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Jenny: How Limited Time Can IMPROVE Your Productivity (Part I)

[Editor’s note: With delight, we introduce you to Jenny Wynter, Australian comic and mother of three, aka Comic Mummy. The post below is cross-posted from Jenny’s hilarious and insightful blog. Jenny has generously allowed us to republish several posts from her archives — enjoy!]

Many years ago, I had the amazing privilege of meeting the now-late Colin Thiele. Author of Storm Boy amongst other classics of Australian literature, Colin was arguably one of the most productive writers Australia has ever brought forth, having written countless children’s books, poetry, and more.

The thing that impressed me about Colin — aside from his incredible humility, warm humour, and way of putting you instantly at ease — was his unbelievable productivity.

In tandem with his writing achievements, he continued to work as a teacher his entire life — it was only at night, after classroom, marking and family duties had been put to bed (typically around 10pm) that he would begin writing. Without fail.

When I asked him what his biggest tip would be for me, a fledgling aspiring writer, he looked thoughtful. “Well,” he said, sitting back in his chair and looking upward, “I had a dear old friend who wanted to be a writer many years ago and one day he rang me up and he sounded most exasperated. ‘How do you ever get anything done?’ he asked. I asked him what he meant.”

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘by the time I start, the mailman arrives, then by the time I’ve sorted through the mail it’s time for morning tea, then I finally sit down and the phone rings…’ and he went on and on. And I said ‘Listen, if you want to be a writer, then you need to write. The art of writing is simple: it’s applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair.”


His words came back to haunt me, several years — and children — later.

There I was, sitting in my cosy, pine-wood smelling, tranquil little studio at Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts. I couldn’t be happier. A world renowned destination for all manner of artistic disciplines and after months of planning, finally, there I was: beginning what would be four glorious weeks of a residency, without any of the distractions of child-wrangling or house-keeping, to spend writing my new solo comedy show.

The view from my studio deck (if I'm in front of you with my arm outstretched)

Indeed, it was quite the picture of inspiration — through my studio windows I had a stunning view of the quintessentially picturesque Canadian forest, the ground was covered in feet of fluffy snow, I even glimpsed the occasional deer trampling through…and I had complete privacy (and limitless cups of tea) with which to play.

My resident passer-by at the Banff Centre

In other words, conditions were perfect.

Yet it took me a grand forty minutes to realise — to my horror — that when finally granted that terribly elusive dream of nothing but time to spend as I please, I wasted it with all the blatant disregard of an elderly person who’s never grasped the concept of recycling.

In fact, I quickly realised that when it came to inventing methods of avoiding creating (doing what I LOVE!), I was a complete and utter genius.

Just another cup of tea.

Just another e-mail.

Just another google search.

Just another blog.

Just another, just another, just another…

I struggled through and finally emerged from the retreat with a decent backbone for my show; (the bare minimum of work I’d set for myself, deeming the enterprise an official ‘success’), yet I couldn’t help but feel some sense of disappointment.

That I wasn’t more productive. That I didn’t make more of each moment. That the grand open space for creativity that I’d so long craved for, had only served as some sort of flag to signal an abundance of time to waste at my leisure — after all, in my luxury writers studio surrounds, the whole point was that I could get round to writing ‘whenever I felt like it!’

Well, fast forward twelve months and there I was: well and truly re-entrenched into the daily grind. Kids. Housework. And yes, writing, but only when — and if — I could squeeze it in.

And yet again I was confronted by the wasteful nature of my indulgent self when it comes to creative time.

By the time the day’s duties were done, I was so exhausted, so spent, so done, that the last thing I “felt like” was actually creating.

Even though I love it.

So I didn’t.

I would read, perhaps.
I would watch crappy television, justifying it by telling myself that part of the comedian and writer’s job is to stay abreast of popular culture (even now, as I write that I cringe, hearing my mother’s voice ringing in my ears “You should have done law!”).
I would think (oh, how I would think!) about the things I wanted to do.

But actually putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or even voice to Dictaphone? Oh, no! No! My hands were far too preoccupied slapping my forehead, in a melodramatic rant about all the creative things I intended to do “when I finally got the time.”

