Spring # 6: How to stop working
Using boundaries on my time to start and stop creative work, feel more inspired, and rest.
Welcome to Spring, Issue #6 of Making Time. Each week, I share a seasonal perspective on the creative process. If you’d like to follow along on this year-long experiment, you can subscribe for free.
I love reading interviews with writers and artists in The Paris Review, because the interviewers always ask insightful questions about process, routines, and rituals. Read enough of them, and you clearly see the pattern. Most professional writers wake up early, write for several hours, then use the afternoons to do other things: administrative tasks, correspondence, or nothing at all.
What I’ve always taken away from this is the importance of starting work early. What I’ve usually ignored is the other half of the day – stopping creative work early too.
I have long considered myself a morning person. Early mornings are quiet and peaceful, a perfect time to be alone with your thoughts before the chaos of the day sets in. It’s also when I feel most alert and energetic, at least mentally. It is the time I’m most able to think creatively, write, and focus – especially once the caffeine kicks in.
Yet, for years I’ve struggled with how to use this morning energy. My struggle came down to these two factors:
Change is hard. I greatly enjoy a slow wake up, sipping coffee, reading, and doing very little in the morning (and there is nothing wrong with that).
Change always led to burnout. I ended up just working really long hours, sun up to sundown, and therefore felt miserable.
So I set about to find a routine that works with my body’s natural rhythms without pushing me into burnout territory. I want to use my creative morning energy. I don’t want to follow the advice of my inner workaholic and use this as an excuse to just work more.
Here’s what I’m trying.
The 3-Part Day
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about the artist as both a receiver and a transmitter. Like a radio, an artist needs to have time set aside to receive input and inspiration from the outside world, and time to form and create with that input.
I believe a third ingredient is necessary too (for all humans): time to relax and let our minds go in new directions.
So I took those three ingredients and attempted to align them with my body’s needs. The result is a 3-part day:
Creative Time: In the morning, I do my creative work. I start with the most energy-taxing and challenging, gradually moving into focused work and then meetings and collaboration.
Receiving Time: After lunch, I go for a walk and start my Receiving Time. This is when I learn and gather new ideas, reading books, taking notes, watching videos, learning.
Refreshing Time: This is the time of day for all the things that rejuvenate me: strenuous exercise, making dinner, yoga, drawing, sewing, journaling, knitting, taking a bath.
Of course, I am in a position to do this because I have a lot of flexibility at work (though not as much as you’d think) and no kids to take care of. And who knows if this schedule will stick long term?
But my point isn’t really that I’ve devised some sort of ideal schedule. And my adherence is far from perfect, since I have two days a week that are entirely media production days (creating videos and podcasts, usually with others all day long).
But what’s worked is simply creating a few buckets for my day, aligning those with my natural rhythms, and being a bit more intentional about what goes in each bucket.
It’s effective for me because it not only works with my nature rather than against it, but it sets clear boundaries on my work time. I give myself permission to disengage with focused, creative work instead of trying to force myself to keep chipping away at my to-do list as long as I can. And I look forward to the next block of time, when my brain can switch gears.
It all comes back to one of my favorite lessons from one of my favorite business books: manage your energy, not your time. This is important in the world of paid work, but in creative practice as well.
How about you, do you feel most alive and creative in the mornings?
What I’m Making
I made this lovely dress this week, and filmed the whole thing for YouTube, but here’s a sneak peek. I want to share more of my work-in-progress here.
The fabric is a vintage rayon with a rosebud print, and the pattern is a Laura Ashley design from McCall’s ca. early 2000s. I absolutely love it and want to make it again.
Head, Heart, Hands
Things to make us think, feel, and do.
What Would You Do With More Time? This is such a good question, and I’ve thought about it all week. I’d want to use an extra 2 hours a day to read more and make art. But would I?
May Sarton on Writing, Gardening, and the Importance of Patience Over Will in Creative Work. A timely read, as I just spent the weekend preparing my vegetable beds.
Why it’s so hard for writers to ask for money for their work
Books: I’m finally reading (among other things) Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and it has me thinking a lot about the dissolution of community, especially in the last few years, and how I can become more involved locally. Do you read multiple books at once? I’ve usually got 3 going at once, at least.
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I always have several books going. It started in high school when I worked at the public library, and now it's mostly about having the right book for my mood/energy.
I am most creative in the late morning and early afternoons or late at night (but late at night is when I am more of a receiver of ideas rather than a creative) and it is a painful pattern to live with since I work 8-4 Monday to Friday so I only really have weekends to work with my natural rhythm.