When I was 19, I did that dirt-poor college trip around Europe. I was so poor, I didn’t even have a backpack, I just had a free tote bag and my college book bag. My traveling companions and I spent a lot of time riding in trains and buses. Because we weren’t getting along too well, there wasn’t much talking going on, and no cell phones back then to distract us. Mostly, we just stared out the window and watched the countryside ease by.
One day, my companion bolted upright and announced, “I can’t think anymore! I’ve thought every thought I have. There is nothing left to think about.”
I could so relate. When you spend too much time in your own company, you grow weary of your own thoughts. And as artists, toiling away alone in our offices or studios, we don’t have the luxury of outside distractions to take us out of our deliberations.
I’m often intrigued by people who say, “I can never get my brain working till I’ve had my first cup of coffee.” What must that be like? My brain is racing from the minute I open my eyes.
During my “restful” night’s sleep, my brain has been making lists. And by the time I’ve even reached the coffee pot, I’ve already thought of the 6 things I forgot to do yesterday; the 21 things I must do today; the 7 things I should do, but won’t; and 3 things I can’t remember if I did or not. Not to mention the nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something.
I have colleagues who teach people how to better run their businesses. “Oh, you just need better systems,” they tell me. “More spreadsheets, more checklists, more timetables. If you better organize your tasks, you can ignore the things that don’t really matter and they will no longer be on your mind.”
That’s all very well and good, but even when I’m caught up on tasks, my brain is in overdrive. Being caught up just means more time to think about whether the work I’m doing is really serving the world. Am I making a difference? Am I doing good? Is my book even worthy? Heck, I think I’d rather be worried about tasks.
When my kids were toddlers, there were times I’d start the day with a long list of things I needed to accomplish, but the kids wouldn’t have it. They’d tug at my sleeve, they’d cry, they’d demand my attention. Eventually, I’d give in. I’d set my lists aside and take them to the park.
I feel like thoughts and ideas are sometimes like children. We can put them off most days, but some days, we need to set everything aside and just say, “Okay, brain. Spill it. Let it all out. I know you’ve been trying to get my attention.” Because creative work isn’t just about sitting at your desk and doing the tasks. It’s about listening to what your inner voice, your instincts, your muses, your doubts and fears are trying to tell you.
And today, my brain is telling me to stop already and think it through. It’s asking me to give myself permission to sit in contemplation, just like we did on those long train rides.
Because if you can trust that life is always taking you somewhere, you can trust that time to just sit and think is as important as time spent crossing things off your list.
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Also published on Medium.