As people are juggling more demands on their time (working from home, homeschooling, health concerns or wondering where the next gig will come from) it can be hard to find the space to dedicate to creative work. In his work on creativity Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the power of flow, the feeling you get when you are so concentrated in doing something that you lose track of time. In this state you can enjoy the process of doing, feeling energised and focused. Challenging at the best of times, when you’re constantly being interrupted attaining this state of flow is particularly difficult.
In a perfect world artists would have 8 hours a day for their practice, but the reality is more often one of constant interruptions and limited time. Here I gathered together a few strategies for working creatively while managing multiple demands on your time.
Track your time
I had become increasingly frustrated with the lack of time and with not being able to get a straight run at my work, but I also didn’t really know how much time I was spending on what. When you’re reading a 5-page kids book for the 20th time, it can seem like you’ve been doing it for hours. But what was I really doing all day?
I decided to track my time. I hadn’t done this for a while, partly because, as a new mother, I didn’t need the extra pressure. But after a while, as my routine had settled into something manageable, I felt like I could turn my attention to work again, with support from family. When lockdown came and we were cut off from extra help I felt like I was taking a step back in terms of work. But when I started to track my time I was pleasantly surprised. Those slots of 20 and 40 minutes actually add up by the end of the week.
After tracking it for a few weeks I identified the minimum number of hours I could commit to every week. This target makes it feel like I’m putting a good amount of work in, but it is also realistic for my commitments, which means I have some wiggle room if things don’t go to plan. By tracking my time it gave me an idea of how much was feasible in a week, I had a concrete number to work with and something consistent to aim for each week.
Take advantage of the minutes
But the minutes don’t add up if you’re waiting for a long stretch of uninterrupted time. I was struck by some recent posts from journalist, author and entrepreneur Mridu Khullar Relph in which she explains writing sprints. It’s a simple concept of writing in the time you have available, in short spurts.
It wasn’t until I started taking those 20 minute slots seriously that I realised I could actually get quite a bit done in a day. I didn’t count my words, as I don’t find that as motivating for poetry, but taking these small amounts of time seriously kept me focused during these periods. I didn’t want to go to the effort of sitting down at the computer to work only procrastinate.
Khullar Relph combines this approach with the Don’t-Break-The-Chain method from comedian Jerry Seinfeld, where you mark on a calendar for every day that you write, no matter how little, with the aim of not breaking the chain of these daily marks. The idea for each of these is to just keep going, bit by bit, without worrying that it’s not enough. It will all add up after a week, after a month.
Don’t underestimate thinking time
While I spend a lot of time looking after a small person, it doesn’t mean I’m entirely shut off from my creative projects. I often use time going for walks, preparing meals or doing other household tasks as a time to think through some of my creative projects. At the start of the day I either revise where I am with a project or I print out a latest draft. This puts the work (and the challenges I’m facing with it) at the forefront of my mind so that when I have a down moment I can turn my mind to it. How do I fix a poem’s structure? What images work best with this videopoem? By mulling over these problems as I go about my day, when I sit down to write I’m starting mid-stream I don’t need time to get into the project.
Another advantage of printing out the latest draft (or an article of interest, or a plot outline) is that I can pick it up in any spare 5 minutes here and there. This works especially well for revising, editing and jotting down notes, as they are activities that are easier to dip in and out of. It also serves to keep the project in my mind. If I let a project go for a while without looking at it, it takes a while to get back into it, and it can also be intimidating when it feels distant, leading to procrastinating. But if I keep a finger on the pulse, even if I don’t get much work done, then it makes it much more welcoming to come back to.
Find a flexible routine that suits you
Be kind to yourself and don’t give up! Every day and every new week is a chance to try again.
I found the publication Mothers Days from An Artist Residency in Motherhood an intriguing source for how varied artistic routines can be. The publication invited member from the residency to simultaneously record the events of the 15 July 2019, in as much or as little detail as they chose. The final product is 81 perspectives of one day, from 19 countries. It shows how artists maintain their practice through motherhood, with children from six weeks to 33 years old.
Reading about the day in the life of 81 mother-artists highlights the fact that everyone makes it work in different ways. Can you take your kid with you on a drawing expedition? Can you record your work-in-progress on a voice recorder while going for a walk? Can you have your notebook in a side pocket to always jot a few thoughts down while on the go?
Experiment with what works for you, but be open to new ideas. Give something a go before dismissing it as not for you. At first I was reluctant to embrace the idea of sprints, I was especially skeptical of how it would work for my PhD research as I assumed I needed a lot of time to work through the ideas, but it has actually taken off some of the pressure. I know that even though I will be interrupted many times a day, I will still have time to go back and grab another 15 minutes.
What are your strategies for managing interrupted time?