Time Vampires

There are calls on our time, either externally-imposed or self-inflicted, that can really get in the way of being productive and creative.  I would be the last to advocate a hermitic existence.  I think contact with people is vital to keep your art fresh and alive and to keep you connected and grounded, as a human being.  Unfortunately, many of these positive activities have a dark side, when practised to excess.  This post is a far-from-exhaustive and sometimes tongue-in-cheek listing of those things that can suck your creative time away like the most parched, thirst-crazed vampire.  Some of the solutions are obvious.

  • Commuting – driving to work or getting there some other way, particularly if you live far from your place of work, can be a significant time sink.  To compound the issue, it is exhausting and it lengthens your work day, so if you are only able to be artistic outside of working hours (as is the case for many artists), your creative time is going to be eaten up by feeling beaten up.  If you have a daily commute and a set starting time, you’re going to face traffic.  It’s going to take longer than it should.  It might even be a source of creativity-killing frustration.  On a train, there are few things you can do that won’t disturb fellow passengers, other than take notes or read/study about artistic technique.  If you’re driving, most of your concentration will need to be focused on staying alive and avoiding collisions.  In any case, commuting is not a good time to be productive.  Some of the more creative solutions to the commuting time vampire involve keeping a voice recorder handy, so that you can capture those brilliant ideas while at the lights (however, reviewing the recordings can, itself, be a time vampire).  If you need to drive, choose a more picturesque route.  Scout the scenery for painterly landscapes (and come back to them later and paint them).  Use the scenic beauty to revive your senses and inspire you.  Learn to sing or to improve your vocal technique, while driving.  You can always do vocal exercises, if you can play a CD or tape with the exercises recorded on it in your car.  Commuting doesn’t have to be a total wash out.
  • Meetings – trying to stay creative at work involves being able to control your output and having the time and space to go into your flow.  Meetings are not conducive to either state.  Fortunately, you can always sketch and doodle.  Daydreaming is also sometimes possible, though risky, because you will always be asked to respond to something you haven’t been paying any attention to.  Some meetings are valuable, but so much meeting time is utterly wasted in futzing with the conference call line, fiddling around with WebEx or Skype or waiting on the tardy.  On balance, meetings are time vampires of perhaps the worst and most insidious kind.
  • Television – there is no faster way to waste productive time than to flip around hundreds of channels of nothing to watch, eventually settling on something you really have no interest in, for want of anything better.  Just say no.  Turn it off.  If it’s worth watching, it’s worth time-shifting using a DVR or using one of the online players that are often available.  Otherwise, it’s a time-sucking predator.
  • Social Networking – keeping in touch with friends is wonderful, especially if they are far away, but do you really have anything to say today?  Do they?  Are you harvesting yet another virtual crop for any good purpose?  Social networking can become an obsession.  If you aren’t finding new information, having meaningful exchanges or interacting effectively, what’s the point? 
  • Incoming calls – this is a pet peeve of mine.  I hate being in the middle of something that requires my full attention and concentration, or in the middle of some sort of ideation process, only to have the stinking phone ring, or worse, to be interrupted by a text message telling me I could qualify for free weekend texts.  I know it could be considered rude, but there are times when you really don’t want to be interrupted and the off switch and voicemail are your friends.  If I had something that could screen my calls before ringing my phone, I would be more available to those people I want to take calls from, but leaving the channel open to anybody that discovers my number is just not for me.
  • Slow interfaces for clearing out unwanted or unimportant email/voicemail I am not the sort of person to get upset about receiving spam.  I don’t like it, but it doesn’t send me into a rage, like it does to some people.  What I do hate, though, are inadequate interfaces to get rid of the stuff you don’t care to read or listen to.  On the email, you often have to peck through each one to decide whether or not to delete it.  I know there are some classes of mail, like facebook notifications, that I always want to dispose of in bulk, at intervals, read or not.  Why should this be hard and time consuming?  Similarly, for voicemail, does the system always have to read out the pre-amble and full options menu for every action you do?  Can’t you short circuit that somehow?  Seems like an interaction design problem to me.  Meanwhile, the lack of decent interfaces absorbs time I don’t want to spend on this task.
