How Limited Time Can IMPROVE Your Productivity Part 1

Many years ago, I had the amazing privilege of meeting the now-late Colin Thiele. Author of Storm Boy amongst other classics of Australian literature, Colin was arguably one of the most productive writers Australia has ever brought forth, having written countless children’s books, poetry and more.

The thing that impressed me about Colin – aside from his incredible humility, warm humour and way of putting you instantly at ease – was his unbelievable productivity.

In tandem with his writing achievements, he continued to work as a teacher his entire life – it was only at night, after classroom, marking and family duties had been put to bed (typically around 10pm) that he would begin writing. Without fail.

When I asked him what his biggest tip would be for me, a fledgling aspiring writer, he looked thoughtful. “Well,” he said, sitting back in his chair and looking upward, “I had a dear old friend who wanted to be a writer many years ago and one day he rang me up and he sounded most exasperated. ‘How do you ever get anything done?’ he asked. I asked him what he meant.”

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘by the time I start, the mailman arrives, then by the time I’ve sorted through the mail it’s time for morning tea, then I finally sit down and the phone rings…’ and he went on and on. And I said ‘Listen, if you want to be a writer, then you need to write. The art of writing is simple: it’s applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair.”

Hmm.

His words came back to haunt me, several years – and children – later.

There I was, sitting in my cosy, pine-wood smelling, tranquil little studio at Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts. I couldn’t be happier. A world renowned destination for all manner of artistic disciplines and after months of planning, finally, there I was: beginning what would be four glorious weeks of a residency, without any of the distractions of child-wrangling or house-keeping, to spend writing my new solo comedy show.

The view from my studio deck (if I'm in front of you with my arm outstretched)

Indeed, it was quite the picture of inspiration – through my studio windows I had a stunning view of the quintessentially picturesque Canadian forest, the ground was covered in feet of fluffy snow, I even glimpsed the occasional deer trampling through…and I had complete privacy (and limitless cups of tea) with which to play.

My resident passer-by at the Banff Centre

In other words, conditions were perfect.

Yet it took me a grand forty minutes to realise – to my horror – that when finally granted that terribly elusive dream of nothing but time to spend as I please, I wasted it with all the blatant disregard of an elderly person who’s never grasped the concept of recycling.

In fact, I quickly realised that when it came to inventing methods of avoiding creating (doing what I LOVE!), I was a complete and utter genius.

Just another cup of tea.

Just another email.

Just another google search.

Just another blog.

Just another, just another, just another…

I struggled through and finally emerged from the retreat with a decent backbone for my show; (the bare minimium of work I’d set for myself, deeming the enterprise an official ‘success’), yet I couldn’t help but feel some sense of disappointment.

That I wasn’t more productive. That I didn’t make more of each moment. That the grand open space for creativity that I’d so long craved for, had only served as some sort of flag to signal an abundance of time to waste at my leisure – after all, in my luxury writers studio surrounds, the whole point was that I could get round to writing ‘whenever I felt like it!’

Well, fast forward twelve months and there I was: well and truly re-entrenched into the daily grind. Kids. Housework. And yes, writing, but only when – and if – I could squeeze it in.

And yet again I was confronted by the wasteful nature of my indulgent self when it comes to creative time.

By the time the day’s duties were done, I was so exhausted, so spent, so done, that the last thing I “felt like” was actually creating.

Even though I love it.

So I didn’t.

I would read, perhaps.
I would watch crappy television, justifying it by telling myself that part of the comedian and writer’s job is to stay abreast of popular culture (even now, as I write that I cringe, hearing my mother’s voice ringing in my ears “You should have done law!”).
I would think (oh, how I would think!) about the things I wanted to do.

But actually putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or even voice to Dictaphone? Oh, no! No! My hands were far too preoccupied slapping my forehead, in a melodramatic rant about all the creative things I intended to do “when I finally got the time.”

