Work First, Critique Second

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Have you even been so intently focused on what you’re doing that you lose track of time? This is of course what researchers refer to as “flow” or “getting in the zone.” In a recent FastCo Labs article, Leanne Butkovic explains the science of exactly what’s going on in our brains when we get in the zone:

The precuneus, the part of the brain associated with self-reflection and argued to be the most important for consciousness, is very active in these moments of creative output…[it's] also considered to be the hub of the ‘default mode’ network of the brain–the systems which work without you intentionally thinking about it. This mode is in contrast to the ‘executive faculty,’ which [is] what psychologists call our capacities for attention and reason. During states of ‘normalcy,’ we are in control of our focuses and thought processes. When you’re in the zone, this changes: Your inner monologue, co-opted by the default mode network, runs off in manic glee while the executive network effectively deactivates.

Getting in the zone is all about being in a state where our attention and thoughts are uninhibited. The best way to get into that state? Placing yourself into situations where the work can come about without much concentration. For example: writing quickly without evaluating what you’re writing or drawing without worrying where the pen is going. In other words: to experience flow, save critiquing your work for later, focus instead on freely creating first.

Explore all of the science about your brain in the zone right here.

Previously on flowNot Too Hard, Not Too Easy: Finding Flow In Your Work

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Use Daily Rewards to Break Creative Blocks

Photo by Evan P. Cordes

Photo by Evan P. Cordes

Renowned author Stephen King, who has published 49 novels that have sold over 350 million copies, writes at least ten pages each day. As a creative person, you’ve experienced writer’s block, even if you’re not necessarily a writer; software engineers, artists, or anyone that has to create things for a living is susceptible. We also all know the well-trodden advice of practicing even for just a little bit, at least once a day — But how does one actually stick to it?

Product Manager at Twitter, Buster Benson, recently created 750words.com to help us break through writer’s block and open up our creative passages. He uses a rewards system to keep on track (much like the famous Jerry Seinfeld calendar-method). The idea is simple:

Every month you get a clean bowling-esque score card. If you write anything at all, you get 1 point. If you write 750 words or more, you get 2 points. If you write two, three or more days in a row, you get even more points. How I see it, points can motivate. It’s fun to try to stay on streaks and the points are a way to play around with that. You can also see how others are doing points-wise if you’re at all competitive that way.

Benson shares his inspiration:

I’ve long been inspired by an idea I first learned about in The Artist’s Way called morning pages. Morning pages are three pages of writing done every day, typically encouraged to be in “long hand”, typically done in the morning, that can be about anything and everything that comes into your head. It’s about getting it all out of your head, and is not supposed to be edited or censored in any way.

The idea is that if you can get in the habit of writing three pages a day, that it will help clear your mind and get the ideas flowing for the rest of the day. Unlike many of the other exercises in that book, I found that this one actually worked and was really really useful.

By writing 750 words a day, or 50 lines of code, or a page of illustrations every morning, you’re turning the act of creating into a habit. A creative block isn’t worn down by worrying or procrastinating; it can only be broken by trying.

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99U Book Giveaway: “Make Your Mark” + Free Kindle eReader!

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Make Your Mark, our new business book for makers (not managers!) launches this week. It’s our third book in the 99U book series, which offers pragmatic, actionable advice for managing your time, your career, and your business. You can order the book here.

To celebrate, we’re giving away three Kindle Paperwhite eReader devices pre-loaded with all three 99U books. (Not to mention a totally sweet carrying case that looks like the cover of Make Your Mark.)

To enter, tweet your favorite piece of startup wisdom for creatives in the next 24 hours with this link and hashtag: amazon.com/99u #makeyourmark

Tweet: [Your deep wisdom here.] – amazon.com/99u #makeyourmark

We’ll pick three winners at random on Monday, and ship them their snazzy Kindle eReaders.

all3-covers-2-LOWRES

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Don’t Let Overthinking Kill Your Work

Illustration by Koosje Koene

Illustration by Koosje Koene

Visual artist Koosje Koene says that when it comes to creating, you have to be jump right in. In an interview with The People Project, she explains her creative process:

I am a do-er, if that’s a word. If I have an idea, I like to execute it, create it, or at least start planning the project. In Art School, we talked a lot about ideas, the ideas behind the ideas, and so on. It made me feel less enthusiastic about starting a project, since the idea wasn’t fresh anymore. All the thinking sort of sucked the passion and excitement out of me, and that showed in the results. In a bad way.

