“Me time” is a well-intentioned catch phrase that conjures in my mind a harried young mother whose weekly highlight is dishing with her parent crew at Chick-Fil-A while their kids run circles around the joint. I am not that parent, yet the sentiment behind the phrase persists in my life.
There’s nothing more infuriating than someone reminding me to “take time for myself.” I assume it means I look like I’m about to lose a grip on my life – that my bangs are sticking up and there’s grape jelly smeared on my jeans and my left eye is twitching. In other words: I look like my kids are kicking my ass and I’ve neglected my own needs.
While that may be an accurate summary of my appearance from time to time, it’s rarely because my kids have me stretched too thin and I’m in dire need of a champagne bubble bath with control + alt + delete potency. More likely, I’ve been entrenched in an intensely productive creative phase and have managed to emerge triumphant, albeit unshowered, despite the five-year-old who is learning to make his own sandwiches and the six-year-old who has been practicing braiding on my hair while I type at my computer.
Whether you miss your former, pre-kids creative self or you’re ready to retool your schedule to make room for a creative process, the following steps will help you make the most of your time and energy without sacrificing sanity or family.
1 | Ignite yourself first
Identify activities or patterns of engaging with the world that ignite your inner creative energy. These may or may not be directly linked to your particular medium. For example, contemporary art, live music, walking in the woods, eavesdropping on my kids’ conversations in their bunk beds, and late nights out with interesting people stoke my creative writing fire.
Ask yourself: what makes you feel most alive? Cobble up a list, and then work those things into your life. Harness the energy they produce and ride whatever waves they give rise to.
Meanwhile, cut activities that drain you. For example, I cut meaningless playdates with kids who have helicopter parents. Two hours of small talk with these parents was an excruciating waste of time.
I also decided that I don’t believe in living a life whose weekend hours are dictated by a five-year-old’s social schedule. So they were cut.
Outcome: more time for other, more valuable activities for the whole family. This summer, we spent our weekends exploring new swimming holes, catching crawdads with our bare hands, and listening to nature’s music. Consequently, I was able to do something that energizes me creatively and share higher quality time with my kids, who, frankly, will have plenty of social opportunities in the years to come.
2 | Be already ready already
There’s a 90s Tropical Freeze commercial in which two women are sun-bathing poolside while a third woman goes to the kitchen to make frozen daiquiris. Frazzled, the hostess chops fruit wildly and stuffs ice into a blender while her friends grow impatient. Cut to a bag o’ daiquiri poured smoothly into a glass and the tagline voice over, “Tropical Freeze: it’s already ready already.”
Make this slogan your own. Ensure that the moment you have an hour at your disposal, or the minute inspiration strikes, all you have to do is show up to your workstation and execute your idea. If you have to clean, organize, locate tools, or think about where to begin each time you sit down, you won’t get anything done. If you paint, keep your workspace set up and your brushes ready to go. If you write music or short stories, keep an index card handy that lists projects in progress and ideas to explore. If you write and don’t know where to begin, keep your pens and paper near your laptop along with a few writing prompts close by.
3 | Show up during quiet time
Yes, you could watch the new episode of “Scandal” after your kids go to sleep and no one would be the wiser. You could also match socks or replace the filter on the furnace or look for a new job or balance your checkbook or…well, the list goes on as always.
You deserve all manner of indulgences, and at some point, the socks will need to be matched. But I promise you that choosing instead to write or paint or draw or strum your guitar – however you choose to direct your creative energy – will pay dividends in a way that empty tasks and television simply can’t.
No sugar coating here: creative work won’t make itself. You must work at it and work at it often. Take yourself seriously. If you don’t, who will? Try cutting your unwind-time routines or busy work in half and replacing what’s left over with creative work.
4 | Leave the house
Whether it’s for an hour or a weekend, regularly claim some space outside of the home. A change of scenery invites a shift in thought processes and perspective, making it a great way to get creativity flowing. It also cuts down on distractions, guilt, and anything else related to home that might stand in the way of your burgeoning process.
Claiming space can be as simple as bringing a notebook to a café or doing sketches in an urban area.
