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Doing Essential Things Makes Time For Everything Else

I found myself nodding at this short essay by Mandy Brown on the tradeoffs between work, life, time, energy, responsibility, and art, particularly this bit about what happens if you can make the leap from not having enough time for the essential things in life to having more time in your life because you’re doing the essential things.

Then one day they say fuck it all. They eat leftover pasta over the sink, drop mom off at her mahjongg game, and go sit in the park to draw. They draw for hours, until the sun goes down and they’re squinting under the street lights. And, lo and behold, the next day they plow through all those lingering to-dos. They see clearly that half of them were unnecessary when before they all seemed critical. They recognize a few others as things better handed off to their peers. They suddenly find time for attending to that one project they’d been procrastinating on for weeks. They sleep better. Their skin looks great. (Okay I might be exaggerating on that last one, but only mildly.)

It turns out, not doing their art was costing them time, was draining it away, little by little, like a slow but steady leak. They had assumed, wrongly, that there wasn’t enough time in the day to do their art, because they assumed (because we’re conditioned to assume) that every thing we do costs time. But that math doesn’t take energy into account, doesn’t grok that doing things that energize you gives you time back. By doing their art, a whole lot of time suddenly returned. Their art didn’t need more time; their time needed their art.

I don’t know if this is related or what, but a few years ago I shifted my thinking around time & energy. I noticed that when I thought or said “I don’t have time for this”, what I really meant was “I don’t have the energy for this”. Obviously I have time to do all sorts of things โ€” I spend many hours during the week in front of the TV or on my phone watching/reading garbage โ€” but it’s actually the energy that’s the issue. (All that TV/phone time is because I don’t have the energy to do much else.)

Brown goes on to say that this has little to do with art or drawing…each person draws energy from their own particular essential activity: spending time with family, volunteering, biking, photography, lifting, cooking, going to the movies alone and eating too much popcorn and shushing people when they get too loud โ€” what?, taking a drive, etc. A few weeks ago in a post about the flow state, I wrote about rediscovering something that I require to make more energy in my life:

While I am not feeling particularly in the groove today, over the past several weeks I’ve been in the flow state a lot, working on a couple of projects for the site. It’s been a long time since I’ve had that feeling for more than a couple of hours every few months and booooooy does it feel good. There is almost nothing that fills me with as much joy as the “effortless engagement” of being in the flow state. I’m very glad it’s back in my life โ€” I’d been afraid it was gone forever.

I had indeed been putting off doing this kind of work because I didn’t have the time and energy, but once I was able to make space for it in my day, it became clear that it was an essential thing that I need to do so that I can create time for everything else.

What a privilege it is to have that time/energy though, particularly in the US, with our low minimum wages, poor healthcare, and lack of a social safety net. Making time for your art so you can have more energy is not actually possible when you’re working two jobs six days a week and filling the rest of your time with childcare, housework, and (hopefully) sleep while fighting upstream against sexism, racism, classism, and the like. As a nation, I think we’d all be a whole lot happier and healthier if everyone had the chance to spend time on, as Brown puts it, “some thing that when neglected siphons time and energy away but when attended to delivers it in droves”.