Finding Time for Creative Outlets When You Don’t Have Time for Anything

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It has been my observation that most people need some form of creative outlet to avoid becoming angst-filled despondent misanthropes.  I keep sane by writing science fiction and the occasional GeekDad post. There is something in the human spirit that demands an outlet. We need to create, to imagine, to leave some record of our thoughts and interests, and when we are thwarted in that goal it creates a destructive pressure that comes out in equally destructive ways. But how do you find time to be creative when you’re a working a parent and almost every waking moment of your life (and then some) is accounted for?

I’m going to lay out a scenario that will likely sound familiar to a lot of working parents. You wake up in the morning and help get your kid(s) ready for the day, dropped off to school / daycare, and then you go to work at an intellectually demanding but uncreative job.  After 9 or 10 draining hours you fight traffic, maybe pick up your kid(s), meet up with your spouse, and arrive home. Time for that creative outlet, right? Nope. Because if you’re like most 21st Centurions your spouse also works full time and expects, quite reasonably, that you will contribute equally to child care and home chores. Even if your spouse doesn’t work outside of the home, she / he needs a break and quite reasonably expects you to spell her / him when you get home. And, oh yeah, you love your kids and want to spend some time with while they’re actually conscious.

So you get the kid(s) to bed and it’s now maybe 8:30 or 9 p.m. Time for that creative outlet, right? Nope. Not if you want to spend any quality time with your spouse. So you spend maybe an hour re-connecting with the person you decided to raise a family with because that sort of thing is, you know, kind of important. Now it’s maybe 10 p.m.  Finally time for that creative outlet, right? Maybe, if you’re a machine and don’t need any private recreational time whatsoever. But if you’re like me, you probably drop bonelessly onto a chair or couch, flip your brain into passive / receiver mode, and consume some form of media. Then you crawl your exhausted way to bed, and if you’re very lucky the baby will only wake you up twice in the middle of the night. Wash, rinse, repeat and before you know it another week has passed and your inner bard is screaming in quiet desperation like an astronaut stranded in a spacesuit.

So what can you do? I suppose you could just throttle your muse and tell yourself you’ll make time for your art when your kids are grown and you’re retired. But then we’re back to becoming a bitter, unfulfilled misanthrope—and that’s not good for you, your spouse, or your kids. So what can you actually do to make time for art and creative expression in your life? I’ve come up with three options, which I’ve labeled as the Conquistador, Weekend Warrior, and Opportunist approaches.

The Conquistador: Quit your job and try to make a living out of your creative outlet. This option has the advantage of being all in. Like Hernando Cortes burning his own ships on the shores of the Yucatan, you either conquer or die. Okay, probably not die. But you either succeed or put yourself and your family through significant financial hardship. Unless of course you are independently wealthy, in which case, what the heck are you waiting for?!

The Weekend Warrior: You carve out time for yourself to write or do whatever it is that gives you that outlet on the weekend, and you defend that time against all comers. This is easier said than done since your family responsibilities don’t end with the work week. But your loved ones should care about you enough to tolerate you making a little time for yourself. The key is to have a particular chunk of time that is designated for that purpose. Don’t just say “I’ll write a bit this weekend.” Say, “I’ll write between 10 and Noon on Saturday, and between 3 and 5 on Sunday.” And if for some reason that time is taken up by some other activity (the family trip to the zoo) you make it up just like you would make up time missed at work.

The Opportunist: Take a close look at your days and determine whether there are any chunks of time you’re currently wasting with activities that are neither productive nor fulfilling. Do you have any time at work when you’re in between projects or otherwise have some down time? Do you have a long commute? Are there times at home when the kids are entertaining themselves and you just have to be there in the background? What do you do with those times? These are times that you could be spending on your creative projects. You could write a few paragraphs of your short story during a slow work day. You could brainstorm an idea for a novel on your drive home. You could sketch out a drawing while your kids play. The specifics are unimportant, but unless you are literally performing some task all day long every day there are probably some spaces here and there where you could exercise your creative energies. If this would bring you more happiness than what you would otherwise fill those spaces with, e.g. mindlessly surfing the internet, then you should seize these tiny opportunities. Individually, they aren’t much, but if you add them up over a month or a year you’d be amazed how much you can accomplish.

Ultimately, how you find the time for your creative outlet is up to you. But it is important to find a way. It might sound daunting, especially if you’re a working parent. It may sound like one more demand on your already over-drawn supply of energy. But I guarantee it will give you more energy than it takes. The human mind needs not only sleep, but the waking affirmation of creation. Your Elan vital must be refreshed from time to time by spending time on personal projects that matter intrinsically to you. It sounds counter-intuitive, but finding the energy for those projects will actually leave you with more energy for your loved ones. The energy that keeps us going is not a zero sum game. Some things take our energy. Others restore it. Make time for the things that restore yours.

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10 thoughts on “Finding Time for Creative Outlets When You Don’t Have Time for Anything

  1. I agree! This sounds like me with the exception that I don’t have to take my daughter to school yet (not quite 1 year old) and I do my mindless thing in the early AM before work and before my family wakes up. I really should give up Skyrim and get back into writing… I am sure that it would be energizing but there is something so much… easier… about just consuming.
    Thank you for the encouragement! I’m sure a lot of folks feel this.

  2. Good stuff, David. My tendency is to skip most of the passive entertainment flopping on the couch thing—play board games with other people when I can, write when I can’t. But I also have the luxury of being a stay-at-home dad, so I get some chunks of time when the kids are in school and the baby’s asleep (and I’m not doing laundry or dishes or something).

  3. I find myself constantly struggling with not just finding time, but taking it when it’s available. In my case, my wife really has no hobbies outside of her job. Not just that, but her job responsibilities have grown to the point where she spends all extra hours in the evening completing work she couldn’t get to during regular hours. This creates a situation where the weekends are the only time she has to take care of household tasks and I almost feel guilty taking time to do things my own.

  4. Great, relatable piece. Would be interested in follow-up about how you’ve been able to put these options into practice. It’s a struggle for us all. Keep writing!

  5. I’m using a combination of the second two techniques to run a SF magazine. It’s amazing how much time you can find here and there by changing routines and eliminating some less-important activities. Between the day job, my family and this project, I’m always busy, but I couldn’t be happier with way it has changed my life.

    Not quite brave enough to become a Conquistador, but it’s a goal. If there is any bitterness in the equation, it’s that I haven’t been able to do this yet.

  6. it also works to find something creative you can do with your kids. That way you get time with them, time for creativity, and you teach your kids how to be creative.

    Maybe draw pictures with them or work in the garden outside (yes, I consider that creativity). I like to try and build plastic models with my son (although sometimes he just gets in the way). Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s worth a shot I think.

  7. I know there are parents who can muster the muse on nights and weekends, and in in-between moments, but I don’t know how they do it. I strongly suspect the Great American Novel was not written at night and on weekends. I have two novels and a few short stories in my head but I can’t get them out. Weekends are usually their own whirlwind of roadie-like parenting activity, and I feel selfish carving out “creative time” when my spouse does not, and when it feels like time away from my family. The only creative pursuit I’ve been able to maintain is knitting, which can be done in between other things, while watching TV, on the train, i.e. periods of time that are either ill-suited to or too short for more “mental” creativity (like writing).

    1. Are your kids old enough to be swamped with homework yet? I get a lot of stuff done when they are in schoolwork mode. It probably helps that my wife has some creative endeavors she does then too.

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