Busyness Kills Creativity—Slow Down and Care for Your Muse

Busyness Kills Creativity—Slow Down and Care for Your Muse

Busyness wreaks havoc on your creativity (and your health and well-being). When you fill all the crevices with work, running around, and noise, you don’t let inspiration come to you or notice things that might spark your imagination. You don’t give your muse what she needs to thrive.

In my last two posts, we’ve been talking about how to transform your relationship with time. If you’re wondering why this matters, here are some key reasons. Plus, a couple of wonderful practices to put a stop to the painful habit of busyness.

Creativity Thrives in Idleness

“How are you? Keeping busy?” It’s incredible to me that people will start a conversation with these words. As if keeping busy were an ideal or a sign that you are a good person.

We celebrate busyness in contemporary society, and often feel anxious when we don’t have something to do. So much so that if we have a few idle minutes, many of us will check our phones. Instead of looking around and taking in our environment. Or letting ourselves enjoy a few deep breaths.

But, when we’re tired, overwhelmed, multi-tasking, or rushing, we are not sparking creativity, which needs idleness to thrive. Long walks, naps, daydreaming, and puttering around are music to the muse’s ears. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way writes about the kinds of simple, repetitive activities that stimulate the artist’s brain, things like knitting, gardening, cooking, driving, and showering.

I am a go-getter myself, and I have trouble sitting still for long without doing something. I will often fill my time with reading a book, watching a movie, or taking care of items on my to-do list. It’s not that any of those things are bad or wrong, but creativity needs open space to thrive. 

The Biggest Obstacle to Creativity Is Busyness

Emma Seppala has studied what provokes our best creativity. As Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, she found that the biggest obstacle to creativity is busyness. She writes, “creativity happens when your mind is unfocused, daydreaming or idle.” And she goes on to say, “We need to find ways to give our brains a break. If our minds are constantly processing information, we never get a chance to let our thoughts roam and our imagination drift.”

Andrew Smart, author of Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, looked at neuroscience and discovered that your brain is healthier, happier, and more creative when it’s idle. Smart writes, “busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social— and it can damage your cardiovascular health.”

So, how do we stop the habit of busyness and let our brains and our muses recharge?

Here are two simple, but powerful practices.

Stop Telling People How Busy You Are

When you notice yourself telling others how busy you are, stop yourself and change your language. Start affirming a more positive relationship with time. You might say, “My life is very full right now.” You might even say, “I’ve been doing too much, and now I’m going to commit to slowing down more.”

Stop affirming how busy you are and that you don’t have enough time. Stop trying to get approval or sympathy for being busy.

Work with the time you have and give thanks for the abundance of time you’ve been given on Earth. You might use a favorite affirmation of mine whenever I start getting anxious about all I have to do:

“I always have enough time to do what I love and need to do.”

When you are feeling panicked about how you will get everything done, stop and remind yourself that you always get everything done that has to get done. Look at the past. Isn’t this true?

Then, let the rest go. If there is too much to do, it’s time to make another plan. Make new agreements with others if you had deadlines you were supposed to make that are impossible or you took on too many commitments. Delegate tasks to others where you can. Eliminate things from your list or postpone them. Be reasonable about what you can and cannot do.

Practice Being Inside of Time

This is my favorite practice as it is quite magical how it opens up time in your life. I call it Being Inside of Time.

Do only one thing at a time and don’t think of the future while you do it.

Stop multi-tasking. Stop letting yourself get interrupted and distracted by emails, social media, your phone, or other people. Close the open tabs on your browser. Turn off all the beeps and notifications that you can on your phone and computer permanently. They wreak havoc on your nervous system and your ability to concentrate. Put your phone in another room whenever you can, and/or use my favorite setting: Do Not Disturb. Ask others to honor when you need to focus on what you are doing.

I find that the most essential aspect of this is to not run a list in my mind of what I have to do next or that day or on that project while doing something else. Running the list of what else needs doing takes me out of the moment, out of the task at hand, and tends to leave me feeling harried.

