"The right solution for you will always be personal – an idiosyncratic combination of strategies based on your own work demands, habits and preferences."
We are tapped out mentally, physically and emotionally, and yet we continue to operate over capacity. I think most people would agree with this statement, regardless of what line of work you are in or what walk of life you might come from. While modern life has eminent convenience and ease from technological advances, actually getting work done seems to be increasingly more difficult. This is especially true if your occupation requires you to be creative.
The brilliant minds at 99U recognized this problem several years ago and have been diligently working towards solutions and curriculum to fill the gap. In their most recent publication, Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, they have brought together thought leaders from a variety of backgrounds to consider the issue of making space for creativity in the midst of a world that is filled with urgent demands that vie for our attention. The result is a “playbook of best practices for producing great work”. While the insights from people like Steven Pressfield, Dan Ariely, Gretchen Rubin and Seth Godin are interesting, the most valuable aspect of this book is that it forces you to take a step back and question your working habits in order to create more effective ones.
Perspective first. Change second.
"I've never seen a team sport without a huddle, yet we'll continue working for months – if not years – with clients and colleagues without ever taking a step back, taking stock and making improvements to our systems."
When was the last time you actually paused to think about your schedule, what you accomplish and your overall satisfaction with it all? I know… I had a hard time recalling this, too. But that is the point that the 99U team wants to bring to light for readers. To be effective in your work, you must realize how you are currently working and whether or not that is serving you.
In creative vocations there is always a need to uninterrupted “creation time,” and to an extent this is true for all industries. Everyone is a creator of some kind. Yet, producing our best work is all too frequently hindered by things like email, meetings, lack of a routine and other distractions.
Step one to corralling the chaos is to understand what you really need in order to be creative and work effectively, then developing a schedule that respects your needs. For instance, if you are a writer it’s likely that you’ll need time to actually write and work on personal or client projects. It would be ideal to proactively schedule your time for writing in advance so that it is just inherently built into your schedule. This might at the same time every day or certain times each week.
Create a routine
"Truly great creative achievements require hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work, and we have to make time every single day to put in those hours. Routines help us do this by setting expectations about availability, aligning our workflow with our energy levels, and getting our minds into a regular rhythm of creating."
Long gone are the days as children when we went from one scheduled environment to another. In primary school, teachers would neatly outline the day’s schedule on the whiteboard and when you weren’t in school, chances are that your mom probably had a calendar that scheduled your “free time.” But somewhere along the line as adults we are given complete control over our time and rather than embrace the control, we surrender to chaos and urgent demands. Technology is part of the issue as it has shaped our culture to be one of instant gratification and response.
But the truth is that you have to step up to the plate and be the commander of your schedule. Your time is precious and the way that you treat it reinforces how you want others to treat it. There are a few ways to do this. Start by simply blocking off “creation time” in your calendar. Make these distraction-free times, where you turn off the internet connection and turn off your phone. As Gretchen Rubin writes, “Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity”.
This does not mean that you have to toil away at your desk for 12 uninterrupted hours at a time. In fact, there are benefits of switching between mindful and mindless work. “Shifting from mindful to mindless work gives the brain time to process complex problems in a relaxed state and also restores the energy necessary for the next round of mindful work,” writes Erin Rooney Doland. It’s all about finding what works for you and it’s okay to be a little selfish in this process.
Technology could be the common enemy
"Amid this constant surge of information, attention has become our most precious asset."
The better part of Manage Your Day-To-Day is spent examining our relationship with technology. It’s undeniable that it has many benefits for our work, yet our own nature seems to work against us in these instances. Some suggest that it is the result of habit formation. Others suggest it is our lack of self-discipline. Cal Newport says it is because “we lack clear metrics around these behaviors’ costs”. In other words, we don’t really understand the implications of our choice to leave email and social media notifications on all the time.
There are many suggestions in the book for managing this sometimes beastly relationship with technology. Some highlights include:
Utilizing your “Out of Office” responder all the time. Let people know when you are checking email so they know when to expect a response and ask them to call you if it’s urgent. This effectively relieves the task of constantly checking email.
Institute technology-free sabbaticals. Maybe it’s once a week or once a month. Either way, there are plenty of benefits to being “unplugged,” including the feeling of a fresh start when you return to work.
Go back to basics and learn to trust your instincts and creativity rather than relying on technology.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the strategies and tips in this book are not just applicable to creatives. They tap into larger problems in our working culture. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau said it best: “It is not enough to be busy, (the ants are busy) we must ask: ‘What are we busy about?’”
What are you busy with? Are those tasks moving you closer towards accomplishing your great work?