Why your creativity wants you to waste more time

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“Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”
― Albert Einstein

Last week I had one of those magical moments that all creatives dream of: I was lying awake in my bed when the idea for a project arrived fully formed in my mind. I’ve been feeling stuck on this project for months and suddenly, in a spurt of neural electricity, I wasn’t stuck any more. It was amazing.

Of course, it also meant that my mind kept buzzing long after I should have been sleeping. The next morning I slept in to make up for it (cus a sleep-deprived Stephanie is a useless Stephanie) and felt rushed and stressed for most of the day. As happy as I was about the idea that came to me, I still had the nagging feeling that I had wasted too much time staying up late.

The idea of wasted time has always created a lot of internal struggle for me. When I was 12 I already felt like I was running out of time, wasting my childhood away. It’s sad really, how much of my life I have spent feeling like I should be doing something else, and I’m determined to change that thought pattern. So, I’m writing this post as much for me as for you. 

“Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” 
― William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Where does this idea of wasted time come from? How do we decide what is a good use of time and what is bad? I think part of it comes from our culture’s focus on productivity: if we’re not producing something, we’re falling behind. But, there is so much other stuff that goes into supporting our productivity that we would be pretty hopeless without: sleep, cleaning, spending time with loved ones, and even the occasional Netflix binge. 

I was speaking with the very wise Kristen Kalp and she pointed out that everything we do when we’re not making our art contributes to our art. She might write a poem in 14 minutes but a whole day’s worth of experience goes into it. The same is true of my late-night project epiphany: it was the result of hours and hours of unproductive “wasted” time that suddenly coalesced into a useful thing. 

Here are a few of the “wasted” moments that had to happen for me to arrive at this insight: 

  • Writing an application way back in January for a project that wasn’t accepted. 
  • Wandering in the woods when I “should” be in the studio.
  • Researching ideas and concepts that I never ended up using. 
  • Scrolling a Facebook group about Alberta birds.
  • Feeling too much anxiety to work or create.

And here is how those moments ended up serving an important purpose: 

  • The project I applied for wasn’t approved, but one element from it stuck with me and will form the central part of this project.
  • On my walks I started learning about birds, which are the main inspiration behind this project.
  • I figured out how to look at my research in a different way so it will complement this subject matter.
  • Finding inspiration and information about my subject.
  • Making art that shares my experiences with others.
“Nothing is a waste of time unless you think it is.” 
― Marty Rubin

It seems like these wasted moments are actually essential to leading a creative life. Because when we spend our time in an unfocused way - wandering, daydreaming, researching, brainstorming, exploring - it gives our brains the chance to make new connections that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. 

“The human mind is a connection machine. This is what we are meant to do. Schools are focusing on a very narrow model of cognition. They assume that the way to be productive is to always focus, focus, focus, to always look straight ahead. We tell kids not to daydream, to not look out the window, to only look at the blackboard. That’s important. A big part of the creative process involves a phase of paying attention, putting in the work, being stubborn and persistent.
But the research is very clear that our best ideas or moments of insight arrive when we least expect them—when we’re distracted. That’s why kids with ADHD are often able to be creative achievers in the real world. This thing which is a burden in the classroom may actually be an asset in the real world. Because if you’re distractible, you’re always combining ideas in unexpected ways. People who daydream more score higher on tests of creativity. So daydreaming is a very effective and important mental state.”
― Jonah Lehrer

Here are some ways that I’m learning to balance “productive” time with “wasted” time: 

  • Figuring out what my most productive times of day are. I create during those times, then allow myself to rest, run errands or go to appointments, exercise or wander during other times. 
  • Making the most of my productive time so that I feel like I’ve earned the rest. Writing down everything that I’ve done in a day helps me see that I do more than I think I do, and helps me feel better about the in between moments. 
  • Appreciating the work that supports the creativity, like buying groceries, doing laundry and washing dishes - instead of feeling like it’s stealing me away from it. Finding ways to feel joy in those moments instead of grudgingly rushing through them. 
  • Giving myself permission to have off days.
  • Getting back to work as soon as possible after an off day.
  • Paying attention to how I feel during off days to mine my emotions for art.
  • Taking things less seriously, approaching life with curiosity rather than obligation.
  • Understanding how each failed attempt gets me closer to what I want.
“Regret for wasted time is more wasted time ” 
― Mason Cooley

How does wasted time affect your creativity? Leave a comment below! 

P.S. If you're in Edmonton and want to spend some unfocused time playing with creativity, you should come to Art Camp for adults! There are two nights left, July 12 and 26 and we'll be drinking wine and wasting time in the most fun ways. Come join us! More information and registration here

Also, if you feel like you could use a reminder to check in with your creativity, sign up here to get daily check-ins sent right to your phone.