We live in a world of overwhelm.
A lot of my clients come to me with issues around procrastination, or just wanting to up their productivity. What I usually suggest is so counter-intuitive they often resist it, at first. I often ask them to slow down, start taking more breaks. To be kind to themselves, rather than to push harder.
“But I can’t go swanning about!” one client said recently. She’s a brilliant and successful writer, having problems getting back into her rhythms after home-schooling her children during lockdown. “I need to finish my book!”
‘Swanning about’ isn’t a phrase I’d heard for a while. It was one of my mum’s favourites when I was growing up, usually used about other women, always judgemental. As in, “There she was, swanning about the shops, not a care in the world, and her house looking like a bomb hit it!”
The more I think about it, the more appropriate it feels for the kind of rest and recovery I’m suggesting. Swans look as if they’re gliding effortlessly along a river, but if the water is clear, you can see that there’s an awful lot of work going on under the surface.
We all need more space in our lives.
Swanning about – staring into space, sitting in park, going to an art show, rummaging around a vintage shop, sneaking off the cinema alone – is how we get our creative juices flowing. It gives our minds something different to focus on, and it feeds our souls. It reminds us that work is just one part of our lives. And that we can make it joyful, not see it as an endless struggle.
We sometimes put far too much emphasis on productivity, in using every minute well. We consider any sliver of time as wasted if we’re not actually making work, or doing chores, or occupied in some way that feels useful. (Then we end the day so exhausted that we sink in front of a screen for hours before bedtime.)
But if you examine the daily routines of prolific creatives, they almost always include fiercely protected bursts of focussed work interspersed with long walks, indulgent meals with friends, time for reading, culture, even absorbing hobbies. It’s when new ideas germinate, when we make new connections, see new solutions.
It’s when we get our inspiration.
So no matter how packed our work schedules, how many deadlines are looming, some degree of swanning about should always be in our calendar. It’s something we need to see as essential, like eating or sleeping. (And if you’re sacrificing those for work, we really need to talk.)
I used to call it noodling or pottering. Thanks to my client, I now have an afternoon of swanning about as a permanent part of my weekly schedule. I highly recommend it.
If you’re not experienced at swanning yet, here are some suggestions.
1. Artist/play dates
This is a tool from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. It’s about you spending some quality time with you, for at least an hour, every week. You can do anything you like on your date as long as it’s not with family or friends. Go somewhere new, try something new, do something you enjoyed as a child, learn a new skill or brush up on one you’ve neglected, lie in the bath, go seem some good art or just sit in a cafe and read.
If it feel unfamiliar, exciting, slightly uncomfortable, over-indulgent or is something you enjoy but somehow never find time to do any more, you’re on the right track. The rewards aren’t immediate. But do it for a couple of months, and you’ll be astonished at how much more productive you are.
2. Open random books
I’ve rediscovered this one during lockdown, when it was harder to go out and explore. Instead of swanning about outside, I’d choose some books from my shelves, open them at random, and read for 5-10 minutes, before going onto the next one.
This reminds me of books to re-read, but it’s also amazing how often you’ll open at a page that tells you something you really needed to hear that day; or how reading bits of a self-help book followed by a science book then a beautifully written passage of fiction might spark a new idea.
3. Go for a walk
Solvitur ambulando. Attributed to either Diogenes or St Augustine, this simple Latin phrase means ‘It is solved by walking’. This is one of those universal truisms that is easy to test, any time you like, simply by going out of your door and putting one foot in front of the other.
I’ve never met a problem that doesn’t feel at least somewhat smaller after a walk. And in a year when few of us have been Out There as often as usual, getting into fresh air and moving has never been more important.
4. Look, intensely, at something
A tree. A flower. A painting. A poem. A candle. Look slowly. Drink in every detail. Then continue looking, until the details dissolve and you almost get a sense of the atoms, the energy vibrating inside.
You can do this with your other senses too. Close your eyes, lie down and really hear a piece of music. Or eat an apple in slow-motion, slicing it thinly and savouring every morsel.
5. Tidy up
If you’re stuck for ideas, organise your books, your music, your art materials, that pile of papers and magazines in the corner. Look through old notebooks, or cluttered folders on your computer.
Put some good music on, and do it with curiosity. There is no goal here. You’re not trying to do a Marie Kondo. Getting side-tracked is the whole point.
You’ll inevitably find something you’d forgotten about, or meant to get back to and never did, or something that sparks a new train of thought.
6. Talk to someone stimulating
Check in with an interesting friend or colleague. Ask them what they’ve enjoyed watching/reading/listening to recently. Or where they’ve been that was interesting, exciting or inspiring. Listen hard. Ask good questions. Share anything you’ve found inspiring or interesting. Repeat this one often!
If in doubt, I get my journal out, and just write. About what’s troubling me, what’s inspiring me, what I like and dislike at the moment, what I need to get done.. whatever nonsense is passing through my mind.
At best, I work out solutions. At worst, I get it out of my mind and onto the page. Sometimes, I’ll draw. (Badly.) Sometimes it turns into a mind map, and very occasionally – a tribute to my rather brilliant secondary school maths teacher, this – a Venn diagram. Always, I feel better for doing it.
8. Go people-watching
You can do this anywhere. On public transport. In a café or from a park bench. My mum loves making up stories about strangers. She’ll tell you elaborate back-stories about a couple on the other side of the restaurant, a family running for a bus. I prefer watching to try and see the truth in a situation, what the body language is telling me. Although as I’ll never really know, it amounts to pretty the same thing.
We rarely just watch life going by any more, as we’re focussed on our phones. Unless you take time out to observe, it’s easy to forget just how strange, complex, confusing, beautiful and brilliant humans are.
9. Cloud spotting/star gazing
One of the best investments I ever made when we moved out of London was a hammock (£22 second-hand from eBay, complete with a clunky metal frame that has long since rusted away). I lie in it a lot, and although I usually mean to read or listen to something, inevitably I end up just staring at the sky, day-dreaming.
Sometimes I’ll wrap up in blankets and stare at the moon and stars, instead. If I’m tired, stuck, flagging or just want to create space in a busy day, an hour spent rocking gently while gazing at the wonders of the sky will always bring me back to myself.
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Want my free 10-day course,Freelance Foundations: the secrets of successful creatives? Click here.