Start by creating a rock-solid habit. 99U director Jocelyn Glei offers these advice:
- When you start work, do whatever you consider most important. Leave activities like responding to email until after you finish the day’s crucial tasks.
- “Jump-start your creativity”– Set up cues like playing the same music consistently or structuring your work area in a productive way to help you prepare for work.
- “Feel the frequency”– Commit to working on long-range assignments regularly to build your forward momentum.
- “Pulse and pause”– Alternate systematically between expending energy and recharging. Focus on your work during 90-minute sessions, and then take a break.
- “Get lonely”– To enhance your serenity, focus and energy, establish a practice of seeking some time in solitude every day.
- “Don’t wait for moods”– Work no matter how you feel. Being productive will put you in the mood to be productive.
“Honing Your Creative Practice”
Seth Godin, best-selling author of Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us and The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (And When to Stick) and many other titles, believes creative people must embrace their own “idiosyncrasies” to figure out the work habits that fit them best. He embraces the idea of a “practice” built on repeatable, productive, disciplined work habits.
“When we focus on fulfilling our core needs and helping others do the same, we feel more satisfied and, consequently, are more effective.”
Godin urges creative workers to be especially ambitious and dedicated even when they don’t feel like working. What distinguishes between your work and “your hobby,” Godin says, is that your emotions don’t dictate when you work and when you don’t.
Fear is often the main reason people may find themselves able to take on short-term projects, but unable to build a successful creative career over the long term. A person who makes a wonderful short film but proves unable to raise the funds to make a full-length feature, for example, may suffer from “self-sabotage.”
“Block off a substantial chunk of time, most days of the week, for applying sustained focus to your most important creative tasks.”
Perhaps you “feel like a fraud” when you present yourself to the world as a person capable of doing a superb job on a difficult project. This is scary, because people may criticize you. You’re making yourself visible to people who know and understand the world in which you want to succeed. You might fear that they’ll see through you.
“We are losing the distinction between urgent and important…It’s easier to do the trivial things that are ‘urgent’ than it is to do the important things.”
Learn to tune out such messages; they’re just “noise in your head” urging you to believe you can’t succeed. Beware of perfectionism: It can be an unconscious tactic to paralyze yourself.
“Finding Focus in a Distracted World”
In 1971, social science expert Herbert Simon pointed out that information devours the concentration of those who receive it. A plentiful supply of information “creates a poverty of attention.” Since the time Simon summarized this dilemma, the demands on your attention have exploded due to the popularity of social media and the ubiquity of smartphones.
Curate “who you follow on social media. You’re letting those people into your brain and they’re going to influence your thoughts.”
In a world that makes so many demands, your focused attention is the source of your competitive edge. To protect it, consider these ideas:
- “Defend your creative time”– Structure your time so you can work without interruption. Your unbroken, focused blocks of time are as important as any business commitment.
- “Focus when you’re fresh”– Work on important tasks that require concentration at the beginning of your workday. Your ability to concentrate declines later in the day. Save that time for emails and for mundane tasks and chores.
- “Kill the background noise”– Turn off your phone and online social media. Log off from any other distractions when you work.
- “Give your brain a break”– During your uninterrupted work time, switch between difficult and easy tasks to give your brain an opportunity to recuperate.
- “Tap into transitional movements”– To open yourself to new opportunities to work and think, don’t check your smartphone when you unexpectedly have a break.
“Taming Your Tools”
Kevin Kelly, who co-founded WIRED magazine, notes that new technologies can have downsides. The more apparent a new technology’s benefits are, the greater the potential it offers for misuse. Most working people maintain an ambiguous relationship with technology. The demands technology makes might overwhelm you. You may suffer a constant temptation to post everything you think your friends would like. This is a common and toxic disruption of focus and work momentum.
“Being friendly while standing in line for coffee at a conference might lead to a conversation, a business card exchange and the first investment in your company a few months later.”
To manage your relationship with technology:
- “Keep the long view in view”– Post your most difficult, long-term goals on your computer to keep them uppermost in your mind as you decide what you need to do next.
- “Be conscious of your bandwidth”– Ignore certain topics in your email and on social media. You will always find more things to pay attention to than you can heed or respond to productively.
- “Check yourself or wreck yourself”– Differentiate between what you do consciously and what you do as a result of an addiction. Does the brief, positive hit of dopamine you receive from a “Like” rule your day, and distract you from important tasks? If so, that behavior, however benign it might appear, is addictive.
