The Productivity of Downtime

I think it’s time to redefine the word productive. Looking back on my weekend, one could argue that it was unproductive because the better part of it was comprised of sitting around staring into space and doing nothing. Oh, I took breaks from doing nothing to do laundry, straighten up around the apartment, and so on, and I watched a few episodes of my favorite shows in the evenings, but I spent most of my weekend doing nothing.

That’s not productive in a “get a lot of stuff done” kind of way. Yet it was productive in another, perhaps more important, way in that I came to several conclusions that were probably obvious to anyone who knows me but me.

First, I need a lot of time doing nothing.

Second, I missed sitting around doing nothing. Before the internet, before cell phones, before adult responsibilities, I used to do a lot of that. I would just look out a window or lie on my bed and do nothing. And it was fun.

Third, it is okay to need and enjoy time sitting around doing nothing.

A few folks in a journaling community I belong to have mentioned doing The Artist’s Way, so I started rereading it. While I’m still put off by the talk of God/Creator, being an atheist and all (and duh, it is a “spiritual” program so that’s on me and not any real criticism), it was nice to see in writing, in a published and well-respected book, that sitting around doing nothing is not only okay, it’s actually required for anyone who hopes to do anything creative—writers, artists, actors, musicians, choreographers, film-makers, etc. I’ve been told this over and over my whole life, yet manage to either forget it or let others stomp all over it.

I first heard it as a wee one watching my father paint. He’d often stare into space or look out the window for long periods of time, and I would get confused because it seemed to me like he was doing nothing. But in truth he was receiving, opening himself up to inspiration and the input of both his senses and his mind, and then actively creating by thinking of the picture he wanted to paint and how he would go about painting it. Eventually he set a rule that my sisters and I shouldn’t interrupt him when the door to his studio was closed unless something was an emergency. I suppose some kids would feel a sense of rejection from that, but when he explained that painting pictures “takes brainpower like when you write your stories”—I had already written a few by then—something clicked in my seven-year-old mind. In fact, I wound up painting something, myself: I made him a sign that said “DO NOT DISTURB: Man At Art,” kind of like those “SLOW: Men Working” signs you see on the highway where there is roadwork. He framed the sign and whenever he was deep into a painting he would put it out in front of the studio door and my sisters and I knew that we shouldn’t knock on the door unless someone was bleeding, there was someone at the front door, or the dog had gotten out of the yard.

Early in my career, my mentor also told me a few times that writers need replenishment, and that often means doing a whole lot of nothing. At the time I worked for another major health non-profit, and if there is one thing most non-profits offer, it’s a decent amount of annual leave (at least by American standards), and he was very supportive in encouraging me to take time off just to take time off on “staycations” and so on. “Writers need downtime. If you don’t get downtime, your writing will suffer,” he’d say. He’s right, too. I notice that if it gets to be five or six months since I’ve had a full week off and completely detached from work, I start writing the same ledes over and over and my articles get more and more dry, stiff, and monotonous.

I hear about the need to “just be” from others, too. Marko Saaresto, front man of Poets of the Fall, spoke of it in an interview. The interviewer asked him about inspiration and the creative process and he said that if you just be quiet and think of a time in your life or a place where you’ve been that has a lot of meaning to you, chances are you’ll hear music. He said it’s something you have to feel, and that you can’t intellectualize it.

So here we have an artist (my father), a writer/editor (my mentor, who also writes music), and a musician and songwriter (Saaresto) all saying pretty much the same thing: Creativity requires stillness. Stillness lets you receive. Stillness lets you rest and replenish. Stillness lets you feel.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. People see someone just “chilling out” and they think the person is lazy. In the workplace, they will push creative people to produce, produce, produce yet ever more—more images, more design, more articles, more stories, more songs, more music, more movies, more choreography. Creative endeavors are commodities, things for others to consume, and if you don’t supply enough to meet the demand, then away with you, you slacker, because there is always someone coming down the stairs behind you. Exhaustion and burn-out are seen as a lack of drive, competence, talent, or ambition. They’ll say, “It’s your job. It’s what we pay you for.”

The problem is that although creative people may get paid for creating (if they are fortunate enough that someone takes that chance on them), money doesn’t make up for mental and emotional depletion. Neither does seeing your name in print or in lights. You can’t keep up your output if you don’t have downtime to allow for input—your thoughts, your memories, your environment, the things you experience through your senses when you are quiet and still and can open them up to receive.

Artists, musicians, actors, writers, film-makers, sculptors, choreographers—none of us are bottomless wells of imagination and creativity. We get tapped out. We need to rest. We need to replenish. We need stillness to clear our heads of the daily noise and mental static and let the creative spark ignite. We need times where we sit around doing nothing because doing nothing is productive for us.

I will take that time. I will enjoy that time. I will defend that time.

And I will not apologize for it.

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