“I don’t have enough time!”
The words I spoke revealed the truth. Once again, my mind sprung the trap. I’m not sure who set it, but it’s been there for years. It draws to mind the second chapter of Portia Nelson’s poem, “Autobiography in 5 Chapters,” in her book, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery. I fell into the time scarcity trap, but my eyes are open. It takes me a few hours—sometimes a couple of days—but I get out.
There’s always enough time
In an age of time starvation and scarcity, that’s what I choose to believe—there is always a way to make something difficult happen. Scarcity is the driver of creativity. I imagine Zak Klauck’s project, in which he designed 100 posters in 100 days, all of which were done in less than one minute.
When I was writing my book about creative work, I knew I wanted to interview artist Michael Saviello, also known as Big Mike who worked as a manager at Astor Place Hairstylists for decades.
I learned that one random day, in April 2017, Big Mike was talking to his friend author Rafael Hines, who had just self-published his book Bishop’s War (writing from midnight to 3 a.m., sleeping until 6 a.m., and going to his full-time job) to great success.
That day in April, Big Mike decided he was going to paint. He kept his job, and life didn’t stop happening. For example, he painted to support his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer and has since recovered.
Big Mike went on to do gallery shows, but it all happened because of the same practice. Every day, for years now, Big Mike goes to work and paints for 45 minutes during his lunch hour.
Here are a few things I learned from him on getting out of the time scarcity trap.
Set a time limit for your work
Proposition: Reclaim time from your schedule for your creative work.
One key to finding time for your creative work is to reclaim it from Instagram, Netflix, Spotify, or any other form of comfort. We spend cumulative weeks of our lives on these platforms. Each day, take just five or ten minutes back from them.
You can use a technique called timeboxing, which involves giving yourself a set amount of time to do your creative work. I use a kitchen timer, or sometimes my iPhone on airplane mode. You can make this a regular habit, like Lorne Michaels has said about Saturday Night Live, “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” You might also choose to make something small whenever you have idle time, like when you’re waiting for an elevator or bus.
You may also find your mind thinking about the piece when you’re not actually working on it. Big Mike says, “I do a painting in a short amount of time, but I think about it 24 hours.” Big Mike’s friend, Rafael Hines has said he turns the lights off at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., he lies in the dark for 30 to 45 minutes and visualizes the story. Sometimes, the protagonist of his novels taps him on the shoulder.
Use happiness and excitement to keep it going
Proposition: Make doing your creative work a highlight of your day.
Discipline will get your routine started, but happiness and excitement keep it going. It’s not difficult for Big Mike to paint during the lunch hour at his day job. “This is my favorite part of the day,” he says. You can cultivate the attitude not of “I need to do this,” but of “I get to do this.”
Many people pick up two or three different crafts throughout their lives. Maybe you’ve found the first one, and the second one awaits you somewhere down the line. Nonetheless, once you’ve found it and committed to your chosen creative work, the next move is to figure out how to fit it into your day.
Select a simple tool
Proposition: Choose a tool for your creative work and stick with it for 10 days.
Big Mike’s method is simple, which he describes, “put the paint on the canvas!” Choosing a tool provides you with a clear idea of what you will be doing. You paint with a paintbrush. You draw or write with a pencil. Commit to this tool for 10 days—just enough time to see what you can do with it but not so much that you get bored.
You likely already have some of the equipment you need. So just start with that, and figure out whatever you need along the way. You don’t need to pay for the best thing, just for the version of whatever your budget is. As Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly writes, “start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.”
Herbert Lui is the author of There Is No Right Way to Do This, a book that supports people starting new projects, learning new skills, and developing their creative processes. He writes a newsletter that shares three great books every month. He is also the editorial director at Wonder Shuttle, an editorial studio that turns employee experiences into more customers or hires, at lower costs.