When I worked at the last stressful job I hope I’ll ever have, a sensitive and intelligent board member pointed out the reason I was having such a hard time: “Since you’re constantly trying to fend off the alligators, you have no time to drain the swamp.”
Take a look at your day. Most of us are fending off alligators: whether it’s because we’re working at a job that is understaffed, or we’re overwhelmed taking care of young children, or we’re running a company, or we’re simply trying to pay the bills.
How do we drain the swamp, and drive those alligators away?
At my job, I organized everything into three folders:
Because of the nature of my work, I was always reaching for my Urgent – or “alligator” – folder. I couldn’t miss a press release or advertising deadline! I had to make that call before such-and-such a date! And so forth. Because the Urgent folder filled up on a daily – or even hourly – basis, I rarely touched the Important – or “swamp” – folder. And the Must-do file was ignored and became quite plump.
It wasn’t until I swapped my concept of Urgent and Important that I finally got my head above water. For one hour every day, I pretended I was at a crucial meeting. I refused phone calls and locked my office door, and began to plow through the Important folder. Once these longer-term items were addressed, the Urgent folder began to diminish. I found I wasn’t going to drown in the swamp and be eaten by alligators after all.
Maybe your Urgent folder is not a stressful office job but a houseful of babies (or just one!). Can you swap your thinking around taking care of your baby? Your baby is Important – but she’s not (or at least rarely) Urgent. (What may be Urgent is for you to attend a yoga class, or take a night out with a friend. Or ask your mom or a friend to take your baby to the park, so you can have the house to yourself for one hour. And for heaven’s sake, don’t wash the dishes or run around picking up socks during that hour! That’s Must-Do, not Urgent! Urgent means: Have a long, aromatic bath. Read a book. Write in your diary. Make love. Be alone. Be with your spouse.)
I no longer have babies to keep me from writing, and I left the stress of a job I didn’t love a long time ago. But prioritizing is still a challenge: Urgent tasks such as communicating with clients and friends, organizing freelance work, meeting my own deadlines, and generally clearing the decks tend to take precedence over the less Important work of writing my novel.
We could spend hours on these seemingly urgent things. Yes, the dishes need to be washed. Yes, a client needs a call back. And maybe we’re one of those people who has a problem focusing unless everything is “just right.” But creativity is not going to flow unless we place it in our Urgent folder, and deal with everything else as just Important.
Fun Writing Practice – Ask Yourself “Is this Vital?”
Imagine that your creative work is the only thing in your Urgent folder: it is what you need to get to before anything else is attended to. If you have a job or children or other obligations that are going to impede on the time you’ve set yourself for creative work, ask yourself: “Is this task vital?” Using that word will help you put your priorities into perspective. Is it vital that the floor is mopped? Is it vital that I open that email?
Only something vital should impede your creative time.
This week, make writing – or any creative endeavor – a priority. Your creative body is just that: a body that needs to be treated with as much care and respect as a boss, an employee, a friend, a baby. If you consistently put that body aside in favor of other, more pressing, items that require your attention, you may wake up one day and find that it’s not sitting around waiting for you. Your creative life is not something to take for granted.
Begin with a routine that heralds the space and time that writing requires. Turn off all the distractions that make it so hard to be in that creative space – your phone especially. Light a candle, or make that coffee or green tea, or ring a bell, or play a short melody on your recorder. Do something significant that says “Now I begin.” In that space and time, even if you spend it looking out of the window or staring at your screen, you’re allowing your creative body to enter. Love it as you would a baby or a lover! Love that space and time – and let it be. You’ll establish a habit that automatically ensures Creativity will be there for you, because you have shown that you are there for it.
The hardest part about prioritizing in this way is that you’re challenging typical expectations. You may find your friends, colleagues, clients, and relatives expect you to place them in the Urgent folder. From the time we were young children, we’ve been told that artistic creative “fun” play is not nearly as urgent as learning the alphabet and the times tables. Question that! Fly in the face of the mindset of the world around you. Your inner voice, your creative soul, your longing to write is the most vital thing in the world! Be available.
Because in the end are you going to remember a deadline you missed or the time you didn’t wash the dishes? Or are you going remember the peace and satisfaction of writing a poem or rereading a story that poured out of you one morning, early?
- the path through the woods at dusk
- a pelican on the beach in Mykonos
- being handed a long-stemmed rose
- a box at the opera
- tremendous generosity
- a wonderful surprise
- birthday cake
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