  • Texting – could anybody have devised a slower, less intuitive, less accurate method of entering typed information into a device?  Could retrieval and deletion be any more convoluted and time consuming?  I mean seriously.
  • Blogging – yes, folks, even blogging can be a time vampire, especially if you are blogging for the sake of making up some arbitrary run rate of words written per day (or posts posted per week), but you have nothing actually worth saying (you be the judge, in the case of this post) or interesting enough to fire up your passion, while you write it.  Blogging is a favourite displacement activity, which can give the veneer of doing something productive and creative, while avoiding the more challenging activity you really want to be doing.  I’m not saying that’s always the case.  Far from it.  I’m just saying that your friendly blog can rapidly turn into a time vampire, if you don’t keep it on a short leash.
  • Obsessing over blog stats – after obsessing over the readership statistics of my blogs, I have concluded that I can’t tell which articles people will like and which they won’t, nor can I predict the traffic on any given day, or even account for it, when it’s a high readership day.  In short, checking the stats frequently is a colossal waste of productive, creative time.
  • Obsessing over small details that don’t actually matter – lots of artists do this.  They get to within sight of the finish of their project, and then they start fussing around with small details that don’t actually matter.  Don’t fuss over small details.  They don’t actually matter.
  • Downloading free samples, etc – if you are a computer-based musician (lots of people are), it’s very easy to fall into the trap of spending hours downloading every free VST instrument and sample library sample (i.e. just an excerpt of the paid-for product) that anybody bothers to post on the music production forums.  Downloads are slow and the free sounds are often not worth the pain or the disk space.  Screen freeware very careful before you spend any time obtaining it.  If there are no audio demos, that’s telling you something important.  Only if the demos are outstanding or particularly well-suited to a musical project you already have in mind and in the works, should you devote any of your waking hours to downloading and installing the stuff.  Otherwise, it will cost you hours and clog up your disk drive, unopened and unused forever.
  • The wrong day job – nothing can sap your confidence, motivation, creativity and productivity more effectively than spending a large chunk of your life in a job that fails to meet your needs.  That’s the ultimate time vampire.  It might pay, but if that’s all it’s doing, then it’s a bad deal.  Ideally, you want to find a job that offers security, meaning, connectedness, purpose, growth and fulfilment, but if you can’t, you need to find a way to make your art pay.  That’s hard to do, but others have done it.  You just have to keep looking for a way.  You need to flourish.  If you aren’t flourishing, you’re withering.  Who wants to wither?
  • Boring, repetitive and tedious tasks that just have to be done – taxes, accounts, filing, VAT returns, insurance renewals.  The litany is endless.  You know them.  You know how much time they absorb.  Bona fide vampires.
  • Over-tiredness and exhaustion – not a lot of people acknowledge this, but if you work yourself to a frazzle, the state of your mind and body, being over-tired and exhausted, actually causes everything you do to either take longer, feel less pleasurable or have mistakes that you have to spend more time correcting.  The worse this gets the less you get done and the less creative you are.  This is an insidious form of time black hole.  It sneaks up on us.
  • Mess – while a tidy desk, workbench, studio or room is the sign of a disturbed mind, not being able to find what you need to find, when you need to find it (not later), without playing “hunt the item” can be a classic way to burn time wastefully and needlessly.  I know creative people like to imagine that they know where everything is, no matter how cluttered their work space looks to others, unfortunately it tends to be untrue.  If you don’t know where you put your car keys, the chances are that this particular time vampire already has you in his clutches.
  • Despair, frustration, depression, worry – for the same reason that exhaustion is so insidious, if you are in despair, worried about things, depressed or feeling frustrated, it’s like having your creative batteries drained.  This time vampire drinks slowly, but persists for a long time.  The net result is a massive loss of creative time and energy.  Beware of this time vampire.  He lurks in the dark shadows.
