“Lack of time” is a common excuse for avoiding creative projects.
While our schedules are often scapegoats for the real problem (crippling self-doubt), it’s also true that many of us are too tired and overwhelmed most of the time to do the work that calls to us most deeply.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can do more with less effort by cultivating what David Allen calls a “mind like water.” He defines it as “a mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus.”
It primes us for communing with the muse.
1. Getting Things Done
To achieve it, Allen created his “Getting Things Done” methodology. It has 5 steps for dealing with tasks:
- Capture: Use software, a pen and paper, or a voice recorder to collect every “to do” so you don’t have to remember it. I use Asana.
- Clarify: Determine whether each item is actionable. If it is, do it or schedule it. If it isn’t, “trash it, incubate it, or file it as reference.”
- Organise: Have separate lists for different task categories. Some of mine are “Travel Planning,” “Short Story Collection,” and “Creative Coaching.”
- Reflect: Review your lists as often as necessary to “get clear, get current, and get creative.”
- Engage: Do things.
I’m obsessed with Allen’s system and have clung to it for several years.
I’ve also discovered it’s possible to abuse it horribly, increasing my capacity for tasks and adding to my workload until I’ve turned into a crumbling wreck. That’s why, in the last year, I’ve made several tweaks to my approach. The first was to reconnect with my “why.”
2. Reconnecting with “why”
The folks at Live Your Legend emphasise the importance of knowing why you do what you do, because it’s the “why” that motivates us. When we lose sight of it, we lose our passion, and when we lose that, we lose our power to accomplish what matters to us.
My “why” is to inspire, delight, and entertain readers. If a work-related task doesn’t move me closer to that goal, I question if it’s worth doing.
3. Connecting with others
When you’re surrounded with other creative people, you can learn from each others’ mistakes, give feedback on each others’ work, and exchange ideas. You can also hold each other accountable for what you want to accomplish, and give each other a kick in the pants if necessary.
4. Defining what’s important
Here’s something I picked up recently from my friend Niki at zivotjehra.org: commit to no more than 4 tasks per day: one “Mission of the day,” one “important,” one “urgent,” and one “personal”.
I’ll admit to cheating with this one sometimes, but it seldom works when I do.
5. Theme Days
Theme days are another tool I got from Niki. They make it easier to plan what I’ll do and when.
- Monday: Learning: Creative work in the morning, followed by any “urgent” tasks, with time in the afternoon for reading and online courses.
- Tuesday: Publishing: Creative work in the morning, with afternoons dedicated to releasing anything that’s ready for release.
- Wednesday: Connecting: Mornings are similar to Mondays, and afternoons are for being in touch with other creatives.
- Thursday: Connecting: Same as Wednesdays.
- Friday: CEO Mode: Mornings are like other weekdays, with project review and planning in the afternoon.
- Saturday: Journal/Rest: A couple hours of freewriting in the morning, followed by chores, errands, and fun stuff.
- Sunday: Rest: Go exploring somewhere.
Of course, the schedule above is an ideal that bears only a passing resemblance to my actual life. Still, keeping that structure in mind reduces the number of scheduling decisions I have to make, which saves cognitive power for the stuff I’m actually working on.
6. Focusing ruthlessly
Most of us have a gigantic list of things we’d like to accomplish. When we try to do too many things at once, though, we diffuse our efforts so much that it’s difficult to be effective at anything.
That’s why Confucius said, “The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.”
Business Strategist Adrienne Dorison uses the metaphor of building bridges: a half-built bridge doesn’t do anybody any good, but most of us run around building “half bridges” all over the place: we stick with a project until it gets tough, and then we move onto another, rarely finishing anything.
If we stay committed through the hard parts and complete current projects before starting new ones, we end up with something to show for our work.
We can also reduce the overall number of “rabbits” we’re chasing — and ensure we’re chasing the right ones — by using Warren Buffet’s trick: make a list of your top 25 goals, narrow it to your top 5, and put the other 20 on an “avoid at all costs” list until your top 5 are done.
