I enjoy making 'stuff' and eating tacos.

Make time for nothing

Jan 9th, 2017

It’s not long past 7am—this dark, chilly morning—and I’m sat at my desk, in work, with a cup of coffee.

I’m not particularly hard-pressed to meet tight deadlines at the moment. I’m not needing to ‘play catch-up’ on anything or ‘get ahead of the game’ at all. I’m not having trouble sleeping, feeling anxious, or wanting ‘out the house’. I just like coming in early, and—when possible—doing absolutely nothing (or writing blog posts, of course).

When I’ve finished my work for the day, I generally race home to see my two kids as soon as I can. They’re both really young; so making dinner, bathing them, tidying up and putting them to bed is a whole heap easier when my wife and I are working together on it. And the sooner it’s all done, the sooner we can get some rest ourselves.

It’s a routine that can be paved with tears and protests. It can be pretty testing and sometimes features bonus fluids and excretions just to make it interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. All of it. Well, except maybe the poop parts. But heading home to see their wee faces is an incredible feeling, and the few short hours I get to spend with them each evening before they go to sleep are the best.

Despite the repetitive nature and consistent structure of our end-of-day ritual, it’s never totally the same. Each night is somewhat unpredictable, and even sort of exciting, but it takes a toll; a more-than-reasonably priced toll, but all the same, my evenings are utterly unrecognisable now in comparison to how they were less than three years ago (or even one year ago). It’s that difference that’s led me to enjoy coming into work so early each morning.

In short, one of the biggest sacrifices you make when you have kids is your time. But more importantly: downtime. Quiet time. Time to yourself; to your thoughts. Time for doing nothing. Consciously nothing, that is.

What a lot of people don’t know—or easily forget—is that although a designer might log the number of hours a job takes, those hours don’t always reflect how much time they’ve actually spent on it. Researching, discussing, experimenting, testing, refining, exploring, dissecting, critiquing, sharing, producing, delivering, and a whole bunch of other terms, can all be easily tracked and measured. However, it’s thought that as much as 30% of ‘design time’ is carried out by your subconscious, and is inarguably an essential and all-too-overlooked part of the creative process.

When you embark on a project you consume a whole load of information about the task at hand; the client, the audience, the environment, the deliverables, the surrounding influences, the list goes on. You begin discussions. You probe. You observe. Research. Gathering more and more as you explore the early stages of understanding the problem. Feeding on all this information is the best way to arm yourself; and the more you digest, the more equipped you become. But inspiration doesn’t come as a direct result. You need to process all that data, and this is as difficult as it is time-consuming. But your subconscious does this brilliantly!

I’m no expert and I can only really pretend to understand what some of it actually means. So, for the purposes of this article, I will simply put it down to a spectacular combination of science and magic (as this is the only way I can make sense of… most things).

Apparently, when your ‘right brain’ is given the chance to stretch out and have some fun, amazing things happen. This part of our mind is associated with creative thoughts and emotions (so it’s sort of where your ideas come from). Problem is, we live in a world of constant distractions and interruptions. We’re busy all the time, and even when we’re not, we make ourselves busy. We check social media and emails, watch TV, play video games, read dumb blogs *ahem*, et cetera. These distractions cause us to flip back to, and often remain in, the ‘left brain’; which is more logical and analytical.

From the face of it, you’d assume that would be better. Solving problems should be logical and analytical. Yes, but it is also a very time-consuming way to reach a solution on its own. Joining elements together in original ways is not necessarily a logical action, but your subconscious doesn’t care. It joins everything together, in all ways, tries them out, and experiments constantly (insanely quickly too). This can inspire you to physically try out ideas and allow you to then consciously assess and refine them.

The point I’m slowly trying to make here is that downtime is massively undervalued in a designer’s life, and for me (as for a great many others as well), increasingly difficult to come by. Until I started coming into work early, I was spending longer in the shower; I was walking slowly and in a daze; I found myself zoning out on my train journey home (I missed my stop on a number of occasions and ended up taking forever to get home).

Since I’d been accessing my ‘right brain’ so rarely (compared to before becoming a parent), it’s likely I had started auto-accessing it whenever the slightest opportunity arose, regardless of whether or not it was an ideal time or place to do so. I was essentially compensating for the huge deficit that had formed within my own creative routine.

Setting aside just an hour or so each day (or every other day)—where you don’t need to consciously think about something—is all that’s really needed to keep that creative flow going. I’ve found that not only is this newly allocated “time for nothing” improving my design process at work, but taking a little breather away from the realities and responsibilities of everyday life benefits the mind, body and soul immensely (so I’m a little less grumpy and a whole heap less stressed).

Also, remember the early bird….

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