Scraps of borrowed time
On making time and space for things that matter.
How easy it is to say those words.
I don’t have time.
Immediately, you’re off the hook. You’re not the one to blame. It’s not that you don’t show up when you need to. It’s not that you decide to avoid doing what matters to you. You simply don’t have time. There’s even nobility in that. You’re busy. And busy, as our culture tries to tell us at every step, is always good, right? (No.)
Whenever I hear those words (even from myself), I feel bad for the person saying them. They’re lost. They don’t see the truth: that they’re on the hook (and always will be, as long as they’re alive); that they are the ones to blame; and that the only person they’re deluding is themselves.
Not having time is not an excuse. But not because you must wake up at 4 AM and cram things into your schedule, as those self-help gurus say. No. But because the underlying premise beneath the phrase “I don’t have time” is mistaken. It implies that there are people who do have time to create. As if Real Writers – not the likes of you, you assume – have hours to dedicate themselves to their masterpieces on Olympia typewriters sitting on their porch in southern France, overlooking a lake or a meadow on a sunny afternoon while sipping Chardonnay.
It’s a lie.
My outlook on life changed 180 degrees when I realised that nobody, in all human history – and long before TikTok and the modern-day distractions were invented – had as much time as needed to focus on their work.
I was amazed when I found out that for most of human history, the vast majority of people have made their art in stolen moments, using, to paraphrase Liz Gilbert, scraps of borrowed time.
You see, I, like I am sure many of you, used to think that something was wrong with me. I thought I wasn’t a Real Writer because I wrote my blog posts on a toilet. Or book chapters on an iPhone during a long commute. Or even this newsletter in 30 minutes I had before I had to dash out the door to a work meeting on the other side of London. Or dictating article ideas via voice memos because I was too busy to stop and type.
I used to judge myself for not allowing more time to create. Real Writers, I thought, make time. And that’s true. They do.
Only I confused “making time” with “making ample time.” And very few creators have as much time as they need to create, except maybe those in prison.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was detained in a Russian prison in the spring of 2023 amid the Russian war with Ukraine, famously said that now that he is jailed, he “finally has time to write.” Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in prison. Solzhenitsyn made notes for what was to become Gulag Archipelago while in exile. Very few places offer as much solitude as incarceration.
But everyone else, I repeat, everyone creates sporadically. The universal task of every creative person is to carve out little pockets of time each day for things that matter. You never miss out on brushing your teeth (or so I hope), so why should making art be any different?
This isn’t true just for writing. Most people don’t accidentally “discover” time, motivation, or energy for a run. Instead, you incorporate those things into your life. You steal a minute here and there, and you make it happen. Time, motivation, and energy appear as a by-product. Not before, after.
Hence, the hackneyed question of every podcast host in human history (“What’s your ideal morning routine?”) is ludicrous. It doesn’t matter. You create when you can, do what works for you, and so does everyone else.
This is not an ideal scenario, that’s for sure. We’d all love to sit in our cottages in southern France, sip on Chardonnay, and bang out keys on Olympia typewriters while overlooking a lake or a meadow. But chances are, we’re only human and not nepo-babies and not in prison. We have bills to pay, and mouths to feed, if only our own.
This is why you should make things happen for yourself instead of waiting for them to happen to you. Nobody cares about your life or your work as much as you do. It’s like that with everything you care about. Unless you make time for it, it won’t happen.
Liz Gilbert, whom I mentioned before, has a funky metaphor for this. She urges people to have an affair with their art. Do you know how people having extramarital affairs always seem to find time to see each other?
“Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage,” Gilbert writes. “Even if you have only fifteen minutes a day in a stairwell alone with your creativity, take it. As any furtive teenager can tell you, you can get a lot of making out done in fifteen minutes!”