The Eternal Struggle to Balance Creation and Consumption

After an app revealed the depths of my media distraction, I turned to other creatives to see how they stay productive.

There are 70 urgent-ish emails in my inbox. Thousands of others with news and cultural musings I should read but won't. Every message has a different degree of urgency. Friends. Editors. Publicists. Urgent, right? These are tasks. Quantifiable blocks that, stacked on top of one another, lead to…wait, what is their purpose again?

More assignments, I suppose. More work, more paying my rent. More connection with friends and people who may become friends. More stacked on top of more.

I write for a living. The only way I move through the world — literally, how I buy my subway card — is through writing stories that people pay me to write.

So why, I wondered, did I spent eight hours and 45 minutes in Gmail during one recent week? Four hours and 12 minutes on YouTube and Netflix? And only three hours and 46 minutes writing in Pages?

These horrifying facts came to light thanks to RescueTime, an infuriating and necessary tool for my creative life. Infuriating because it makes me feel like unproductive garbage every Sunday at 5 p.m., when, like clockwork, it emails me my productivity score, tabulated from running in the background of my computer and classifying my internet browsing: Google Docs is "very productive," any social media or news site is "very unproductive." But this is a necessary evil, because shame is good for the creative process. RescueTime claims to want to save me but usually only embarrasses me into action.

I've been using RescueTime for so long that I can feel when my Sunday score is going to be bad, because those weeks I close out Friday thinking, What have I actually done? That's why I started avoiding the productivity alerts. But then I began thinking more deeply about "consume" modes (the time I waste on social media and entertainment) versus "create" modes (the time I devote to writing), and I resumed opening the emails.

I noticed a trend. Weeks of pure creation were usually packed with deadlines. There was no time to open 47 tabs and click myself to a slow death. My RescueTime score was solid those weeks, usually above 70 percent, but even before the report came in, I could anticipate my gold star. The biggest tell of whether I've had a creative day comes when I'm getting ready for bed. My brain is like a sponge squeezed dry after spending the day writing something meaningful to me. I feel drained, exhausted, and alive. I flick off the light without scrolling.

But when I've spent the day procrastinating, consuming every digital morsel, from cheesy motivational videos to old dog-eared Nora Ephron essays to unanswered emails I've opened and closed a dozen times, my mind feels different: stimulated, impatient, and deeply unfulfilled. A day of consuming is like blue-balling your brain. You're all ready to blast off, but it's getting late, you've got an early day tomorrow, so you just call it a night.

The truth was, during those weeks, I didn't have many ideas. Any ideas, really. For a creative person, ideas are currency. And creating ideas takes time, energy, space — dead-as-a-cornfield-in-January space. It's hard to comprehend that acts of consumption take up too much time.

I've come to realize that consuming the work of other people is like gorging on Halo Top. You keep dipping in the spoon and bringing that artificial sugary antifreeze to your mouth, and it's comforting. It's nearly bottomless. But the second you hear skritch-skritch of spoon on waxed cardboard, the charade is over. The carton's empty, you're empty, those 400 tweets you skim-clicked are empty, and all that's left is the vague sense that, well, it could have been worse. You could have reached for the Haagen-Dazs. Or spent your time in a truly frivolous way.

What I really wanted to discover is how to strike a balance that keeps me sane but allows me to enjoy my leisure time. Like all those suffering from impostor syndrome, I assume everyone else must already know the secret.

I turned to Miya Ando, a very busy artist whose large-scale paintings and sculptures have been exhibited around the world. Unsurprisingly, she loves structure. She says her weeks consist of 90 percent creating and 10 percent consuming. "I find solace in the creative mode," she says. 'It calms and comforts me to be in a quiet room and focusing my attention on making things."

Of course, there's still business to attend to: deadlines, commissions, paintings for a show, but a rigid, seven-day-a-week work schedule helps her maintain the pace. "Consistency is the best for my practice," says Ando, who keeps the same hours regardless of deadlines and heads to her Long Island City studio after waking up around 5 a.m. She works all day, then leaves by 7 p.m. to eat dinner with her husband. "I do the best work when I can focus on a body of work for long, continuous stretches of time," she says.

Leaving zero ambiguity in her day eliminates decision-making — she can't get distracted because she doesn't allow herself that luxury. Ando does have one possibly unfair advantage: She works with her hands, far from a laptop.

But another secret is the cue of entering her studio; she's carved out a work space, and her brain is accustomed to work mode versus leisure mode. That's difficult to manage if you create in the same medium you consume. Then, it's all a big sandpit until the end of the day.

I needed to know how writers manage the sandpit. So, naturally, I took them away from creating to help me figure out my own problems.

Ryan Holiday has written six books (averaging one a year), including his latest Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Works That Lasts, and is the media columnist for the New York Observer, but he doesn't neglect consuming. He reads hundreds of books a year, and shares his favorites on his email newsletter with 80,000 subscribers. Plus, he tweets.

It's not surprising he's incredibly disciplined. But how?! After I asked, Holiday said that he's influenced by Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham's idea of makers and managers and divides his day into two buckets: In the morning, he goes for a long walk with his son, followed by two or three hours of uninterrupted writing. "Only after that is done do I put on my manager hat: phone calls, emails, meetings, scrolling through my social media feeds," he says. "It's incredibly dangerous to get sucked into the distractions and obligations of the world before you have done your creative work. But once it is done? Then you can handle the concerns of the day at your leisure."

