I’ve been doing this full-time writing thing for a couple months now, which has let me settle into a good rhythm. One of the most interesting results of that rhythm has been a complete redefinition of productivity as it applies to creative work in contrast to how it applies to employed work or school work.
Since I’m not taking on any outside work (no consulting, freelancing, etc.), I have:
I have no imposed structure at all. The only structure I operate in is whatever I decide to impose on myself. And despite none of those constraints or structures… I’m getting more done than I ever have before.
What I’ve realized is that creative productivity is not a matter of doing more, it’s a matter of doing less.
When you’re trying to manage assignments and tasks from other people, productivity is a sort of optimization game. It’s a question of how quickly can you get these tasks done without sacrificing too much on the quality.
But you can’t call that creative productivity, or even “getting things done.” You’re not doing things you want to do so much as you’re managing inputs from other people.
That’s where everything on productivity sites come in. Little tips and tricks that might meagerly increase your per hour output and make you feel like you’re getting something done, despite the fact that you’re not doing your most important work in the first place.
With creative work, it’s not about time-based-optimization. It’s simply a question of how do you produce your best work, and how do you do the most of it.
Now you might think “Well if you’re super productive then you can put out 10,000 words a day instead of 1,000” and there’s something there, but only to a point.
There’s a “creative debt” that comes with this kind of work. You can put out a ton over a short period, but you pay for it the next day or week, and you tend to balance out to a middle level over the long term.
I’ll have days where I write 5,000 words, but the days after I struggle to get to my 2,000 word goal. Usually, I end up in the 1700-2300 range, and I try not to push too far above that because I know I’ll pay for it the day after.
If you’re doing creative work, the question is less “how do I maximize my output” but rather “how do I ensure I get that output I know I can?”
For me, that goal is 2,000 words. I want to put 2,000 words down 5 days a week, between my book, this blog, emails to my list, advertising copy, whatever I’m working on.
That means that the rest of my life has to be modeled in such a way as to make sure that goal happens. I can’t go out and party every night, because writing hungover is miserable (though, writing drunk is always fun, especially sex articles).
What I’ve found, and what other creatives confirm, is that the best way to ensure this creative output happens is to maximize the amount of Deep Work I get in my schedule. That means periods of uninterrupted, focused writing time, where I’m in the right state of mind and body to do my best work.
I’ve ditched using a schedule and use an order instead, but that’s just one part. To optimize for creative productivity you don’t want to add new apps or systems or timers or tools, instead, you want the bare minimum number of distractions and constraints possible.
It’s using fewer apps, having less of a schedule, using fewer prompts. Pushing everything out of the way to let your best workflow.
Going against some of the traditional productivity advice, try cutting these things out of your schedule to gain more time for creation.
Instead of scheduling in a writing time, or “work” hours, I just have an order. I wake up, make tea, and start reading. When I get to a good stopping point or feel like it’s time to start working, I put the book down and get some prep and outlining done. When that feels good, I shower, get dressed, and head to a coffee shop.
At the coffee shop, I’ll write until I get too hungry and need to get lunch. Then it’s lunch, and either a longboard ride to the bouldering gym or a walk down to the river. If it’s the gym then I lift, if it’s the river then I read.
After that, another work session, usually on junk work like email and social media. I find writing in the afternoon really hard, so I don’t try to force it. This is also a good time for research, delegating things to my VA, or catching up on more reading.
Then, in the evenings, I’ll do another round of late night writing. I only figured this out recently, but my difficulty falling asleep was the result of another late night creative surge I tend to have, and by just staying up later to take advantage of it, I’ve been getting some of my best thoughts out on paper.
I only use a few apps to get all of my work done:
That’s it. No fancy productivity tools or anything, just a project management tool, two document tools, a communication tool, email, and a tool that prevents my impulsive Twitter / Facebook checking. That’s all it takes.
All of the productivity tools are just a distraction and a way of tricking yourself into thinking you’re being productive by experimenting with new things.
