Why do we fritter away our days responding to email, and then kick ourselves for not working on our most important creative projects? It turns out that there are actually some pretty good reasons. Number one among them is that responding to email gives us a sense of progress. (And progress is a huge motivator for creatives.)
Here’s behavioural economist Dan Ariely in our new 99U book:
First, people have a really bad habit of coming in and checking e-mail first thing in the morning. And for many people, the morning is the most productive time. E-mail is very, very tempting, so they basically sacrifice their productive time for e-mail.
The second issue is that in doing things, we like to feel that we’re making progress. So if you get to erase ten e-mails from your inbox, you feel like you have achieved something. But if you think carefully about it, it’s not clear that you’re going to get something out of it.
The next thing working against us is the calendar. It has a tendency to represent tasks that can fit in thirty-minute or one-hour blocks. And tasks that take, say, fifty hours—which could be how long it takes you to complete a meaningful creative task—don’t naturally get represented in that calendar.
Then there’s opportunity cost. With money, opportunity cost is the fact that every time you spend three dollars on a latte, you’re not going to spend it on something else. With time, there is also an opportunity cost—but it’s often even harder to understand.
Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else. But you don’t really see what it is that you’re giving up. Especially when it comes to, let’s say, e-mail versus doing something that takes fifty hours. It is very easy for you to see the e-mail. It is not that easy for you to see the thing that takes fifty hours.
So what then is the solution? According to Ariely, it’s all about creating more tangible progress markers for our creative projects—journaling or blogging about our daily progress, saving versions of our work, and so forth.
You can find the complete interview, as well as contributions from Gretchen Rubin, Scott Belsky, Stefan Sagmeister and more, in Manage Your Day-to-Day, the new book from 99U.
Making things happen requires focus, especially when you’re a creative professional. But in a world of increasing distractions and multiple competing priorities, achieving focus is often easier said that done. Being overwhelmed paralyzes our productivity.
In The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, Gary Keller says that you only need to ask one question in order to move in the right direction. The Focusing Question “helps you keep your first step from being a misstep,” writes Keller. Ask yourself:
What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Throughout human history, innovation – including the technological progress we cherish – has been fuelled and sustained by imitation. Copying is the mighty force that has allowed the human race to move from stone knives to remote-guided drones, from digging sticks to crops that manufacture their own pesticides. Plenty of animals can innovate, but no other species on earth can imitate with the skill and accuracy of a human being. We’re natural-born rip-off artists. To be human is to copy.
Of course, the imitative behavior in question does not include outright plagiarism, which is always wrong. Rather, the echo-like actions McGowan’s argument concerns comprise of taking cues from and building off of others’ innovative advances. Babies learn to walk by imitating adults. Writers learn to string sentences together by reading shelffuls of books. Entrepreneurs found game-changing companies by studying the successes of existing organizations.
The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own.
Innovation isn’t the result of a lightning bolt of genius. It’s the outcome of iterative improvements on existing knowledge. So go ahead, borrow a line of code from another developer on GitHub. Thank them for it, and build something new with it. And don’t feel guilty that you couldn’t have done it without the help of another member of the community. If our ancestors felt that way, there wouldn’t even be code to borrow in the first place.
Being overwhelmed can create a vicious cycle: as a result of feeling anxious, you then spend all of your energy worrying about your anxiety, which in-turn makes you even more anxious, repeating the cycle endlessly.
To break the cycle, we must find or create a place for ourselves where we can go to get away from it all, both mentally and physically. This is particularly true of the modern-day work environment, where we not only worry about criticism from our boss or co-workers, but also have to deal with conflicts and competition, staying in-the-loop with an endless stream of emails or notifications, and managing complaints around our work, performance, and product.
Researchers like Sandra L. Bloom, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, explain that high levels of stress in the workplace are akin to a stressful environment for children. Neither allow for healthy development:
To develop normally, children require environmental stress sufficient to promote skills development and mastery experiences (positive stress) combined with sufficient buffering to prevent them from being overwhelmed.