So, practice giving yourself entirely to what you are doing in each moment. And then, when the time is up for that activity, go on to the next. Do one thing fully, whether you are brushing your teeth or composing a sonnet. Be inside of time.

This will open time and slow it down in the most amazing ways. I’ve had the experience of things that I thought would take hours getting done in strangely little time when I do this. And it helps my mood and nervous system, and my whole feeling about my life, enormously.

In upcoming posts, we’ll get into some practical tools for sorting through all the many things you feel you have to do, want to do, and should do, and making space in your life for what matters most. In the meantime, I encourage you to try these two practices and let me know what you discover.

Are You Trying to Do Too Much?

Are You Trying to Do Too Much?

Find what’s yours and leave the rest

This past year, our world has turned more virtual than ever. Every event, concert, class and workshop is happening online now, thanks to the pandemic. Suddenly, we are not limited to what’s happening in our own town or even our state or country. We have an overwhelm of options on any given day.

On top of this, our world is in crisis, great social and political upheaval and economic and ecological crises. Many of us are more tuned into the news than ever, and we may feel pulled to act in the service of many different causes.

Certainly, major changes are needed if humanity is to live in harmony with one another, with justice for all, and in harmony with all of life and therefore be able to continue as a species on planet Earth. Each of us must do our part if we care about peace on Earth, care for all Life, if we care about our planet. But any one of us cannot do all of it. Not hardly.

You can’t do it all but you can do some of it

You cannot do everything. You cannot attend every class, online concert, free poetry reading, protest. You cannot make donations and/or volunteer your time to every worthy cause. You cannot say yes to all of it.

Trying to do too much is a disease of the dominant culture of scarcity that rules our world today. It’s a huge part of how we got in this mess we are in. Trying to do too much will leave you depleted and distracted, unfocused and ineffective. It can make you sick or crazy.

With so many offerings online, and many of them free, you may be tempted to try to sample far too many. With so much information online, you may be easily drawn into reading, watching and listening to far more than you can process or use.

At the same time, you do have a part to play. You have gifts to contribute. You have blessings that are meant to be shared with others and not hoarded for yourself alone. And there are resources that could be helpful or inspiring to you, connections that could be wonderfully fulfilling.

So, how do you sort out the overwhelm of options and take care of yourself during what is already a very stressful time? How do you know what is yours to do?

How to choose what’s truly yours

Listen to your heart. Listen to your soul. Listen to your body. Take time to really listen. Don’t just jump at every shiny object, every opportunity, every cause. Ask yourself:

  • What is calling you deeply? What do you feel drawn to?
  • What excites you, delights you, fascinates you, fires you up?
  • What moves you, upsets you, engages you? What do you feel passionate about?

Or, as one student of mine asked, “What can I not not do?” What must you do?

For me, it’s clear:  Create and try to alleviate the suffering of others. Bring joy, truth, beauty, wonder, imagination, love to the fore.

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Howard Thurman, civil rights leader, theologian, author
  • What makes you come alive?
  • When do you feel joy, delight or deep engagement?
  • What feeds you deeply?

Pay attention

Notice the moments in your day when you feel most alive, most like yourself, most aligned. What are you doing or thinking? What kind of situations or settings are you in? What are the best moments in your day?

And conversely, notice when you feel heavy, dragging, unenlivened. What are you doing then or what have you just been doing?

The past can also provide clues.

When in your past did you feel most vividly alive, most connected to your deep self? What were the highpoint experiences of your life? Do you remember times when were you so engaged that you lost sense of your self-consciousness and of time?

You may wish to journal about these questions or explore them with a trusted friend.

  • What are you persistently drawn to now?
  • What can you not stop thinking or feeling about?

If there is nothing you feel this way about now, it may be time to do some exploring.

