The Atlantic‘s Hanna Rosin attended a gathering of app developers that made games for children and discovered that many severely limit the time they allow their own children to spend on electronic devices.
I fell into conversation with a woman who had helped develop Montessori Letter Sounds, an app that teaches preschoolers the Montessori methods of spelling.
“On the weekends, they can play. I give [my children] a limit of half an hour and then stop. Enough. It can be too addictive, too stimulating for the brain.”
Her answer so surprised me that I decided to ask some of the other developers who were also parents what their domestic ground rules for screen time were. One said only on airplanes and long car rides. Another said Wednesdays and weekends, for half an hour. The most permissive said half an hour a day, which was about my rule at home.
On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.
Ridding our lives of all devices certainly isn’t the answer, but we should always allow ourselves time to be bored. Our brains may no longer developing like the children mentioned in the story, but we still need to idle time to develop new ideas. The fact that the technology’s makers limit its use in their homes should serve as a reminder that we should not spend every idle moment fiddling with our phones.
For athletes, a warm-up routine strengthens muscles, mentally prepares you for the game, and helps you form good habits. Because of this, author and podcast host Srinivas Rao believes that creatives should adopt this habit as well. Of course, athletes who don’t first warm-up run the risk of pulling muscles. You, however, aren’t going to hurt your back if you sit down and start working immediately. Your work itself will benefit immensely from a pregame routine though. For example, when writing:
Writers have to warm up too. We warm up by putting our pen on a page and fingers on the keyboard and tap, tap, tap. It doesn’t really matter if anything particularly coherent shows up. We just need to get our fingers in motion. We need our fingers to loosen up. After all, painting vivid pictures that engrave deeper memories by tapping away at a keyboard is not exactly a natural state.
And in the same vein as getting a few practice lay-ups in before the real game, Rao suggests we need to loosen up and find our creative state before beginning the work. This is easier said than done, as there will also be days when we simply do not feel motivated to start. Behavior and habit writer James Clear encourages us to use our warm-up to not only physically get ready, but mentally as well. Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: A good pregame routine starts by being so easy that you can’t say no to it. You shouldn’t need motivation to start your pregame routine. My writing routine starts by getting a glass of water. So easy, I can’t say no.
Step 2: Your routine should get you moving towards the end goal. For example, if your goal is to write, then your routine should bring you closer to the physical act of writing.
Step 3: You need to follow the same pattern every single time. The primary purpose of your pregame routine is to create a series of events that you always perform before doing a specific task. Your pregame routine tells your mind, “This is what happens before I do ___.”
Being a professional in your field means having the ability to create on demand. If we are subject to our creative whims, it is nearly impossible to accomplish anything. By having a warm-up routine, you will be able to enter that state of creative flow whenever it is required, no matter where you are. It can be as simple as sketching your breakfast while you wait for your coffee to finish brewing, or writing for five minutes about the first thing you see, or writing a few lines of code for a silly side project that carries no deadlines. The goal is to loosen up your imagination, strengthen your skill set, and bring your best to the real game—your work.
The Next Web reporter Owen Williams has discovered a super simple, but super valuable, productivity hack hidden in his laptop. There’s a setting buried in System Preferences on OS X under “Date & Time and Clock” that has your computer audibly read out the time every hour, half-hour, or quarter-hour. With the setting on, you’ll begin getting a regular vocal reminder from your computer of the time:
[I]t actually made me far more aware of how I was spending my time and how far through the day I was.
Consider this; it’s easy when you’re a knowledge worker to stare into your screen for much of the day before suddenly realizing you haven’t achieved much when 5 PM rolls around.
When your computer is audibly saying the time to you, it’s a regular reminder to get back to work. And it actually works. This ridiculous trick has actually made me write more consistently throughout the day and has reduced my time spent on distractions; I’m now more aware of where the time goes, as opposed to just letting it slip away.
Being held accountable to time, the concept that powers Laura Vanderkam’s uber-popular 168 Hours time log, forces you to minimize unproductiveness and stay on track. Letting your mind wander beyond the boundaries of your work is, of course, essential to creativity. But having a consistent nudge (“Hey, it’s been an hour”) ensures you maintain the best balance between focus and distraction.
Windows user? You can configure this too, but fair warning: it’s a little more complicated to set up.
