Want to feel calmer? Don't paint while you eat breakfast.


The great painter Balthus (otherwise known as Count Balthus Klossowski de Rola) was a very creative man. His paintings have been exhibited at major shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and countless other of the world’s most prestigious museums. He was one of few living artists to have ever been represented in the Louvre, which bought his painting the Children from the private collection of Pablo Picasso.

I have been reading about Balthus lately. And while I am deeply troubled by this relationship to his subjects (to the point that I considered not using him as an example for this post), I couldn’t help but be struck by Balthus’ creative process. Below is a description of his daily routine.

Balthus breakfasts and reads his mail at 9:30. He then studies the light conditions of the morning. “This is the one way to know if you will paint today, ifthe progress into the painting’s mystery will be intense,” he says. Either in the late morning or after lunch, he makes his way to his studio, which is located on the outskirts of the village. He begins his painting day with a prayer, and follows the prayer with hours of meditation in front of the canvas. Sometimes this is it—he does not add a single brush stroke to the canvas.

It seems clear that Balthus does not use a time management app. And yet his days are structured. What I find striking is that Bathus’ time is made up of qualities rather than quantities—the quality of the light, of the meditation, of the prayer, of the canvas.

I am not suggesting, at all, that your day should look like Balthus’s. After all, you’re probably not a world-famous painter, and you’re almost certainly not a Count.   What I am suggesting, instead, is that you start differentiating between different qualities of time.

Notice that Balthus distinguishes between shallow time and deep time. Balthus does not read the mail in front of his canvas. He does not paint while eating breakfast. He reserves parts of the day for doing shallow things, things that do not require his utmost concentration, feeling and creativity—like reading the mail—and parts of the day for deep things, when he is in front of his canvas, meditating, praying or painting.

Most of us try to cram in something extra here and there to make it all fit in. This is an invitation to ineffective and unhealthy multitasking. However, distinguishing between qualities of time, as Balthus does, has the opposite effect. It keeps things out. 

This keeping out works in two ways. It keeps the shallow away from the deep, and the deep away from the shallow. The effect of this is to render the qualities of your day distinct—in fact, it is only this that makes different qualities even possible.

If you are working on an important project—be it a manuscript or an illustration or a quilt—you would probably like some time like Balthus’s afternoon: deep time. You do not want to be interrupted. This time is reserved, sacred.

Conversely, almost everyone will always have shallow stuff to do. Keep up with your correspondence, send out bills, work the till, book a hotel, attend a meeting, do the laundry. I am not disparaging this quality of time by calling it shallow—I am merely noting that it does not require you to dive in deep in the same way that your deep work does. In fact, shallow time can be a relief—somewhat mindless tasks that you can float through, paying attention to whatever distracts you, ticking off your to-dos on a list, perhaps listening to music or a podcast.

Shallow time also does not want to be interrupted by deep time. It is hard to enjoy the lighter quality of attention that can be so pleasant during shallow time if your deep work is barging in, demanding that you pay attention to it.

Instead of trying to go at everything you have to do in one undifferentiated blur of activity this approach lets you enjoy the experience of the different qualities of time that make up your day while at the same time allowing you to work more effectively and get more done—both more deep work and more shallow work. The Overwhelm is the product of not doing so—it is the experience of a single, mixed, noisy, frenetic quality throughout the day, something like static on a radio.

So, if you’re longing for more calm and clarity during your day, experiment with eating breakfast when you eat breakfast and painting when you paint.