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.
No matter your field, your communication style, or your organizational habits, you’re likely bound to the holy quartet of organizational work tools: email, conference call, chat, and calendar. On Blinkist’s blog Page 19, Caitlin Schiller diagnoses a lot of the wasted time and unproductiveness that plagues the modern working world as misuse of said work tools. Consider the common problems of workplace chat that likely plague you, as they do all modern professionals at one time or another:
The main problem with office chat is that people feel freer to write off-the-cuff questions because they’re not technically interrupting—the recipient can still choose whether or not to respond. The thing is, we’re reactive creatures, and we feel that we need to stop what we’re doing and attend to the people who ping us. Even though your intention with getting in touch by chat is to be unobtrusive, you have little control over whether your colleague’s work is interrupted. If she sees a message notification, chances are she’ll look. Even if she doesn’t respond outright, a portion of her focus will now be diverted by your remark or question. In general, chat should only be used for quick questions that are keeping you from moving forward with your work, or to set up a time with a co-worker to talk through a larger issue. Anything else, put in an email so you’re not disturbing your colleagues.
When in doubt, only chat if you would want to be chatted. The caveat, of course, is that, best practices aside, everyone has slightly different preferences and affinities when it comes to work tools. So: ask the handful of people with whom you work most closely what their specific inclinations are when it comes to using chat, and also email, phone call, or calendar invites, so you can maximize your collective productivity. One person may prefer that you email them even with yes/no questions rather than interrupt their workflow with a drive-by. Another may want to untangle a project snafu together over chat rather than phone so that there’s a written record he or she can refer back to later. For most creatives, especially when it comes to work tools, getting sh*t done is a team sport and there’s no one-size-fits-all uniform.
There’s never enough time. There never will be enough time. Time management is a doomed battle, especially for creatives who are constantly juggling a variety of projects.
In an article on Quartz, writer and psychologist Tony Crabbe describes how our modern obsession with time management grew out of the Industrial Revolution, when factories needed to coordinate hundreds of people’s shifts in synchronicity. That tidal shift from the concept of task management to time management is responsible for what has today become a monumental issue: We are all way too busy, scrambling to get way too much done, in an ultimately futile effort to clear our inboxes and complete our to-do lists often to the detriment of deeper, more meaningful output:
[W]hen we complete more tasks, all that happens is more appear to take their place—send more emails, get more replies. In essence, if we do more as a result of better managing our time, we don’t get it all done—we just become busier…. When we scatter our attention across a thousand micro-activities, we prevent ourselves from engaging deeply or thinking properly….
Research by Microsoft, for example, suggests that 77% of UK workers feel they have had a productive day if they have emptied their inbox. It constantly horrifies me to see the number of blogs and books which focus on the goal of getting to an empty inbox or zero tasks, as if either achievement was worthwhile. No business or life was changed by an empty inbox.
Here’s a (not “the”, but “a”) solution: first, stop measuring your personal success or productivity by the number of emails that languish in your inbox. Accept the discomfort that comes from letting some messages go unanswered for longer than usual.
Next, consciously carve out time every single day (i.e., ironically, put it on your calendar) to X out of your Outlook or Gmail, turn your phone on silent and put it in your pocket or face down on your desk, and remove any visible clocks or timekeepers from the vicinity. Luxuriate in the absence of time-tracking, and just immerse yourself in the deep creative, contemplative thinking that can’t happen when you’re even subconsciously, subtly aware of how many minutes have gone by. By doing so, you’re taking back the power to manage your actual work, not your time.
We can’t change the basic unwritten code of how the modern working world operates. At least for the time being, the email inbox and other digital message repositories (project management software, IMs, texts, Twitter DMs) hold us accountable based on a temporal structure. You wouldn’t be a responsible working adult if you just decided to answer only the emails you felt like answering, whenever, based on your level of creative inspiration. But you can create a functional balance between task management and time management that’s short of the incorrectly-hallowed inbox zero. Take back your tasks, and in so doing you’ll take back your time.
If you want to heighten the experience of your work, you need to appeal to more than just one of the five senses. Without realizing it, we tend to only cater to one of our senses in our work—for example, designers or web developers who focus on sight. Abstract visual artist Devon Sioui explains how incorporating even just one more sensation can change the overall experience:
My sister-in-law Faye [Harnest] is an author, poet, and braille transcriber. She always had this idea to incorporate braille in a visual way with paintings and texture… She’ll punch her poem in a braille machine on acetate and from there we will attach it to the canvas. Then there is a lot of paint layering overtop and incorporating the edges so it doesn’t look like it’s taped on… [we want] people to come [and] explore the paintings by touch… because you don’t ever really get to do that.