  • Analysis Paralysis – when we get stuck trying to overly analyze or plan some project or other, for fear of making a mistake or producing something “not good enough”, we have reached the analysis paralysis stage.  This is a tricky time vampire, because the entire time that he is sucking your precious creative time away, you think you are doing something productive and useful.  You aren’t.  You stopped doing that some time ago, but somehow you cannot see that salient fact.  This is another one of those stealth time vampires.
  • Substance abuse – it isn’t popular to say so, but if you are an artist, drugs might fill your head with amazing new concepts and give you seemingly unlimited energy, but I don’t see many dancers that try to dance drunk.  You need to be unimpaired.  Your judgement needs to be intact.  You need your aesthetic sense to be razor sharp, not anaesthetised.  In order to realise the amazing new concepts, you need to be physically and mentally fully functional at a very high level of grace, on a number of levels.  Leaning on substances won’t preserve this for you.  Leaning on substances simply eats your creative time away.  It’s a fool’s game.
  • Hangovers and other recovery time – while the substances might give you a temporary boost of energy or insight, you have to pay the piper.  If you run up an energy or creativity debt by expending tomorrow’s brain power and physical strength today, when you have to pay the debt, you wind up paying with heavy interest.  The hangover days are the days when nothing gets done.  Nothing can get done.  Coming down from a high possibly makes you the least creative, most unproductive person on the planet and it lasts longer than the temporary boost.  I think this is one of the most violent, vicious and merciless time vampires of them all.
  • Computer gamessee Television.  The same rules apply, only it’s more interactive, so you can more readily believe you are doing something meaningful, when you aren’t.  Even the games that let you paint a virtual digital picture are a con, because I have never seen real artists using easels that make your art evaporate the moment it is done.  Only the most nihilist performance artist destroys his artwork at the moment of completion and only then to make an artistic statement.  It isn’t the default mode.
  • Marginally useful iPhone apps (futzing with your cell phone) – it seems they have an app for everything, but how many of these apps are really worth the time it takes to get them, learn them and actually use them?  Is the result worth the time invested?  I didn’t think so.  This is Steve Job’s own time vampire, which he brought to life in his secret laboratory.
  • Interesting distractions and diversions – most creative people I know are easily distracted by shiny new projects, concepts, ideas and possibilities.  These distractions and diversions, as interesting and refreshing as they may be, are actually rose-scented time vampires.  They can charm you into giving up your creative time and you feel like you really want to give it up, but this vampire only wants your time, not your love.
  • Queuing to pay for stuff – I’ve seen people queuing to use the self service check outs.  How mad is that?  Wasting time so that you can avoid the time saving convenience of having somebody add up your bill for you.  If you really want to succumb to this brazen time vampire, go to the store often.
  • E-Commerce – why is it that buying stuff online takes far longer than running into a shop, choosing an item and paying for it?  Granted, you didn’t have to go to the store, but does the user experience have to be quite this slow?  Even the patented “one click” technology requires quite a lot of web page browsing, clicking and ultimately form-filling.  I hope we can improve on this, someday soon.  Meanwhile, this time vampire lurks online, waiting for the unwary.
  • Slow broadband – if you added all the time you spent waiting for downloads to complete or web pages to load, what would it add up to?  We all spend countless hours of our creative time waiting for the computer to do something…anything.  During that tiny sliver of regularly wasted time, we can do nothing productive.  The computer is not available.  The time is too short to do any other meaningful task.  But the number of page load waits we experience is a drip feed to a time vampire.  This one eats your creative time away drop by drop.
  • Automatic software updates – there appears to be no such thing as a background task, on the modern desktop computer.  Whenever the software wants to update itself, it’s in your face and takes over your machine totally, whether you want it to or not.  Security scans are the same.  The price of the free document readers, browsers and anti-virus measures is constant interruption to your computing experience (and creative flow), whenever it wants to, not when you want it to.  Heaven help you if you decide to let the updates happen unattended.  You never know what you’ll find when you return to your computer.  There is only one option – you must comply with its wishes.  This time vampire is tyrannical.