That buffer is a way of building a foundation from which we can better manage the stress we’re likely to encounter. The key, says entrepreneur and author Tony Schwartz, is in finding somewhere safe and reliable where we can relax, escape our fears or worries, and most importantly: get some a rest from the stress.
The more energy we spend defending against perceived threats — most often to our sense of value and worthiness — the less energy we have available to create value and the more damage we’re likely to create. The most fundamental, powerful and enduring fuel for performance, it turns out, is a feeling of safety and trust — in ourselves and in the world around us… Building even short periods of time into every day to collect and reset yourself makes you more resilient in the face of the challenges and threats that inevitably arise.
Create daily buffers by taking a physical step away from everything, to breathe and relax. Maybe your personal buffer is going to your favorite coffee shop, finding a private room to meditate in, or going for a walk when things start to get overwhelming. Or build it into your daily schedule, such as finding a quiet place to take your lunch alone with a good book.
As Schwartz concludes:
“The enemy of sustainable productivity is not stress. Rather, it’s the absence of intermittent rest and renewal.”
As professional snowboarders from the flattest province in Canada (not exactly ideal for a downhill sport), Mark and Craig McMorris understand that creative problem-solving is fundamental to following your passion. In a mini-documentary presented by Red Bull, Craig explains how they made their passion a reality despite the glaring set backs:
We grew up without that traditional path or guys that went before us and became pro snowboarders where we’re from. We didn’t get that, but what we did get was a different set of skills from wake boarding and skateboarding and also scratching tooth and nail to get on the snowboard as much as possible. I think that’s what drove our passion. So we had to be creative, very innovative and we just found different ways to do it. We are continuing in our snowboarding to find different ways of reaching that next step.
Mark and Craig needed to be creative out of necessity to acquire the skills required for snowboarding at a professional level. This necessity, however, also led them to excel due to their different approach to the sport. Often we think we need to practice one skill, and that one skill alone to make us great. However, by improving other similar talents, you improve overall and continue to be inspired. As Craig relates, “what really inspires us and gets us to where we’re at is also doing different sports outside of snowboarding.”
Sooner or later you will have a difficult conversation with your team. Research shows that 80% of managers believe that difficult conversations are a part of their job. Yet 53% said that they avoid conversations due to a lack of training.
Don’t tell the other person what to do.You’re there to discover what it would take for the person to want the result you want…Once you discover what they want, you can help motivate them to move forward.Put the other person first.Enter the conversation with the purpose of helping the other person discover solutions…If they sense you’re there for yourself alone, they will not engage.Set an emotional intention for the conversation.If you’re angry or disappointed from the beginning, the other person will never open up. What do you want him or her to feel? Inspired? Hopeful? Use this word as an anchor during the conversation.Show authentic respect.Recall the person’s good work and remember that they’re doing their best with that they know how. Even if you disagree with their perspective, honor the human in front of you.
Everyone wants the next big idea, but creative writer Scott Berkun knows the power of small ideas. In his blog post Why Small Ideas Can Matter More Than Big Ideas, he explains you should be more concerned about the application of the idea:
Rather than worrying about the size of an idea, which most people do, it’s more productive to think about the possible leverage an idea has. To do this requires thinking not only about the idea itself, but how it will be used. An idea can have a different amount of leverage depending on where, when and how carefully it is applied.
For example, the McDonald brothers had the simple idea of making their food process repeatable to improve efficiency. Not a big idea in itself, but when applied consistently to their now 35,000 locations, it had a huge result. Alternatively, you can take a small idea from one industry and apply it to another, such as the safety checklist pilots use and apply it to hospital surgeons. So don’t throw out your small idea; it may just need to be utilized differently. Berkun reminds us, “the basic logic we use is the bigger the idea, the bigger the value, but often that’s not true.”