Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art

I stumbled on this old productivity post which, ironically, I never did anything with. I wrote it a while ago when I was preoccupied with getting it all done: work, writing, music, life: the full catastrophe. I’m not sure in all honesty how good I am at implementing these strategies. I have a more relaxed attitude now, and try to write when the mood takes me, and time allows. I suppose on a fundamental level I’ve tried to arrange my life so that happens more regularly, but I try not to force it.

On one level, my interest in downshifting arose because I thought it would enable me to increase my focus on writing and other ambitions. It has since become more about appreciating life in the moment, on its own terms. I’m gradually learning to say ‘no’ even to good ideas, to make room for those things that happen almost by themselves.  Like anything else, there’s always more downshifting to do…

Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art

In her obituary Maria de Villota, an F1 test driver, was quoted as saying “Life is beautiful. All we have to do is take it slower and enjoy it.” Her career and her life depended on speeding through fractions of a second, and yet she knew the importance of slowing down.

Maria was paraphrasing one of our great philosophers:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.
– Ferris Bueller

There’s a lot that we can learn from this as creative-types and people-with-one-too-many-projects. The artist’s job is to be stubborn and slow: to stop and look around at what others have missed. That’s all very well, but for many artists and writers the hours of 9 to 5 are block-booked. As well as our jobs, we have families, friends and community commitments. When will we find the time to stop and look around, let alone finish that magnum opus? Like everybody else, we rush around trying to do more and get more.

Over the past few years I’ve been tried numerous schemes and strategies for balancing work, family life, personal projects, and leaving time to reflect and enjoy life. Here are some thoughts about getting things done in a lower gear.

Dossing days and doing days

The hardest thing is doing nothing. If I’m lucky enough to have tumbleweed blowing through my calendar before I know it, I’ll have spent half a day on a spur-of-the-moment idea (such as this post). Be watchful, and when the urge to do something arises, hit it with the whack-a-mole mallet of rational self inquiry. Do I really need to do this? What would happen to this urge if I tried letting it be? Try having at least one or more days where non-doing is top of the to-do list.

Find out where the bus goes

Creative people often have many things they are interested in and many things they love to make and do. It’s all part of making connections and playing with new ideas. Remember that your time is limited. By all means, try many different art forms and endeavours but be prepared to give a subtle preference to one of your pursuits when it develops beyond the others. Once you’ve guessed the general direction your talents have been leading you in, stay on the bus and find out where it goes. Try to actively avoid working on everything else unless it feels like fun.

Luddism 2.0

Make sure your technology works for you, not the other way around. It’s easy to get suckered into the dopamine reward systems of social media and checking your email. Turn your phone off every now and then. Your voicemail will get the calls. Get away from the internet. If you’re a writer, turn the computer off and write on paper once in a while. Jonathan Franzen would approve, and that’s the most important thing.

Deep time

All artists need to experience deep time: contemplative, empty time. When was the last time you had no idea what time it was? Try to avoid counting the hours when you work. Don’t let the clock decide whether today was successful: judge by the quality of one sentence, musical phrase, or brushstroke.

Disengage to reengage

Many of us have jobs that are, on a basic level, very similar to our passions. We work at computers all day only to open up the laptop when we get home. As far as our bodies are concerned this is no different from working a 14-hour day every day. Going for a run, to the gym, or doing yoga and meditation after work might clear your mind before you hunch over your MacBook in a self-inflicted stress position for another six hours of word-blending.

Booze blues

Graham Greene could only write when ‘absolutely sober’. Despite apocryphal stories, Hemingway didn’t actually ‘write drunk; edit sober’. Be warned: if Saturday morning is the only time you have to work on your passion, a hangover from Friday night is not going to help.

When the mood takes you

While I often wake early, I don’t usually get to jump out of bed and start scribbling. I’m sure that’s a productive thing to do but it’s also good to see what comes naturally. I do try to meditate before I’m mugged by the confusion and bustle of the day, and, if I have enough presence of mind, I’ll try to get the most important things done first while I’m fresh enough to do them well. Having said that, I think much of my early development as a writer came during midnight (and later) sessions when moon and muse were at their apogee. History’s most creative minds were early risers, though, and who am I to argue?

Stop and enjoy life

Chances are you’re impassioned to create because you believe there is something worth sharing or championing in life. Making yourself miserable for your art would be self-defeating. It’s tempting for maniacs like you and I to think of time out as a transaction by which we receive rest or inspiration to fuel another long creative session, but sometimes life is simply for living. Remembering Ferris’ wise words, I think I’ll stop and look around right now.

Dream selves

Interesting that in dreams we seem to have a self – whether that be a butterfly or a WWII soldier – though we have no physical body, and the world around us is a tottering, malleable palace. It’s as though the mental machinery that constructs our everyday perception of self and other can at last be seen making shapes out of the mist.

