Being creative on a regular and consistent basis is near impossible. It takes a lot of time and patience to create amazing things.
That’s why I like this video I found linked on Kristan Hoffman’s writing blog called “Creativity Requires TIME”:
As Jason said in his last post, Tim Ferriss’s ideas can be applied to make specific, practical change in your productivity. It seems that with a strong will and a lot of solid ideas, you can accomplish a lot, as Jason has.
I see his point, but I’d like to explain further how I’ve become a more productive person without practicing Ferriss’s ideas, and clarify that a lot of Ferriss’s approaches are highly subjective. Like Jason, if you enjoy reading a long list of accomplishments behind your name, Ferriss’s approach might work for you.
Or, it might make you feel like a failure as you lose sight of the things you’ve already accomplished. Not everyone can do what Ferriss does at that scale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We like to emulate heroes, after all.
I’ve read The 4-hour Workweek, and while I think the ideas presented work for some projects, they don’t work for everything. In his book, he mentions the “pareto principle” or the 80/20 principle, the idea that 80% of your productivity comes from 20% of your work. This idea seems great in concept, but I find it doesn’t work in every scenario.
For example, if I want to cut down on my email, I can apply the 80/20 principle by automating most emails, forcing my replies down to less than five sentences or some arbitrary number, and only respond to emails at set times of the day. Emails that require a longer response shouldn’t be dealt with in email. They either need a phone call or a meeting. That’s the 80/20 principle: setting limits and eliminating inefficiency.
However, email is a chore. Does this principle work if you’re applying it to a creative activity? Not so much. This is where the 80/20 idea falls apart. For example, if I’m a writer I can’t cut back on the time I spend editing or researching. I might be able to outsource those tasks at certain stages in the writing process, but ultimately I’m responsible for their completion.
Also, I’m a perfectionist when it comes to anything that has my name on it. I think this is a good thing, and I can’t cut back if I care about something. If it matters this much, it shouldn’t feel like work, anyway. I’m sure Jason, and even Tim Ferriss, would agree with me.
In The 4-hour Workweek, the sections on Elimination and Automation are where I agree with Ferriss the most, but again, I agree with it in terms of eliminating chores, not meaningful work.
As I keep thinking further about these ideas, I come back to Fight Club. I only sort of liked that movie when it came out, but this line is still powerful:
You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.
That’s right, you are not your fucking khakis. What’s in the bank doesn’t matter. Also, quit comparing yourself to others: what have you done? Does it have meaning? Does it let you accept that your are human?
I discovered Zen Buddhism a couple of years ago. I have used it in a similar way to how Jason has used Tim Ferriss’s ideas: it has helped me shape a life philosophy of minimalism, focus, and determination to carry out things that matter to me. I’ve also tried to stop comparing myself to others as doing more for the wrong reasons is counter-productive.
If Ferriss helps people go to new places and accomplish more, I’m happy for them. I’m glad that Jason has done more after reading Ferriss’s book and blog. However, Ferriss’s approach complicates things. When I read his work, I think: here’s another aphorism, another system to apply, another acronym to memorize.
I see his books as the ultimate self-promotion. He gets to promote his ideas in a credible format while also giving out simple lifestyle advice that’s been promoted before. He’s become the gorilla of guerilla marketing. I respect that on one level, but it’s not going to change how I approach my daily life.
Just remember: you are not your fucking khakis. Go out there on your own and do something. Don’t wait for Tim Ferriss, Jason Braun or me to give you permission.
Two months ago, I wrote an article about how “wasting time” helps someone stay sane and allows for more productivity. I wrote this in the context of creative activities, like writing, but since the article went live, I’ve had a lot of readers from all types of careers respond positively to the ideas in the article.
