It turns out that jotting down your thoughts—before they change—makes your feelings of progress stick.

Why Keep A Diary?

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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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Turn Your Obstacles into Secret Weapons

By Golden Wolf

By Golden Wolf

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.”

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How To Navigate Difficult Conversations

By João Abraúl

By João Abraúl

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.

 Communications expert Dr. Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, shares her insights on what it takes to have difficult conversations: 
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.
Dealing with conflict isn’t easy, but it’s costly to avoid.

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Size Doesn’t Matter

By Aled Lewis

By Aled Lewis

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.”

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Step Away from the iPhone: The Case for a Paper Planner

By Jonas Löwgren

By Jonas Löwgren

Kat Ascharya, over on 2machines, makes a case for retiring devices and apps when it comes to organizing your schedule and to-do lists. She decided to try out a temporary switch from technological tablet to real notebook, and never changed back:

Using paper brought a surprising amount of joy back to my life. The advantages were practical: having a limited amount of space to write forced me to ruthlessly prioritize tasks. The process of checking my planner every morning created a sense of ritual and structure to my day. And the physical act of writing engaged me more — I remember things better.

A paper planner was unexpectedly fun, too. I would paste or tape interesting articles, images and quotations into my paper planner, turning it into a portable Pinterest-like inspiration board…. That fun and pleasure had a more efficient, effective impact on my life than any multi-platform functionality ever did. Planning and organizing became creative acts in and of themselves.

There are upsides abound for using modern technology to organize your time: it’s faster, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly (although technically, jury’s still out on that one). Technology syncs you up to your colleagues and clients—Outlook calendar invites aren’t going away any time soon. It’s more portable, requires less neatness, and needs no external implement beyond your finger. But there’s something to be said for the simplicity and artistry engendered by a pen-to-paper approach to managing your time and tasks. Many creatives Ascharya spoke with agree, citing the cognitive left-brain static that devices can create.

If it doesn’t work for your professional lifestyle to swap Google Calendar for a spiral-bound planner, consider turning to paper in other areas, like brainstorm sessions or note-taking. It’s better for your memory, leads to deeper thought, and offers less unproductive distraction.

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The Worst Stage of Burnout: “Brownout”

By Romain Laurent and BRANSCH

By Romain Laurent and BRANSCH

According to a report from the American Psychological Association, 65% of employees report that work is a significant source of stress in their lives and 41% say that they typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday.

While we might be able to successfully recognize the symptoms of burnout, we’re often oblivious to the alternative: a more deeper, obscured type of fatigue that afflicts successful, high-performing creatives. Over time, we can lose our passion for work and our commitment to our organizations, despite appearing composed.

Michael E Kibler, CEO of Corporate Balance Concepts, Inc., calls this burnout’s slower, and more sinister cousin: brownout.

Brownout, a term also used to describe part of the life cycle of a star, is different from burnout because knowledge workers afflicted by it are not in obvious crisis. They seem to be performing fine:  putting in massive hours in meetings and calls across time zones, grinding out work while leading or contributing to global teams, and saying all the right things in meetings (though not in side-bar conversations). However, these executives are often operating  in a silent state of continual overwhelm, and the predictable consequence is disengagement.

Kibler notes that high performers experiencing burnout exhibit the following signs:

  • Feeling drained from continuous, 24/7 obligations.
  • Physical deterioration due to years of sub-optimal sleep and self-care.
  • Tenuous relationships with immediate family members.
  • Distant relationships with old friends.
  • The atrophy of personal interests.
  • A diminishing ability to concentrate in non-business conversations.
Burnout is temporary, but brownout can have long-term, lasting effects.
 

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Obtain Super-Focus by Switching off Your Brain’s “Fast Mode”

By Basil Tsedik

One effect the constant overstimulation of modern media has on our brains is what Leo Babauta calls “Fast Mode.” When you rev up your mind by churning through email, your Twitter stream, Facebook news feed, and back again, your brain is working on overdrive. That million-miles-a-minute pace leads to empty productivity. You’ll cross small tasks off your to do list, sure. But you won’t complete anything meaningful or truly substantive.

Why is that exactly? The limitations of your brain’s Fast Mode lie in the quick pace of thinking and decision making. Consider how quickly you flick through tweets, thumbing down each page, favoriting some, clicking on a link here and there, replying briefly to others. Or email: most of the time you probably plow through your inbox, filing and archiving certain messages, deleting others, dashing off a rapid response to those that require it. Any emails that require more deliberate thought undoubtedly languish longer in your inbox until you can find the spare time to address them. Fast Mode is harmful in its blockage of deeper thought:

Writing or otherwise creating when your brain is in Fast Mode is nearly impossible, until you switch to Slow Mode. You’ll just switch from the writing to some smaller, faster task, or go to distractions. Considering a tough decision long enough to weigh the various factors and make a good decision is also pretty near impossible while you’re in Fast Mode…. You can’t really exercise or meditate in Fast Mode, either, because those take longer than a minute.

Babauta encourages learning to recognize when you’re operating in mental Fast Mode, and pump the brakes to switch gears to Slow Mode:

Being in Fast Mode leads to constant switching, and constant busy-ness. It leads to overwork, because when do you switch it off? It leads to exhaustion, because we never give ourselves breathing room.

Learn to recognize when you’re in Fast Mode, and practice switching to Slow Mode now and then. It’s essential to doing all the things that are really important.

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