When a new idea hits, we should take advantage of that initial passion and excitement and jump right in. If we spend too much time thinking, the concept begins to fade and you lose the creative momentum. After the initial burst of creativity, we can always take a step back and do some evaluating. Get out of your head and create.

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Get Better by Training like an Athlete

Photo by Nike Labs

Photo by Nike Labs

10,000 hours notwithstanding, practice doesn’t make perfect unless the way you practice is perfect.

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explores the recent “performance revolution” in sports, and how that approach to improvement has also raised the bar in business:

[T]he way to improve the way you perform is to improve the way you train. High performance isn’t, ultimately, about running faster, throwing harder, or leaping farther. It’s about something much simpler: getting better at getting better.

Thanks to more sophisticated technology, ultra-individualized training, and “the mainstreaming of excellent habits,” athletes are working not only harder than ever but smarter than ever—and so goes for a range of other fields in which performance improvement is self-controlled and measurable, from manufacturing and airline safety to higher education and business.

For example, Japanese elementary school math teachers train rigorously, before and throughout their careers:

They’ve developed a vocabulary to describe successful teaching tactics. They spend hours talking about how to improve things… in a way that helps students learn. And they get constant feedback from other teachers and mentors. This method—with its systematic approach to learning, its emphasis on preparation, and its relentless focus on small details and the need for constant feedback—sounds like the way athletes train today.

With data analysis available for everyone these days, there’s no reason not to track your data (even if it seems fairly basic: amount of sleep, time of day, etc.) and experiment with your process in order to improve upon it. Whatever your field, cultivating a methodical, focused approach to advancement could have the most impact on your growth.

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How To Decline Invitations Without Burning Bridges

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While talking to people who do a superhuman job at managing their time, founder and investor Bill Trenchard discovered that one of the most common ways they avoid wasting time is by simply saying “no.”

As your [work] becomes more prominent, you’re only going to get more of everything. More people reaching out through LinkedIn, email, invitations to connect, to go to coffee, to ask for a favor. It’s death by paper cuts. Inevitably, a childhood acquaintance from 20 years ago who you can barely remember will ask you for introductions to all your influential friends at Facebook. This is when you have to say, “No.” Saying no is so hard. It’s hard because you want to pay it forward. So many people have helped you. You want to do the same. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and there are ways to make it easier.

He suggests using templates; canned responses for all the common situations where you might find yourself saying no. Here’s an example:

Hi Bill,

Great to hear from you. I hope all is well. Fortunately, my company is starting to take off, and I’m under extreme pressure to deliver against some ambitious goals… Unfortunately [I'm not] able to connect right now.

Best,
Josh 

What’s unique about this response is that it blocks further communication. Do it nicely in a way that truthfully explains the situation, but don’t leave things open-ended. 

Saying no  (when respectful and structured )  deflects distractions and ensures that the right projects are completed. The creative process is paralyzed when you are juggling things that you wish you never committed to. Guard your time from things that don’t warrant your immediate attention or are counterproductive.

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Want to Sell an Idea? Add a Wild Card

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Cards designed by Sathish Selladurai from the Noun Project

In an interview with Make Magazine, toy designer Bruce Lund of Dino Construction Company speaks about taking risks when showing clients new concepts:

Always show what we call “wild card” concepts — things that are out of left field, not quite what you think your audience wants to see, because you just never know. I would never have thought that Educational Insights would love our concept and make a vehicle line. And I would have been wrong. But we did, they did, and kids love them.

Dino Construction came about by combining two favorite childhood toys of Lund – dinosaurs and construction vehicles. They had pitched the idea to a number of companies, but it wasn’t until a team member presented it to a small educational toy company that it finally got picked up. If you have an idea that you love, keep pitching it, even as a wild card concept. It just might be the concept they choose.

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