3 ways to flex your creativity and stretch your brain, even if you don’t have energy to read or write.
“I am SO tired.”
I had just finished working, and I was collapsed on the couch, feeling dazed from staring at the screen all day. We had dinner to make, laundry to do, a million to-dos still pending from the work day, and all Jarrett and I wanted to do was zone out in front of the TV.
So we did just that. We poured some wine, scrambled some eggs for dinner, and planted ourselves onto the couch to watch House Hunters. (Have you seen Tiny House Hunters? I’m in love!)
But that feeling of guilt, that I was “wasting” time when I should have been reading the millions of books on my TBR list or writing my next piece? It wasn’t there.
In fact, I waste time like this every week. Even though I work on books about productivity, creativity, and personal growth, I totally veg out sometimes.
And that’s okay.
In fact, science shows that you’re at your most creative when you’re tired at the end of the day. So wasting time—either by doing nothing at all or doing something not goal-oriented–will actually make you more likely to make novel connections between things and to refresh your perspective for the next day.
And you don’t have to feel guilty about it. Because isn’t that the double-edged sword? We feel guilty when we “waste” our time going down rabbit holes online or channel surfing, but we also feel unhappy and exhausted when we pack every minute of our days with useful, productive things.
The reality is: even those things we think of as time-wasters are incredible for our creativity and learning, as long as we’re engaging in them the right way. What’s the right way? More on that below!
3 ways to transform your time-wasting tasks into creative rocket fuel
(even if you don’t have energy to read or write)
1. If you don’t have energy to read or write, stare off into space instead.
Let’s say you just got to sit and relax for the first time all day, and your mind is whirling with all there is left to do and how little you want to do it right then.
This is exactly when you should do nothing. Sit back, stare off into space, and allow yourself time to decompress and slow your thought tornado.
Try it right now. Look up from your screen and stare at a spot across the room for 1 minute, focusing on the in and out of your breath.
It’s harder than you thought, right? How often did your mind try to wriggle away? How hard was it not to think about coming back to this article, or what you have to do later today, or that email you forgot to send?
But staring off into space, when done with the principles of meditation behind it, can actually make you more creative.
It builds one of the key muscles of creativity: focus. When you focus single-mindedly on something that isn’t giving you constant stimuli (like a screen does), you’re training your brain to break its addiction to the loudest, brightest stimuli and teaching it how to focus on the most important stimuli.
You’re also building deeper powers of observation, as even the smallest stimuli (your breath) expands to fill your entire awareness. You feel the largeness of the moment and you sit with it, so that later you can put it into your work.
As Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird:
“This is our goal as writers, I think: to help others have this sense of–please forgive me–wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in our small, bordered worlds. …
Mostly things are not that way, that simple and pure, with so much focus given to each syllable of life as life sings itself. But that kind of attention is the prize. To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind.”
How to do it:
Sit somewhere comfortable and focus on your breath for 1 minute. You can close your eyes or keep them open—whatever feels more calming to you. Tomorrow, sit and focus on your breath for 1.5 minutes. Gradually build up to 2, 5, or 10 minutes, or just stick to whatever amount of time feels realistic and rewarding to you. If you do this when you’re tired after a long day, you’ll notice how quickly and powerfully it slows your mind and centers you again.
For further reading:
You can use a meditation app like HeadSpace to get started and keep you on track, or you can read more about meditation in books like How to Relax by Thich Nhat Hanh (my personal favorite!), Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program by Sharon Salzburg, or I Am Here Now: A Creative Mindfulness Guide and Journal.
2. If you don’t have energy to read or write, watch TV or a movie instead.
Television shows and movies are all about story. And all stories are fodder for your creative mind, if you can process them differently.
See, the problem is that most of the time when we’re watching something on a screen, our minds are relatively inactive—we’ve dialed down our imagination, and we’re letting the visuals do the work for us. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Our lives shouldn’t be just consuming or creating, reading or writing. We also need time to process.
That’s what most people forget. If you’re not creating space for processing your inputs, especially the barrage of inputs we get from screens each day, then you’re not getting much out of them.
You can get more—more entertainment, more connection, more self-discovery, and more intellectual growth—from those inputs if you take just 1 minute for mindful processing. This 1-minute pause gives your brain time and space to sort through what you’ve just seen, organize the themes and takeaways, discard what’s not useful, and file away anything that might serve as inspiration later on.
Mindful processing does two valuable things:
- It teaches you to break apart complex stimuli (images, sounds effects, speech, music) and to identify how they work together to create certain effects. This might sound esoteric but no matter what your day job is, I can bet you have to present either your work or yourself to new people all the time. Understanding the psychology of both people and things is one of the most valuable ways to stretch your creativity and intellect.
- It teaches you to understand your own taste. When you understand your own sensibility, you waste less time on books, movies, and TV shows that don’t excite you. You’ll have less moments of “I didn’t love that, but I’m not sure why…” and more moments of “I adore this!”