In the article, I talked about how the brain works better when it’s not always in that clenching state of mind. Research indicates that we have our best moments of insights when we step away from the issue we’re trying to resolve than when we force a solution. Although there are many instances when sticking with a problem can lead to a new solution, it’s often a good idea (especially when really stuck) to go do something unrelated to work. For me, that’s usually a walk or some outdoor activity that kicks my brain into gear. Other times, it’s a matter of leaving certain things for the next day and moving on to another project or idea, or simply sitting or meditating.
Although I’ve been thinking about my productivity for a while, it’s only been in the last two months that I’ve practiced this idea of getting away and wasting time when stuck. In the article from August, I mentioned some strategies I’ve put in place based on this idea and another book about productivity, The Power of Less by Leo Babauta. Here’s what I’ve done to keep myself sane:
Before I go into my progress on all of these, let me first explain what my schedule is like to give some context. Right now, I teach four college composition courses at two separate universities, tutor at a college writing center, work part-time evenings and every other weekend at my local public library, and do some freelance writing and editing on the side. On top of this, I write on this blog and have started writing fiction (or more like try to, it’s not ready for the world to see quite yet).
While I enjoy all of these jobs, I end many days feeling overwhelmed with all of the stuff I have to do each day. I do fall behind easily on basic tasks and have, in the past, felt so much burnout that it has led to anxiety and other problems. I knew that when this semester started up, I needed a smart plan in place to keep sane and productive.
So far, this plan has worked: I’ve managed to keep my work and personal lives balanced enough to maintain this schedule. But these past few weeks were tough. Midterms just finished up, lots of essays and assignments needed grading, and I’ve had to adjust. I’ve had to say no to some people, even for projects or tasks I’ve wanted to do. I’ve also had to do a lot of work early in the morning in order to maintain my commitment to my wife that I wouldn’t work past 8 so that we’d have time together each night.
Here are some of the ways I’ve adjusted in order to stay sane. When I can’t get away to do something fun, I keep these ideas in mind to balance my objectives.
1. Redefine fitness goals. Here’s my problem: when I start something that matters, I tend to go all in. This is good in some cases, but a hindrance in others. Also, if I don’t meet some unreasonable goal set by myself at the beginning of starting something new, I tend to give up quickly. This happens with my workouts. I try to add miles onto my run that take away from my time to do other meaningful things. I have to remind myself that I’m not training for a marathon. Instead, the goal is to maintain adequate fitness and to take advantage of the happiness and productivity inducing brain power a decent workout provides. I make sure I have at least 15 to 20 minutes of something: a short run, a brisk walk with my dog, or a couple minutes on the bike. I don’t spend a lot of time on this, but enough to where it’s beneficial to me.
2. Learn to say no. Another problem of mine: I tend to take on too much at once because I have a lot I want to do. I’m also lucky in that I know a lot of people who need help with projects and who want to help me out with mine. But lately, I’ve had to turn down some exciting freelance opportunities because I know I just can’t do it all.
3. Unplug and detox from the internet. I’ve picked a couple days out of the last few months to get off the internet. This is an idea I’ve written about before, and I recommend it as a way to gain more focus.
3. Minimize my time spent preparing for classes I teach. I am confident enough in my teaching strategies at this point in my career, so I don’t feel a need to add on to what I know works. I also let my students know that if they need help on an assignment outside of the time I’ve already set aside to help them, they’re on their own, or they need to use campus resources like the Writing Center for any further help. The key is that if I’ve set aside an hour for office hours that day, I need to do what I can in that hour, and everything else will have to wait. Basically, this is a matter of knowing and acknowledging the boundaries I’ve set.
4. Keep long-term goals in mind all the time. One of the reasons I write fiction, maintain this blog, and write and edit for friends and colleagues I trust is because my long-term goal is this: I want to be an independent writer. Teaching writing is great, and in many ways, it helps writers pay the bills while freeing them up to spend time writing every day. But teaching is just a means to an end, in my opinion. Maybe I shouldn’t write that (keeping in mind that current and future employers are hiring me to teach), but that’s how I feel.
