How to Get More Creative Work Done in a Day
I’ll do that when I have more time. We all say those words, but what do we really mean by them?
Productivity is hard, but the facts are simple. Every one of us has 24 hours available each day. And whether we realize it or not, we allocate those hours to the activities we value most. So perhaps when we say we need more time, we aren’t discussing time at all. Maybe we know deep down we are ignoring the things we value most. We have fallen into a routine of reacting to life instead of doing the work that matters most.
Reactive or Proactive?
Some jobs are reactive by nature. If you work as a support technician or an air traffic controller, reacting to others in real-time is what makes you successful. But if you are a knowledge worker, success depends on your creative output, and creativity thrives on proactive focus work. If you lose control of your time, you will not finish your work, and your income will be at risk.
It’s not easy for me to make regular daily progress on creative work. Perhaps this is partly because circumstances often dictate that I work with left-over energy. I spend much of my day reacting to life’s demands. After all, if I am in a reactive mode much of the time, how can I expect to be productive? But this is, at least in part, a cop-out.
I can approach my day, regardless of my energy level, with a determined focus on the work that makes a difference. But this is where the energy-level argument is not a cop-out. When I am fatigued, my attention wanders more easily. Still, I can focus my tired mind by managing my environment and knowing my priorities.
Proactivity with Teammates
If you work with a team, consider negotiating an agreement to maintain silent hours. During those times, meetings and interruptions (except for true emergencies) should not interrupt focused work.
If your team’s culture doesn’t allow firm boundaries, consider being more proactive by blocking time on your calendar. Use those times to meet with yourself. Do the work that will move your company forward. As long as you are honest with others about your time management and your schedule facilitates collaboration, this will give you a win. It will boost your output, and what manager doesn’t like that?
Constantly diverting your attention to other people’s agendas will rob you of productivity, but time and space to yourself won’t guarantee worthwhile work. You need to know your goals. Keep them short—a sentence or two. Ideally, set just one goal, but make it count. Our energy dissipates when we divide our attention.
Each evening, spend some time in reflection and planning before you fall asleep. This simple discipline will transform your mornings.
“If you’re bored with life–you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things–you don’t have enough goals.”
Before I go to bed at night, I take a few moments to jot down, by hand, a goal for the next day. That goal stays in my mind, prompting me to get out of bed in the morning. Simple, measurable goals motivate you. If you are a writer, how many words do you plan to write? If you are a software developer, how many features or bug fixes will you complete? If you are in sales, how many calls will you make?
As you adopt a daily goal-setting routine, don’t start with lofty aspirations. Give yourself wins. Build the habit of making promises you are sure you can keep. Then as your goal-setting muscles improve, stretch yourself with specific, measurable goals. Push past your comfort zone.
Any approach you take to goal-setting is better than facing a new day without a plan. Be kind to yourself, but do not let passivity take hold of your work. We are here for a purpose, and we express that purpose through our daily work.
Note: Set just one daily goal, but make it count. One clear daily goal will stop your attention from wandering and allow you to focus. Your drive to succeed will stay strong as you invest your energy where it counts. Avoid social media, email, and easy-but-trivial wins.
Measuring Your Key Performance Indicators
“While a lag measure tells you if you’ve achieved the goal, a lead measure tells you if you are likely to achieve the goal.”
Each day, I look back at the work I produced. Did I achieve my goals today?
Following Donald Miller’s advice in Business Made Simple, I create a weekly scorecard on a whiteboard in my office. I don’t track the results of my work; I measure what I control. Leading indicators are tasks we know will usually get results. Doing more of these things is always a good thing. Just to the right of my workstation is a list of the activities I believe will bring success. As I complete tasks, I record my work on the scorecard.
When I want to push past procrastination, I can turn my head a few inches and get the boost I need.
“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”
— Psalm 90:14 ESV
Start each day with a simple routine that reflects your values. I begin my day with prayer. I need help from God to be effective. Then I read my Bible and a chapter from a book I hope will help me grow.
