Wander in the Forest of Your Mind

21 July 2019

Give yourself the time to wander in the forest of your ideas. Work intensely, then air out your mind. Sounds good, but how do you get that going?

I was reading about novelist Colson Whitehead saying that he works just five hours a day. He takes a year to write a book.

And when I was done, I handed my book in and just played video games for six weeks and thought about nothing and cooked. And, you know, that was my healing, just take my mind completely off of what I’ve been living with for the last year. — NPR

The five hours a day estimate sounds right. Running my own agency, I can be the architect of my days. But when doing work for clients I have to time-box my hours, planning each task in 15-minute increments using Trello and Everhour. I also work in the Pomodoro system, as I’ve mentioned in another post, creating in bursts of 25-35 minutes with short breaks in-between. All that structure, paradoxically, delivers freedom. I’ve learned how long I take to write a first draft based on word count, to go over a transcript or edit a show. When I know that it will take six times the recording time of a conversational podcast to edit, and at least ten times the running time of a dramatic podcast to get a first cut, I don’t over commit my day. Work is more satisfying. I am terrible at getting started in the morning and terrible at stopping at night. Time-boxing helps with task-oriented stuff. I do better work in fewer hours.

Of course, it’s not all about Doing Things. Creative work must be open. The hours to do it have to be open. When staring at a blank notebook there is nothing to check off. The blankness is a different mountain to climb.

The online world throws stuff at you keyed to your interests.” Advertising, social media feeds, the graphic organization of a newspaper front page or a digital magazine is synced to what you might like based on your browsing patterns. This sucks when you want creative input. You need to browse the library stacks, which hardly anybody does anymore, or stand in front of a newsstand on the corner, if you can find one, and open magazines until the vendor chases you away. You need to go see whatever movie is playing. You need to flip through a set of index cards you’ve kept in a shoe box. You need an aggressively non-digital approach that allows for serendipity and some nonsense.

When all is keyed to your interests, the fence around your thoughts becomes smaller and tighter.

If you find you are bursting with ideas in the shower or wake up in the middle of the night with brilliant notions that you scribble in the dark, only to be unable to recognize your handwriting in the morning (been there), you aren’t allowing enough free time for your creative thoughts to develop. You need more freedom, the sloppy kind that might involve taking a nap or listening to music you’ve never listened to before.

Sometimes the hardest thing about this work is not doing the work, it’s taking time off from the work to walk in the forest of your ideas. As Whitehead says, rest is your healing, your chance to step back from the world you’ve been living in and take the time to let the next world begin.

Thanks for reading,


(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.