As he was doing research for his book, published author and Georgetown University Computer Sciences Professor Cal Newport discovered that many straight-A students spent less time studying than most people thought.
Newport breaks it down on his blog:
If this sounds unbelievable, it is probably because you subscribe to the following formula:
work accomplished = time spent studying
The more time you study the more work you accomplish. The more work you accomplish, the better your grades. Ergo, straight A’s imply more work. Right? Then how do you explain me and my interview subjects…
To understand our accomplishment, you must understand the following, more accurate formula:
work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus
To further illustrate his point, Newport shares an example:
Intensity of Focus over Time for Marathon Session Approach
hour 1 : 10
hour 2 : 9
hour 3 : 5
hour 4 : 2
hour 5-10 : 1
[For math geeks, this is standard exponential decay.]
If we take the area under this curve, we see that the pseudo-worker has accomplished: 32 units of work.
Now let’s consider another approach. Assume, instead, that you break up the paper writing into two bursts. One burst you do for two hours Saturday afternoon. The other burst you do for two hours on Sunday morning. The long gap in between ensures your focus can recharge. Following the rates of focus decay used above, your chart looks like:
Intensity of Focus over Time for Short Burst Approach
hour 1 (sat) : 10
hour 2 (sat) : 9
hour 3 (sun) : 10
hour 4 (sun) : 9
Clearly, this work schedule is much less painful. Just two hours at a time. And a whole day separating the two sessions. However, when we calculate the area under this curve, we see that the short burst approach accomplished: 38 units of work!
Don’t expect better results simply by putting in more hours, and don’t do ineffective pseudo-work just because it makes you feel productive (or less guilty). Instead, work in short bursts in order to make sure your focus gets a recharge and become more effective and efficient.
It’s said that the average “prime” of a creative career is just 10 years. After that, the ideas dry up and with them the motivation to work outside the box. How can we extend our creative potential to last 20, 30, or even 50 years? Over at Wired UK, John Hegarty shares his insights on the matter:
Remove the headphones. Inspiration is everywhere — you just have to see it. If you accept that creative people are “transmitters” — they absorb all kinds of stimuli, thoughts and ideas and they reinterpret them and send them back to the world as pieces of inspiration — then it’s obvious that the more you see, connect and juxtapose, the more interesting your work will be.
The more you stay connected and stimulated, the greater the relevance of your work. By walking around in a digital cocoon you push the world away; great creative people constantly embrace it. You need to nourish your soul and your imagination.
Headphones—whether metaphorical or literal—block out the very stimulus that keeps us inspired as creatives.
While blocking out the world and focusing on our work allows us to accomplish more, it also hinders our ability to receive new input and utilize the world around us for generating even more creative ideas.
Hegarty explains how taking off your headphones isn’t the only way to strengthen (and lengthen) your creative career though. If you want to have a long and productive career as a creative, you need to avoid cynicism and its ability to undermine belief in your work, Hegarty explains. It’s also important to mix with the best creatives around us, to not hide our work or ideas.
Ed Catmull, Cofounder of Pixar, shared with Harvard Business Review how to create a work environment that encourages creativity in everyone. The interview is long, and well worth the read, but his three main takeaways are:
Anyone can talk to anyone: Individuals from every department should have the ability to speak with each other without having to ask for permission. Keep the communication lines open so people can learn and be inspired by each other.
Everyone has ideas: Learn to give and receive feedback in a positive way on unfinished work. Early criticism provides the freedom to try new things because it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. Ensure that every department, regardless of discipline, has the opportunity to comment.
Build subcultures: Break up formal departments by creating new ones. Pixar University offers classes for people to try a new discipline or something unrelated (like pilates or yoga). You never know what may come from a chance encounter with another department.
Barriers between people can easily spring up in any industry. Catmull warns that, “in a creative business like ours, these barriers are impediments to producing great work, and therefore we must do everything we can to tear them down.”
On photographer Chase Jarvis’ blog we get a look at how to best schedule our days in order to utilize what Tony Schwartz calls “strategic renewal.” It’s the concept of participating in short activities throughout the day in order to energize us both physically and mentally:
The theory boils down to the fact that we can’t increase the hours in the day, but we can increase the energy with which we make the most of those hours. Taking short, scheduled breaks throughout the day rejuvenates and restores us physically and mentally, helping us plow through those assignments and to-do lists in a third of the time.