A favorite generative activity of mine is sitting alone in a restaurant with a pen and notebook. I listen for the most interesting conversation within earshot, then write down what I hear. Absent conversations, I might sketch a character from a man sitting at the bar. I might sketch a woman’s tattoo, then guess at what her life might be like. Often, I’ll read a supposedly complete essay over coffee at a new café and I’ll find it’s not quite right, or that it needs a slight reshaping.
5 | Find direction
So you’ve got all this creative energy, you’ve prepped your tools and workspace, and you’re ready to commit some time to developing a true practice. Now you’ll need direction.
At first, allow yourself to spend some time spinning your wheels and noticing your work habits, strengths, weaknesses, interests, and cycles. Writers can try working from prompts. Makers of all kinds can keep a visual or written record of observations or creative sparks, then look for patterns that can be developed further. Use of collage or found parts can help reveal connective tissues between disparate subjects.
The point is to first capture what grabs you, then allow it to grab you back. Once you get through this initial experimentation phase, identify a project for yourself that will take you a while to complete – say, three or four weeks. An actual commitment that will require you to optimize your time management and incorporate additional tips in this list.
This timeline is great because achievement is key. If you can’t push a creative practice into the end zone of completion, you risk feeling defeated and abandoning your work. So challenge yourself, but be realistic. Even if you don’t love the outcome, completion can establish the foundation of a life-long practice.
6 | Capture creativity on the go
Once you’ve got a project in mind, you’ll want to nurture it. But creativity, much as we might like it to be so, is not easily domesticated. It’s more like a feral cat you’ll start feeding and eventually grow used to, but that won’t stop it from revealing its wild nature from time to time.
This is to say, sometimes you’ll have epiphanies at inappropriate times and places. You’ll tell yourself you’ll remember them later, but trust me when I say you will not. Therefore, you’ll need coping strategies. I write notes to myself on my phone when I’m out and about. Over the years, I’ve learned that barebones notes often don’t make sense later, so I try to label or categorize them by topic or project. I also capture inspiring images or artwork on my phone and email those to myself.
I’ve learned I have three risk activities, or situations in which I’m both more likely to have a good idea and more likely to forget it if I don’t immediately preserve it. These situations are taking a shower, falling asleep, and driving. None of which are conducive to writing. These are times when my brain and body are most relaxed and open, which invites the mind to expand into areas it doesn’t occupy when, say, talking on the phone or working.
So I do what any logical person would do: I get out of the shower mid-shampoo to write down the fleeting thought; I scribble in the dark on a notebook I keep on my nightstand; and I speak my thoughts into an app I can access without risking my life on the road.
7 | Creative time for all
Make your creative practice a family thing. I keep several small plastic tubs filled with creative project materials for my kids and get them out when I need to write and solitude isn’t possible. (Examples: marshmallows and toothpicks for making sculptures.)
To encourage this separate-but-together-time’s success, give each person their own “space” to do their work. (And don’t call it work. Call it “maker time” or “creation time,” or something that sounds more fun than work.) Set a timer for a length of time your child can handle developmentally. When the timer goes off, invite each person to share or present their work.
This communal creative time allows you to develop your work, familiarizes your child with his or her own creative process, emphasizes completion, and encourages positive family bonding around the arts. It will also instill in them respect for creative time and space, especially if they can glimpse the final product during “share time.”
8 | Control screen time
Usually this parenting advice is offered with regard to children. But let’s be honest: the same rules apply to adults. You know the drill. Sign out of Facebook, turn off your phone. Remove any and all sources of distraction.
9 | Seek support
Keeping the momentum going once you’ve started is crucial. Just like with diets, accountability yields success. But how does accountability translate in a creative practice?
An Instagram feed documenting process and progress works for some, especially visual artists. For others, sharing work with peers in a workshop, critique, or discussion setting drives them on. For writers, even getting feedback and support from a single reader is enough. For still others, publication, presentation, and recognition provide the support and accolades needed to continue.
Find ways to hold yourself accountable to your process and projects outside of yourself. Whatever motivates you and helps push you to the next level, incorporate it into your process.
You may end up carving yourself a new career.