Idle Hands

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My husband recently pointed out to me that I’m not very good at sitting still. After having a mid-day mini-meltdown about all the self-imposed stuff I want to get done this summer on top of my law society licensing course and the bar exams, he courageously said the following:

“I think the problem is that you don’t have enough to do.”

Sensing the metaphorical swarm of angry bees coming straight for him, he clarified his statement. He acknowledged that I do, in fact, have lots to do… but it’s not the 150% capacity overload I've recently grown accustomed to, nor is it the relentless pursuit I lived as an artist.

“Huh,” I thought, stewing in my own grumpiness – grumpiness, now, at both the lingering feeling of overwhelm and the realization that I did not, in fact, have all that much to do. (And, of course, that singular grumpiness that only comes from one’s spouse being right about something.)

After somberly pouting for a few minutes in the gleaming June sunshine, I recounted to him the story I recently heard from business prodigy and best-selling author Ryan Holiday. Holiday’s achievements are ridiculously impressive, but his work now focuses on overcoming the ego – as such, he is automatically my homeboy. In the interview, he described his workaholism and his time in Workaholics Anonymous. Through that journey, he realized that he actually had an addiction to activity, not to any particular job or the pursuit of success. He needed to always be doing something productive.

Boy, can I relate. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down in my own home and watched a movie without something in my hands, be it homework, a sketchbook, my dayplanner, whatever. I feel the absolute need to “work” at something, even if that something is building a new moodboard on Pinterest or doing a crossword. I feel like I win 100 points for Gryffindor if I double up a passive activity with an active one, because then there has been no wasted time in my day.

The Great Patio Mini-Meltdown has caused me to reflect on two streams of thought I’ve been steeped in. One is from the realm of artists and the other is from the world of business.

As artists, we need to capitalize on the limited amount of time we have each day. As well, we know we need to consistently practice our craft in order to improve. You must show up for the muse to show up. A day without practicing is two days backward, because you have lost a day of maintenance and a day of improvement. Outpractice the competition and you will also outperform them. Write a thousand songs to get 10 good ones. Pursue your 10,000 hours then another 10,000. The artist must build consistent chunks of work-work into every day, even though an artist’s whole life is work. When everything you do is related to your passion, you better make sure you actually sit down and grind for a few hours every day in order to achieve both your creative aspirations and your technical goals.

Much of the business world, on the other hand, loves a term I detest: “work-life balance.”

I’ve always disliked the idea that your work is just so terrible that you need to stop it from oozing into your actual life. How depressing! I once told a job interviewer that I don’t believe in work-life balance but in loving your job so much that you aim for "work-life integration", and she physically rolled her eyes at me. Like, an exaggerated Liz Lemon “oh buh-rotherrr!” eye roll. Not a great sign when a person hates their job so much that they need to advise you to protect your life against it. So much of "work-life balance" propaganda is about carving out "me time": time for quiet relaxation, like taking a bath or reading a book. In other words, forced idleness. As you can imagine, me no likey on all accounts.

However, work-life balance is rooted in well-meaning sentiment, even if that sentiment is an incredibly depressing statement about our relationship with work. Work-life balance is the opposite of the artist’s life, which is presumably so full of interest and passion and ideas that you need to make sure you hammer out some work at some point. In “work-life balance,” people are trying to make sure they hammer out some life at some point.

Author Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and with that one, is what we are doing.” I think the problem with “work-life balance” and the beauty of the artist’s life is that people often forget that every hour of your day is part of your life. The thing about artists is that they are always in pursuit of their calling. They are always a servant to their artform, regardless of what time of day it is, what activity they are doing. It’s all part of their artist-life. Every hour is their life.

Hence, the root of the Great Patio Mini-Meltdown of 2017: idleness. And not the fruitful idleness of the artist, who always has the fire of their passion quietly burning below their conscious surface. For the artist, scheduled chunks of work through the day punctuate a life of constant work. The fire burns always, and a few times a day we sit down and add extra logs, stoke it up to a blaze, and engage with its glory. The restless frustration I felt of not getting enough done was based on a fire that wasn’t burning. A long to do list and a course schedule full of homework does not a passion make. I think too many unfulfilling minutes in a day – both working and idle – had accumulated in me, and my inner artist was just not having it.

So what did I do, and what can you do, too? Two things: first, I got my ass in gear and made some exciting creative plans, then scheduled chunks of creative time into my day to actually grind some shit out; second, I committed to a certain amount of true idleness in my day to allow the fire to burn below the level of my conscious mind. Fuck the to do list items and fuck the homework – I know it will all get done and get done superbly anyway because that's who I am. I needed more life in my days and more fire in my idleness. Whoever said "idle hands are the devil's playground" was probably some grumpy bastard rolling their eyes at the idea of living a fully fulfilling life. The problem isn't idleness: the problem is fulfillment.