Managing creative chaos

If you’re anything like me then the gulf between you at your best and you at your worst will be vast. Consequently your ability to effectively manage your day around these peaks and troughs will be critical to productivity levels, particularly where creative work is concerned. For this reason I have spent a great deal of time over the last 3 years reviewing how I structure my time, and these have been my conclusions:

  1. Get going early – most people are morning people, even those that claim to hate mornings. You may look like death and barely be able to open your eyes, but your brain has had 8 hours of rest and is quietly brimming with energy. Do not waste this magical time snoozing and faffing.
  2. Never answer email in the morning – if your inbox is anything like mine there will always be a couple of dozen emails waiting for you when you arrive in the morning. Ignore them. In fact don’t even allow yourself to see them. These first few hours are the best you have to offer. Are you really going to spend them sending emails??!! Unless those emails are game changers, it’s a horrible use of your brain power. Keep your inbox closed.
  3. Completely block out distractions – there is no such thing as multi-tasking, so when I say closed, I mean closed. And the same goes for your twitter and facebook and skype and anything else that beeps or flashes. As long as you leave them there in the background, their temptation will impede your focus. Close them all down. Then pick up your mobile phone and place it out of reach.
  4. Difficult tasks first – now that you’ve successfully cocooned yourself from the deluge of loud, urgent, yet completely insignificant tasks, it’s time to get to work. This is now you at your best so use your energy wisely. Pick that difficult task. The one that you don’t want to tackle but you know you must because it’s important. See it through to completion. No distractions.
  5. Schedule in fun/easy tasks for the afternoon – there is nothing worse than entering a gentle post-lunch food coma in the knowledge that you have an almost impossible task waiting for your attention. Not only is it soul destroying but ultimately no matter how hard you try, you will end up spending twice as long creating something half as good. Instead you need either brainless or fun tasks that can make do with you at your scattiest. For me this includes (certain) meetings and almost all email.
  6. Know when to quit for the day – when people tell me they’ve worked a 100 hour week I’m always dubious. How many hours were you actually doing productive work? And how many were you dozily flitting from one tasks to another, checking Facebook then getting up for a coffee and a natter? That used to be me. In to the office for 7:30 and out at 10:00 Monday to Saturday. That’s 87 hours. Impressive eh? Actually no, I was always slightly embarrassed. Why was I having to spend so much time at work and yet still leaving feeling stressed and out of control? It’s because after 6:00 each day my brain was so completely fried that I managed, at best, 30 minutes work in those final 4 hours. Now I finish on the dot of 6:00. I go to the gym, eat, relax and then do a final 30 minutes of email at 9:30. My working week may have reduced by 21 hours, but it has not had the slightest impact on the amount I get done. In fact I would argue my improved energy levels make me more productive than I ever was before.

We’re not all the same and there will be some for whom the above would all be pretty terrible advice, I’m sure. But as most of the ideas were originally stolen from other people, I do believe they are fairly universal principles. In particular I’d recommend reading the 99U book Managing your day to day.

Dan