Getting Creative Things Done: How To Fit Hard Thinking Into a Busy Schedule

It started a few weeks ago. I had to write an academic research statement: a high stakes, ambiguous, beast of a creative project. For the first week, I kept telling myself, “this is my most important priority,” and hacked away at the project whenever I got a chance. I continuously felt guilty about not spending enough time writing. One night, toward the end of the week, I holed up in my office until 9 pm, desperate to get things done.

The result was near useless. I had 15 pages of rambling text (a research statement should be 3-5 pages, at most), and still had more to cover. The message was confused and drowning in adjectives.This situation is common for to-do list creatives – workers who have the juggle creative work – like writing or devising strategy – with logistical work – like prompt email replies and meetings. I’m a to-do list creative: as a theoretical computer scientist, I must switch between solving mathematical proofs – one of the most purely creative endeavors – and the logistics of reviewing papers and meeting with grant managers. To keep things interesting, I also sometimes write.

Here’s our quandary:

To-do list creatives advance in their careers based on the quality of their creative output. Our logistical responsibilities, however, fight against this goal. Most to-do list creatives cannot drop everything to spend days lost in monk-like focus. But the result of instead squeezing creative work into distracted bursts, driven by deadline pressure, is mediocrity. (Exhibit A: the first draft of my research statement).

Fortunately, however, there is hope…

Driven by the demands of academia, which requires the regular publication of high-quality creative work to maintain your job, I developed a system. As an homage to David Allen, I call it “Getting Creative Things Done” (or, GCTD), and it has helped me publish academic papers at a fast rate while also writing three books and managing a popular blog, all the while dispatching the never-ending, non-creative tasks required by my position.

Most to-do list creatives cannot drop everything to spend days lost in monk-like focus.

Excited about starting the faculty job search process, for example, I had ignored my system when I first dived into writing my research statement. After the debacle of that first week, however, I stepped back, took a deep breath, and let GCTD work its magic. Three days later, I had a beautiful draft complete.In this article, I want to explain this system. I’ll start by summarizing what’s required to produce high-quality creative work, then describe how the GCTD system integrates these demands into a normal schedule.

What Is Needed for Good Creative Work?

In his oft-cited essay, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” Paul Graham highlights the unique demands of creative work (the type of work produced by a “maker,” in Graham’s lexicon).

The maker’s schedule, he explains, is defined by long, open stretches of uninterrupted work. For a maker, “a single meeting can blow a whole afternoon.” Graham describes his own schedule, from his time working in a software start-up, as starting after dinner and lasting until 3am, explaining: “At night no one could interrupt me.”

In Graham’s construction, I identified two justifications for the importance of long stretches of uninterrupted work:

  • Shifting Mental Modes: When the mind knows it has no interruptions looming, it can shift into the flow state required to produce high-quality output.
  • Providing Freedom to Explore: Real creative work is non-linear, often requiring long, unexpected detours to uncover the contours of the problem at hand. Long stretches of time provide the freedom needed to feel comfortable indulging in these detours.

As mentioned, the problem faced by to-do list creatives is that we cannot afford to integrate Graham’s long stretches of uninterrupted work into our schedules. (Though we might want to dedicate a full day to one project, our bosses might disagree.) With this in mind, the GCTD system attempts to replicate the two benefits of uninterrupted work, as described above, in a more realistic, logistics-respecting workday structure.

Getting Creative Things Done: The System

The GCTD system works as follows:

  • At the beginning of each week, decide on the one (or, at most, two) big creative projects that will receive your attention over the next five days. Ignore the temptation to make a small amount of progress on a large amount of projects. Creative work is hard. If you want high-quality output, you have to focus your energy.
  • Block out time for these projects on your calendar. The increments should at least 1 hour long, and preferably 2 to 3. When you block these hours out depends on your schedule for the week. What’s important, however, is that you treat these blocks like you would any other important appointment: the time is inviolable, and you must work around these blocks when scheduling meetings or other work.
  • Set rules for your creative blocks. The rules should describe what is NOT allowed during creative work. For example, I have a strict ban on email during creative blocks.
  • Focus on process, not goals. The final piece is arguably the most important: don’t set goals for your creative blocks. Creative work is not a task to be checked off a next actions list. If you decide that you need to complete a particular project by the end of a block, for example, you’re likely to either be frustrated by your lack of progress or rush out something mediocre. Instead, focus on process. Decide how, exactly, you are going to approach the work. This focuses your energy. High-quality results will follow naturally from this focused work.

