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DON'T Look at the Time!

Becoming a productive creative.

Ever heard the term "well-oiled machine?" I'm sure most of us have at some point in our careers, but how should we oil that machine? It is the intent of this post to get your own gears turning on what might work for you regarding creative productivity.

Why Did I Do This?

At the center of every good small business are a set of values and a process for growth. T.DC uses a very helpful guide for this called E.O.S. With EOS each quarter we are tasked with completing "rocks" (small tasks that help the internal growth of a company). The suggestion of time management training came up as one of my third-quarter "rocks" so I scoured the internet to find what worked best for me to create a well-rounded curriculum.

Setting the Record Straight

Let me go ahead and save you a whole bunch of time...

  1. If you're looking for 10 easy steps to boost your time management skills stop reading, Google gives you 2,610,000,000 results, and if you have never tried a to-do list, GROW UP! There is no excuse for you being a professional and not utilizing one. Most of the resources you will find online will start there and end with a link to the scheduling software they are an affiliate marketer for. What we need is a way to check off boxes faster than we create them.

  2. Yes, you are ADD/ADHD, and we get it. That makes things difficult. Even if you don't have a formal diagnosis you have spent the last 12 years scrolling through an endless feed of pictures, comments, and cat videos that make it very hard to hold concentration on anything for more than 2-3 seconds. We are all experiencing this neuro-rewiring, so try to listen up for some guidance.

  3. Resistance to productivity is insidious. If you get anything at all from reading this article, know that we have all experienced creative blocks but putting things off is a finger in the dam. The flood of passive-aggressive emails is bound to breach so the worst thing you can do is nothing at all.

Time Management vs. Attention Management

Time management can be a very important tool but won't ever get you to a productivity utopia. You can only shorten so many meetings or create so many calendar amendments before you're back to square one with the rest of us. How can I get more done? The hard truth is you probably can't. The key to productivity is really attention management.

Strategically gearing our focus on the (MIT) Most Important Task is pivotal to creating a working balance in our creative bubbles. Prioritize projects and people that matter rather than keeping a running balance of how much time you have wasted.

Half of this is trusting your gut. If your alarm goes off don't wait for a nice little block to turn green on your calendar. Reschedule something that is not your MIT, people would prefer you reschedule a meeting once than come to it with something lackluster. Getting to a place where you can catch your breath is achievable.

The other half is being strategic about what order you do things, who you do them for, and when is the right time to do them. Since days and projects vary, having a one size fits all routine may not be your best bet. Thinking about what you have coming up tomorrow is a job that needs to be done today.

Expectations are Preconceived Resentments (and Time Wasters)

Goal-setting is great but sometimes we often set unrealistic expectations of ourselves because the creative process takes left turns. If I'm expecting I get 4 graphics created in the day my thought process is as follows:

  1. I will spend 2 hours on each graphic totaling 8 hours!

  2. I need to create a graphic for kids, one for teens, one for business people, one for teachers

  3. I'll start with the kids because that seems like the most fun and I'll ride the creativity wave from there

  4. Let's see, how old are these kids I'm marketing to?

  5. I should send an email to X and find out the age of the kids.

  6. They're not answering, I'll check and see what I can find out on their website.

  7. They look 12-15 but I'm noticing they have a large Latinx population represented.

  8. I should email X to see if they considered running an ad in Spanish

  9. Oh crap, I have 30 min left for this one!

  10. How am I ever going to get this done?

  11. This was supposed to be the fun one, what are the other ones going to be like?

  12. Let me readjust my calendar.

I think you get the point. Morale and time are wasted in the obsession with time management. When we get to this impasse it is important to switch focus to attention management. When self-doubt becomes a distraction, stop asking the question, "When will I get this done?" and start asking the question, "Why am I doing this in the first place?" I find the answer is usually along the lines of helping someone and it is much easier for me to return back to work. This mental switch tells me productivity pains are usually attributed to a lack of motivation rather than a lack of efficiency.

Time Attention Heals All Wounds

If you are like 99% of creatives then you know the system of "yuck tasks", "yum tasks", and "meh, whatever tasks." Even if we slap lipstick on the pig we are going to dread some tasks and have back-burner projects. Some articles say do the most exciting task first so the creativity spills over into your yuck task. When I read that, Maury Povich's lie detector went off in my head. There is little hope for the yuck task because I keep thinking back to the yum task. Other articles say offer yourself small rewards throughout the yuck task. To me, that's like taking sips of orange juice while brushing my teeth, I'm not really enjoying either. The system that I have found that is the most effective for a productive day is as follows:

  1. Answer any alarms (MIT)

  2. Do your Meh, Whatever (Emails)

  3. Do your Yuck (Scour 17,000,000 stock photos for 3)

  4. Do your Yum (Illustrator & Photoshop)

Using this method, I have found I am able to effectively ward off calamity, get others what they need for their MITs, knock out the yuck, and end the day with a yummy dessert. I find that ending the day on a creative swing gets me excited about returning the next day to finish.

Where Creativity and Productivity Clash

Productivity simply means streamlining focus. In order to be productive, you have to turn a filter on in your brain to keep the distraction squirrels out. "Squirreling out" can cause a huge time suck and make an analytical project take twice as long. Creativity, on the other hand, requires that you embrace new ideas. When designing, I need my attention filters to be turned off so that inspiration can freely flow. 90% of the time the designs I create don't come out looking like I had originally planned them, distraction had solved the problem, but that's what makes them so unique to the client.

So, how are creatives expected to meet stringent deadlines and still knock out analytical work? The answer can be as simple as answering the question when. Identifying your circadian rhythm and scheduling tasks around when you are at peak alertness can yield powerful results. Science tells us we are typically the aptest to take on heavy thinking projects 1-4 hours after we wake up and 30-60 minutes after eating a meal. Notice the order of your tasks for the day or week and plan to get your analytical tasks around peak cognition times. Creativity can take up the second half of the day when your attention filters have worn off. Allow these times to be freeform and natural to your creative process. An added benefit to structuring your day this way is you open yourself to the possibility of inspiration striking you through your analytical work. I find myself making notes of concepts and patterns that form through analytical thinking.

Another way to approach this same Creativity vs Productivity clash is by structuring out your week rather than your day. Some creatives find it useful to allocate 3 days of the week to only performing creative tasks and allow 2 days for meetings, yuck tasks, and analytical work. I find that mixing my day rather than my week gives me more variety, flexibility, and analytical work doesn't pile up.

In summation

If you are tracking your time, do it strategically. Use hours spent as a guide so that you can bill, estimate, and quote your work at a higher accuracy. Overanalyzation of hours spent for the sake of "time management" has been proven less effective than attention management. First, structure your day, week, and month to make sure your MIT always comes first. Second, try changing up the order of your tasks to account for your circadian rythem. And finally, give yourself a break at the end of your day for the fun and creativity your so passionate about.

If you made it to the end of this article, I'm glad. My productivity was not in vain! And, if you switched to 10 Easy Steps for Highly Successful People, let the rest of us know how amazing the Laguardia Airport Convention Center timeshare pitch was. We will be managing our attention to that accordingly.


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