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.
You probably know of at least one person who uses emails for real-time requests. They annoyingly ask if you’ve read their emails, sometimes instantly after sending them. This expectation puts unnecessary pressure on you to interrupt your productivity by incessantly checking your inbox.
For those of us working with such people, consultant Cyrus Stoller has come up with some rules on using multiple channels to reach each other instead of just email. With smartphones, we’re able to create a simple system of sorting and escalating priorities.
He says that if you want a response from him in…
…30 minutes, you should call him. “This gives you an opportunity to make sure I understand exactly what you need done and you know exactly when I received your request. If you don’t feel comfortable interrupting what I’m doing to make a request to me directly then it probably isn’t that urgent and can wait a little while.”
…two hours, you should text him. “This gives me time to gracefully wind down what I’m doing and call you back.”
…sometime today, you should IM him. “Instant message works well for slightly more asynchronous communication. You’re interested in getting a short response promptly, but it doesn’t need to be right away. This is less disruptive than calling or texting. This works well when you need to find out a concrete piece of information before you can proceed.”
…a day or later, email him. “Most people I know feel like they have too many emails to deal with. Think twice about whether email is the right way to communicate your information. You should expect email threads to be truly asynchronous.”
With our workdays more fragmented than ever, we need such rules to keep our systems running smoothly. Read Stoller’s full blog post.
Are you spending your time on the right things every day? We often misunderstand how we’re spending our time, which leads to lost productivity or overlooked routines. On The Daily Muse, Erin Greenawald presents a useful way of seeing just how you spend your time: draw it on a handy chart. Greenawald writes:
The first step in becoming more productive is understanding where your time is going now!
It’s simple—grab the [included] visual and then either print it out or open it up…using the paint tool (or your colored pencils), give each activity a unique color, and then color in each hour of the circle based on the activity you usually fill that time with.
…You’ll quickly be able to see how you organize your day, the things you’re doing well, and the things you could probably improve upon.
I tried this exercise the other day, but instead of guessing how I spend my time I set a reminder on my phone to go off every hour. The alarm would go off and I’d write down how I spent the hour. At the end of my day I was able to see some spots where I clearly was spending time on things that don’t align with my higher objectives.
It’s also interesting to compare your chart to those of creative geniuses, something Greenawald highlights in her post.
Drawing out your day like this allows you to quickly see where your time is going and where you might have more free-time than you think. Be sure to download the chart and try tracking your own hours today.
For 20 years, Bryan Donaldson worked 9-to-5 as an IT Guy in Illinois. At 40, he had a wife, a kid, and a house with a big backyard. He also had a wicked sense of humor and a Twitter account. Two years and 40,000 followers later, he also has a new job as staff writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers. A recent piece for Vulture explains how he made the jump:
One of Donaldson’s longtime followers is Alex Baze, head writer and producer for Late Night With Seth Meyers. Last fall, when Baze began hiring for the writers’ room in anticipation of a February premiere, he had the notion of looking beyond the piles of packets coming from managers and agents and scouting for raw talent on Twitter. “If I go to somebody’s Twitter, I can see what he’s been doing the last two years — you get a much more complete sense of how he writes,” he says. “It’s like you get to flip through somebody’s comedy notebook.”
Donaldson had no idea he was auditioning for a job when he was tweeting. “Being that it’s Twitter, maybe I just couldn’t take it that seriously when those people were following me,” he says. “I never felt that I was at that level, as far as comedy writing.” A direct message from Baze was the first professional contact Donaldson had ever had with anyone in the comedy world. The Peorian greeted it skeptically. “I wasn’t going to consider uprooting my family at age 40 and starting a new career in New York, where I’d never even been before,” Donaldson says. “But my wife basically said I’d be an idiot if I didn’t give this a shot, because it’s such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The world is a meritocracy now more than ever: never be afraid to put your work out there. You never know who might be watching.
Read the rest of the article here.
The creative routines of famous creatives has been popular internet fodder this year. The Pacific Standard thinks this obsession and trend of emulating famous artist’s habits is problematic, to say the least. The larger picture, says Casey N. Cep, is that most artists did not always followed these routines they’re known for anyways. In the end they would have still produced genius work regardless of the kind of breakfast they ate, hours they worked, or whatever office supplies they used.
The idea that any one of these habits can be isolated from the entirety of the writer’s life and made into a template for the rest of us is nonsense. What none of these lists tell you is that sometimes these highly creative people weren’t waking so early on their own, but were woken by domestic servants. Or that some of these highly productive writers also had spouses or children or assistants enlisted in the effort. Or that often the leisurely patterns of drafting and revising were possible only because generous familial support made the financial demands of everyday life irrelevant.
Some of the more scandalous aspects of these artistic routines are also tragically stripped of context. The writer who never wrote without a few gin and tonics died young from cirrhosis. The journalist who relied on barbiturates died of an overdose. The painter who once said it was impossible to paint while listening to music married a violinist who then played constantly in his studio.
We often talk about process at 99U, so we think this is a great debate. Are we interested in the routines of great artists because we think replicating parts of their process will be what we were missing to succeed all along? While we believe strongly that the creative process matters, it’s worth contemplating whether it’s our process that needs tweaking or the work itself. It’s easier to put the fault on something we can change easily and control, like a routine, than it is to dig into the deep, personal issues within the work we’re putting out.
Read the rest of the article here.
As we do every Friday, we’ve collected our most-shared Twitter links for your weekend reading pleasure.
From around the web:
For more, make sure to follow us on Twitter.
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.