We’re living in an age where our resource for focused, undistracted creative time is being threatened!
There is a fierce assault on our attention all day every day with a steady barrage of rings, pings, dings, pops, clicks and buzzes.
We feel the enormous pressure to be always connected and available 24/7.
Leading to my belief that 2017 is the hardest time for a creative person to do creative work.
One could argue that it’s the easiest! With the many opportunities and resources for creative work that the internet has made possible, how could it not be?
Though, even with all the resources at our fingertips we still end up wrestling with our inability to focus on one important task for an extended period.
Multitasking habits, compulsively scrolling through social media sites, and reactive “knee-jerk” impulses to texts and email kill our attention span.
I have struggled with these distractions for far too long, and if you’re reading this right now, I’m sure you have too.
Initially, I set out to write this as a personal manifesto that I could use to get my butt in gear, but the more I researched and wrote the more I realized how many folks have these same problems.
I have found the following mini-strategies to be most useful in my life when building new habits that foster creative work and artistic growth.
I urge you to test the following in your life to find what works for you and your unique creative process and workflow!
(Related Reading; 20 Daily Practices That Inspire Creative Thought)
Determine Your Priorities
Sit down with a pen and paper and determine what your priorities are.
It sounds simple and in theory, it is, but in practice, it poses some hard to answer questions.
Writing down all your goals no matter how big or small on one piece of paper helps to visualize them.
Most of us have big plans to do all sorts of projects, but at the end of the day take no action for the simple reason of being overwhelmed on where to begin.
It’s so easy for the hustle of life to take over and rob us of our dreams.
The overwhelm creates a paralysis of creative pursuits.
Your creative goals deserve to be prioritized!
Without concrete goals, you’ll never develop concrete plans to achieve them.
Once you have written out your goals, ask yourself which one inspires and motivates you the most.
If possible, I would recommend choosing the most manageable and realistic goal.
Try not to choose a behemoth project off the bat.
Take baby steps in building the discipline and creative confidence.
Start by breaking your project down into various phases.
Take it a step further by making small and actionable steps to get your project rolling.
Make the steps dead simple to get the ball rolling and to build momentum.
Keep the long view in view. Write down your current goal on a sticky note and post it somewhere near your workstation. I love this trick, and I find it helps to keep the big picture in view.
Life is busy, but without priorities, for our meaningful creative work we end up full of regret and wishing we had done more when we had the chance.
It’s easy for life to take the reins and take control of your time.
Setting your priorities is the first step in putting your foot down and taking control of your life and what you want out of it.
Define What Success Looks Like
“Success to me is, “Yep, holds water. Someone else might dig this. I sidestep my ego to really look at this, and it still does not suck too hard.” Wrap your knuckles on the hood and send it out into the light of day.” - Henry Rollins
Determining priorities dovetails nicely into defining success.
Going into a project with a clear vision of what the finish line looks like is crucial for using time efficiently and keeping your eyes on the prize.
For too long I was diving into creative projects like making music without a clear idea of how the song would sound in the end.
I didn’t have a “checklist” so to speak of, as to what I wanted the music to accomplish.
After contemplation of the intention of the music, the creative decision-making process became much more simplistic and less hindered.
It’s a bit like creating a mission statement for the undertaking.
Try laying out in point form anything you would like to see, hear and feel from your work.
Refer back to the note on a regular basis to check in on your direction.
The picture of success might change as you move along. That’s okay.
Pivot and reimagine as you go along.
Block Out Time
Gaining clarity is a great first step to getting down to some creative work, but now we get into the meat and potatoes.
At the start of each week sit down and review your calendar.
Take inventory of the obligations for that week and tasks that you need to complete.
Schedule blocks of time where to be dedicated to the project that you aim to complete.
It is of utmost importance that you stick to the schedule that you make for yourself.
Treat the blocks of creative time like an important appointment that you cannot miss.
