How to create space for art in your busy life

My friend and accountability partner Ivy is amazing for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that she often gives me ideas for blog posts in the form of requests for things she wants to read. A recent request was for me to write about how to create space for art in your busy life. (She actually gave me four ideas, but this is the one I feel equipped to write right now, so here we are.)

First, what does “busy” look like for me?

  • I have a full-time job where I put in 40-50 hours per week, plus commuting time most days. Once a month I put in another 8-10 hours over the weekend.
  • I’m on the nominating committee of a nonprofit, which involves a weekly 2+ hour meeting along with a decent amount of email correspondence.
  • I volunteer two nights a week as a reading tutor, which involves occasional outside work such as researching something my student and I talked about or finding word searches to print off the web for him.
  • I’m training for the NYC Marathon. I spend half of every Saturday preparing for my long run, then running, then recovering from running. I also do a short run, yoga, or spin class 2-3 times/week.
  • I’ve lived in NYC basically my entire adult life (save for two years in New Hampshire for business school), meaning virtually all my friends live here (as do my brother and his wife, and some extended family).

In short, for someone who has a job with regular hours, isn’t currently in a romantic relationship, and doesn’t have kids, I’m pretty busy. Based on my experience, here are a few things to keep in mind as you endeavor to build a creative life in the margins of everything else you have going on:

make space for art - portrait

1. Take a step back.

If you’re trying to find time for creative pursuits, it helps to know what, specifically, you’re trying to accomplish. Identify big goals or areas of interest, then break them down into smaller, actionable pieces. Want to write a book? Cool. Break it into chapters, or page or word counts, and tie these to a regular cadence in your calendar. (Throw them in an Asana workspace if you need to.) Want to take better advantage of the cultural events and institutions in your city? Take one tiny step by IDing one or two events, concert, or museums you can fit into your schedule this month.

2. Think smaller.

If you’re strapped for time, money, energy, or all three, find tiny ways you can step out of your routine. Here are some ideas:

  • Listen to a guided meditation on a park bench.
  • Google free things to do in your city or town.
  • Take a slightly different route to work.
  • Get yourself out the door early and stop for a latte and pastry at a new cafe.
  • Check out a new podcast.
  • Order a library book about something you’re interested in that has nothing to do with how you make money, fixing yourself, or your relationships with other people.
  • Look up free museum hours in your town or city and take advantage of them.
  • Start an Instagram project that you can add to when time permits.

3. Honor commitments to yourself.

I routinely block out hours or days on my calendar with DON’T MAKE PLANS in all caps. (LBR, sometimes it’s NO FUCKING PLANS.) Then, once I’ve done this, I honor that time as though it were a commitment to another person. One important lesson I’ve had to learn: You’re under no obligation to tell people what you’re doing with your own time. Just say you can’t do X night. No detailed explanation needed.

4. Get up earlier

A lot of my evenings are filled with committee meetings, volunteer work, and other obligations. Some weeks I have zero evenings free, and none of the things on my calendar are expendable. During those weeks, I make it a priority to mix things up in the morning. I might stop somewhere new on the way to work, or try a new breakfast spot, or wake up early enough to read in bed before I start my day. Doing new things helps with motivation and learning ability, so it can help you be more creative.

5. Stop making excuses.

If you really want to create or experience more art, you probably have the time. What you might also have is a mindset where you’re constantly making excuses for why you can’t do x, y, or z. Acting like choices you’re making — bingeing Netflix, spending hours at the bar, the pursuit of other goals like training for a marathon (ahem) — are insurmountable barriers to living a creative life is a common reaction to fear of actually having to do the work. Get honest with yourself about whether it’s really a lack of time that’s getting in your way, or an unwillingness to prioritize what’s really important to you because it seems hard.

6. Realize that you don’t have to live like everyone else does.

A lot of people are going to arrive at their deathbeds pretty unhappy with how they spent their time on earth. The good news: You don’t have to join them.

The bad news: If you don’t want to join them, you’re probably going to have to make some different decisions. And the sooner you do that, the more of your own time on earth you’ll spend living in integrity with yourself.

When you start making changes, other people will inevitably have opinions about it, likely because your commitment to living differently is a stark reminder of their own lack of progress on life goals. As hard as this can be to deal with, their judgments have nothing to do with you.

7. Say yes to things

There’s always a reason why you should go into work on time, stay at the office late, or take on an additional project or five instead of taking an impromptu day trip upstate, attending Creative Mornings, taking a painting class, etc. Saying yes to things will add variety to your life, resulting in more energy,

8. Say no to things

Other people have a lot of ideas about how you should spend your time. The good news is that their ideas are none of your business. Frankly, anytime I find myself about to do something because I “should” do it, it’s a huge red flag that whatever it is isn’t a good use of my time. Learn how to say no to shoulds and you’ll have more time to pursue the things that really light you up. (Greg McKeown’s excellent book Essentialism is a great resource on how to pare down your to-do list to only things that really matter to you. )

9. You have to want to.

Living a creative life isn’t a privilege reserved for a select few. It is, however, a privilege reserved for people who actively choose to spend their time on activities that sharpen their creative edge. Figure out whether you’re one of these people, and then pick something small you can do tomorrow to reframe your expectations of what you can fit into your life, as it is.

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