Of storms and night walking

There was a great piece in Tricycle recently, A Gleeful Foreboding, excerpted from Clark Strand’s book Waking Up To the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age. Strand describes what happened when his town near the Catskill mountains was bumped off the grid by a hurricane.

That the larger storms sometimes turn deadly does little to chasten our feelings of anticipation. Part of it is the knowledge, gleaned from a century of experience, that things will soon go back to normal. Another is the paradox of media reports, which transform terrible events into a form of nightly entertainment while pretending to inform. In the meantime, provided no one we know has suffered harm, there’s some comfort in having nature force our hands. It feels good to release our death grip on the steering wheel, and take up the snow shovel instead.

He talks about the relief of darkness re-entering the world: a reconnection with natural rhythms enabled by disconnecting from the on/off plugged-in culture. This got me thinking of how our technology doesn’t respect the natural cycles of the body and the planet. When you check your email before going to bed, the colour temperature of your screen is 6500k – blue light that your body interprets as midday sun. Of course, it’s not always practical to hope for a hurricane to send you back to the 1800s. To stop sleep-bothering perma-noon screens messing with your circadian rhythm, you can try a program I’ve been using for a few years now. Flux will lower the colour temperature of your display gradually as sunlight fades, decreasing its impact on your body clock.

And this talk of cycles brings me to a sort-of experiment I’m currently engaged in. Thanks again to Tricycle, I’m taking an online course looking at the Buddhist Pali canon. One of the interesting things about this course is that it’s structured around the phases of the moon. It began on the recent new moon. Tomorrow will be a waxing moon and the second batch of material will become accessible; on the full moon, the third batch; on the waning moon… you get the idea.

This lunacy has the interesting effect that when I look out of the kitchen window of an evening, I see a sliver of moon hanging above the hills and fields and think ‘oh, the next part of the course is almost here’. What may seem a ridiculous abstract conceit (I suspect my wife thinks so) feels in some ways more natural than our usual means of time-keeping. Even if it is slightly hard to tell when exactly the moon is half-way between new and full. How much more humane to adopt the lunar calendar for project management and render our deliverables up to the milestone gods when the moon is slightly fatter than half-full. I am digging it.

But back to Strand, his secret love of storms, and what I really want to say — he goes on to talk about a love of walking at night, how he clambered over trees felled by the hurricane. And how his neighbours, who knew of his nocturnal bimbling, now sought to join him on nightly walks, having no light to read by and presumably having exhausted alternatives. I share his view, having often enjoyed apocalyptic weather while looking out of an office window with the impression that, now, something was actually happening.

I also am fortunate to have had for a long time a group of friends willing to hike through woods and over hills at night – sometimes after an ale or two, or five; sometimes just because we can. There are good reasons for doing this. The world becomes unfamiliar again. You take special consideration of your surroundings – what you can see of them. Sounds are different: you hear owls hooting, scuffling in undergrowth, distant cars. The sights are different: you see stars, bats, moonlight and the shadows it casts of tree branches, and of yourselves. Conversation turns to subjects that are earthier, more fundamental to us, truer in some ways. Perhaps we talk honestly of things we would not say with sunlight on our faces when we, like the rest of the world, are shadow.

On a couple of occasions, I have mixed the excitement of a storm and a night walk. I remember walking up to Clent’s four standing stones many years ago in the middle of a rainstorm with a particularly hardy friend. As we went, we made our customary jokes about Harry-Ca-Nab, the devil’s huntsman who was said to ride over Hagley Woods and that area in a storm. It’s an example of The Wild Hunt: a mythology that appears in various places all over Europe, perhaps as a way of dramatising the uncanny wildness of night when married to the power of a storm. Perhaps also a wise warning. Awareness is sharp; the limbic system and imagination are on overtime. For me, Harry-Ca-Nab is in those woods and stalks them in every storm. As I write of it now, the images come from the same pool of imagination and memory.

In any case, we pressed on to the four standing stones at the top of the hill. From there we had a good view of the surrounding hills and the town where we lived. As we’d walked, the rainstorm had developed into fully-blown thunder and lightning (knowing us, it’s possible it was that bad when we set out) but we stood between the stones at the crest of the hill for a minute or two, half mad with the scene, I suppose. I called a friend on my new Nokia 3310, which I thought was a good trick. We counted the seconds between flash and thunderclap (far too few). Hey, this storm is pretty close, I thought — as if panoramic lightning weren’t a clue. Sanity dawned on me slowly, as it usually does, if at all, and I became dimly aware of the importance of getting the f**k down off the hill.

I wrote a song about it some months later. So here’s to storms and night walks.