other people relax and blew off steam after a hard day of work. This sort of daily schedule would be fine, except that there are other things I want to be doing.
The change felt more than a little awkward at first. I went through withdrawals on Thursday and Friday of that first week. It was like giving up a drug. Symptoms included a nagging sensation that something important was missing, restlessness, and irritability followed by the intense urge to return to my old ways.
More than a few of times, as I worked on other things at the computer, I lost focus and mindlessly clicked on the browser icon only to return to awareness 10-15 minutes later while skimming news headlines and articles on yahoo.com, or browsing friends and family members status updates on Facebook.
So I started rationing the hour in 15-20 minute increments throughout the day, using it to take breaks from other work. When the time ran out I planned to shut down the browser and return to other activities, but on several occasions the time expired, the timer beeped, and many minutes went by before I returned to awareness.
The next morning unplugged the Ethernet cable before powering on the computer. I didn’t plug it back in until lunchtime and got a lot more done.
BALANCING FOCUS & RANDOMNESS
I could see that if I simply reined in my old habits, while offered nothing as a replacement to meet the needs they were fulfilling, this experiment would fail. If I planned to impose additional structure on an already busy schedule, I would need to offer myself some other form of release of the sort that inspires rather than numbs.
The next step was to begin replacing cyber randomness with real world spontaneous exploration and online social networking with face-to-face interaction.
To fill the need for random, spontaneous exploration, that first week I started taking my new digital camera out for a walks capturing anything and everything that caught my eye.
I spent sunny hours working in the garden for fun, allowing myself to be drawn by whichever task called to me next—picking up leaves, digging holes to transplant rhubarb, picking pieces of antique pottery from the sandy soil like an archeologist, pruning the blueberry bushes.
I spent quiet moments sitting on the grass in the sunshine watching a pair of crows circle high over bare branched early spring woods.
Or by the sea as cloud shadows, wind ripples, and lobster boats pass.
I’ve browsed through the local public library, picking books off of shelves and bringing home CDs to discover new ideas and new music. Sometimes I’ve stayed to write there in a big comfortable chair for a change of scenery.
For human connection, I’ve been more open to conversation with people I encounter when I’m out in the community, choosing activities that will give me opportunities for interaction. It’s amazing what listening and thoughtful sharing will open in another, and in yourself.
This past weekend I struck up a conversation with a woman outside of the hardware store. We’d come out of the store a the same time and I’d noticed that she had a pick-up truck full of bamboo plants. I asked where she’d gotten them, then whether she was selling them, and eventually arrangements to get some for our yard. Not only that but learned a little about her family’s farm, it’s history, and why they're having to sell it. It’s a place I’ve driven by nearly every day and admired, lamenting the 55 acres that will soon be opened to development just a half-mile from our home.
Unlike the hours squandered on the internet, random explorations in the real world and time reclaimed for projects yielded memorable, tangible results.
The vividness of hours spent walking around town with a camera—capturing the shapes, colors and textures of ordinary objects—lingers even a week-and-a-half later. As does the satisfaction I feel each time I look back at those images. The experience of that day is burned into the retina of my heart.
My projects have progressed and I’m feeling more alive!
The payoff can be found in small, tangible accomplishments and memorable experiences. These have replaced the emptiness I felt during the first few days after changing my old routine.
No, the CD is not recorded, not in four weeks, nor will it be finished in the next month or even two, but I now know exactly what I’ve already accomplished and what needs to be done next to keep things moving forward.
A unified awareness of accomplishments and next steps was difficult to holding in my mind before, when the virtual world ruled my attention.
I began a new pottery vessel titled Carpe Diem, which can be seen here, among other things. The scraps from forming this will become labyrinth necklaces to add to my Sacred Shards inventory.
And the Creative Compass book?
I’ve begun again to add 3x5 cards with ideas, quotes, etc. to my pocket chart outline as I happen upon them. I’m open again to uncovering insights and capturing them so they are beginning to appear nearly everywhere I look, as if by magic.
Although more dedicated time is needed to make real progress on the book, many ideas and topics are beginning to take shape in my daily writing.
During the coming month, I plan to commit certain hours each week to work on the book and my blogs. This will be another step forward.
The average non-fiction paperback book contains 40,00-50,00 words. The word count for this little essay has run more 2200 with an investment of about 12 hours total. I started it back at week two, but came back to rewrite and edit several times before it seemed ready to find it’s form.
Though this article won’t be used beyond this blog without further editing, it shows that writing a book is not such a distant, unachievable goal. A simple calculation reveals that 25 essays of this length could well be woven together to create a book of marketable length. [55,000 / 2200 = 25] This is totally doable!
I’m learning in a concrete way that moving these big projects toward completion is just a matter of accumulating incremental progress.
It’s a cliché of the creative world that you can do anything 15 minutes at a time. Well, it’s true.
My threshold of measurable accomplishment seems to be found after 1-3 hours of continuous work. Obviously the hours I’ve reclaimed from useless internet wanderings, and soulless TV watching before that, more than allow for this.
TIME FOR THE FINDING
I found the time in my busy schedule to begin to record my songs, make more pottery, and write the book by turning away from the virtual, toward the real world were songs and pottery and books must come exist apart from my presence, were the need for random exploration and human connection can truly find their fulfillment.
As a wonderfully affirming bit of ironic serendipity, in the midst of all this change an old friend posted a link of perfect relevance on Facebook. Unaware that I’d been working to make these very alterations in my life, she shared the following article, “Time Lost and Found” by inspirational author, Anne Lamott.
After reading it I knew I was absolutely doing the right thing.
A month has passed since I began instituting these changes and tailoring them to accommodate my best way of being and working.
I write today with new habits firmly in place: the ethernet cable is unplugged from my computer. It’s nearly lunchtime and I have not yet gone online today. In a few minutes, I’ll power down the computer, plug the cable back in, then go online to finally post this little article on my “Quiet Little Life” blog for you to read.
When I do, the timer will be close at hand, already set to count down from 1 hour as soon as the day’s browsing begins.
Though I still expect to lose track of time spent online occasionally, I know I’m more awake than before and more aware of the time passed there. Always, I’m eager to return to the real world were more satisfying work and exploration and human connection await.
©2010 Kay Pere ~ Effusive Muse Publishing