Until one day, something happened which made me realise not just how lucky I am to even be able to create at all — regardless of time constraints — but how much I truly NEED to.

That thing was a car accident.

Suddenly my existence went from juggling comedy shows, procrastinating writing duties and rearing children, to managing medical jargon, tackling endless bureaucracy and recovering from a severe head-on collision.

I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky to be walking. Yet, as I began to process the overflow of trauma of what happened that day, I was slowly confronted by the dawning truth: from that moment onward, I had no excuses not to create.

In fact, I not only wanted to write about what happened and what was happening in my life, I needed to. I had to.

And so it began.

Every single day, without fail and without compromise, without excuses and without procrastination, the moment my little bubba went down for his nap, I would sit down at the computer and I would not leave. I had no expectations of what I would write. No agenda. No outcome in mind. Sometimes I would just write random thoughts, sometimes I would work on little nuggets of a screenplay, others I would sketch out the backbone of an article.

But the point is, I would write.

I kept going and going. If I finished one piece, I would start on another. I would write and write and would not stop until the little dude woke up. And given that this ‘end point’ to my writing session was so unpredictable its arrival at best, it eliminated the possibility of any clock watching on my part.

On the contrary, this flexible and unpredictable deadline made me all the more motivated — many days I would find myself hoping that he would keep sleeping just that little bit longer so I could keep it going.

"I'm only doing this for Mummy, ya know!"

And at some point during that first week of writing my way out of my hell-hole of self-pity, it dawned on me:

I am umpteen times more productive when my opportunity to do so is limited.

And I’ve also realised that no matter how much time I might think I have to write/create/perform, my time is always limited: by life.

Like my son’s waking time, the unknown date of my exit point from this earth is also unpredictable. And, as it turns out, can prove likewise to be extremely motivating.

I thrive under pressure. I produce under constraints. My limitations are in fact, my greatest allies.

Namely because they really are, in essence, the glue that is finally adhering the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair.

*This is the first post in a series on this topic. Please, calm down.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sarah T #

    Another fantastic writer. This entry was so interesting. Thanks Jenny. I wish you a continued recovery from such a shock, and it is great you are able to move on and use it to the benefit of your life and career. Your baby is so beautiful lying there, very like my little blondy boy! I look forward to the next entry.

    June 28, 2010
    • Oh thanks so much Sarah, that’s very kind. Your little man must be a real looker then! 🙂

      July 3, 2010
  2. I totally relate to this idea! Time constraints are a brilliant motivator once you embrace that viewpoint. I enjoyed reading your essay, looking forward to the next.
    shona cole

    June 28, 2010
    • Thanks Shona. I agree, I’ve found having kids extremely motivating actually! 🙂

      July 3, 2010
  3. i had a similar agonizing issue when i had a hotel room to myself in denver for a long weekend. i spent more time avoiding writing than writing initially, but i did break through eventually. for me it works best for me to do the big complicated edits when i am with my writing group and we’ve all commited to sitting in slience for hours together, than to try to do the hard stuff among my daily mayhem. however, i can make up fun stuff when i am amidst the mayhem.

    June 28, 2010
    • Oh yeah, good point. I find being in a group of people where I am actually ‘on show’ in some sense makes me tons more accountable. Actually even being in a public place like a cafe or library I’m a lot more likely to get stuff done than left to my own devices.

      July 3, 2010
  4. Welcome Jenny! Oh my friend, time and time again we allow this “excuse” for needing more time steal our most energetic years. I have found as I get older the energy it takes to raise a family AND CREATE-well, sometimes the girl just does not have the kind of energy I used to. HOWEVER, a desperation has come in the doorway now and well…let’s just say my life’s motto now is “chase down your passion like it is the last bus of the night!”-Glade Byron Addams

    June 28, 2010
    • Ooh, I LOVE that quote! It’s so true, I feel like it’s kinda like a relationship in a way. Once you have kids it’s just the default option to let that get the ‘leftovers’ of our time and energy, the problem being when you just don’t have anything left over! Here’s the chasing it down madly into the night!! 🙂

      July 3, 2010
  5. great post, and welcome Jenny! i have also been a “work best under pressure” kinda girl. i wrote my master’s thesis in 3 weeks (even though i had a year); i want until the week before a show before i really crank out some artwork; and i even do it on the job. what do you think i’m doing right now, sitting here at work catching up on blogs? procrastinating! finish the calendar!? heck no! i have THREE MORE DAYS! (i’ll finish it Thursday about 5pm). looking forward to more in this series. i’ll calm down now.

