Yesterday I saw a writer/creative/influencer say something along the lines of “if you had time to watch the Depp/Heard trial, you have time to write that book.” The comments were full of people shouting things like “preach!” and “say it again for those in the back!” but it struck me the wrong way the moment I read it. Why? Because this boils down to one of the most common—and most damaging—pieces of advice that people spout at new writers: if you’d just stop wasting your time, you could accomplish your goals.
On the surface, this seems like good advice. Yes, we need to relinquish the fear that hobbles us, that keeps us from trying. Yes, we need to show up, butt-in-chair, and be intentional in how we pursue our craft. But lurking underneath is a dangerous fallacy: that having time is the same thing as having energy. But Free Time does not equate to Mental Margin.
Let me say it again: Free Time does not equate to Mental Margin. Don’t confuse them. Watching a trial and writing a book use TWO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT brain spaces. When it comes to the amount of energy they take, they aren’t even in the same neighborhood, let alone the same house. If you are able-bodied and mentally healthy, sometimes they can be on adjacent streets, but to assume that’s true for other people’s lives is tone-deaf at best, blindly privileged and ableist at worst.
This don’t apply to just the trial, either, but to any “unproductive” activity you can think of: reading fluffy fiction, watching an endless stream of TikToks, or playing a match-three game on your phone. In May, I didn’t have the margin for writing. Between several big-deal, energy-sucking life things going on, I just didn’t have the bandwidth. What did I have bandwidth for? Listening to books. Binging the Great British Baking Show. And yes, even watching a little of the trial.
Spending time on those types of things doesn’t always mean you’re wasting your time. Sometimes it just means your surviving. Recharging. We need to be better about allowing ourselves to lie fallow for a season, building back up that mental margin that will allow you the space to create again. And for goodness sakes, we need to stop shaming ourselves and others for spending time on less-productive things that bring us a little joy.
If you saw that message, or others like it, and you found it motivating and relatable, good on you. Go forth and conquer, my friend. I’m genuinely cheering you on from the sidelines. But if you read statements like that and it causes a frisson of shame to squirt through your belly, take a minute to remember that time and energy aren’t the same thing.
Consider this a permission slip to take all the time you need.