On and off throughout the year, I’ve been talking about my struggles with creativity and productivity, specifically about the difficulty fitting creative tasks into a productivity system along with some thoughts for how you might go about it.
Today I want to pick up the topic again and turn the focus toward me and how I specifically manage my productive output using the general ideas I presented back in May. Here’s an overview of what I do.
- Break down my writing process according to the focus and and the mental energy each step requires.
- Schedule daily work based on my typical pattern of energy ebbs and flows throughout the day.
- Schedule weekly work to help me manage ongoing projects and keep me focussed on what I need and want to accomplish.
- Think long term and have more projects open at once to allow for greater flexibility in my short term scheduling.
I’ll cover the first two of these today and continue next week the the last two.
I’ve talked a lot about Getting Things Done (GTD) in this series and I think it’s fair to say quite a bit of what I do follows the general ideas of GTD. I’ve tweaked the system to account for the creative work I do and also in a way that better aligns with how I naturally work.
Still, if you’re familiar with GTD and you’re thinking what I do could be made to work within the Getting Things Done system, it’s not a coincidence and you’re probably right.
Break Down My Process and Projects as Best as I Can
Most of my work at this point is writing and I usually follow the same general process to write anything. Here it is.
- Choose an idea
- Outline and make notes
- Write a draft
- Edit the draft
- Proof and polish the edited draft
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that each step of the process requires different kinds and amounts of energy for me. The last step, to proof and polish, is busy work. Choosing ideas is really part of an entirely separate process for collecting and refining ideas so they can enter this process.
Draft writing isn’t difficult for me, but it does require its own special energy.
The other two parts of the process, the note making and editing parts of the process vary from project to project and can require energy and focus across the entire spectrum, depending on the specifics of what I’m writing.
For example, to write a series like this one, the notes all come from a two step dance in which step one is to brainstorm and dump thoughts on the page and step two is to organize my random thoughts in the hopes of finding some sort of cohesive thread running through them.
On the other hand, notes for my other series this year on website performance required more energy. It involved a similar process of collecting notes and then organizing them, but the collecting part involved weeks and weeks of searching and reading and multiple attempts to understand what I read.
Brainstorming is a fairly low energy task for me. Maybe I’ve done it so many times over the years or maybe it’s because I know there no pressure to get anything right. I just let one thought lead to the next and I do my best to capture as much as I can as the thoughts pass through my head.
Researching can sometimes be low energy and sometimes it can be high energy. It doesn’t take a lot of focus to type some phrases into Google and scan the results, collecting URLs for further study. It takes more energy to read through the articles and try to understand the topic and then research more in-depth articles on the various subtopics of the main topic.
Editing has similar high and low energy moments. I usually run through multiple rounds of editing, beginning with larger structural edits that do need more of my focus and continuing to later rounds that are more about rewriting clunky sentences. I wouldn’t call sentence rewriting low energy, but it takes much less that the structural edits require.
I usually don’t bother breaking down either the note making or editing tasks any further when I schedule them, though now that I think about it, I probably could divide the notes into brainstorming or researching to help me understand which type of energy I’ll need. Perhaps it’s something I’ll try.
For the most part the majority of my tasks end up looking something like these:
- Write drafts for posts in series X.
- Edit series Y drafts.
- Choose an idea for next newsletter.
I could break down the tasks for each post in the series and have one note making task for each, one draft writing task for each, and so on, but I tend to work on the whole series at once and might spend one week writing the first draft for the entire series and the next week on the first round of editing so I find it makes more sense to keep it one more time-consuming task.
Manage Daily Tasks Based on My Energy Levels
I find I work best by putting some things on autopilot so I don’t have to spend time or energy thinking about them. I like to make my work day as routine as I can and carry the momentum from one day to the next.
To help create routines I break down my day into shorter blocks of time and schedule similar work in the same blocks from day to day based around what I know my focus and energy will be like at that time of day.
I also divide the day roughly in half, with halftime being a break for lunch. I center pre-lunch work around fiction projects and post-lunch work around non-fiction projects, though at times the projects cross over the halftime barrier.
I mentioned in a previous post that I’m not a morning person. It’s not that I don’t wake up early, but rather that I don’t have much focus when I first climb out of bed. I prefer to start my day slow and with a cup of coffee.
That doesn’t mean I can’t be productive. I use the time to run through some every day administrative tasks. I clear out spam comments from this site and then do the same with my business forum. I’ll check email, respond to some of it, and put the rest aside for later (or never). Then I’ll check my feedreader and triage whatever new feeds came in over night.
This all takes anywhere from 30–60 minutes, after which I’ll take a break to exercise and have breakfast.