I want to provide some examples of GCTD in action. Here’s a screen shot of my calendar from a recent week:

The appointments highlighted in red are my GCTD blocks. Notice, this is a busy week; I have lots of other meetings already on my calendar, many of which came up as the week progressed. The GCTD system kept my creative blocks intact, forcing me to schedule my other obligations around this pre-defined work.

My small tasks, by contrast, were accomplished in the open spaces that remain on the calendar. (A bonus of the GCTD approach is that by defining my creative time in advance, I can tackle small tasks without feeling guilty about not working on something more important.)

When it comes to process, my strategy differed depending on the work. For tackling my research statement, for example, my process had me complete and polish each short section before moving on to the next section. This meant: thinking carefully about what I wanted to say, writing it well, then adding the citations and editing before moving on. I discovered that, for this style of writing, this process harnessed my mental energy better than blazing ahead fast and heading back to fix things up later.

When working on proofs, by contrast, I use another process. I dedicate the final 30 minutes of these creative blocks to carefully summarizing my thinking on the problem in a $45 lab notebook I bought expressly for this purpose. (The expense of the notebook signals to me the importance of the information recorded in it.) Carefully summarizing my thoughts forces me to organize my thinking. It also helps me remain focused during the earlier parts of the block, sifting through the mental pieces that form a proof, and sidestepping the urge to wander.

Why the System Works

Here’s how the GCTD system replicates the benefits of Graham’s long uninterrupted stretches of time with a smaller schedule footprint:

First, the inviolable nature of the scheduled creative blocks, combined with the strict rules for avoiding interruption during these blocks, enables a quick shift of mental mode. The act of defending these pre-scheduled times from other meetings and tasks helps your mind take them seriously. You will quickly habituate to this system: when a creative block comes up, your mind will know what to do.

Second, the focus on process (not goals), supports mental detours. When you face a block of time dedicated to finishing a milestone, your mind avoids detours as they might delay your progress. When you instead focus on process, your mind is free to follow the path most important to eventually producing high-quality output.

The focus on process (not goals), supports mental detours.

When working on a proof, for example, it is not uncommon for me to dedicate 10-15 hours of creative energy to grappling with a strategy that’s ultimately abandoned. This exploration can be crucial for building an intuitive understanding of the problem. My process, which focuses on clarity in thought, allows for these detours. If I instead demanded measurable progress – e.g.  “produce five lemma statements a day!” – I would soon become stuck.In addition, the GCTD system is sustainable due to its flexibility. It harnesses the appointment/calendar system that’s already a respected part of the work process for most knowledge workers. There’s no need to retrain your bosses or employees to cooperate with your system (a dubious task) – they already know what it means, for example, when you say: “I have something from 2-4pm that afternoon, can we try earlier?”

Conclusion

At first glance, the GCTD system seems obvious. “Block out time on my calendar for big projects,” you might think. “I’ve tried that.”

Creative work, however, is a subtle affair. If your mind is not in the exact right state, it’s difficult to produce high-quality results. Because of this, details matter.

This is what’s important about GCTD, not the general idea of blocking out time, but the carefully-calibrated details that accompany it: the blocks are treated like real appointments and are dedicated to only one (or, at most, two) projects in a week; absolutely zero interruptions are allowed during the blocks; and the focus is on process, not goals.

These little things add up to a system that consistently produces the types of ambitious results that, as Graham puts it, are “at the limits of your capacity.” The type of results that can make you a star.

Cal Newport

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Cal Newport writes about building a remarkable life at Study Hacks. His latest book, How to Be a High School Superstar, explains how to ace the college process without hating high school.
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