Progress is the single most important motivating factor when it comes to work. That might seem obvious. But what’s not obvious is that we don’t always see our progress. In fact, we’re prone to lose track of it, if we don’t regularly document what’s happening in our lives.
Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has been researching what motivates creatives, and what keeps them going, for years. And it turns out the simple answer is: Keeping a diary.
Here’s what Amabile has to say about the power of diaries in an essay penned with Steven Kramer and Ela Ben-Ur for our new 99U book, Maximize Your Potential:
Creative people frequently work solo, without the benefit of colleagues who could help capture or develop their ideas. But even teams and organizations rarely offer creatives the necessary time, understanding, and patience to nurture their creative seedlings. A diary can help fill the void. It can serve as a sounding board and an alter-ego companion—one who will never forget what you say. What might otherwise have been isolated or passing thoughts become permanent and potentially powerful ideas.
This sounding board can serve a number of functions, the simplest of which is planning. Many entries in “The Daybooks” of Edward Weston reveal him focusing on future actions to capitalize on emerging opportunities:
“The excerpts from my daybook and photographs will be published in the August issue of Creative Art… It seems my fortunes are to change for something better. Now I must spend all my spare time in cutting and correcting my manuscript.” —Edward Weston, May 23, 1928
Of course, Weston could have used a simple calendar or to-do list to plan next steps. But notice his remark that his luck seems to be changing. What a calendar cannot do, and a journal can, is help you reflect on the big picture of your life and your creative work—where it is, what it means, and what direction you want it to take.
Diaries can be particularly helpful tools for accurately capturing positive events. In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between experience and memory, noting that human memory of an experience can easily be altered. Kahneman describes a man who was enjoying a concert immensely until the very end, when there was an obnoxious sound in the concert hall. The man said that the noise ruined the entire concert for him. But it didn’t really, of course; he had enjoyed the concert up until that moment. What it did ruin was his memory of the concert.
By keeping a daily diary, you will reduce the chance that some later event will transform your memory of the day’s experiences. So when you feel you have accomplished something, write it down soon, before a client or critic has the opportunity to say something that diminishes that sense of progress.
You can find the complete essay, as well as contributions from Joshua Foer, Jonathan Fields, and Tony Schwartz and more, in Maximize Your Potential, the latest addition to our 99U book series.
When asked in an interview about how he structures his work week, Jack Dorsey (co-founder of Twitter and Square) said: “Sunday is [for] reflections, feedback, strategy and getting ready for the rest of the week.”
Laura Vanderkam, author of “What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend,” observed that weekends, especially Sundays, are crucial when it comes to getting clear and prepared for the coming week. She’s dubbed the process of recalibrating yourself on the sabbath as “Sort-Your-Life-Out-Sunday.”
[On Sunday,] do something you love Monday to Friday. When the conditions of your job are right, you can start the week excited about it. You like the work for its own sake and hence, it isn’t a cause of anxiety.
But another, perhaps more practical, idea is to schedule something fun for Sunday nights. Get together for a game night with friends. Have people over for dinner. Find an adult soccer league that plays on Sunday nights. Go to religious services. Volunteer with your family somewhere. In nice weather when it stays light late, go for a long bike ride or walk. The key is to figure out something you’d really enjoy doing, then plan it ahead of time.
Think of it as performing a more comprehensive and personal version David Allen’s infamous weekly review. Sort your life out on Sunday, and you’ll hit Monday ready to go!
Due out in less than a month, Make Your Mark is the third installment in the 99U book series—and the first to tackle the subject of leading a creative business.
These days an MFA is as likely to be leading a business as an MBA. More designers, artists, journalists, and creatives of all kinds are stepping up to the plate and anointing themselves entrepreneurs. The thing is: Creatives don’t work like everyone else. We’re restless and innovative and neurotic and full of ideas and energy. And we want to make stuff. But how does that “maker mentality” sync up with leading a business?
That’s what Make Your Mark is all about. We made a business book for creatives by creatives. It collects 21 essays and interviews from leading creative minds at businesses big and small, like Warby Parker, Google X, Facebook, DODOcase, Sugru, Contently, and many more.
How to Enter the Giveaway:
Make Your Mark is not just about how to run any old business. It’s about how to run a creative business with purpose, meaning, and IMPACT. So, for our giveaway, we’re asking you to take the “Maker’s Pledge” to dedicate your business to making something that matters.
Just tweet out the Maker’s Pledge below (make sure to follow us), and we’ll give a free copy of Make Your Mark to the first 50 tweets.
“I, _____, take the Maker’s Pledge to solve real problems and make something that matters. www.99u.com/book #makeyourmark”
Make Your Mark will be available on Nov 18th. Pre-order the book now.
We can’t always do what we want. But for our businesses, we should build, start, and create things that we’re truly passionate about. We tend to be more successful when we’re working on projects that electrify us.
When it comes to growing our businesses, we may want to step back into the shoes of our young selves when we approach our work, suggests John Petersen, CEO of Firehawk Creative. In an article for We Work magazine, he writes:
Kids do what they want to do. If you force them to do something, they put in as little effort as possible to get to a time when they can do what they want.
He also reminds us that:
Kids aren’t trying to come up with some scheme where they never have to work again. They just want to do their thing.
Yes, we need to pay our bills. Yes, there’s always laundry to take care of. And yes, responsibilities only seem to grow as we get older. But building something in hopes that you’ll be Zuckerberg-rich will more than likely leave you anxious and frustrated. Instead, focus on building the best, most authentic business you can.
I don’t believe in briefs; I believe in relationships. The difference between a brief and a relationship is a brief can be anonymous. And I’ve tended over the last fifteen to twenty years to really work with people who give you a really deep sense of where it is they want to go, what it is that they are dreaming about. And that, in turn, has informed us on the projects more than any brief has ever done so.
Initial discussions should provide not only the vision for the project, but the aspirations of the company. Instead of anonymously sending out briefs, make it a collaborative thing: the brief will naturally evolve out of these client conversations. With continued dialogue, you build the trust you need to really question ideas and find innovation. Use the brief as a creative tool to open up dialogue with your clients, negotiate easier, and get to the heart of the problem.
Do notifications impact your workflow?
Co-founder and CEO of Buffer, Joel Gascoigne, undertook an experiment in which he disabled all notifications on his phone. Not only did he regain his focus, he was also able to convert his workflow from reactionary to proactive:
It is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look.
Focus isn’t a magic ability. It’s simply a function of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating. 99U challenges you to turn off all notifications for a week, and let us know how it goes below.
It’s important to be aware of inspiration that simply influences us versus inspiration that turns us into a copycat. Knowing the difference can help turn us into the type of creative worker we strive to be. As Evernote designer Joshua Taylor explains in this interview over at the InVision blog:
Researching and seeing what others are doing is important. I try not to do that too much though because I think there’s a subconscious tendency to copy as soon as you start looking at everyone else’s stuff. My advice is that if you are going to look at others’ work, look at a ton of them so that there’s enough influences and you can’t distinguish between them. Constantly looking at other people’s work has a huge impact on who you are…We are all products of our environments, so surround yourself with great things.
The right inspiration, at the right time (and in the right amount), can be just what we need to improve our own ideas and creative work. It’s when we catch ourselves looking for inspiration as a way to solve the task at hand or complete the work we’re doing that we know we’ve stumbled into possible copycat territory.
Instead, we must strive to constantly surround ourselves with a lot of varied and high caliber work.