How time poverty kills creativity

One reason I like my blog so much is that I never get writer’s block. I only write when I feel inspired and ideas for posts just come to me when I have time to think, like when cooking dinner or when I’m in the shower. If I can, I stop everything (which sometimes is a bit unfortunate, especially if I’m in the middle of preparing dinner) and I just quickly write it all down, and then come back later to edit and modify. So my blog really doesn’t cause me very much anxiety. On the contrary, I would say I get more energy out of it than I put in. And it’s perfect because I never sit in front of an empty screen not knowing what to write.

Except now.

For the first time since I started my blog, I sat at my desk thinking I need to post something, but I have no idea what. I have had a lot to do these past few weeks, and unfortunately I have been so busy and stressed that I have had little or no time for reflection. Which is actually pretty bad for an academic, because it is our ideas we live off, as well as the ability to write these ideas down. I have simply had too much to do. Since it never rains but pours, it seems like almost everything I’m supposed to do this academic year basically has to happen between August and November.

But not having time for reflection is really not that unusual. On the contrary, it is more unusual to actually have the time and space to think. In my previous career as a consultant I saw this all the time. When facilitating workshops or coaching business professionals, we would often hear how great it is to actually have a chance to stop and think, because that is something you usually never really get to do.

While living standards have gone up during the past decades, time has become a valuable but scarce resource. We use terms like time-poverty to describe what professionals deal with today. The pace is fast and hectic and having a (more than) full schedule is somehow strangely associated with importance or status. And research has shown just how detrimental this can be to our wellbeing and sense of self. Still, this is the way we live our lives, and it generates nervous energy in people, making it difficult to just sit around and do nothing. Have you noticed how when waiting for something or someone, you promptly whip out your cellphone and start checking social media or surfing the web? Try not doing that next time and see what happens.

But ironically, even though hectic is the norm, it doesn’t inspire or allow for creativity. Greatness isn’t borne out of stress and anxiety. In fact, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, many of the greatest inventions and creations of all time have come about in moments of quiet solitude. That is, in places and spaces where reflection has been possible.

I want to share a poem, or part of a poem actually. It’s by one of my favorite poets and it seems to epitomize the multiple and sometimes overwhelming nature of contemporary life. In addition, I also think it quite accurately describes the struggle we often experience when opting out and in. At least it struck a chord with me:

But when I call upon my dashing being,

out comes the same old lazy self,

and so I never know just who I am,

nor how many I am, nor who we will be being.

I would like to be able to touch a bell

and call up my real self, the truly me,

because if I really need my proper self,

I must not allow myself to disappear.

  • Pablo Neruda

My favorite part

One thing you have to realize when opting out and in, is that the lifestyle you dream about, and which you hopefully find a way to opt in to, isn’t going to be perfect. For years before opting out and in, I was very interested in people and what makes them tick, and I dreamed of being able to work in areas like psychology, social psychology, or sociology. And although this was what I secretly wanted to do, the path I chose after graduating from high school was quite different. My decision back then was based on a lot of factors other than what I was really interested in. But after years of dreaming and then gradually actually doing something about it, I am now a social scientist!

So this is my dream that I am living. Still, living my dream and working as a social scientist has its ups and downs. It’s not all rosy. It’s not all great. Sometimes it’s hard. It’s frustrating. And sometimes I have to do things that I don’t really like doing. But I also do things that I love and that I find absolutely fascinating. The important thing is that there are more good parts than bad; the balance needs to be in your favor.

But of all the things I do as a social scientist, there is one thing in particular that, hands down, is my absolute favorite. And that is interviewing people for my research.

When I worked on my PhD, I interviewed women about their opting out and in experiences, and right now I’m interviewing men about the same thing. I use a narrative approach to interviewing, and in practice that means that I really don’t have a lot of questions. I want my interviewees to talk freely about their experiences before, during, and after opting out. They get to decide what they want to tell me, in what order, and if there’s anything in particular that they want to focus on. If they’re worried what they’re telling my isn’t relevant or important enough, I quickly assure them that I am a sociologist, and that there is absolutely nothing they could say that wouldn’t be interesting to me, which is true. And it’s amazing, the stories they share with me are so rich; people who I have never met before and who I might never meet again. They talk openly and honestly and share their most personal thoughts and feelings with me, and I love hearing their stories. But more importantly what they’re giving me is a huge and valuable gift. Because they are willing to talk to me, I can actually do what it is that I am doing. And I am so grateful.

I just love the whole situation though. I say as little as possible in order to minimize my influence on the interviewee and his or her story. Often this is hard for me, partly because I’m a talkative one, but also because I recognize so much in what it is these people are talking about. It makes it hard not to turn the interview into a dialogue instead. I often want to share my experiences too, because I realize how much we actually have in common.

One thing that feels especially great about all of this is that my interviewees also seem to enjoy the interviews. For many it’s the first time they have really talked to anyone about their opting out and in experiences, and doing so gives them a chance to make sense of what it is they have gone through and why they made the decisions they did. Sometimes they tell me that the interview felt quite therapeutic, and often they thank me for the chance to talk about it, even though I am the one who should be thanking them. And that of course feels good, that they are also getting something out of it.

And it makes me think. We are all so busy going about our lives and making everything happen, that we rarely slow down long enough to really listen to people. I mean really hearing a person and not just hearing what we expect to hear or what we want to hear, which if you think about it is what often happens in regular conversation.

But in these interviews, I just sit quietly and I listen.