Until one day, something happened which made me realise not just how lucky I am to even be able to create at all – regardless of time constraints – but how much I truly NEED to.

That thing was a car accident.

Suddenly my extistence went from juggling comedy shows, procrastinating writing duties and rearing children, to managing medical jargon, tackling endless beaurocracy and recovering from a severe head-on collision.

I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky to be walking. Yet, as I began to process the overflow of trauma of what happened that day, I was slowly confronted by the dawning truth: from that moment onward, I had no excuses not to create.

In fact, I not only wanted to write about what happened and what was happening in my life, I needed to. I had to.

And so it began.

Every single day, without fail and without compromise, without excuses and without procrastination, the moment my little bubba went down for his nap, I would sit down at the computer and I would not leave. I had no expectations of what I would write. No agenda. No outcome in mind. Sometimes I would just write random thoughts, sometimes I would work on little nuggets of a screenplay, others I would sketch out the backbone of an article.

But the point is, I would write.

I kept going and going. If I finished one piece, I would start on another. I would write and write and would not stop until the little dude woke up. And given that this ‘end point’ to my writing session was so unpredictable its arrival at best, it eliminated the possibility of any clock watching on my part.

On the contrary, this flexible and unpredictable deadline made me all the more motivated – many days I would find myself hoping that he would keep sleeping just that little bit longer so I could keep it going.

"I'm only doing this for Mummy, ya know!"

And at some point during that first week of writing my way out of my hell-hole of self-pity, it dawned on me:

I am umpteen times more productive when my opportunity to do so is limited.

And I’ve also realised that no matter how much time I might think I have to write/create/perform, my time is always limited: by life.

Like my son’s waking time, the unknown date of my exit point from this earth is also unpredictable. And, as it turns out, can prove likewise to be extremely motivating.

I thrive under pressure. I produce under constraints. My limitations are in fact, my greatest allies.

Namely because they really are, in essence, the glue that is finally adhering the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair.

*This is the first post in a series on this topic. Please, calm down.

x

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27 Comments

  1. June 21, 2010
    Reply

    Yes, YES, YYYEEESSS!!!
    I hear ya’, sister.
    Nap time is my hero.
    But I am also finding that I am getting better at juggling the “other” stuff – the dishes, the laundry, the shopping, etc…in such a way to make better use of whatever time I can free up.
    And finding things I can do while still in the room with the baby, chatting to him while he plays and I play.
    Keep up the great work!
    xoxoxo K

    • June 21, 2010
      Reply

      “Nap time is my hero” – that’s gotta be the name of a book, blog or band methinks!

      So how are you getting better at juggling the stuff? Like, when you say you’re finding things to do while you’re still with littlest, what kinda things do you find are actually manageable? I sooo wish that we could be flies on the wall in each others’ houses sometimes, to see how people actually manage with the crazy constancy that is having little ones.

      Love seeing you regularly here, hey, by the way, is there a problem with your blog? I’ve been having probs getting my puter to load it. ??

      x

      • June 22, 2010
        Reply

        Well, I think a lot of it boils down to simply having a goal – i.e. getting to the creation of the day / blogging – rather than just focusing on the kids, the house, the dog… I don’t dilly dally while doing my chores – I do them with purpose, and while I do them, I mull over my projects. I also do them with the kids around instead of during any “alone time” now.

        I make lots of lists to help me remember stuff. I work at a table in the play room (paper crafts mostly) so the baby can play at my feet. Oh, and I’ve given myself permission to set him in front of one Baby Einstein’s video per day, if necessary, to finish up whatever it is that I’m working on (he LOVES them).