  • Weird computer problems induced by software installations – from time to time, some update or other renders part or your entire machine inoperable.  This happened to me.  Microsoft updated some security patches while my computer was in hibernation.  As a side effect of that combination of circumstances, the disk was left in a “not properly shut down” state, which prevented the machine from booting up at all.  It took me days to diagnose and correct the error, which was fixed by forcing the disk drive’s self check checksum to recalculate.  My mum would have thrown the computer away.  I lost weeks of creative, productive time.  This is another particularly nasty time vampire.
  • Planned obsolescence (appliance repairs due to crappy appliances) – things are made so cheaply and shoddily, these days, that you spend an inordinate amount of time replacing, repairing or attending to domestic household appliances that have failed.  Even light bulbs seem to last fewer days than they used to, despite the claims and guarantees or longer life.
  • Overly wordy writing (blogs, mails, books, articles) – the irony of this statement is not lost on me.  However, we all have too much to read and too little time to read it in.  Getting to the point is a big deal.  I like to read writing that is short and sweet.  Succinct and to the point.  When people are too polite or too afraid to say what they mean, in plain terms, we all spend needless time reading through florid prose, without ever quite grasping the intended meaning.  Clarity is the enemy of the obfuscation time vampire.
  • Being redirected constantly (doing the urgent instead of the important) – task switching – most people that have a job and a boss, or demanding customers, know that you can lose entire days and weeks changing from one task to another, depending on who is screaming loudest, but find that you actually got nothing of substance done.  Again, this time vampire makes you believe you are busy and therefore productive.  What you are is thrashing around.  There is more heat than light.  You are spending time spinning your wheels and travelling in tiny circles.
  • Interruptions to your flow – everybody that has ever experience flow knows that there is a time taken to immerse into that flow.  You can’t just plunge into flow instantly.  You have to reconstruct the unconscious mental model that is needed to drive the in-flow activities first.  The time it takes to do this is constant, every time you go back to your task.  The more interruptions you have to your flow, the greater the portion of the day will be taken up just be re-immersing yourself in the task, to the point where the flow starts again.  In extremis, you can spend the entire day trying to immerse yourself to the point of flow and never actually getting there, or else just getting there when the next interruption comes along and breaks the spell once more.  As a time vampire, this one laughs at us all.
  • Not saying no to projects and opportunities – if we aren’t realistic with the available creative and productive time we really have available to us, then we simply combine the time vampire of shiny new things with the time vampire of flow interruption to create a hybrid time vampire that does both things at once.  Saying no to some things is the only protection you’ve got.  You must use it.
  • Not having the right tools to hand – this is a slight variation on the Mess time vampire, but in this case it’s more about unpreparedness.  If you need certain tools to do the creative work, then finding you don’t have them causes much time to be lost on the project, while you either take the long way by trying to do the work without the proper too, or you spend waiting time while you try to obtain the missing tool (see E-Commerce above).

So, you can see that time vampires are everywhere and they are hungry.  It is a constant battle that requires vigilance, dedication and courage to spot every time vampire and drive a stake through its heart.  Good luck with your time vampire slaying.  Where’s Buffy when you need her?


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to Time Vampires

  1. Janet says:

    Now that everyone has seen themselves in many of these scenarios, I’m leaping in with a tip or two.
    1. Know that if the above is you, you’re pretty normal for a creative soul. So don’t even go to the ‘beating myself up’ place.
    2. Pick one time waster for starters, and see if you can take a small step towards shifting it. ie: If TV goes on every night, give yourself permission twice this week to have a half hour of no TV. and Heck you might as well show up to something creative in that time.. a pencil, a crayon, a napkin, …

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