There’s a ton of fake work that it’s easy to get caught up in, to trick yourself into feeling productive. This could be networking events, tweeting at people, reading blog posts on ideas you might someday need…
I have a sticky note on my desktop that says “DO WHAT MOVES THE NEEDLE” with a short list of what those things are:
Anything outside of those 4 things I should not be working on. And when I catch myself thinking I’m being productive by doing anything else, I stop myself and pull it back.
This is a tactic from my friend Tyler. As you go through your day, write down everything you get done. It helps you reflect positively on the day, but it also gives you an opportunity to ask yourself something important:
“Could anyone else have done this task at least 80% as well as me?”
If the answer is yes, then delegate it.
For me, there are very, very few things that someone else couldn’t do 80% as well. Most of what only I should do boils down to writing. Anything else in my workflow someone could likely handle for me to give me more writing time, so I’ve been putting more of an emphasis on that.
The truth is that if you’re a knowledge worker, and if you’re making money, you need to create as much space for that knowledge work to happen as possible. And that means not doing digital things like checking email, messing with WordPress, formatting articles, etc. but also physical things like getting groceries and driving.
One thing I’ve realized is that procrastination is usually a symptom of something else. It could be that your goals are insufficiently motivating (you don’t care about them or they aren’t urgent enough), or it could be that you’re burned out.
If it’s a goal problem, then you just need to set better goals. They should be big enough to inspire action and a sense of urgency, but not so big that you get intimidated out of action, or don’t know how to take action.
If it’s a burnout problem, then just take a break and go for a walk, or move to the next part of your order. I can rarely focus in one place for more than 3 hours, so I make sure that I have sufficient breaks to allow for relaxation whenever that burnout procrastination starts to kick in.
Your best ideas won’t come to you while you’re trying to come up with good ideas. They’ll come to you when you’re not focused on them, and when your subconscious mind is mulling over what you were working on before and then suddenly spits out something brilliant. This could be in the shower, while you’re falling asleep, while you’re walking places, or any other time where your mind is only partially actively engaged.
For me, those times tend to be while I’m walking (I try to walk 2+ miles a day minimum), longboarding, showering, rock climbing, weight lifting, or in the sauna. And my day is structured to give me as many of those “passive thinking” periods as possible, spaced between chunks of work.
Get in the habit of “priming” your mind before you enter any passive thinking state. Present it with a creative problem you’re trying to solve, and the information and ideas you already have, then go for the walk or whatever else you’re planning on doing. You’ll frequently find that without consciously trying to solve the problem, a few ideas will pop up seemingly out of nowhere.
And if you aren’t currently taking a good chunk of your day for walking, exercising, relaxing, etc. then cut out some of those work hours to provide the space for these sudden realizations to occur.
I have my high-level macro goal that I’m working towards (finishing the book draft), but then on a weekly basis, I set a micro goal and bet $250 on it using Go Fucking Do It.
The stake helps make sure that I hit my goal, and I find that a week is the perfect amount of time to feel urgent, but not to overestimate or underestimate how much I can get done. You’ll find that you frequently overestimate what you can do in a day, but underestimate what you can do in a month or year, so a week is a good medium.
But the bigger benefit to this stake is that it forces me to not focus on anything else but the main goal. I have a Trello board 100+ items long of stuff I want to do with Programming for Marketers and this site, but they don’t contribute to the big goal. Without a deadline and money on the line, it’d be easy to pitter away the time feeling like I’m getting things done, but without making any real progress.
Having one clear goal, and attaching the stake to it so you don’t work on anything else helps significantly.
This might be a lot to implement at once, depending on your work schedule. If you have to have meetings and calls, for example, you could start by batching them to every other day, or only on one day of the week.
It might be easier to implement too if you start with one day where you follow a schedule like this, and then slowly extend that schedule to the other days of the week.
But as with everything, you have to test it for yourself and see what works and what doesn’t.
How about you, has there been anything non-obvious that you’ve found to help with creative output when it’s removed?