Entrepreneur and VC Mark Suster lives by this rule: “Do Less. More.” In a time when you could fill an entire work day just staying apprised of what’s happening in the Twittersphere, or devote more time to cool conferences than to being at your desk getting things done, the key to productivity is doing less, better and more often.
Here’s what that actually means:
Do less. And do the things that you ARE doing better and with higher quality. Have a shorter to-do list with more things that are in the “done” category. Do fewer business development deals but make the ones you do have more impact…. You don’t need to be hot. You need to be successful and those are two different things. Success often comes from doing a few things extraordinarily well and noticeably better than the competition.
You can’t do everything, or be everything, all the time. For accomplished creatives, that could be a difficult truth to swallow. There are projects that may never make it past the brainstorm stage. There are ideas that may never grow beyond kernels of thought. But that means that the ones that do will be kick-ass.
Psychologists have long known about the “negativity bias”—the notion that our negative comments and moments have an outsized impact on our psyche. This means even a single online comment or snide remark from a friend has a profound effect on us. And, if we’re not careful, those comments can infiltrate our own thinking. When freelance writer and lifestyle blogger Melissa Sonico started her line of mixed-material necklaces, she discovered it was her friendships that burdened her passion:
To put it short, I’ve really learned who my friends are in this process and, unfortunately, who they aren’t. I’ve found out that any little bit of success can produce spite and competition, and none of that is for me so I’ve had to streamline my friendships… I’m so lucky to be part of an immensely supportive and inspiring community of makers and creative. Just having their encouragement and help has been integral in my success… A support network is vital. Your family, friends, peers; having people behind you and cheering you on is so so important.
Design entrepreneurs Sean McCabe and Ben Toalson compare this scenario to a hole in the ground. The naysayers are at the bottom of the hole, you are standing by the edge and your support community is above ground.
If you’re hanging around people that are in a hole, it’s much more likely they’re going to pull you down than you are going to pull them out. That doesn’t mean we can’t minister to all the people in holes. When you’re with negative people, go on the offensive… Go in and plant the seed that might turn into a vine that will help them climb out of that hole. Don’t stick around too long and try to pull everyone out because you might get dragged in… When you hang out near or in the hole with those people, I imagine you’ve got one hand reaching up with other people outside of the hole holding on to your hand that are ready to hoist you back out when you’re ready.
If possible, McCabe and Toalson suggest you cut these people out of your life completely. Unfortunately, this cannot be done with everyone (such as some family members). You can, however, scale down the time you spend with the Debbie Downers in your life.
McCabe recommends offsetting any negativity by a factor of 5 (10 hours of negativity = 50 hours of positivity). This may seem like a lot, but remember the weight that even one negative comment can carry. When you are with negative people, be on the offensive. Understand that even if they don’t say discouraging things, their negative mindset may rub off on you. Don’t go looking for confirmation and inspiration. Be the inspiration. Ask about what they enjoy doing, when they did it last, and how they can find more time for it. Then find a support network that can inspire you.
There’s a difference between a task or project being “urgent” and it being “important.” Urgent things have to be done immediately; like returning a critical email, handling a top client request, or meeting a deadline. Important things, on the other hand, contribute to a long-term goal. For example, the book you’ve always wanted to write or the website you’ve long thought about launching are important, not urgent.
In the quest for meaningful work, it’s important (so to speak) to distinguish between urgency and importance. If you’re forever bogged down by must-do’s to the detriment of would-like-to-do’s, you’ll have little hope of accomplishing what consumes your daydreams. As Mattan Griffel, founder and CEO of The Front Labs, writes on The Next Web, it’s within your power to make important tasks seem more urgent than they are, simply by the order in which you prioritize them.
The easiest way to make an important task urgent, and make sure it gets done, is to give it a deadline. Deadlines are actually what makes urgent tasks urgent: the fact that you have to deal with them immediately. A lack of deadlines is also often what makes important tasks so unimportant. They’re usually the kind of thing that you can get to eventually….
One way to make a deadline more serious is to state it publicly. When you’re publicly accountable to a deadline, then you can’t fool just yourself…. Another way to make a deadline more serious is to set up a reward for hitting a deadline and/or punishment for not hitting the deadline…. It’s very easy to ignore a deadline unless you have a constant reminder. Urgent tasks often have reminders built-in, like your friend or spouse who keeps bugging you to do something.