How to do it:
This doesn’t need to be rocket science—after all, we’re low on energy and trying to take it easy here. Something as simple as asking yourself “What was the most interesting thing about that?” is enough to help you hone in on what’s working in a show or movie and why. You can also quickly jot down a sentence or two in a journaling app (I use Day One), a notepad (I love these), or even just in Evernote.
You can ask this question to yourself, to your partner, or even turn it into a game with kids. Asking everyone in the family to rapid-fire name their favorite thing about a movie or show you just watched is a fun way to get your eyeballs back on each other and get some giggles out.
For further reading:
3. If you don’t have energy to read or write, scroll through social media or browse online instead.
Yes, it’s okay to let yourself explore—you don’t need to have a specific use and purpose for every little input to your mind. It all becomes part of the compost of your creativity, and you’ll never know how that entire Wikipedia article you read on Nikola Tesla or the 3,000 panda videos you’ve watched might pop up as useful.
Even if what you come across is never actually put to use, it’s useful in the bigger sense–it’s refueling you and rekindling your appreciation of the zany and hilarious things of the world. And zany and hilarious is great fodder for creativity.
By allowing your brain to relax like this, you’re also letting go of tension, frantic thought patterns, and unhealthy ruminations. Think of it as airing out your brain. You need to pause and let in some space before you’ll have room to create.
How to do it:
Set a timer for 5, 10, 15 minutes, or however much time you can swing, and then romp around the Internet all you want. Setting a timer helps you be intentional so you don’t spend hours down an Internet rabbit-hole, but it also makes you feel like you’re indulging yourself, since, hey, you don’t have to do anything productive for the next 10 minutes! Time to let your brain rest.
Another way to transform online time into a happiness-boosting experience is to get off the sidelines. Instead of just scrolling through social media and feeling like everyone’s “living their best life” more than you are, comment on people’s photos, ask how they’re doing, or just leave a few words of encouragement. This turns an envy-inducing activity into a gratitude-building activity and banishes the guilt you might feel about “wasting” time. After all, time is never wasted when it’s spent doing something kind for others.
For further reading:
So next time you’re collapsed on the coach, in that SO VERY TIRED mode, remember this: it is 1,000% okay to do nothing. To waste time. To sit back and stare off into space, watch tv, or scroll aimlessly online. You’re feeding and refueling your creativity in a different way, and with the right mindset, you can turn any activity into a meaningful and happy part of your day.
What I’m Reading This Week
I Used to Be a Human Being (Andrew Sullivan in New York): By the way, you should waste time not just to boost your creativity, but because a lack of space in your life can actually break you. Andrew Sullivan was arguably the most productive and successful online writer a few years ago, and it nearly killed him. As he writes of watching a monk mindfully tend his garden: “He had escaped, it seemed to me, what we moderns understand by time. There was no race against it; no fear of wasting it; no avoidance of the tedium that most of us would recoil from. And as I watched my fellow meditators walk around, eyes open yet unavailable to me, I felt the slowing of the ticking clock, the unwinding of the pace that has all of us in modernity on a treadmill till death. I felt a trace of a freedom all humans used to know and that our culture seems intent, pell-mell, on forgetting.”
Reader Analytics from Jellybooks: Crunching the Numbers to Improve Book Marketing and Sales (Jane Friedman): Want to get free books? Of course you do. We all do. Here’s how.
Find Your Austenian Boo (Jenn Northington for BookRiot): Here’s a fun little quiz to find out which Jane Austen hero or heroine is your perfect match!
How Can Historical Fiction Be Feminist? (Greer MacAllister for The Millions): A lovely overview of how strong female characters make out in historical fiction. H/T to Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy for sharing this one!
How I am Baker Got 2 Million + Facebook Fans (Amanda Rettke in conversation with Dianne Jacob): Amanda is a Stonesong client who wrote the beautiful Surprise Inside Cakes, and here she shares some great behind-the-scenes details on how to build a massive Facebook following.
What We’re Eating This Week
Oh, the old standards. We’re taking off for Ann Arbor on Thursday, so the eating is dicey around here. Here’s how uninspired things got:
Sunday: I’m including Sunday just so I can tell you that we actually made something real, which was Toki Underground’s Freestyle Ramen, which I can only trace to this clipping and which requires squinting to read. But it’s really, really good. Try it next time you have short ribs on hand.
Monday: The Otto-inspired Italian chopped salad that I make forever and always, because it makes me feel good about myself but also lets me eat salami. Except! This time I went wild and subbed the salami for pepperoni. Yeah, I know.
Tuesday: We were in DC for a book launch party for Moonshine at the Distilled Spirits Council (yes, it’s a thing, and yes, it’s amazing). But we dutifully meal-prepped taco kits (see them here!) to eat when we got home, along with the 4 brownies I snuck into my purse. #balance #livingmybestlife
Wednesday: We’re going to see The Punch Brothers at Wolf Trap, so CAVA bowls to go it is.
Thursday: And this is when things really get dicey. We’re driving to Ann Arbor all day, so we’ll be eating fast food, fast casual, or whatever else we can scrounge up on the byways of America. Please eat something wonderful tonight and tell me all about it–I’ll need the fodder for daydreams.
Friday: I have no idea. But it’s the weekend so throw your hands up!