The Key to Creating Remarkable Things

No one likes the feeling that other people are waiting – impatiently – for you to get back to them.At the beginning of the day, faced with an overflowing inbox, a list of messages on your voicemail, and the to-do list from your last meeting, it’s tempting to want to “clear the decks” before you start on your own most important work. When you’re up-to-date, you tell yourself, your mind will be clear and it will be easier to focus on the task at hand.

The trouble with this approach is that you end up spending the best part of the day on other people’s priorities, running their errands, and giving them what they need. By the time you finally settle down to your own work, it could be mid-afternoon, when your energy has dipped and it’s hard to focus on anything properly. “Oh well, maybe tomorrow will be better,” you tell yourself.

But when tomorrow comes round there’s another pile of emails, phone messages, and to-do list items. If you carry on like this you will spend most of your time on reactive work, responding to incoming demands and answering questions framed by other people. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel. And it will never lead to remarkable work, in Seth Godin‘s sense, “worthy of being remarked on.” We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded, or when we are surprised by something completely unexpected.

The single most important change I’ve made in my own working habits has been to start doing things the other way round – i.e. begin the day with creative work on my own top priorities, with the phone and email switched off. And I never schedule meetings in the morning, if there’s any way of avoiding it. This means that whatever else happens, I get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded.

These days, I have two popular blogs that bring me plenty of new business. I have e-books, training programs, an e-learning program, and a network of great contacts I can call on for help. I have qualifications, and more importantly the knowledge and skills I acquired through my studies. All of these things are assets that create ongoing value for my clients and for my business. Yet there wasn’t a single day when I sat down to write each individual essay, blog post, training plan, or e-book chapter, without a string of people waiting for me to get back to them.

It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, particularly when I get phone messages beginning “I sent you an email two hours ago…!”

By definition, taking this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations, and the pressures they put on you. It can take an act of willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour, during the working day. For some strange reason, it feels “unprofessional” to be knuckling down to work in this way.

The thing is, if you want to create something truly remarkable, it won’t be built in a day. A great novel, a stunning design, a game-changing software application, a revolutionary company – this kind of thing takes time, thought, craft, and persistence. And on any given day, it will never appear as “urgent” as those four emails (in the last half-hour) from Client X or Colleague Y, asking for things you’ve already given them or which they probably don’t really need.

So if you’re going to prioritize this kind of work – your real work – you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done. And you’ll probably have to put up with complaints and reproaches from people who have no idea what you’re trying to achieve, and can’t understand what could be more important than their needs.

If you’re going to prioritize your real work, you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done.

Yes, it feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset, but it’s much better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to sacrifice the big things for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing real productivity for the illusion of professionalism.

Here are a few tips to help you make the switch:

1. Creative work first, reactive work second.

Either start the day on your creative work, or make sure you block out time for it later in the day – preferably at a time when you typically feel energized and productive.

2. Tune out distractions.

You know the drill – email off, phone off, work from home if you can, stick your headphones on if you can’t.

3. Make exceptions for VIPs.

Don’t be reckless. If you’re working with a client to a deadline, or your boss needs something urgently, treat them like VIPs and give them special access – e.g. leave the phone on and answer if they ring (everyone else gets the voicemail).

4. Be really efficient at reactive work.

You can’t ignore everybody all the time. The better your productivity systems, the more promptly you’ll be able to respond to their requests – and the more time you’ll have free for your own work.

Over to You

Do you agree that ‘creative work first, reactive work second’ is the key to creating remarkable things?
How do you prioritize work on important-but-not-urgent projects? What benefits have you gained from doing this?

More insights on: Disconnecting, Task Management

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
load comments (67)
  • thezenofmaking

    This is exactly what I needed to read to remind me to get off the internet and go make something. It’s so easy to get sucked into the get-it-all-done-then-make mindset.

  • The learn Arabic guy

    This is a stunning article. I like to think of this concept in one more way. As a creative, why shoot your creative ability full of holes by doing boring reactive work, respect yourself and you creatiity.

  • Prassenjeet Moitra

    very impressive and i will surely opt this at least once on everything.

  • Owen Marcus

    Yes, work on your schedule – not someone elses

  • Ashley Dy

    This post is amazing! I definitely support everything you said!

  • healthy snacks for kids

    There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t
    know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I
    will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article ,
    thanks and we want more!

  • Josh12341

    Reactive work = my job. Time to quit?

  • Mike Wilhelm

    Great Post! It really makes me rethink the way I am currently doing things, time to let the creative juices flow. Thanks!

  • json5

    remix these letters  – reactive ;)

    Bing! Creative!

  • Gift Card Girlfriend

    Ahh….TOTALLY Agree. Singing my tune. Why am I even reading this blog? Because somebody sent it to me and told me I should read it. Not that I shouldn’t…but at the expense of what I REALLY sat down to do at this moment? Drats! It’s obviously what I needed to hear today.

  • fatihamzah

    Agree, absolutely. Think out of the box and rules your time on your own, the time is yours and you need to break the rules that you are not like it. Thanks to remind me :) !

  • Cameron

    Me too a lot of the time!

  • Christine Dinsmore

    yes! i work from home and always feel most creative in the morning. i think it’s because i feel i still have the whole day ahead of me and i am not getting really hung up on all the things i haven’t done. also i think it is because i haven’t been confused by all the information around me, or desensitized by it maybe is a better way to say it.

  • Nora

    I’m glad that I marked this post as to-read-later. I have little experience in prioritizing tasks as I had a less creative job before for a looong time. As part of my new job I have some creative assignments but I’ve been delaying to work on them because of the reactive tasks (now I have a name for them).

    Thank you for the tips, tomorrow morning I’ll put on my headphones without a sense of guilt:)

  • Vajrasar Goswami

    Well written piece on the least thought chore. It should definitely be ‘creative work first, reactive work second’.

  • suruha

    LOL Just a few days ago it hit me, by the time I get around to my creative work, I am so tired, I usually fall asleep in my chair. I don’t know what I was dreaming, but, I awoke to me pouring a bowl of cereal on my keyboard! No kidding! I decided then that my creative time was going to have to come earlier in the day! Thanks for reinforcing my thoughts!

  • multichic

    Just the push I needed! It’s definitely creative work first before the day gets laden with kids and activities

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