Like Ando, he leaves little to chance on whether he feels like making. "It's very dangerous to have different paces for your work, I think," he says. "I don't have deadline mode and 'all the time in the world' mode. Instead, I do the work every day."

At this point, my face turns red-hot. I've been vacillating between these two modes my entire life. His alternative sounds better. Calmer. "My ideal is to be the spirit tortoise," he says. "You don't want to be the hare, sprinting to make up for lost time because you were taking a nap or showing off. The truth is that consumption is incredibly important to the creative process — it's your fuel. So I don't sacrifice that because I planned poorly. I make room for it. I want to be reading and traveling and exposing myself to as much as I can while I am in the creative window on a project."

This echoes the advice of Brad Stulberg, a writer and coach focusing on health and human performance and and a co-author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, in which he argues that alternating between stress and rest leads to personal growth . As Stulberg defined it to me, stress is when you are actively thinking about or working on something creative; rest is when you allow your mind to wander or even sleep, and it's often during these periods of "rest" that we solve our thorniest problems and have our best ideas. "It's kind of ironic, but it's almost like the thinking you do before a rest period just kind of primes your subconscious mind to have a great insight when you turn off your effortful thinking, conscious mind," he says. So maybe a strict consumption fast isn't necessary after all.

Stulberg says that his own schedule nets out to a 33/33/33 breakdown among consumption, thinking and connecting ideas, and creation. He stresses the importance of looking at these schedules over a long horizon. Instead of asking, How much did I create today? consider your output over the course of a month or a year. "There are periods where all I do is consume and think for a few weeks, and then there are periods where basically all I do is create for a period of time (like when working on a book)," he says.

Another tip for creating? Schedule it, he says. Always schedule the most important thing first.

So now I want to carve out space to let ideas stew, and be a little more forgiving about my consumption habits. Maybe a week of allowing a podcast to infiltrate my brain will prime a big idea in the future. But this might be the biggest takeaway of all from Stulberg: "When I say 'yes' to something sizeable and new, I ask myself what I am saying 'no' to. If I can't answer that question, I don't take on the new thing."

That's the thing about creating. You can wind up saying yes to the shiny object and work on the wrong creation. Every yes is a trade-off, an exchange of energy.

Finally, I turned to Derek Sivers, writer, entrepreneur, man with a deceptively simple website. Tim Ferriss calls him a "philosopher-king programmer," and he loves to email with strangers, even giving out his email address during Tim's podcast interview. But Sivers also seems to draw very clear boundaries when he's creating. So I emailed and asked, simply, how often do you consume and create?

His answer is fit for a philosopher-king: "I spend almost no time in consumption mode, lately. In other times in my life, I read a lot. But I noticed recently I don't even watch anything. I hardly ever watch a movie and haven't looked at a TED talk since probably 2011. I don't do any social media at all, no TV, etc. I just spend all my time writing, talking to friends, or hanging with my kid."

As appealing as this routine sounds, it is extreme. Luckily, Sivers has some tricks for creating that don't involve going off the grid, including noticing when it's time to break addictions. "Whenever I felt my phone was getting addicting," he says, "I'd power it off and remove the battery until all my work was done, I'd gone to the gym, and done everything else I want to do with my day. Only then would I turn it on again." An hour or two before bed, he also turns off his phone and powers down his modem, then keeps all electronics off until the next day, when he's been awake and writing for a few hours. As he says, "It's good to remind yourself who's the boss of your life."

His idea of total digital silence is…scary. And it's not because I think I'll miss the news of the day, or that I'm too lazy to revise my screenplay but because my concept of consumption is all muddied now with the idea of connection. Scrolling Instagram isn't just about seeing a lovely purple acai bowl; it's about feeling less alone.

But when we create, we are alone. Terribly and wonderfully alone. Maybe that's what really terrifies us — that in that empty space, we have only our ideas, and what if they're not enough?

All we can really do is try. And balance and test and not judge our daily output, while keeping an eye on longer-term goals. To help with my own toggling, for the past week I've been getting up around 6 a.m. and working for a few hours before the world wakes up. Creating in short sprints was surprisingly effective. Seeing those blue bars grow taller on RescueTime gave me confidence and momentum and made me think, If I did it yesterday, surely I could do it today.

I'm not crazy. I know a life of 100 percent creating doesn't exist. You need a museum exhibition of an unfamiliar artist to light up your own art or a trip to the theater to help you grieve or a clip of Armie Hammer dancing to every song in the canon to make you smile.

But these moments rarely feel good if you feel guilty.

I think a lot about this old Wait But Why column about why procrastinators procrastinate. Tim Urban writes that if you're putting off something important it's difficult to enjoy distracting activities (the devious work of the Instant Gratification Monkey). You end up in the Dark Playground, where unearned leisure time allows you to neither relax or feel like you're moving closer toward your goals.

Humans aren't dumb animals. We realize watching 32 minutes of our friends' and celebrities' Instagram Stories when facing a deadline makes us feel like garbage, but we do it anyway. Consumption mode is one of endless defiance.

I'm not saying all consuming is bad. We should watch Grey's Anatomy, season 834. Read Tom Hanks's new short stories. Listen to Dirty John. Scroll @realdonaldtrump. (Actually, don't.) All of these tidbits will add up and manifest in our work in some way.

But they should be additions, not replacements, to your true creative work. If you're complaining about not having the career you want or the life you expect to lead, replacing a bit of consuming with a bit of creating just might rescue you, right on time.

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