    June 28, 2010
    • Glad you have calmed yourself. 🙂

      3 weeks!! WOW! You go lady! I desperately need deadlines, but I’ve found if they’re just self-imposed it’s not nearly as motivating as if I go public with them (even via blogging if necessary) but ideally to a confidante who I know will actually hold me accountable to them! Hehe, good luck getting your work finished!!

      July 3, 2010
  6. This was a great article. I look forward to the next article.
    I think we are all guilty of procrastinating. As much as I try, keeping my seat in my chair is the hardest thing to do. The cat wants in the dog wants out and all the other things mentioned happen to me too.
    After dinner is my time to do my work until I am too tired and must start again tomorrow.
    Your baby is beautiful!

    June 28, 2010
    • Absolutely we are guilty of it, what stuns me though is how amazing we can be at procrastinating that which we actually LOVE! I mean, I can put off housework til the cows come home (believe me: they come right home!) but to think that I can avoid stuff I actually enjoy? It’s so strange!

      Thanks so much, he is beautiful. 🙂

      July 3, 2010
  7. So great to have you at Studio Mothers, Jenny!

    When my first marriage ended, I found myself with every other weekend all to myself when my three kids went to their dad’s. I would look forward to each weekend, plotting out how I would use every minute wisely, immersed in creativity as well as domestic catch-up. Inevitably, as soon as my kids packed off for the weekend I would find myself utterly adrift. It wasn’t that I missed them so terribly or worried about them; I knew that they were fine and would be home again soon enough. But without the structure of daily life that comes with taking care of kids, I never knew what to do with myself. I ended up spending a lot of time just wandering around and procrastinating. The weekend would pass and I might end up with a few things crossed off the to-do list, but I rarely had that feeling of really sinking in and making the most of my time.

    I realize now (re-married and with two more kids) that the amount of time we have at our disposal is not really the issue. The amount of time in any day is finite. It is how we chose to spend that time that matters — and this is a choice that we make virtually every second of the day. It is too easy to “blame” motherhood for a lack of creativity. Are the kids really the issue? Or is it all the other things that we busy ourselves with?

    I think it all comes down to the three P’s: Priorities, patience, and persistence.

    June 30, 2010
    • Hi Miranda,

      Thank you – it’s very lovely to be had!

      Wow, I love your words, especially “it is too easy to ‘blame’ motherhood for a lack of creativity.” So, so true. And I think the positive spin on that is that once we stop blaming that for being too busy, and start taking responsibility for how we spend our time, then it totally takes the chance of resenting the kids, etc. for this reason, out of the equation.

      I love it. 🙂

      July 3, 2010
  8. PS I’m so sorry everybody for the delay in actually replying – we just got back from a mildly terrifying (for us parents) but unbelievably awesome (for the kidlets) holiday. AGH. Never again. Unless we can bring Mary Poppins.

    Anyhoo, sorry and thanks so much for all your lovely welcomes and comments! x

    July 3, 2010
  9. What a great article!! I remember when my eldest child was a toddler and I used to run to my studio to get the next bit of my next illustration done before she woke up. You are so right about limitations. They force us into action like a rocket up the backside (a little like my housework when one of the kid’s friend’s “very tidy” parents is dropping around to pick up their little darling!)

    July 8, 2010
  10. Joy #

    OH. MY. GOSH. I just came across this post and could jump up and down right now (if I didn’t have to worry about waking my toddler.) THANK YOU! It’s fabulous. So often I find myself making up the exact same excuses you mentioned here (for instance NOW since I’m “supposed to be” writing). I love it~most especially the end where you talked about your son waking and the comparision between that and our time here on earth ending. Such a great insight–I will remember it forever I think. Love, love, love this post!

    December 10, 2010

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