Value your time and resist moving your schedule around to accommodate other people or other demands of your time.
The prioritization step helps to assess the project you’ll be working on, so ideally you’ll be working on one project during these dedicated blocks of time and not spread across a bunch of projects.
The quality of work that you produce is determined by the quality of time that you dedicate in these blocks of time.
Focused, uninterrupted work will be the best and most productive. I’ve heard this referred to as ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport.
Deep Work defined.
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (Source; Deep Work And Why It Matters)
Check out this inspiring Ted talk Cal did on the merits of deep work.
Let’s make some rules for getting into the deep work flow.
Making rules doesn’t sound like much fun, but I assure you it’s a necessary part of getting valuable work done when in your creative work block.
I believe that a certain amount of spontaneity needs to be allowed for those moments of creative freedom.
Though, personally and through research from this post, I have learned that setting restrictions on yourself is a great practice to get consistently deep work done.
I have rules for before sitting down to work and when I’m at work. I’ve broken them down into the pre-work rules and during work rules. Check them out:
- If possible, get outside for some fresh air and a short walk
- Have water/coffee ready and next to workspace
- Don’t be hungry. Eat a meal or small snack
- Go to the washroom before sitting down
- Clear workspace of clutter
- Work at a time that people aren’t likely to contact you. Early morning or late night works best. I prefer early morning because I haven’t entered the ‘reactive’ mode of the day yet, which is responding to texts, emails, calls, etc.
- Minimize background noise. Wearing headphones is a decent solution for shared spaces
- Close your email application or disable email notifications if working on a computer
- Close all apps not related to your work if working on a computer
- Phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ and out of the room if possible. At the very least turned face down to avoid the temptation of checking for notifications.
During Work Rules:
- No social media sites
- No web surfing in general
- Close all apps not related to your work if working on a computer
- Take breaks regularly. I try to work in 25 min intervals and then take a 5 min break to hit the reset button. The technique I’m referring to is called ‘pomodoros.' Each 25 min work chunk is one Pomodoro. The mind can stay focused easier with regular 5 min breaks take the mind off the task at hand.
- Avoid checking external devices during breaks.
These rules might seem like a lot, especially for the pre-work routine. On paper, it sounds like they might be a chore, but I find the rules become part of my daily work routine and in a short time, they become second nature.
And of course, these rules are not set in stone. They are merely a system that I have found works for me and my workflow. I urge you try to try them out and find what works for you!
Deadlines are your friend when working on any creative project.
They might not always seem like a good friend, but I think of them as the friend that always keeps it real and shoots it to you straight. It’s tough love.
If you have laid out your priorities and broken the project down into smaller segments/tasks, it will be relatively easy to see what you have to do and set deadlines to those tasks.
Knowing what the finished product of the project looks like is another key ingredient for estimating deadlines.
Setting realistic deadlines that aren’t too daunting and creatively squashing is the aim.
Firstly, set your deadlines by the targeted number of days or hours that you believe it will take to complete your task.
Don’t make deadlines unrealistic by making them too short, which in return may stunt the potential of your work.
On the other hand, don’t make your deadlines too cushy because then you’ll procrastinate and again, your best work will be stunted.
Find that happy medium to allow creative spontaneity, but challenges your organization and prioritization skills.
A project management tool that I love is Airtable.com, and it has an excellent user interface and integration with Dropbox.
Get Up Early/Train Yourself To Be An Early Riser
If you were to get up one hour earlier each day, you would have an extra 15 days of consciousness a year. (Source, Lifehack)
When it’s laid out like that, it makes you realize how much time we lose sleeping. That’s an extra 15 days making art each year!
I know that a lot of creative types aren’t much for the morning and I wouldn’t consider myself an early riser or morning person until I trained myself to wake up earlier.
You might love sleep, and I don’t blame you, so do I! It’s an important thing to prioritize, and I’m not suggesting you get less of it by any means.
