Life after thesis and productivity guilt

Six months ago I promised myself that when I finally hand in my thesis, I would not compose for a month or two, that I would just lay around and do absolutely nothing. So what have I been doing since the day after I sent off my thesis to my defense jury? Working on a construction site and writing a new piece.

I’m very quickly transitioning out of my scholarship-cushioned grad school life and into that nebulous world of ‘freelancing.’ I’m clumsily swinging a hammer, destroying old walls and learning to install insulation. I come home sore in every place imaginable, itchy from the insulation fibers and aching slightly in the right hip area (am I that old already??). On my days off, I am trying to be a composer.

Most importantly, I am learning how to manage a flexible work schedule, how to get the most out of my composing days and at the same time how to not feel guilty about not composing ‘enough’.

This great article here talks about the idea that creative work doesn’t happen on a 9-5 schedule and that accomplishment in the arts (or in any field) shouldn’t be measured by the hours worked but rather by tasks accomplished, art made. One of the comments mentions that when working as a freelancer, “the biggest hurdle was getting over ‘the guilt’ of not being tethered to the office for 8-10 hours a day.”

The guilt is something that I’ve been struggling with since I left Calgary and started working on my thesis long distance. I have been trying to force myself to work for a certain number of hours each day and then beating myself up for not succeeding. I have been unable to enjoy my weekends or holidays because I’ve felt that I didn’t deserve them. In my mind I’ve turned myself into the laziest slob who is going nowhere in life. And then when I looked back at everything I’ve done in the past 18 months, I couldn’t understand where this absurd self-assessment was coming from. I remembered the hours I couldn’t work better than the hours when I accomplished all this great stuff. 

There is something to be said for the work discipline that everyone always talks about (get up early every day, have a work schedule, don’t get distracted by making yourself tea or getting snacks, etc). But how much of that strictly scheduled time is actually spent on meaningful work? How much of it is just you starring at a blank page, getting frustrated with yourself and then beating yourself up for not being productive? In the article above, the author suggests that “most of us, artists or not, do excellent work for no more than two to four hours of [our] working day.” Yes, you can develop techniques for getting yourself going, but sometimes it’s just not your hour or your day. Sometimes you just need to relax, go for a walk, wash the dishes, do some exercise, get distracted.

So I’m trying to keep my old anxieties at bay, to rewire my brain, so that, in the midst of all the guilty worrying, I don’t miss the 2-4 hours of excellent work I could be doing today.