Corporate culture talks incessantly about time management and productivity….which is exactly why I have avoided both of these concepts like the plague. As a bona fide free spirit, I run away screaming from anything that smacks of “other people telling me what to do, how much to do, and when to do it.” I contend that I am supposed to be late for most things, that daydreaming is a perfectly valid use of the hours between 9 and 5, and that the concept of “working through lunch” should be added to the list of cardinal sins.
But here’s the thing: as a creative person, I have work that I am passionate about putting out there. And I have found that a life of disorganized chaos does not exactly help me share my gifts with the world. Nor does flying by the seat of my pants during meetings with clients simply because I have not taken time to prepare my best presentation (or any at all).
So as with most things in life, I have tried to find a middle ground. I refer to “time management” as “time-crafting,” since knowing how to make proper use of our time and energy is such a learned skill. I’ll share with you a few of the not-so-rigid but still helpful strategies I’ve developed for creating some structure, granola-style:
- See routines as rituals. Showering, eating breakfast, meditating, journaling, setting up your workstation…honor whatever mundane steps you take to enter your “work zone” by repeating them each day, with intention. See those tasks as the portals into your working time, and create similar rituals that represent quitting time. It might seem like a spirit-killer, but routine allows us to build a scaffold (supportive structure) for the intense, important work that life is. When you create and follow a daily routine, you actually aid the creative process by signaling to your brain that there is space for flow to occur. After a few days, your brain realizes that it doesn’t have to think so hard to make it to that point. No more low-riding anxiety about what to do next, whether you’re late, or if somethiing is falling through the cracks. All the mental energy that would usually be wasted on that anxiety can now be channeled directly into your work.
- Honor work time…and limit it. I work in an office that is literally next door to my home, and for a while my children were in the habit of dropping by to chat while I was working. Great for work-life balance, except that no work would actually get done. There is a certain mental space that we need to enter in order to start churning out the good stuff. We have to commit to staying put and focused until we get there. Sit down and get started, even if it feels like you’re just going through the motions (you can even view this as a “starting ritual”). Work in time blocks that make sense for your life, and absolutely devote that time to work. Once that block is over, get up and call it quits. But while you are there, be fully there. I told my kids that the two hour block between 10am and 12noon (my brain’s natural “power hours”) were off limits for visits, so I could dive fully into that uninterrupted mental space. But I also had to tell myself that no coffee breaks, phone calls, email checks, or random wanderings out into nature could happen during that time either (I know, I know…that seems impossible). After 12 o’clock, though, I honored the deal and gave my brain and body the distractions they were craving.
- Creative work first. While it’s tempting to check your email, social media, or messages first thing in the morning, let those things wait while you jump into at least an hour of creative work right away. Block it out on your calendar, and let everyone know that you create first, respond second. Let this be your anchor for the rest of the day, with all other task-y things filling in the space around your sacred creative process (and not the other way around). Nothing sends a signal to the Universe (and your brain) more strongly than your actions. So if your creative work is most important to you, do it first. Resist the temptation to wait until all other fires have been put out before you sit down to create.
- 3 priorities a week. We creatives want to save the world. So we sign up for everything, and end up overwhelmed and not doing our best work (if any gets done at all). Thank you for being awesome enough to take on everything. AND…you need to stop it. You will realistically be able to accomplish about three important things a week (less if you have other major obligations like a family to care for, or if any of your important things is a huge project). So although your to-do list may contain 50 items (and don’t we love the adrenaline rush of checking things off the to-do list?), please do yourself a favor and pick 3 to focus on this week. That’s for the week, not the day. You will save yourself much guilt and stress by eliminating any ridiculously high expectations.
- Bad is good enough. It’s our vision of a finished project that motivates us to start it. And ironically, it’s that same vision of a finished project that can keep us from starting it. There’s a step that has to happen after our initial vision, and if we skip this step then we end up procrastinating or never getting around to the project. The step is this: become okay with your work sucking at first. It’s just a hump we all have to get over, a part of the creative process that is tough but necessary to endure. That first draft is going to suck. That initial sketch will be all wrong. The original prototype will fail. Your whole project will be a hot mess. Until it’s not. Recognize the value in getting started on something, even if it turns out lame, since that’s the only road toward that perfect, finished project that you have in mind.
- Small blocks, big blocks. When you can schedule a large block of work time for yourself, great. But on many days, life has other plans and we are left with thirty minutes here, forty minutes there, and maybe some unexpected and unplanned work time freed up by a cancellation or change in schedule. This can cause anxiety, as we get this nagging feeling that we should be doing something with this time but none of our work seems like it can fit into that tiny little time window. We tell ourselves, ‘What’s the point in even starting now, if I’m not going to be able to finish it?’ Rubbish. Get started, and in that next little twenty or thirty minute window, pick it up again and continue. Before you know it, those 5 little blocks of time have added up to two hours’ worth of progress on your work. You don’t always need an 8-hour block of time to be productive. Yes, we lose some momentum with this kind of disjointed working, but it’s still better than just checking Facebook for thirty minutes three times a day.
I hope these tips help. If you have your own time-crafting techniques you’d like to share, please post below. A happy, productive day to you! 🙂