Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Bolster Your Creative Output by Activating Your "Red Zone"

It’s a wonderful feeling. You’re deep in the groove of your work, and everything seems to be going even better than expected. There’s a lot on your plate, but you’re managing your priorities with elegance and grace, and you’re doing some of your best work. In short, you’re on fire. Then, just as suddenly, it ends…

You’re in creative purgatory. Ideas aren’t flowing, and much of your work seems like a rehash of previous projects. Because you’re a pro, you’re still producing, but deep down you’re dissatisfied with the quality of your work. How is it possible that what comes so effortlessly one day – ideas, focus, energy – seems so elusive the next?

In American football, there is an area on the field, between the 20-yard line and the goal line, called the red zone. The overall success or failure of a team is largely determined by how well they perform their duties in this small section of the field. No matter how many open field passes are caught, or how many great runs are made up the middle of the field, if the team cannot perform in the red zone, it will likely lose a lot of games.

In much the same way, we each have a personal red zone, and a corresponding set of extracurricular activities that we must engage in consistently if we want to do great work over the long-term. This means that we must perform these activities even when, or especially when, work gets intense. How well and how consistently we perform them can determine our overall success or failure.

We each have a set of extracurricular activities that we must engage in consistently if we want to do great work over the long-term.

Here are a few Red Zone Activities that will keep you poised to do great work:

1. Activities that increase your capacity to generate and make ideas happen, such as study, skill development, or research.

When we stoke our curiosity by filling our mind with inspirational or challenging thoughts, or hone our craft by intentionally developing our skills, we gain a sturdy platform to build on. Unfortunately, these are often the first activities to get tossed out when we’re in crunch time, and by eliminating them we are borrowing a little bit of time now against the quality of our future work.

What are you doing to stretch your mind, seek inspiration, and fill your creative well? In other words, what are you doing today to increase your capacity to do great work tomorrow? Make sure that these activities find their way onto your calendar, even in busy seasons.

2. Activities that feed your creative soul, like spending time with friends who inspire you.

When we get busy, it’s easy to default to engaging only in relationships of obligation or convenience. This means that we are missing out on a key source of creative inspiration. Setting aside time to connect with others, to discover what they’re working on, and to hear what’s inspiring them can expand our perspective and fuel our motivation to do better work. Who inspires you, and are you protecting time on your calendar for them, even during busy times?

3. Activities that provide creative traction, like clarifying objectives with your manager or client.

Sometimes we are so anxious to jump into the work that we fail to clarify what’s really expected of us. Taking a small amount of time now to set objectives can save a lot of pain later as we try backpedal out of a mess. Set aside time on the calendar each day to re-align and ensure that you’re working on the right problems. Creatives and teams that regularly clarify their objectives are more productive and are less likely to experience the relational tensions that can kill workplace creativity.

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Depending on who you are and what you do, the most important “red zone activities” can vary. The key takeaway here is making sure that – whatever those activities are – you are not neglecting them for short-term gain. When we trade effectiveness for efficiency, we often lose both.

What’s Your Approach?

What “red zone activities” fuel your creative process?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Motivation

Todd Henry

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Todd Henry is the author of Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, and The Accidental Creative. You can find him at ToddHenry.com or @toddhenry on Twitter.
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