I’m going to lay out some great tips that worked for me in my quest to wake up earlier, but before I do that, I would like to lay out some the benefits of waking up early.
The benefits of getting up early:
- It’s quiet. When you’re up before everyone else, you can get work done undisturbed.
- Your mind and body are fresh to take on significant challenges.
- Time to get organized
- The organization and planning benefit leads to better productivity
- More time in the day. Have you ever wished there was more time in the day? These are those extra hours.
- A sense of accomplishment before you’ve had lunch.
I understand that everyone is different and some work schedules or circadian rhythms don’t groove with the morning, but with consistent practice, one can rewire their clock to get more out of the day.
Here some suggestions to getting that early start:
- Go to bed earlier and try to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night
- Try not looking at your phone right before going to bed. The light from the screen stimulates the brain and can put off sleep.
- Sleep with your phone outside of the bedroom. Less temptation to check messages before bed or first thing in the morning. Studies have shown that this improves sleep quality dramatically.
- Put the alarm clock on the other side of the room. Forces you out of bed to turn it off.
- Take it slow. Wake up earlier incrementally 30 min at a time.
- Make a bedtime drink concoction. My go-to is camomile tea with 1 tbsp of raw honey and 1tbsp of apple cider vinegar. About 20-30 min after drinking I’m ready to snooze.
- Shower, eat a light breakfast and have a coffee
- Do some exercises. After 20 push ups, my blood is pumping, and I’m wide awake.
Get excited about waking up early. It becomes fun once you get in the routine. What’s better than waking up to coffee, food and being creative?
For some extra motivation. Jocko Willink is an ex-Navy Seal, and he gets at 4:30 am every day.
Hang Out With People That Have Similar Goals
“You are the average of the five people you most associate with.” - Tim Ferriss (Source; Tech Insider)
The above quote is a piece of advice that tech investor, human guinea pig, Tim Ferriss received as a teenager from the world-famous motivational speaker, Tony Robbins.
The rule suggests that the five people you most closely associate with shape the person you are.
I find this to be a fascinating piece of advice and how Tim uses the information is even more interesting.
Depending on whether or not the goal is creative, physical, financial or spiritual Tim will surround himself with people that excel in that particular area.
He will shift his group contingent on the goal he’s trying to achieve.
Through the power of osmosis, Tim absorbs information from experienced experts and observes their way of being.
In my personal experience, I find this works! It’s a hugely inspirational feeling to talk with peers about our creative tasks whether it be music, video, visual art or writing, etc.
Not only do I learn new techniques and philosophies to expand my horizons creatively and technically.
If you’re new to the arts or a location Industry events can be a great place to meet like-minded folks and future collaborators.
Make Notes For Your Next Session
Maybe you’re a diligent note taker, or maybe you’re not.
That’s okay because this technique is easy enough for even the worst of note takers.
Simply, take notes on what you want to complete the next time you sit down to work.
Do this at the end of your session when the thoughts are on the mind.
Keep a small notepad and pen at your workspace for convenience.
There are benefits to digital note taking. Aside from environmental, it is good to have your notes in the cloud for perpetual access.
I like that I can add to a note of ideas when I’m out and about.
I recommend Evernote for digital note taking. It’s really easy to upload files for reference, and the search features are amazing.
A photo containing text can be searched as keywords in Evernote. Very cool!
Don’t give in to the constant pull for attention by the noisy world around us.
We need to train our minds to tune out the noise if we ever want to make something that transcends our short existence on Earth.
Disconnect, head down, focus, do great work.
Recommended reading: The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield.
I use this little book as a manifesto of sorts. It’s a short read and is almost pocket book size.
The War Of Art is full of reminders on creative discipline and mindful notes to fight resistance (aka procrastination).
Thank you for reading! I hope you’ve been able to take away some ideas to help carve out more creative time for yourself.
Are there any strategies that you use to get great work done consistently? I’d love to hear what they are.
Leave a comment in the comments section below!