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You Need To Waste Time To Be Great

Piers Henwood
3 min read

If you’re a creative person you probably struggle in your relationship to time.

Society teaches us that investing time is admirable, spending time is acceptable, and wasting time is, well, wasteful. But for creative people this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I believe creatives need to consciously invest time, spend time, and waste time in order to be successful – not necessarily in equal measure, but at minimum in a different proportion than the voice in our head is conditioned with.

From a young age many of us are taught the virtue of investment, both with time and money. We’re not taught that spending and wasting these two assets has very different implications, and hence we’re socialized to believe that using time unproductively is akin to wasting an asset such as money.

But an artist needs to waste time to become a great artist.

Don’t get me wrong – investing massive amounts of time into your field of choice is essential. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory gives general guidance on the level of commitment and practise needed to achieve expertise in a field. And it’s also true that there are many unhealthy forms of habitual time-wasting (ahem, late night doom scrolling).

Responsible investors need an existing tangible asset in order to further invest. In the creative realm, it’s essential to realize your asset is not only your tangible skillset, but also your life experience and unique view of the human condition. Growing your life experience necessarily requires spending time, and sometimes wasting time. So herein lies the paradox – to invest in your depth as an artist, you need to be prepared to waste time. As the great sculptor Auguste Rodin said, “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely."

I think of creative potential as a blender. If the only ingredients feeding creative output stem from activities we associate with investing time (eg skill building) then the output may have technical expertise but will likely lack depth, human connection, or profound insight. What, therefore, should you put in the blender? Not just hours of learning your craft, but also hours of observation, artistic consumption, and life lived.

Spending time listening to music, watching content, taking in art, having conversations – all these activities lead to a deepening of thought that wouldn’t otherwise happen in isolated skill-building. I’m often struck by great artists’ ability to consume substantial amounts of content – art in other forms – and retain it. It goes into the blender and comes out transformed by the artist’s eye. There is an important balance to be struck between passive consumption and active creative work, but in the correct proportion the latter gets fed essential raw materials by the former.

Great artists need deep relationships in the world to create art with depth. Art doesn’t need to be lived exactly, but I believe there needs to be a depth of experience for an artist’s voice to be authentic. And relationships can’t be deep without the passage of unstructured time and serendipity. Our society often views unstructured time as wasteful when it’s in fact essential to human bonds and therefore human depth.

In finding your own creative balance in how you spend time, here are some specific things to consider:

Invest in building a system for taking and storing notes. Great ideas often come when you’re spending or even wasting time. Watching a piece of content from the couch. During a throwaway conversation with a stranger. Sipping a glass of wine at a bar. On holiday. When you’re not in work mode, the effort to write an idea down might seem burdensome. We assume we’ll remember all our good ideas. But we don’t. You need to take notes when ideas strike and have a reliable system for retrieving them. For a deep dive into digital note taking check the work of Tiago Forte and the Building a Second Brain movement.

Avoid falling victim to productivity porn. Advice on becoming more productive is an industry unto itself, full of promises and shiny objects. The basic lessons are often useful, but not always equally applicable to creatives. Creatives may mistakenly feel social pressure to measure themselves against the wrong standards. When looking at the proverbial blank piece of paper that needs to be filled, the creator requires a different state of mind than checking off items on a to do list. It’s easy to feel guilty when we mistakenly measure productivity metrics across different forms of output.

Travel. Some in our culture think of traveling and time off as spending, or even wasting, time. But traveling is one of the best investments you can make to deepen creative output. In travel we see the world and the human condition differently, and this is an investment in your life and your creative process. This is especially true for experienced creatives who have lived the grind of cyclical creative output and promotion. Moving from hotel room to hotel room while investing in promotion and career growth is necessary, but won’t replenish the creative well. Unstructured travel will.

Develop a personal approach to balance. Whatever your relationship between investing, spending and wasting time – it’s going to be different from person to person.

Creatives have unique reserves that need to be built and replenished, and our lexicon around productivity doesn’t always suit the creative path. So don’t waste all your energy worrying about how you’re investing your time. Wasting time regularly may be the best creative investment you’ll ever make.

This essay originally appeared in Billboard Magazine.