Structure vs Space
There is a persistent conflict between the regimented discipline necessary to produce and create consistently and the space necessary to create sustainably.
Without structures to contain us, we can become paralyzed with possibility. But when the structures are too tight, we don’t have space to breathe and move freely.
Freedom without structure is not true freedom. Without the boundaries of rituals and the mindset of protecting your space to slow down, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of conflicting commitments and busyness.
Creating Space is Crucial to Creativity and Productivity
Creating this space is essential to the creative process. This is the deep work. Without this slowing down I can’t sustain my pace. Without reflection and contemplation I can’t write coherently.
The first step to any creative process is noticing. Simply observing the world and noticing what you notice. Once you notice, you can generate ideas. Then you can flesh out those ideas. Then you can begin to write.
Without pausing or slowing down, life becomes one big blur. When we spend all of our time racing around and being busy, we don’t remember where we were or what we did. Eyes down, scrolling through our news feeds, we could be anywhere, with anyone; we wouldn’t know the difference. We aren’t connecting with the people around us. We aren’t even connecting with ourselves.
Slowing down isn’t optional. It’s an essential requirement for creativity and sustainability.
The Difficulty in Deep Work
We may resist creating space for deep work because we fear that allowing that expanse of time to work might appear to others as lazy or unproductive. Even if nobody else knows what we are doing in that space, we judge ourselves based on how we believe others might perceive us.
If I don’t emerge from my deep work sessions with a lot of tangible “product,” I can easily fall into a pattern of self-judgment. I feel guilty for taking the time away from something else that may look more productive. I hear that voice telling me I’m a slacker. I’m not productive.
You should be writing a blog post right now. You should be sending emails. You should be making calls. What are you even doing?
Usually, I am writing, although it may be journaling or writing that I don’t publish anywhere. Other times, I am sitting still. Reading. Reflecting. Investigating. Contemplating. Noticing.
This work —often done in stillness, by taking a long walk, by stretching on a mat in the gym, or by laying on a foam roller—doesn’t always look like “work.”
I feel guilty because people might perceive that I’m not working hard and what would that mean?
A More Open-Minded Approach
Feeling unproductive can lead to us to an identity that we are unproductive. That is a gateway to a negative reinforcing cycle.
Recently, I began asking myself a different question:
What if the only problem in what I’m doing is that I’m expecting something unrealistic of myself, based on cultural conditioning of what it means, and what it looks like, to be productive?
What if the image we have of “productivity” is wrong?
Each time I start to judge myself for how much I’ve produced during my morning deep work session, I remind myself that creating space for noticing, reflection, and contemplation is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.
In the long run, you won’t be able to sustain a creative pace without creating space to slow down to notice and reflect.
Stillness is the Hard Work
In pilates, the body part that is keeping still is often doing as much work—if not more—than the part that is moving.
This is true in a lot of fitness disciplines. Holding a plank is harder than doing crunches. In a balance pose, the grounded leg works hard to stabilize you.
It’s true in life as well. The hardest part about creating space for deep work is that deep work doesn’t always look like what we think it “should” look like. And that leads us to unhealthy emotional and mental responses to creating that space.
This is a normal response.
When it arises, remind yourself that the hard work doesn’t always look the way you think it will look.
Long term, sustainable creativity and productivity, requires that you create space. That, in itself, is the deep work.