By engaging the sense of touch along with sight, Sioui and Harnest are able to enhance the overall artwork experience for both themselves and the audience. Besides visually taking in the dynamic colors and composition, the artwork takes one way the audience experiences the world around them and integrates it into another, heightening the senses.
Industrial designer Jinsop Lee started evaluating his life experiences based on senses by creating a graph with a scale from one to ten along the vertical axis and the five senses along the horizontal. Every time he had a memorable experience, he recorded it like a five senses diary. He found that the best experiences engaged more senses on a higher level than others easily forgotten. Once he was aware of what made for the best experiences, he began appealing to more senses within his design work. Lee challenges us to incorporate as many senses as possible to make any experience more memorable:
Now in the middle of all this five senses work, I suddenly remembered the solar-powered clocks projectfrom my youth. And I realized this theory also explains why Chris’ clock is so much better than mine. You see, my clock only focuses on sight, and a little bit of touch. Here’s Chris’ clock. It’s the first clock ever that uses smell to tell the time. In fact, in terms of the five senses, Chris’ clock is a revolution.
And that’s what this theory taught me about my field. You see, up till now, us designers, we’ve mainly focused on making things look very pretty, and a little bit of touch, which means we’ve ignored the other three senses. Chris’ clock shows us that even raising just one of those other senses can make for a brilliant product.
Of course, not every line of work will be able to add extra senses to a project—or at least, not without having to really sit and think outside of the box. Which in itself is the whole point: to expand your thinking about what’s involved in your work. Perfect experiences engage all the senses, so why focus on only one? See what other senses you could pull in. It could be what turns a good project into an unexpectedly great one.
Thanks to Cool Hunting, this week’s sponsor of Workbook.
Each year, Cool Hunting interviews hundreds of makers, inventors, and entrepreneurs that are just on the cusp of breaking out and becoming the next big thing. So when they selected their 25 most interesting innovators, we paid attention. The Cool Hunting 25 is a eclectic, diverse list of people that are pushing the boundaries of their field, like the chef democratizing gardening, and the recent college grade revolutionizing the way you’ll charge your phone.
You can read the entire CH25 list here. Below, the 99U Team picked three of our favorites that embody the ethos of making ideas happen.
A recent college grad, Perry is attempted to rid the world of one of its more annoying inhabitants: cords. Already receiving $10 million in funding and interest from major brands like Starbucks, uBeam might just end the tyranny of outlet.
As any city-dweller can tell you, growing a garden in an urban environment requires a bit of creativity. Stuffed in a window frame or planted in a nearby community space, most urban gardens aren’t as fruitful or as accessible as they could be. Enter Urban Cultivator, a self-contained automatic garden that can fit into most kitchens, giving you fresh eats on the regular.
In an effort to make performances more engaging Jonathan Sparks has been on a mission to improve the live instrument ensemble. His most unique invention: the Nomis.
As a leader, it’s easy to devote most of your mental energy to tackling the “big” things: bringing in new clients, money flow, the level of work quality. But as Ben Horowitz, cofounder and partner of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has discovered in his years advising and investing in startups, focusing on the big things is often actually to your detriment. Without intricate knowledge of what’s going on at the ground level, you can’t effect change.
For example, let’s say you and your team have been finding yourselves struggling to ship projects on schedule. Rather than simply laying out new, stricter expectations for meeting deadlines (which will not only not inspire or motivate your team, but will also not give them clear direction or address any of the issues they might be facing that caused the problem to begin with) start small.
Identify some of the factors that might be causing delays at different milestones along the project path. Is the client not delivering feedback on time? Are there too many needless meetings? Does the group need a more organized communication setup? Based on the insights you glean, make adjustments to the current conditions and take note of how they affect the outcome of shipping on time. Repeat the process until you’ve found winning circumstances, thereby accomplishing the larger goal.
Horowitz suggest getting into the weeds and really understanding that changing the little things is how you make real progress:
If you are worried about the quarter, you might think that it’s a good idea to call your head of sales twice a day to get the status. By doing so, you might think you are creating the appropriate sense of urgency. In reality, you are just distracting her from closing the quarter twice a day. In fact, by radically overemphasizing the quarter, you will likely cause your sales leader to begin focusing on the cover up — the byzantine set of excuses that she will deploy in the case that she actually misses her number….