The key is that it’s important to prioritize those long-term goals each day. Spend a solid amount of time each day focusing on doing whatever it is that gets you to those goals — if you don’t, you’ll allow short-term, less important goals get in the way of your higher potential.
I’ve had some setbacks in the last few weeks, but I’m hoping this re-focus, and keeping up with the things that matter most, will get me through the rest of this semester and the next few to come.
With this in mind, what are some strategies you take in getting through each day? How do you maintain focus on what matters most to you?
This week’s quote comes from an essay in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. The essay, by Joe Meno, is called “A Book is a Place,” and this quote summarizes the author’s main point of the article:
For me, a book, in whatever form it takes—hardbound copy, paperback, electronic version, online instrument, text downloaded on a cell phone, even a story read orally—a book is actually a place, a place where we, as adults, still have the chance to engage in active imagining, translating word to image, connecting these images to memories, dreams, and larger ideas. Television, film, even the stage play, have already been imagined for us, but the book, in whatever form we choose to interact with it, forces us to complete it.
I love this quote and the article because no matter what we say about the future of books (on this blog or anywhere else), the reason we read is “to engage in active imagining,” as Meno puts it. Books allow us to enter worlds wholly created in our minds. The best books fall away, allowing us to “see” the world we’ve imagined, to enter it and to play in it. Great books give us a childlike imagination.
Of course, books do more than this. They also help us conceptualize the world and make connections between what is real and what is imagined.
Just some brief thoughts for today.
I just finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which I highly recommend to anyone engaged in creative activities. The book focuses on how creativity works in the brain, but it also breaks down a lot of the cultural cliches associated with creative work and explains why they have become cliches.
One of those cliches is what I call the “Eureka” moments, those times when, unable to get past a block, the writer steps away from the work and has a moment of pure insight. As any writer knows, this is only the beginning — real creation comes with real work. Yet, those moments of insight are so important to any creative activity that without them, we wouldn’t have nearly the variety we need.
Lehrer’s book explores not only how the brain works when we have these moments of insight (hint: it’s a right hemisphere function needed in order to jolt the left hemisphere into working mode) but where we get these moments of insight. They need to be sought out, but they can only happen when we’re not forcing them to happen: “When our minds at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere.” Most of us know that being in a state of stress or worry results in bad creative writing, so there must be another way. What we might call “wasting time” is a necessary part of the creative process.
What time-wasting activities do we need in order to be more productive? How should we seek out those moments of insight when stuck with a problem? Lehrer explains that when we need to be productive, we need to focus outward, and use our left-brain (language, logic, etc.) processes to finish the work. But when we can’t be productive, or we need to think about a problem in a different way, we need to focus inward, and we need the proper environment to do so. For some people, simply doing something else works, like playing a video game, reading a book, playing a sport, or whatever. But probably the most popular one is the simplest one: go out on a walk.
Lehrer claims that this type of activity not only allows us to relax our minds, it forces us to look inward and make connections with things we weren’t connecting back to our problem in our work environment:
While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged. (p. 33)
Even though we think we’re wasting time, we could be doing the best thing for our minds.
For me, I’ve had several moments in my life where I’ve needed to constantly create, and during these times, I’ve always gone on a lot of long walks. These walks allow me to ease my mind and attempt to make these connections with disconnected things; it’s always allowed me to find better ways of writing or approaching a problem.
For years, I thought that these long walks were a waste of time. I often felt guilty for going on these walks, or for doing something else unrelated to writing at my desk. After reading Lehrer’s book, I have a completely different approach to the creative process: go out on the walk, then come home and work my ass off.
I’m at a point in my life where I’m doing a lot more creative work: I’m writing more, and I’m doing a lot more critical thinking and research. I’m also wasting a lot more time, or so it seems. I run more, I take a lot of walks, and I doodle. It’s great.
What types of activities help you focus when you’re in the midst of the creative process? Whatever they may be, embrace them.