These days, we’re beholden to our calendars and inboxes as technological tools that structure our days. Being as time-strapped as we are (whether that pressure is self-created or not), we’d be lost without these organizational mechanisms. Very little beyond the planned agenda or lengthy list of to-do’s ever gets done.
To combat the issue, try out the Eisenhower Matrix. It’s a quadrant that asks you to plot out what on your plate is important vs. not important, and what’s urgent vs. not urgent. The quadrant that contains “Not Urgent but Important Tasks” is your sweet spot. Only if you make an important project inescapable in your daily productivity routine will you make headway on it.
As Picasso put it, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
Whether you run your own studio or work in an office, having an adaptable business plan is essential. With rapidly advancing technology and the ever-changing workscape, being open minded, reflective, and ready to learn has never been more important. In the latest issue of HOW Magazine, Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Co. encourages us to take risks and learn as we go in order to stay adaptable:
A lot of the people we talk to are really afraid of growth, and we just always approached it head-on and figured it out as we went… We still don’t make plans very far in advance because it’s really important to be nimble and be able to react to opportunities that come up very quickly and sort of change course if you need to. I feel like we’ve done that a lot. Sometimes the unexpected will come up and we’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is actually a great decision – it’s not what we were planning, but let’s just go for it,’ and it may change the course of what we were intending, but it ends up being great for the company.
Bond is able to stay adaptable because she approaches her work with an open mind. Rifle Paper Co. was founded because she took the time to review online responses to her freelance work. The largest response was to her unique style of wedding invitations which she transformed into the off-the-shelf stationary of Rifle Paper Co. But it’s not only through our past work that we’re able to shift into new things. We also need to be looking forwards and gaining new skills in order to open new doors for ourselves. Elizabeth Suzann, Nashville fashion designer, advises continuously learning more of your process, from start to finish:
Since starting Elizabeth Suzann, I learn something new about design and beauty every day. I’ve been motivated to learn as I go. Every task done in my studio, whether it be sewing, packaging or marketing, I have done myself at one point. I still work daily with my production team, too. I am always paying attention to detail and hope to improve my work as often as possible.
Suzann not only continues her learning within design, but in every aspect of fashion production. This provides her with the background knowledge to adjust her company accordingly—you can’t pivot quickly if there are huge gaps in the knowledge of your own process. Learning through trial and error feels risky, but it’s such a valuable learning experience. It took Bond three runs to perfect her first batch of greeting cards due to the manufacturing learning curve. Instead of standing still and waiting for change, Bond embraces it. “We just did it,” she says. “It may not have been perfect, but we just always moved forward.”
Inspiration and learning can quickly turn to resentment when we compare our talents with those of others. Our joy becomes tainted as we struggle in our own process while also viewing our peer’s finished, perfected work. In an interview with The Great Discontent, painter Rebecca Rebouché reminds us that everyone has to do that unglamorous hustle before the pretty, finished product and you should embrace it:
I have this saying: “There’s no music playing when your dreams are coming true.” That is the hustle. The hustle is humbling and, at best, completely authentic and gracious. Everyone sees me at the gallery opening, but no one sees me changing my clothes in my car. I could almost cry thinking about all the ways I’ve hustled, sacrificed, and scorched the earth with my striving. But what you start to realize is that hustle isn’t just for the novices and underdogs—hustle is a mindset, a practice.
Social media allows us to edit our creative process to a beautifully linear procedure. We often only see someone else’s end result, but not the time and energy involved. We don’t see the long hours clocked at the studio, the missed social outings, the self-doubt, setbacks and failures. This is the part of the process that we tend to forget when we compare ourselves to others. Minimalist Joshua Becker notes that we generally compare the worst of ourselves with the best of others.
Comparison is dangerous because we lose focus of our own goals. We get distracted by someone else’s achievements and feel discouraged about our own progress. Becker emphasizes that everyone has messy process, whether we see it or not. The key is to keep your eyes on your own work, and not lose sight of the hard work everyone has to do to get to the shiny highlight-reel-only we see on their social media profiles. Looking to others is important for inspiration and learning, but not analyzing. Comparison should only be done with yourself. Set achievements that are important to you and celebrate them when they are reached.