There is actually one person I know who does this in regular conversation: my father-in-law. When conversing with him there are very few interruptions. You take turns talking and when it’s your turn to talk he really listens and then he expects you to return the favor when it’s his turn to talk. The conversation is always good and interesting, it’s amazing how much you can learn when you really listen. But more than that, after having a conversation like this you feel seen and you feel heard. And that can really be a pretty great feeling.

Dreams do come true

When my daughter was little, her greatest dream was to be able to fly. Not too unusual I suppose, people have probably wanted to fly since the beginning of time, that’s why the airplane was invented. But she didn’t want to fly in an airplane, she had done that many times, she wanted to fly on her own.

One evening as I was sitting on the edge of her bed at bedtime, and tucking her in, she looked at me and said, there’s no point in dreaming because dreams don’t come true.

Yes, wow. I think she was about four years old and this statement completely floored me. I mean what do we have if we don’t have dreams? And especially to hear that coming from a child!

I tried to sound as casual as possible and I asked her why she said that, is that what she thinks? Well, it turned out someone – a grown-up – had told her that people can’t and will never be able to fly and neither will she so there is no point dreaming about it. Something inside me died a little.

And I was outraged. Who has the right to kill a little girl’s dream like that? To kill anyone’s dream for that matter? Flying may be unlikely, although with the technological breakthroughs that are constantly being made you never know. Never say never, right? Still, she would eventually have figured that out on her own, if of course she doesn’t actually end up inventing some gimmick in the future, which will actually allow her to fly. But either way, you can’t just go and kill a child’s dream like that. It just isn’t right. Why would you even want to?

Because dreams do come true and I am living proof. I used to have a dream. I had many, of course, but there is one in particular that I want to write about today. I’ve always loved books and I’ve always thought it would be so cool to actually write a book some day. Now no one told me I couldn’t, although I didn’t talk about it very much. I was old enough to understand that writing a book is a lot of work. I also had the impression that it really is very hard to get a novel (which was what I equated with a book) published. Plus, I didn’t even think I had it in me. But I thought it must be the ultimate thing, to have a book to your name.

Well, little did I know then that this was actually going to come true for me: I signed a book contract with an international publisher last week! Opting out and in is going to be a book! At this point I’m not exactly sure how long the process is going to be, but hopefully it will be out by the end of next year or the beginning of 2017.

As for my daughter, I hope and know she still dreams. At the time, sitting on her bed, I gave her a short lecture on dreams and dreaming, stressing that what she was told was absolutely not true. Dreaming is never silly or irrational. It is wonderful and important and we should all do it more. Dreams do come true, and you really never know, humans may even be able to fly some day. The important thing is to never give up dreaming. And I think she believed me. I don’t know how the flying dream is doing today, but she still dreams and I just know that with her imagination, creativity, and resilience many of them will come true.

On slowing down to smell the roses

I once participated in a roundtable discussion with Finnish academic and writer Merete Mazzarella, who I admire very much. It was several years ago and I can’t even really remember what exactly we were talking about, but I do remember her telling the rest of us about reflections she had made as she was standing at a bus stop watching the other people who were also waiting for a bus. Again, I don’t remember what these reflections actually were, but I do remember thinking I wished I was the type of person who stood at bus stops and drew philosophical and intelligent conclusions about humanity or whatever contemporary phenomenon I had recently been pondering. Afterwards I mentioned this to my colleague, whose immediate reaction was well why don’t you? And I thought right, why don’t I stop and make interesting observations about people and phenomena as I go about my daily life? I didn’t really know why, but I did have a feeling that I wouldn’t, and I was right, I didn’t. After the roundtable, I continued living my life the way I always had: rushing from one place to the next, and simply not having the time nor peace of mind to slow down enough to have any deep thoughts about people at bus stops. Besides, I always took my car so I hardly ever frequented any bus stops.

The other day I was sitting on a rock reading and I got that same feeling of longing again. I was reading Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin (a very interesting, entertaining, thought provoking, and at times somewhat horrifying book about motherhood on the Upper East Side) and in the book Wednesday describes how she decides to make an anthropological project of trying to understand and gain social access to the high-status mothers of her new neighborhood. Her reasons are personal as these mothers effectively shunned her when she moved there. What she does, is she spends days, and perhaps weeks, sitting in her car just observing these women as they go about their daily routine. This routine includes sessions at gyms, lunches, and shopping so they move around a lot outside, hence being able to observe them from her car. But that’s not the point. The point is that she is sort of doing what Merete does, except systematically and as part of a project. She is taking the time to simply observe people and her surroundings and she makes the most interesting observations. And it made me remember the roundtable discussion from years ago, and again I wished I could do that too. So I’m wondering what is this really about? What is it that is really triggering this feeling of longing in me?

Well, sitting on that rock, I came to the conclusion that the reason I don’t and the reason I want to are basically the same. The reason is of course that I always seem to be in a hurry. Or even if I’m not in a hurry, I feel like I need to be in too many places at the same time, which is kind of funny, because being in anything more than one place at a time should really be physically impossible, but in this day an age we regularly and instantly get transported in time and space through the little screens in our hand-held devices. Some would argue that’s part of the problem.

I’ve also read somewhere that when you do many things at the same time, i.e. multitasking, you actually get an acute sense of time running out, of it just slipping through your fingers. And I can vouch for that; I hate multitasking. When I do it, I feel like everything I do gets done a bit worse than if I gave each task my undivided attention. I like doing things one at a time.

Life is hectic and I know I’m not alone. But I also know that I really like it when I slow down enough to notice the pretty silhouette of leaves against the sky. Or the graphic pattern on the trunk of a tree. Or the stark contrast of yellowing reeds against that particular shade of blue the sea gets in September. I need to do that more. And maybe I need to spend more time at bus stops. Or not.