Why is it so hard to make time for ourselves?

Why is it so hard to make time for ourselves?

A meditation on time, creativity, and work-life balance listicles.

It’s that time of year when National Write a Novel Month (NaNoWriNo) emails start flowing into my inbox. Soon I’ll see the numbers on friends’ Facebook statuses gradually climb toward 50,000. As in: words. These diligent makers of art will write and write and write until a novel is produced. And even if they don’t make it to their end goal, they will have at least given it a crack, written a few thousand words, and kept alive the flame of creativity that I’ve had such trouble kindling lately. Quality isn’t the point here: it’s about carving time and space out of busy schedules to focus on something you love, something that’s just for you.

So when I see these emails and posts, I ask myself: what’s wrong with me? Some of these folks have chronic illnesses, or work three jobs, or have multiple kids, but still find the grit to put aside the pressures of daily life – even if it’s just for twenty minutes – to do the thing they love doing. Why can’t I do the same? I’m healthy, work just the one job, and have no kids, and yet: these are the first words I’ve written since you last heard from me, here, in May.

On life’s long list of priorities, the self can get lost. That, I think, is the biggest problem.

Lately, I’ve been reading literature I never thought I’d have cause to consult: articles, listicles, and short meditations on work-life balance. Self-help articles. We value exploration here at sinkhole, but my own search has been embarrassing and unhelpful. Most of these pieces tend to define life as “family” or “relationships.” Very little page space is given to the actual, personal self aside from industry-standard suggestions like: meditate for 20 minutes a day, and unplug!, and listen to your favorite music. I’m speaking generally, but take a look at these to see what I mean:

-        “6 Tips For Better Work-Life Balance

-        “Adopt These 12 Habits for a Better Work-Life Balance

-        “5 Tips to Create a Better Work/Life Balance

The trouble, I think, is that taking a full hour for yourself every day (and not just at the end of the night when all of your energy is used up) can feel selfish. If I have a free night, am I really going to go to the coffee shop at 8:00 pm to work on my own creative project when my fiancé and I have not had a date in, let’s say, conservatively, three months? Probably not.

The belief – and based on the proliferation of work-life balance content, I don’t think it’s just me – is that relationships can take work, but the self – the self will always be there. It stems, this belief, from the long-cherished human idea of an innate, everlasting soul, something that remains after you strip away all the flesh and bone. An essence. Seen this way, those work-life balance listicles and meditations can take on a terrifyingly existential aspect: if you’re not taking time for yourself, you are starving your soul.

The other issue I’m having is that the older I get, the harder it is to be creative.

It is, perhaps, not all our fault that creativity slips away as we take on the baggage of adulthood. (Again, I say we because I really don’t think I’m alone on this.) When faced with new problems or opportunities as adults, we tend to rely on old tricks and strategies. In most cases, that’s a good thing, but when it comes to creative work, our preconceived ideas and long-established routines can hinder us. Trying new things, as Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths observe at The New York Times, “may lead us to a more unusual idea, a less obvious solution, a new piece of knowledge. But it may also mean that we waste time considering crazy possibilities that will never work.” There it is again, that time thing: it could be that the time constraints of the real world – work, fiancé, family, friends, etc. – limit my ability to think creatively (which is, as Gopnik and Griffiths claim, a time-consuming process). At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson makes a similar argument: “knowledge,” he writes, “doesn’t just turn us into critical thinkers. It maybe turns us into over-critical thinkers.” As we accumulate more and more knowledge – as we get older – the way we view new or unconventional ideas shifts. It gets so much harder to just trust that new idea, and to give yourself permission – and then that precious commodity, time – to explore it.

So what to do from here?

Identifying the problem is supposed to be the first step to fixing it. The solution, however, eludes me. I can’t get less sleep, right? Sitting for eight hours at my job makes the gym a necessity, doesn’t it? The pockets of time I do have outside of work, exercise, and wedding-planning are devoted to friends and family, relationships I really want to hold onto.

At the end of the month, when my NaNoWriNo friends have all written books, or partial books, and their creativity is bursting through the pores of their lovely blushing cheeks—I’ll cover the bags underneath my eyes, go to work, hit the gym, make last minute wedding preparations on my laptop, and get a little older, a little less creative.

Or, perhaps, sleep isn’t so important after all?

header image: "soft melting clock," dennis van zuijlekom / flickr


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