  • What did you love as a child? When did you lose yourself in play or some activity?
  • What have you always wanted to try but never let yourself do?
  • What would you do if you weren’t afraid of seeming silly or selfish?

When should gets in the way

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

― Howard Thurman

We can easily get tripped up by listening to the voice of our minds, which is fear-based and full of the shoulds we have inherited from others and our culture.

You will know you are listening to your mind if you are indecisive, trying to protect yourself, weighing the pros and cons, or feeling burdened, uninspired or dutiful.

The heart voice doesn’t offer arguments or justifications. It just knows. When the heart speaks, you feel excited, pulled, alive or just clear. When the soul feels stirred, you have a deep knowing that you have to go where it wants to go, though you may try to ignore it or push it away because it scares you.

One tool to access your deep knowing

One helpful tool for accessing your knowing, when you are uncertain, is to listen to the wisdom of the body.

Let’s say you are weighing two options. Try on each option, one at a time, and feel the response your body has to it. Do you lean towards it or away? Do you become more energized or feel relief, or do you feel heavy and more deadened?

Note that, if fear is present, there can be tremendous aliveness in that nervousness and a knowing that this is calling you, whereas the comfortable option may feel sleepy, not enlivening, even though safe and familiar.

It may take practice to feel your body wisdom. You can practice this by asking small questions of your body throughout the day—about what you want to eat or read or do—and noticing your felt responses. I’m not talking about your addictive responses, but the deep body knowing. Pay attention to this.

False and real urgency

See if you can distinguish between false and real urgency. With so much shouting at us for our attention, find where your real attention is drawn.

  • What kind of world do you wish to live in? What can you do to help create that?
  • What part can you play in that that is joyful and enriching for you?
  • What do you feel genuinely compelled by?

If you don’t know yet, explore, try things on, one at a time. Keep asking and opening to what is showing up as signs, synchronicities, hints, visions.

False urgency is other people’s sense of what’s in priority, what has to happen now. Real urgency is the tug in your heart, the joy or insistence deep within to do something now.

Sometimes you need a break

Sometimes what we most need is rest. If you aren’t getting answers to any of the questions above, what you may be needing is a long space of quiet, a time to go within, to replenish, rest and then discover who you are now.

 “Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love. It will not lead you astray.”—Jallaludin Rumi

If you are depleted—if you’ve been working hard, giving a lot, juggling many things, raising a family, providing for one—and now you feel tired, used up, unmotivated, then you likely need to take a break. Slow down, say no to nearly everything for a few weeks or more, open up space to rest and restore yourself. In this way, you will re-weave the connection to your deep self and begin after a while to hear that inner voice again, after you have had time to really rest.

In time, you’ll notice yourself picking up certain things, becoming engaged in reading or cooking, gardening or peace work, playing a musical instrument or starting a podcast.

Take it slow, don’t turn these into big projects and new shoulds right away. Follow your bliss. Give yourself time to experiment, explore and be a child again. Keep your plate more on the empty side. Rebuild trust with yourself. Restore your inner resources.

The golden art of saying no

Whether or not you feel depleted or in need of a break, almost all of us could use more space, rest, ease, peace. Almost all of us are trying to do too much, grabbing hungrily at opportunities or overburdening ourselves with responsibilities and projects.

So, practice the gentle art of saying no. Practice discernment. Even if there is something that you love, let’s say music, you still cannot attend every online concert or song-writing workshop. Even if you are called to social justice work, you cannot attend every protest or sign every petition or volunteer for every phone bank.

Choose the ones that are most alive for you, that work with your schedule, that leave you enough down time and quiet space to nurture yourself. Choose the things to listen to, read, watch that feed you, help you, uplift you, and leave space for silence too. You will be a much more effective and joyful person, if you do.

Keep listening to the voices of your heart, your soul, your body. They will lead you into a deep engagement with Life in your own right way and right timing. You’ll find yourself in a life where you feel deeply at home and where you shine. That is a true gift to our world.

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