Before I start working, I evaluate my priorities and plan my work sessions.
Know Your Priorities
“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.”
― Bruce Lee
Keep your work priorities in line with your goals. Donald Miller recommends using a simple one-page document to keep our priorities straight. List the top five priorities of your team along with your five personal primary responsibilities. Sharing your one-pager with your teammates helps align expectations and unlocks more productivity.
For projects that do not include a team, only focus on your priorities. Any work that does not advance your project is a waste of energy, and energy is scarce.
When I have a clear list of priorities, I am more effective and less frustrated. Over time, I can avoid discouragement.
Plan Your Daily Work Sessions
“If you don’t know where you are going,
you’ll end up someplace else.”
― Yogi Berra
Your daily work sessions bring your priorities to life. When you have a simple plan for each work session, you banish any worries from your mind. There is no need to wonder if you are fruitlessly frittering away your time and energy.
Do not use work sessions for tasks like taking your clothes to the dry cleaner or running to the grocery store. We must do those things, but they are not vital to our success. No one lists the punctual completion of such tasks as the reason for their success.
Resist the desire to plan more than four daily work sessions, and keep them under an hour long. Intense focus is exhausting, and short bursts of work followed by rest periods will maintain your energy. Packing your day full will overwhelm and discourage rather than motivate.
Track Your Time
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
— Peter Drucker
Recently, I have been working through The Mastery Journal by John Lee Dumas. A critical piece of his execution strategy is time tracking. He recommends breaking up your daily tasks into four timed work sessions followed by brief rest periods. This method, called the Pomodoro® Technique, was created by Francesco Cirillo. It is so simple as to appear trivial. But it is far from trivial in its impact on productivity.
Before you begin your work session, get clear on your purpose. Let the Pomodoro® timer push you into action. Using this method short-circuits any procrastination that is hiding out in your subconscious. I use this method every day, and it gives my productivity a big boost.
“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”
— Christopher Columbus
Consistent self-control is hard to master. Clear goals and accountability systems reinforce it, but they are not enough on their own. When confronting a task that looks hard, we are easily distracted. Like water flowing downhill, our consciousness seeks the path of least resistance. So even when we intend to write an article, debug a piece of software, or learn a new skill, our minds wander at any invitation.
Sometimes we lie to ourselves. We say, “Maybe just thinking about this problem is better than working on it.” Then, we feel intelligent and stroke our ego. We think we are brave to confront such massive problems.
Be a fanatic about managing distractions. My computer has a Do Not Disturb mode I turn on while I am working. I do not want to let social media get my attention with its barrage of notifications. I love hearing from others and learn a great deal from what they share, but social media must not interrupt my work.
No matter what we do, we can never keep all distractions at bay. Text messages from coworkers, family, and friends can distract us at any time. Rather than blocking these distractions during work sessions, I allow myself to glance at incoming messages. I ask myself, “Is this urgent?” Then, I move on. Almost 100% of the time, the answer is, “No.”
Unless your job requires answering phone calls, ignore them during your focused work sessions. When you call me and get my voicemail prompt, it is because I am working. In my experience, if your message is urgent, you will leave a voicemail message. When my phone notifies me of a voicemail, I skim the transcript and return urgent calls immediately. Otherwise, work comes first.
Does This Really Work?
Yes, this works. It is simple to understand and apply but easily overlooked. When I am frustrated and discouraged, I usually discover I am neglecting this simple practice.
I am fascinated with ideas—complex ones are the best. Mentally turning over a fascinating concept is exhilarating. New insights delight me. That strength is also a weakness. It rarely contributes to getting work done. Some work requires deep reflection and analysis, and I am grateful for work that uses this skill. But I need external systems to hold myself accountable. Otherwise, my most important contributions will lie dormant. Try these ideas. Let me know how they change your life.