Similarly, if you are deeply worried about engineering throughput, lamenting that your engineers don’t work as hard as other companies that you’ve heard about will achieve very little other than making your engineers think they are the “B” team. On the other hand, spending time going through their day and really understanding what’s slowing them down in the code base, where their build environment is working against them and how the communication overhead between groups slows them down might help a great deal…
You should set high-level goals, but those goals will or will not be achieved by the organization that you assigned them to. If you want to help them reach their goals, do so by focusing on the little things…. Focus on the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.
By gathering the granular data and learning the intricacies of the situation, you discover the actual mechanics that go into the process of what may seem to be a small task but, in aggregate with other small tasks, adds up to real impact. In so doing, you glean invaluable insights that end up driving progress overall.
Fast Company recently collected productivity tips from several dozen top designers, and one of the recurring themes was the power of the reading break to re-energize and reflect:
Joe Stewart, partner, Work & Co.: My trick is reading. The first thing I do when I get to the office is start reading. I have a stack of books on my desk, all design related, and I’ll read for a little bit. Not long, maybe 15 to 20 minutes. I switch back from different books on different days. It calms me down, gets me focused, and lets me think about the bigger picture… When I am running out of steam and I’m getting distracted, I grab a book and do the same thing. Read for 15 to 20 minutes. I find myself re-focused and fresh, it’s like taking a nap. I don’t know enough about these things, but it seems like I’m using a different part of my brain—so my design brain gets to rest and my reading brain stimulates me. I come back ready to go and feeling content.
Jared Ficklin, Argo Design: I voraciously consume science fiction and peruse several design blogs a day. It keeps the lateral thought pathways open.
Hector Ouilhet Olmos, product designer, Google: Whenever I need an extra hit of inspiration, I browse books from James Turrell, Tadao Ando, or Santiago Calatrava while enjoying a glass of scotch.
Taking a moment to read at the beginning of the day or on a break during your workflow can really recharge your brain, juicing your mental pathways with fresh inspiration. You never know what unexpected insights you’ll be able to pull from the history of Rome or Warren Buffet’s approach to investing. Bonus points if it’s a physical book; reading print is a respite for your screen-saturated eyes, and leads to greater comprehension of the material thanks to the lack of distraction. Fitting in reading breaks throughout your day also contributes to your general knowledge bank, which serves you well for future creative thinking. The more you know about a wide variety of subjects, the more nuanced thought you can apply to a slew of situations.
Keep a stack of interesting books on or near your desk and you’ll always have material on hand to nurture your mind when you need it most.
Yes, notebooks are an easy place to capture ideas inspired by everyday life, no matter where you are. More importantly though, if you begin to review the daily notes or doodles left in your notebook, you will begin to find trends and themes within your smaller ideas that can be brought together and refined. Being able to connect the dots on the patterns between your work and your life can lead to work you had never considered a possibility before.
In an interview with Stussy, Lyons discloses he has always doodled monsters but it wasn’t until his daughter refused to eat her school lunches before they were really developed. He would include daily notes in her meal with monsters saying crazy things like, “Eat your eggs or I’ll break your legs.” After an entire school year, he had a collection of monsters and began including them in his artwork. Once you start reviewing your work, you’ll begin noticing themes and trends like Lyons. According to author Austin Kleon in his book Show Your Work, this is the way to really make use of all your ideas:
When you detect these patterns, you can start gathering these bits and pieces and turn them into something bigger and more substantial. You can turn your flow into stock. For example, a lot of the ideas in this book [Show Your Work] started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.
The first step: Always carry a notebook. If you don’t remember your ideas, you can’t revisit them later. Second: Keep all your ideas together in one notebook. As a creative, it’s tempting to start multiple sketchbooks under different themes or mediums. Try to limit yourself so you don’t have to round up multiple books for your review.
By using one notebook, you’ll find a lot of smaller ideas that otherwise might have eventually gotten pushed aside for the meatier, well developed concepts. Those are the real gems. Creative director and illustrator Kevin Lyons explains how he tries to use every one of his ideas:
No matter what I’m doing, I’m not an artist. I know I say that and people think that I’m being sarcastic or facetious or whatever. But I am really not because I approach things always with a designer’s mentality, even when I am doing so called ‘art’. I’ll do a zine that’s all the post it notes of me making monsters while I’ve been on the phone… Almost everything I do will eventually get seen. I’m like an old time chef that uses the entire animal, you know, cooks every part of the animal.
Alternatively, you can consolidate your concepts on an online platform. This includes the additional benefit of gaining public feedback and the help of others in recognizing trends. Once you notice a common thread, develop it and see where it takes you. Don’t let any of your work go unused.