Between breakfast and lunch is fiction time. I don’t yet have a process for working on multiple fiction projects at the same time. Ideally, I will soon, but for now I work on one story until it’s finished and then move on to the next.
I find that writing fiction requires a good deal of my focus and energy no matter what I’m specifically working on and for most of it, I can’t go from nothing to writing in an instant. I need to ease into it a little. I need to build up the energy and focus I’ll need to write.
I adapted something I read Ernest Hemingway did to help him get into the day’s work. He used to stop the day’s writing in a place where he knew what he would say next so he could jump back in the next day. I prefer to finish what I start each session, but I leave myself some notes for what I want to do the following day.
Each morning I’ll read my notes and then give my subconscious a half hour head start. I used to do very little during this time, but now I fill it with some busy work or a light creative task that doesn’t need a lot of focus.
Usually it’s a short brainstorming session, but I might also do some easy research. Maybe one day there’s more email than usual and I reply to some. Perhaps another day, it’s a quick proof of something I’ve already written or resizing images for a handful of posts.
What happens is the lower energy task gets me moving and starts to build up my focus for higher energy work. By the end of the half hour both my subconscious and conscious are ready for the main writing project of the morning.
I’ll write myself into a creative flow and continue for as long as it lasts, but at some point the flow is gone. I’ll finish up the morning by reading something about the craft of fiction or maybe a short story or chapter of a novel. It took me awhile to accept that reading is now work for me and it’s ok to do during the day. I also realized it’s easy to skip if you don’t set aside time specifically for it.
The writing takes priority though and if I can keep the flow state going longer I will. I’ll write not so much to the clock, but to my ability to maintain the creative energy to keep writing. If that means I skip reading one day, so be it. I work the higher priority task first to ensure it’s the one I that receives my time.
Next up is a little more exercise (can’t sit all day) and then lunch. I’m always sluggish when I return from lunch and have been that way since the very first office job I ever had.
I don’t know if it’s the time of day, eating, or that I put a lot of energy into the morning work and I’ve just run out for a time. Whatever the reason, I come back to work after lunch in a similar way to how I approach the morning. I start with something light, a busy work task, anything that doesn’t require a large amount of focus, since I’m guaranteed not to have any.
Once again, the low energy task helps me build up focus and the energy I need for the main non-fiction project of the day.
When my energy has risen I’ll work on a higher focus task for about two hours, take a quick break, and then work on one last task for the day. I might continue with what I had been working on or I might work on something for a different project to close the day depending on how I feel.
I said I divide the day up into blocks, but I’m not a stickler for the time they’ll contain. The main task after lunch might be to an edit a post or two from a series I’m writing and I might think it will take two hours to complete.
I really don’t know how long it will take, though. If it’s an hour and a half, I’ll take an earlier break. If it takes two and half hours I’ll take a later break. Depending on how I feel and how much time is left in the day, I’ll decide what to work on before stopping for the night.
Most days I wrap up somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 usually with a few minutes to look at the tasks I’ve scheduled for the following day. Because most of the tasks I work on will likely last beyond that day, I don’t check them off as complete. I just move each as is to the day I expect to work on it and I plan out what I think I’ll work on the following day.
I Think There’s a Pattern Here
You might have noticed there’s a pattern in my day that revolves around my typical ebb and flow of energy and focus. I start with low energy work and use it to build up my energy for working on something that needs more. When that energy runs out, I’ll go back to another low focus task. I’ll run through the pattern each morning and afternoon.
I’ve found the secret for me to be productive is that my energy grows as I work, at least to a point. It takes a little time each morning to work up to that zone or flow or whatever you prefer to call it. When the flow state ends, I wind down and take a break. Then I do the same thing again in the afternoon
As long as I have both low and high focus tasks to work on, I can balance the energy of the task with the energy I have and stay productive all day long.
Instead of choosing what to work on next throughout the day, I like to divide my day up into blocks or slices of time and schedule work based on the energy levels and focus that I tend to have at different times throughout the day.
Since my work is mostly writing, I break down my writing process and evaluate each step in the process in terms of how much energy I need to work on it. My goal is to schedule around my energy levels to maximize how much I can get done over the course of the day and not specifically the next hour.
Even though I like to work off a schedule I prepare in advance, I allow for flexibility throughout the day and will continue with some work longer than scheduled when I’m still in a creative flow.
My productivity revolves around the same pattern. I use low energy and low focus tasks to build up the energy and focus for those tasks that need more. I’ll ride the flow as long as it lasts and then I’ll wind down. That pattern repeats from morning to afternoon and from day to day.
Next week I’ll talk about how I choose which projects to work on each week and how I think longer term and try to work on several months worth of projects at the same time.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.