7. Scheduled learning
If I’d taken Corbett Barr’s “Start a Blog that Matters” course before starting this blog, I’d have saved myself a ton of time and pain. Ditto Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise Your Novel” course before attempting to revise my most recent drafted novel.
That’s why Monday’s theme is learning.
8. Routine, routine, routine
When something becomes a habit, it doesn’t require willpower, which means you spend less time trying to get off your ass, and more time doing stuff.
9. Regular relaxation
I still get so anxious sometimes about whether I’ll accomplish my goals that I’m tempted to work myself into the ground. What stops me is reminding myself that, since rest is critical to creativity, it’s really just another kind of work. There’s a reason Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said, “Rest and activity are the steps of progress.”
Twice-daily transcendental meditation is the most crucial part of my relaxation routine, which also includes yoga, reading, and the odd nap.
10. Tracking time
I track all the time I spend working. I can pull reports that say how much time I’ve spent on any work-related task since the beginning of October, which is when I started using Harvest.
I use Harvest because I work solo, there’s a free version, and it integrates with Asana. For creative teams, though, I still recommend my former employer, Function Point. Overall, it’s a better and more comprehensive system.
Timesheet reports tell me if I’m spending the right amount of time on the right things. They also tell me how long stuff actually takes, which helps me plan future projects.
Most of the time, I use Harvest’s built-in timer to track work while I’m doing it (Function Point has one of those, too, along with other cool stuff I kinda miss). It’s more precise than entering timesheets after the fact. Also, it discourages multi-tasking, which decreases productivity by up to 40%.
11. Not worrying
Worrying takes a ton of energy and accomplishes nothing, ever. If anything, it moves us backwards.
I know this.
Does that mean I never worry? I wish. I do notice, though, that the less I worry, the more I can focus on the task at hand.
The relaxation techniques under number 9 are some of the best weapons in my anti-worrying arsenal. Another is journaling.
My journaling practise continues to evolve as I experiment with what works. If you were to follow all the advice out there for productivity journaling, gratitude journaling, affirmations, and “morning pages,” you could spend your entire day on it.
I still spend at least a couple hours a week writing aimlessly, just moving my pen until I feel calm and clear-headed. Sometimes, calmness, clarity and a more positive outlook are all I get from those sessions, but more often, I get an illumination of some kind, either for a current creative project or a new one.
Most days, though, I already have a specific project or idea into which I want to funnel my creative energy: revisions on my novel, blog posts, or tasks related to the launch of my upcoming book about the creative process.
On those days, I do a 5-minute journal, usually first thing in the morning. Here’s what I write about:
- What went well during the previous day
- Lessons learned
- Three things I’m grateful for
- What would make the coming day awesome
- A few positive affirmations
It’s great for morale, because it reminds me of what I’m already accomplishing, what I already have, and what’s still possible. When my morale is good, I’m more motivated to work towards my goals. Also, like “theme days,” journaling helps me stay focused and intentional with my tasks.
So, am I telling you to do all this stuff? F*&^ no.
I would never expect another person to implement my exact system, which is customised for my own idiosyncrasies (of which, you may have noticed, I have a few).
That said, many of my techniques would work for a lot of people, especially if implemented one at a time.
It often takes a few weeks to get the hang of a new approach, and trying too many at once could do more harm than good.
A year ago, so much structure would’ve been too much even for me, and I’ve always been pretty obsessive. Little by little though, I’ve refined my system, and as I’ve done so, I’ve found more of my time is spent with a “mind like water,” responding to stimuli like a lake does to a stone tossed in: with ripples, then stillness.
PS: If you’d like a sneak peek at my upcoming book, Creative Unblocking: How to Bypass Self-Doubt and Complete Your Best Work, subscribe for free to my “no spam” email list. You’ll get fresh inspiration and creative insights delivered monthly(ish) to your inbox, and I’ll remind you when the full book is released on August 1st, 2017.
PPS: This article contains affiliate links, which means that, if you buy a book from Amazon or a course from Fizzle after clicking to it from this page, I’ll get a very small commission, although the cost for you won’t increase.