        When nap comes, I am very efficient about getting to the project quickly – rather than making tea, catching a few minutes of a show, etc… Blablabla. My blog seems to be working fine on my end. And yes, I wish you could pop over for tea one day too. 😉 K

  2. June 21, 2010
    Reply

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with what you say about wasting time. I tend to do it without so much as a blink of an eye. I do have to have a ‘real’ job to help family finances, but literally I work 7 days a month! Hello……I should be sneezing art out every creavice, but I’m lucky to make a piece a month. I drive myself nuts.
    Was at a meeting tonight where a lot of people shared about how little they live in the moment – one woman missed the end of Lion King, not because she had to step out, but because she started to think of all the bills she had to pay and other errands. It was only the curtain closing that made her ‘wake up’.
    I was at a graduation party yesterday. The aunt of the girl graduating collapsed at the end of the party – hours later she is dead. This is not an old woman – late forties. It chills me to the bone – just like your car accident does.
    We have no idea what is around the corner – I must be insane to waste even one second of my time here on earth. Thanks for the reminder, Jenny.

    • June 21, 2010
      Reply

      Haha, I must have something stuck in my head because “Sneezing Art out of Every Creavice” is yet another book/blog title of great beauty! Love it!

      It is so damn hard to live in the moment, I think especially so when you’ve got kids because it can feel like such an unconquerable list of to-dos at times, I’ve really found that challenging for sure (and still do).

      I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s aunt, that’s so shocking. I think it’s crazy how something like that is so shocking to us even though we all know that of all the uncertainties in life, death is the one certainty. Yet it’s still a surprise when it happens to somebody we know. I think a huge part of it too is that it shocks us into a temporary wake-up that one day, that will be us.

      Not to get all hung up on morbidity, but this is something so close to my heart. My own mother died when I was very young (any references to “Mum” in this blog are referring to my grandmother, who raised me) so the knowledge the life is not permanent and that you need to make the most of while you’re here has hit me in a very real way for most of my life.

      Thanks so much for your comment, I’m so honoured that you felt moved to share that.

      x

  3. June 21, 2010
    Reply

    divine……

    and this now=w.o.w=worship of work

    Not twice this day, Inch time foot gem ,. This day will not come again, Each minute is worth a priceless gem. ZEN Master ” TAKUN ”

    happiness breath to breath ,, happiness thread to bread ,, happiness eat to sleep,, happiness ……………that occupies my being ,, a to z of creative enlightenment’……………….

    mile to smile………………….

    distance has no meaning,, meaning is ,, how you cover it…………………………….. discover smile to cover mile…..…………….to milestone eternal……………………. happy journey……………………. bless you…………………

  4. June 21, 2010
    Reply

    divine……

    All “creative arts” which include “writing”,”poetry”,”singing” “painting”,”photography”,and various” sports” ,and “hobbies “like “gardening”, “cooking “are like various paths and worship of works are prayers to bring subjective and objective together for creative enlightenment.

    not even sneezing every breath breathes creativity….

  5. June 22, 2010
    Reply

    I appreciate the sentiment, but with all due respect – you haven’t seen the creativity that comes out of my kids’ sneezes. I swear. You can’t sculpt that shizz.

  6. June 22, 2010
    Reply

    I’ve had the same experience with creativity and time. When I took a year off to write a novel I frittered away soooo much time. What helps me now is using an online timer so my focus stays on my work for a certain time period. Much as I’d like to be a grown up who can be productive without structure and tools, that’s just not how it is.

    • June 22, 2010
      Reply

      It’s so funny isn’t it? I feel like I was actually mega productive as a child within the structures that were well established in my life; even though now as an adult I kinda try to shy away from structure and routine, I really can see more and more that it is the key to being productive. Or at least being organised at how you go about things!

      I’ve heard a few people recently mention online timers, do you recommend one in particular or are they all much of a muchness?

  7. June 22, 2010
    Reply

    Kate, love the insight into a day at Camp Ware, thanks so much. Those are fantastic tips actually, do you mind if I do a follow-up post and mention them? I think so much of being creatively productive with kids in your life comes down to setting your life up so that it can help support your goals, and vice versa.