Inspired by Schwarz and the studies he cited, I created a Daily Schedule that broke up my day into 90-minute Work Blocks, separated by 30 minute Breaks and, in the middle of my day, a 2-hour lunch. I know some of you just spit your coffee out. But you read that right.
While your Daily Schedule blocks may be different from what is set in the article, the concept remains the same: break your day into 90 minute blocks (which research has shown is the ideal length of time for any focused activity), then sprinkle in a few short chunks of restorative activities. Activities can include everything from walking, working out, a short nap, or anything that gets you away from the work for a short while.
For more information on how to schedule your ideal day to achieve strategic renewal, read the full write-up on the concept over on Chase Jarvis’ blog.
Related: How to Accomplish More By Doing Less
Work conflicts are inevitable regardless of the size of the team. At your office, perhaps the marketers and developers can’t agree on a launch date. Or as a freelancer, perhaps an irate client is strong-arming you into another round of design revisions. But before we try to deal with a conflict, Mark Gerzon, the author of Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences Into Opportunities, asks us to stop and consider the following question:
Is the conflict hot or cold?
Hot conflict is when one or more parties are highly emotional and doing one or more of the following: speaking loudly or shouting; being physically aggressive, wild or threatening; using language that is incendiary; appearing out of control and potentially explosive.
Cold conflict is when one or more parties seem to be suppressing emotions, or actually appear “unemotional,” and are doing one or more of the following: muttering under their breath or pursing their lips; being physically withdrawn or controlled; turning away or otherwise deflecting contact; remaining silent or speaking in a tone that is passively aggressive; appearing shut down or somehow frozen.
Gauging the temperature of the conflict allows us to deal with the particular situation’s needs. Gerzon suggests that cold conflicts need to be warmed up and that hot conflicts need to be cooled down:
If the conflict is hot: You don’t want to bring participants in a hot conflict together in the same room without settings ground rules that are strong enough to contain the potentially explosive energy. For example, if you are dealing with a conflict between two board members who have already attacked each other verbally, you would set clear ground rules — and obtain agreement to them — at the outset of your board meeting before anyone has a chance to speak.
If the conflict is cold: You can usually go ahead and bring the participants or stakeholders in the conflict together, engaging them in constructive communication. That dialogue, if properly facilitated, should “warm up” the conflict enough so that it can begin to thaw out and start the process of transformation. But you will still need to be vigilant and prepared. Conflict is often cold precisely because so much feeling is being repressed. So you need to skillfully know how to warm it up without the temperature unexpectedly skyrocketing.
As our teams grow, so do the opportunities for conflict. “Conflict resolution, like cooking, works best at the optimal temperatures,” Gerzon says. “You want to bring conflict into a temperature zone where it can become useful and productive.”
For an innovative company like 3M, who invented masking tape, Thinsulate, and the Post-it note, stifling creativity was a major concern after a series of “efficiency boosting” techniques were implemented. On BusinessWeek, Brian Hindo discusses how they’ve struggled since with balancing creativity and productivity. As 3M’s past CEO George Buckley elaborates:
Invention is by its very nature a disorderly process. You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that area and say, well, I’m getting behind on invention, so I’m going to schedule myself for three good ideas on Wednesday and two on Friday. That’s not how creativity works.
Ideas need room to breathe. Researcher Steven Boyd found innovation hard to find when asked to analyze everything from commercial application to manufacturing concerns on his projects. This was a huge departure from 3M’s traditional method of allowing the research department to pursue a wide avenue of topics, engage in long testing periods and provide funding for personal projects. Remember to standardize your process, not your innovation.
Instead of just going through the motions on your next project, look for the hidden opportunities you already have. On The Creative Influence, graphic designer Michael Bierut challenges us to look for opportunities in even the most dull assignments. He speaks about his mentor, designer Massimo Vignelli, when he was asked to sort through the chaos of the New York subway signage during the 1960s. He remembers thinking:
Does that sound like an exciting job to you? I wanted to design record covers for rock bands and this is signs for the subway, what the heck? But Massimo understood that every assignment like that had within it the opportunity to do something of consequence. So imagine that, for many people when you sort of say, “what is New York to you?” Sometimes what they picture is standing on a subway platform under a sign that says ‘Uptown 456.’
As Bierut learned, “every single opportunity has the potential to be something that might have some impact on peoples’ daily lives for years to come.”