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.
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The feeling that you get from crossing things off your to-do list can be addicting. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of adding absolutely everything to your system, including things that can be done in two minutes or less. With enough small and insignificant tasks, you can clog your system and lose considerable time and focus. And if you overwhelm your system enough, you might even paralyze your productivity completely.
Management consultant and author of Getting Things Done, David Allen, has a two-minute rule that can not only make your projects move forward incessantly, but it can also prevent many small things from overloading your system in the first place:
If you determine an action can be done in two minutes, you actually should do it right then because it’ll take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it.
Thinking of your time in two-minute increments will allow you to get a lot of things done. When you simply do something, you eliminate all of the prioritizing, scheduling and picking of tasks. As Allen put it in a recent interview with Success magazine, the rule “is actually tricking you into making an executive decision about what is the next thing that needs to happen and that’s really the training people need.” The two-minute rule is in essence, a mind-trick.
When dealing with clients and working with teams, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “get the ball rolling” when describing project progress. But are the phone calls, emails and scheduling of meetings actually considered work? A costly mistake for many is confusing the idea of being in motion with simply taking action. Our real job, the action, should be to produce the actual deliverable. While motion and action might sound similar, they’re not the same. In a recent blog post, entrepreneur and travel photographer James Clear distinguished the two as follows:
Motion is when you’re busy doing something, but that task will never produce an outcome by itself. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will get you a result.
There are many strategies for taking action, but two that have worked for Clear are:
1. Set a schedule for your actions.
2. Pick a date to shift you from motion to action.
Being in motion is not only an inevitable part of getting things done, it’s integral. But we can’t get lost in it. Clear offers a simple way to refocus by asking: “Are you doing something? Or are you just preparing to do it? Are you in motion? Or are you taking action?” Don’t get caught up measuring progress by steps you’ve completed. In the words of ten-time NCAA National Championship winning coach John Wooden, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” Instead, be relentlessly focused on the end-goal. Motion will never produce a final result. Action will. Read the rest of Clear’s blog on motion vs. action here.
Starting a new project is an exciting experience that often requires new ways of thinking. However, when faced with multiple competing deadlines, we can be quick to treat a project like a process for the sake of efficiency. This could prove to be detrimental not only to the new project, but to existing processes and worse – to the overall growth of an enterprise. In Startup Leadership, author and professor Derek Lidow shares the dangers of confusing projects with processes:
Confusion between projects and process stifles growth and destroys value, causing a great frustration among many entrepreneurs…Whether their mission is to make money or to create social good, everything an enterprise creates is the largely the result of its projects and processes.
Lidow summarizes the major differences between projects and processes and some important ways that they relate to one another:
Have never done this before.
Do the same thing repeatively.
Goals are about creating something new or about implementing a change.
Goal is to create value by repeatively performing a task.
Project objectives and plans can be changed by whoever gives the project team its mandate and resources, provided the team also agrees.
Processes can be successfully changed only with significant planning and investment (a project is required to change a process).
Significant leadership is required to plan and execute a successful project.
Processes are managed, not led, unless they are to be changed.
Projects create change.
Processes resist change.
Projects and processes are completely different and Derek Lidow stresses that understanding their differences – and how they interrelate – is crucial to growth. In order to grow an enterprise properly, projects and processes must be used in balance.
Learn why Derek Lidow thinks real innovation comes from projects, in his Wall Street Journal article.
Creativity seems like a bolt of lightning that strikes almost completely at random. However, psychologist Robert Sternberg believes that’s not entirely true. On Fast Company, Sternberg explains that creativity can be made into a habit:
There are three basic factors that help turn creative thinking into a habit: opportunities to engage in it, encouragement to go after such opportunities, and rewards for doing so.
At a pragmatic level, this might mean finding a community of people who support and encourage your creative work….There is more, of course, to cultivating a habit of creativity than finding a community….Look for ways to see problems that other people don’t. Take risks that other people are afraid to take. Have the courage to defy the crowd and to stand up. Seek to overcome obstacles and challenges.
All it takes is a willingness to pursue creativity and, of course, the right environment to let it thrive. It’s all about persistence for many of us, he says. Read the full write-up on how to make creativity your new habit on Fast Company.
When’s the right time to quit a job if it leaves you feeling hopeless, exhausted, or like you’re wasting your time? How do you separate a day-to-day struggle from a larger problem? According to Chris Coleman, there are three clear stages for when it’s a good time to quit. Coleman tells us not only the stages, but also provides questions to ask yourself to see which stage you’re in, over on the CreativeMornings blog:
The turnover rate in creative jobs is much higher than the national average. A lot of this has to do with the “I want it now” mentality. “I deserve it.” “All my friends work at Google.” The moral of the story? Don’t leave until you have done the job. Ask yourself:
[Ask yourself the] question: Is there anyone here who will tell me the truth when I ask for feedback?
- Most bosses hate to give feedback. If you want to know how you’re doing, ask.
- Don’t settle for mamby-pamby answers. You’re looking for specificity and a neutral, open conversation.
- If there’s no one who will tell you the truth, go.
Knowing when it’s time to go and when it’s time to suck it up (because you likely still have a lot left to learn) can be hard. Coleman’s three stages — from competence to judgement and finally to influence — provide us with some nice stepping stones. Best of all: her numerous example questions can help you identify which stage you’re at (and whether you really should call it quits).
Get all of the stages and valuable questions to ask yourself on the CreativeMornings blog.