The Art Of Doing Less
In early 2015, when I was in the midst of pitching and writing my book and launching other projects, I remember being really anxious and uptight. Uptight with plans and stingy with my time. We all know that being “busy” isn’t cool — it’s almost having a backlash. It’s cool to switch off. To write narcissistic essays on Instagram. Detox. Yoga retreat. Putting your phone away. Being at one with yourself. Re-birthing your inner self. Whatever it’s called. It’s #OnTrend to sit in a café and practice some self-love. Downing coffee, not eating, tip-tapping away, biting your thumbnail and screaming about how packed your schedule is won’t bag you a trophy.
Ok so you’re not saving lives — but what happens when your brain cannot, will not, switch off? I’m privileged enough to actually have the choice to switch off, but at the best of times we cannot control our own mind.
I would go to the pub with friends but dip out after an hour because I “had to get home”. All I could think about was finishing my deadlines and then working on it some more. If I was feeling inspired I would resent being sat in a cold noisy beer garden, I’d rather be typing. Pushing. Working.
My mind was too busy and I felt slightly possessed with ideas that I would zone out, even in the comfort of my closest friends. I knew I wasn’t functioning normally in social situations because I’d rather be at home. It wasn’t like me to leave the party early; or to cancel on a good friend; or to dip out of events; or to sneak off quickly during a wedding dinner to write notes on my iPhone in the toilet.
I couldn’t necessarily label it as being a “workaholic” either, because I had a separate job while writing my book and I could switch off from that easily, I had no issue turning off my emails. It wasn’t work work, but when it came to my own personal projects I couldn’t switch off from the overwhelming feeling of having to write things down for the book, before the ideas or dialogue or sentences were lost for good, even if they never ended up going anywhere.
I wanted it finished. Until it was, I was going to struggle to switch off for long periods of time.
These threads of thought that kept me up at night are now being made into things, different projects that are in development at the moment or have been recently published and I feel more at ease. Maybe I am at ease because the weird discomfort seemed worth it, or that my ideas have finally found a home —multiple homes— and I’m not in that horrible limbo where you have hundreds of ideas that haunt you but nowhere to put them.
It takes time, long stretches of time, before anything happens. I hate it when people liken writing or creating something to “giving birth” because, like, no— but it was the “brewing” of a project that make me restless and uptight. Like I was holding onto something. I have a feeling this is a common emotion surrounding any creative work. The restlessness. Feeling uptight. Feeling misunderstood.
You probably know what I’m talking about. That feeling of tossing and turning: does anyone want my idea? Should I be doing that? How do I make sure it comes out the way it sounds in my head? What if I never do anything worthwhile? What is someone else does it better? Why is time going by so fast? What if it isn’t relevant anymore? How do I get into this industry and actually stay in it? Is this all worth it? Do I keep going? Should I just go and sit in the pub instead?
2017 has been a sigh of relief for me. The anti-hustle. The opposite of uptight. Doing the work, but not doing the work in a way that takes over the other parts of my life. When last year was over (which felt crazy) I admitted and apologised to my friends “I’m sorry. I’ve been a bit shit” and they said “for what?” and I knew that they knew I had been crap, but they also didn’t make feel bad at all, because they are amazing friends. I know I got a few frosty messages when I bailed early on things or opted it out of the cinema trip to do some writing but I think by now they often know me better than I know myself.
You can’t just switch off with the click of your fingers. It takes time. That’s why these “how to switch off” articles annoy me.
There’s no one size fits all. It’s no fun being in your own head all the time, and we have to find ways to unwind. We have to let people in. The stuff you might think is important about your creative choices hardly ever is, and the current affairs of the world is a stark reminder of that. The world is scary right now but your art still matters. We must listen in, not lean back. This year I feel back in the room and I’ve turned the volume up. I feel more alert and political than I’ve ever been, but I also understand the importance of regulating how much time I spend on certain things.
I feel more productive now that I’m doing less. I’ve been more creative because I’m doing less. I’ve been cooking more complex things and buying ingredients I’d never heard of before. I’ve been listening to podcasts and not checking my phone, have stopped checking Twitter as much, having long phone calls again, making impromptu plans that before would have freaked me out a year ago when I was in my obsessive haze.
I’ve had more time to think about what I truly want and in turn I feel more confident than I have in ages. I went to Rome for the last three days and walked and ate and looked around at things very slowly. I’ve cleared more space than I thought; I’ve even stumbled across some amazing new friends recently. Proof that I’ve made more time for people, old and new. I’m finally saying yes and no to the right things. Focused. Happy. Clear-headed.
I think this is what contentment feels like.
“In love with Emma Gannon’s Ctrl Alt Delete. So funny & smart, and reminding me of some of my own cringe teen Internet exploits!”– Anna James, former literary editor of ELLE
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