    I’m on a bit of a roll now! Oh, and hearting ya right back woman! x

  8. Agree.

    On my days off, I fritter. I internet, I read, I napnapnap. But, on days that I’ve already worked 8, 9, sometimes 10, hours on my feet, I come home energized. Desperately needing an outlet. Desperately needing a light at the end of the tunnel. And telling myself “okay, if you make this writing thing work (so far, so good), you won’t have to go to that job and be treated shabbily every day for the rest of your life”.

    So happy you found me. Can’t wait for the next installment!

    • June 22, 2010
      Reply

      I’m so happy you found me back!

      There’s a saying that’s something like: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”

      I think it’s so cool to actually look at it like that, like it’s not just in spite of having little time that we can be productive, but BECAUSE of it. Mmm! I can’t wait for the next installment either. Right after I just check out this other blog…

      😉

      • June 23, 2010
        Reply

        Hi Kelly, Here from flying lessons… What a heartfelt and wonderful post. Thank you for making me realize what I am sometimes about. Procrastination is so part of a vicious cycle in my life. Thank you for being so open and honest, and thank you for reinforcing how precious our time is here on this earth, so much so that we need to make it count in our lives.

        k

  9. June 23, 2010
    Reply

    Thanks I loved this post. I’m in flying lessons with you. I’m glad I stopped in. I’ll definitely take something from this. I’ll be back, to see you again soon : )

    • June 23, 2010
      Reply

      Great to meet you Kristy and happy that it resonated with you. See you again soon!!

  10. June 23, 2010
    Reply

    How many nights do I find myself working until nearly midnight because I frittered away the day? Too many to mention! Reminds me of when I was a student. Come exam time that house was sparkling as everyone found every excuse under the sun not to face that revision. I’ve always been the same – give me a bit of pressure and I’ll churn out the stuff. Mind you that didn’t quite work last week. I was so busy at work. I was working on a newsletter to send to all employees. Sent it to my boss for approval. She replied that I was ‘on fire’. Yup, I sent that version out to 500 employees. They all know I’m on fire – my face was certainly red enough!!

    • June 23, 2010
      Reply

      So true – I’m so torn between sacrificing sleep to just get stuff done, and looking after myself. Got much more to spew forth on that soon, I feel like I’ve just cracked open this big doorway of things to write about!

      Thanks for writing Lisa, love your blog too. x

  11. June 23, 2010
    Reply

    Too much time means too many opportunities and too many choices…hard to handle. I’m glad Kelly talked about time mamagement so I can use my time better because there are so many days where I have nearly no time and then, when I’m free I’m overwhelmed by all the things I could do NOW and spent far too much time reading blogs etc.

    • June 23, 2010
      Reply

      Funny isn’t it – this is kinda symbolic but it reminds me of when I was in the USA for the first time and went into a super-market (emphasis on the “super”). I could not BELIEVE how many choices there were for each product type, I almost hyperventilating at the sight of it all! I don’t know ho you could shop efficiently!

      The same’s definitely true of the myriad of things we can use to justify our procrastinating.

      Thanks for stopping in Bea!

  12. June 24, 2010
    Reply

    oh my jenny you totally named this one!! i’ve taken a week off of the big girl job to just work on my art. it is amazing how many other things i just had to get done. at the end of the week i probably had 2 paintings started, and not. ever. finished.
    i work so much better when there is much going on! reading kelly’s post about this has also given me much thought about scheduling and turning off the damn t.v.!
    i love your writing…btw.

    • June 24, 2010
      Reply

      Hi Angel, great to have you here! SO frustrating isn’t it? Yet so empowering if we can look at the positive side of the crazy times in life when there’s just so much going on, i.e. that we can actually get more done because it forces us to get cracking when we have the chance!!

      🙂

  13. June 24, 2010
    Reply

    HI…came visiting here via Flying Lessons too:) Great post…and so true! I can procrastinate with the best of them…and I tend to be more productive when I’m under pressure and have a deadline.

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