- “Hit the rest button”– Periodically disconnect from all media – online, on-air, on your phone – to give your mind a rest and create a chance for a fresh take.
- “Don’t hold your breath”– Cultivate an appreciation of your body. Pay attention to your breath to make yourself calmer and allow yourself to think more clearly. To help you learn to breathe, perform yoga, meditate or try contemplative stretching.
- “In imagination we trust”– Your emotions are more perceptive than you may believe. Pay more attention to your intuition and gut feelings than to technology.
“Sharpening Your Creative Mind”
Executing important tasks can require a lot of hard work every day. Remember that you can’t resolve every issue by sheer willpower. Provide yourself with ample time for recreation, rest and non-goal-related activities.
“The most successful creative minds consistently lay the groundwork for ideas to germinate and evolve.”
Though this seems counterintuitive, time away from work fuels your energy and focus. Getting away from your tasks and from applying willpower can provide the inspiration to develop your thoughts and to start new initiatives.
Get out of your rut of habits, explore unrelated activities, stop criticizing yourself and restrain yourself from seeking perfection. Most people use their creativity only to earn their living.
“Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done.”
However, work tasks should constitute just a small portion of your true capabilities. To achieve outstanding results, strive to serve your most important audience: yourself.
To that end, consider these strategies:
- “Practice unnecessary creation”– Whether your own creative projects bring you income or not, work on them to use your talents and explore new interests.
- “Wonder lonely as a cloud”– Give yourself time to daydream when you face an obstacle you can’t resolve. Backing off from difficult subjects allows you to tap into your subconscious to find solutions you didn’t know existed.
- “Define ‘finished from the start’”– Decide when you begin a project what your finished result will look like. That will prevent you from making impossible demands on yourself that can block you from ever finishing.
- “Search for the source”– When you feel insufficient inspiration, don’t criticize your lack of capability. You could be facing other problems that cloud your perception. Try to identify the issues that could be worrying and distracting you. Take what steps you can to resolve them and be determined that they won’t thwart you.
- “Love your limitations”– Accept your constraints as an advantage rather than an obstacle. Your ability to identify and overcome limitations can unleash your creativity, energy and inspiration.
Setting Out on the Journey
When you’re young, you may have only a few skills to draw on when you begin an endeavor. You might get scared, and that anxiety might make you stumble.
“Screen apnea is the temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while sitting in front of a screen, whether a computer, a mobile device or a television.”
As you grow into being a professional who works through various moods and ignores anxiety, you’ll become stronger and more productive. Yet no one gains expertise overnight.
Develop a working rhythm. In the beginning, that could mean sitting and working for an unbroken hour. A lot of people can’t manage even that. You may find that an hour of pure focus makes you restless and distracted. If so, work up to an hour in smaller increments.
“With one eye on our gadgets, we’re unable to give our full attention to who and what is in front of us…we miss out on the details of our lives, ironically, while responding to our fear of missing out.”
Make sure that you focus only on work for whatever time increments function best for you. After you are able to work with focus for one-hour periods during a day, try to maintain that steady rhythm of focus and productivity for several days.
If doubt clouds your focus and you wonder if you could ever complete a project that could interest another person – like a piece of writing or art – stop for a moment of learning and consideration. The process of mastering your craft also helps you learn how to control your feelings rather than being controlled by them, helps you prevent yourself from stumbling and helps you focus on the virtues of persistence.
“An optimist [can] keep 50, a hundred or even a thousand e-mails hovering in their inbox in the hopes that, someday soon, they’ll get a chance to give each opportunity the precious time that it deserves.”
When you complete a project, you might feel inner reluctance about taking up the next challenge. That’s natural, and you might need a brief rest.
However, if you indulge it, this resistance can prevent you from achieving your potential and acting in a masterful manner. After an interval of positive reflection, during which you accept praise from yourself and others, tackle the next task, no matter how daunting it seems.
“We are constantly forced to juggle tasks and battle unwanted distractions.”
As you become a professional, continue to persevere at your vocation no matter how you feel on any given day or what happens around you. Professionals grow only more youthful and more innocent as they become more skilled. You might find that transformation puzzling, but without a sense of wonder about your work, continually pressing ahead becomes more difficult.
“We must learn to be creative amidst chaos.”
If you manage your work systematically, your emotions surrounding your own excellence will grow less complicated over time. Paradoxically, you will become more professional when you give up control and let your craft command you. This is not an easy path, but it is the most certain path to success and self-actualization.