Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Productivity Tie-Breaker: How Will You Feel Afterwards?

So the key to creating remarkable things is to prioritize your big creative challenges over the seemingly urgent but actually ephemeral demands of the day. But it’s easier said than done, right?

In the split-second when you have to decide whether to plough on with the next stage of a difficult project, or to answer a ringing phone or pinging email, it can be hard to resist the pressure to respond. After all, the other person is waiting now – and your project may not be done for weeks. What difference will one more phone call or email make?

And of course ‘just one more’ doesn’t feel like it makes a big difference. But if it’s a habitual practice, that amounts to thousands of emails, phone calls, and errands a year – and whole weeks of creative worktime lost.

But if you keep steadily chipping away, day after day – at the blank page, empty screen, canvas, block of stone, or whatever – you are slowly and steadily filling your time with remarkable work. By the end of the year, you will be looking back on a series of achievements (or at least notable failures, that taught you something valuable). Compare that with a year’s worth of inbox zero and placated colleagues, and there’s no contest – not for a true creative.

So how can you ensure you end up with a full portfolio instead of an empty inbox?

Having coached many people on this, and struggled with it myself, I’ve noticed a subtle but important difference in mindset between those who get swept away by the demands of the moment and those who persevere and create something that endures.

Those who get swept off track do so because they are thinking short-term:

The phone is ringing now, so I need to answer it.The email has just arrived, I need to get rid of it ASAP.I’ll just get this one out of the way, it shouldn’t take long…

When you think like this, the pressures of the moment will always feel more urgent than settling down to wrestle with something truly important (and difficult).

But those who persevere take a longer perspective:

Firstly, long before the moment of decision, they’ve taken time out to consider where they are headed, and the long-term consequences of their daily working habits.

And secondly, when faced with a choice in the moment, they ‘fast forward’ in their mind, to a few hours in the future, and imagine how each option will make them feel afterwards.

Try it for yourself, right now.

Picture yourself in a few hours’ time, having spent the best part of your day firefighting email and running errands for other people. I’m guessing you’ll feel frustrated and disappointed. Because you’ll know you missed an opportunity to create something remarkable today. And you won’t get another today.

OK scratch that scenario.

Now imagine you have spent several hours working away steadily on your latest and biggest creative challenge. You have faced down the Resistance, knuckled down and made some progress, in spite of the difficulty. Deep down, you feel a sense of satisfaction, knowing you did what you set out to do. You still have a long way to go, but you’ve taken another step in the right direction.

Sure, you may have to play catch-up on email and phone calls, and smooth over a few ruffled feathers, but most people will forgive you if you give them what they want in the end. And it’s a small price to pay for what you’ve achieved.

So as we approach the end of 2011, here are three things you can do to make sure 2012 is your most creative and productive year yet:

1. Before the start of the year
:

Look ahead and decide what are the big projects you want to achieve next year. Imagine how you will feel at the year’s end once you’ve achieved them. That’s your reward. Write the projects down – including deadlines – and put a reminder in your calendar so that you hold yourself accountable.

2. At the start of every week
:

Look ahead and decide what you want to achieve that week. Work out how many days/hours you’ll need to block off for sustained work. Imagine how you’ll feel at the week’s end once you’ve done this. That’s your reward.

Now think ahead to anticipate important deadlines and demands from others that are likely to arise during the week. Schedule time to get the necessary work done on time, to avoid letting people down on critical projects.

3. At start of every day:

Look ahead and decide what you want to achieve today. How many hours do you need to block off for focused work? Imagine how you’ll feel at the day’s end once you’ve done it. That’s your reward.

At each step, you should also consider an alternative universe, where you let other people’s demands dictate to you – hour by hour, day by day, year by year. How does that feel? Again, that’s your reward, if you choose this path.

Next time you’re faced with the temptation to cave in to the apparently urgent instead of getting on with what’s truly important to you – remember the two paths ahead of you. Look ahead, and choose wisely.

What Do You Make Of This?

What difference does it make to your decision-making when you look ahead and imagine how you’ll feel after choosing each option?

Any other tips for staying focused on important work in the midst of demands and distractions?

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a coach who helps creative professionals create more, suffer less and attract more opportunities. He is the author of the popular blog Lateral Action and the book Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.
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