How To Productively Manage Your Creative Work

Last week I expanded on some of the reasons I find it difficult to fit creative work into a productivity system given the fuzzy nature of creative work as well as my own peculiarities in how I work best.

My default settings, the way I naturally work, doesn’t always lend themselves to productivity systems and apps. For me it all comes down to the different energy levels I need for certain work and how much energy I tend to have at different times of the day.

However, I did close last week’s post saying I think you can increase the productive output of your creative work. You can get more creative work done by managing it, but I think it takes a somewhat different kind of management.

Break Down Your Creative Process

My creative process goes through three major stages. There’s the actual creative work, there’s planning prior to the creative work, and there’s refining the work after the first attempt.

Most of my work is writing and I can break my writing process down a little more. It usually follows these five steps in order.

  1. Choose an idea
  2. Outline and make notes
  3. Write a draft
  4. Edit the draft
  5. Proof and polish the edited draft

I can break some of these steps down even further, but these five steps are enough for the point I want to make. Each of these stages of my writing process requires a different kind of energy. I need less energy to proof something than I do to edit it or write the original draft.

My guess is if you break down your creative processes, you’ll find something similar. Different parts of the process have different requirements of your mental energy and focus. I also think you’ll find your process isn’t all 100% creative steps, but rather a mix of creative tasks and not-so-creative tasks.

Like I said, I can break down parts of my writing process even further, but it’s still the same in that the different parts have different requirements for how much energy and focus I need in order to work on them.

Manage Energy Levels Throughout the Day

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the same energy from morning till night and I find I can’t sustain any one type of mental energy for the entire day.

I’m not what you call a morning person in that no matter what time I wake up, it’s going to be a little while before I can function anywhere remotely near my peak. My energy and focus are minimal to start the day.

If I have some busy work, I can usually ease into it shortly after my first sip of coffee, and in this way I can be productive before I’ve built up the energy and focus I need for other things.

I realize I’m making another assumption, but I’d be willing to bet you have similar low energy points throughout the day. Maybe not first thing, but you probably work better at certain times of day than others.

Last week I mentioned that I struggle to get back to work after lunch. It’s another low focus time for me. On the other hand mid-morning is usually the time I have the most mental energy. Coffee, morning exercise, and breakfast will have all kicked in and I’m raring to go.

I think the key to work more efficiently and productively throughout the day is to match the energy requirements of your work with the energy levels you have.

Scheduling work around energy levels this way is great provided you have enough tasks to match your daily ebb and flow of focus. That isn’t always the case, which is why I think you need to plan longer term when it comes to your work.

Think Longer Term

Let me begin this section with a caveat. What I’m going to suggest requires that you know or can plan your work several months in advance. That’s not always possible. Sometimes you receive a project on Monday and have to finish it by the Wednesday of the following week. Where you have more flexibility though, I think what I describe in this section can help you be more productive.

It’s easier to balance your work with your daily energy levels when you include more projects over longer time frames.

A given project may all require one type of energy that you can only muster for a couple of hours a day at most. If it’s your only project, you’ll likely end up working a lot of hours at less than your best.

If you consider a second, third, and fourth project at the same time, each with their various energy level tasks, you can more easily find a balance between the work you have to do and the energy you typically have throughout the day. You can better maximize your efficiency from day to day.

Thinking about your work over longer time frames offers you greater flexibility in what you can work on at any time during the day.

Maybe you’re like me and after two hours writing, you generally need to switch to a task with different energy requirements. You could work all day writing if you choose, but realistically you won’t be writing your productive best every minute of the day. Your energy level will likely fall off.

I’d rather spend some of the time working on a task for a different project that meets my energy, even if the project is one I wasn’t planning to start for a few months. When the months have passed, I’ll be ahead of schedule and will have more time for other parts of the project or time to start another project a few months earlier than expected.

Instead of thinking of your work as one project after the next, think of it all as part of the same ongoing process. Don’t spend a week working on the projects for that week. Spend three months working on the projects for the next three months.

I’ll remind you again that I like to work well in advance of deadlines. This post should have an early May 2018 publication date, but I’m writing it in mid January of the same year. Once I finish this series, I’ll take a short break before starting to work on the content I publish over the summer. In the summer I’ll work on the content for the fall and so on.

Working this way, it takes longer to finish any one project, but I find you can finish more projects over the course of several months, allowing you to get even further ahead of schedule. It allows you to shape your daily routine and optimize it.

The flexibility of considering work over longer time frames also allows time for unplanned projects. Once you get ahead of schedule and deadlines aren’t pending, it’s much easier to push something back in order to work on something that suddenly has more priority.

When I work this week on what is due next, I find I can get a week’s worth of work done during the week. When I work this month on what’s due next month, I find I can get the work done with a few extra days to spare. When I work this season on what’s due next season, I find I can finish the work with extra weeks, instead of days, to spare.

Closing Thoughts

Despite the fuzzier nature of creative work, you should be able to break down your overall process into narrower steps or stages and if you’re anything like me, each stage in your process requires a different type of energy and different amount of focus to work your best.

I think the key to finishing more creative work is to understand the energy level the work requires and to match it with the natural energy you have at various times during a typical day. Ideally you’ll have work to fill all your high and low energy moments.

This isn’t always possible if you can think only about one project to the next. It’s easier to balance work and energy when you think about your work over longer time frames. One or two projects may not have enough low focus tasks for every day, but the longer the time frame and the more projects you consider, the more likely you can find a daily balance.

I’ll come back to this topic again in a month or two sharing a few more specifics about how I specifically apply these general ideas to my work. I’ll provide more details and examples for how I try to manage my creative work.

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