Productivity for Creative People


Published by Lateral Action Books 2016


Copyright © Mark McGuinness 2007–2016




Cover design Copyright © Irene Hoffman 2016



Ebook formatting by Polgarus Studio



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Mark McGuinness] is a poet and a coach for creative professionals.


Also by Mark McGuinness:


Motivation for Creative People: How to Stay Creative While Gaining Money, Fame, and Reputation [++]


Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success


Praise for Productivity for Creative People:

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn K. Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

“Many creative people are busier than ever, but rarely get around to the work that truly matters. Mark McGuinness offers solid and practical advice for busy creative people who want to make their mark on the world.”

Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative

“Authors now have amazing online tools to reach readers all over the world, but those same tools can distract us from the focused creativity that we love and that we need to write better books. In Productivity for Creative People, Mark McGuinness outlines a way of working that will help you sort out what’s really important and achieve your creative goals, while still managing your daily tasks. Recommended for any author who is feeling overwhelmed.”

Joanna Penn, bestselling author and award-winning entrepreneur. TheCreativePenn.com

Table of Contents



A brave new world for creators?

How to use this book




1. Get organized, get (more) creative

2. Do what’s important, not just urgent

3. Reduce overload

4. Don’t try to multitask

5. Do more nothing

6. Work out

7. Talk to your team mates




8. Panic early

9. Put hard edges in your day

10. Ring-fence your most creative time

11. Use ritual to get in the creative zone

12. Play the calendar game

13. Incubate, don’t procrastinate

14. Make the most of boredom




15. Get things off your mind

16. If it won’t fit on a Post-it, it won’t fit in your day

17. Treat email as correspondence, not conversation

18. Nap like a NASA pilot

19. Speed up your writing with speech recognition

20. Make smarter use of your smartphone




Motivation for Creative People: How to Stay Creative While Gaining Money, Fame, and Reputation

Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success


Your opinion counts

Coaching with Mark

About the author

Thank you



[] A brave new world for creators?

We are living in an age of unprecedented creative stimulation—via the internet, social media, all-pervasive technology, and an “always on” working culture.

Which means we are living in an age of unprecedented distraction from focused creative work—from all the same sources.

First, computers and the internet transformed the work we did at our desks. Then along came smartphones to transform our social lives and make our work mobile. Now we have our work, our network, our media, and our social media with us wherever we go. Augmented Reality (AR) is layering more and more virtual elements over the physical world we inhabit, and Virtual Reality (VR) promises us escape to unlimited virtual worlds. The pace of change is exhilarating, overwhelming, and unstoppable.

Personally, I’m an enthusiast for the new era. Its technology and social shifts have opened up a world of opportunity—enabling me to publish my writings to a global audience, work with clients all over the world, build a thriving business as an independent writer and coach, and make new friends to share the journey. Not to mention all the wonderful literature, music, movies, and other art and entertainment I now have at my fingertips. Maybe you have a similar story to tell.

I also have personal experience of the downside of the brave new world: countless distractions and interruptions; endless email; pressure to keep up; anxiety about falling behind; difficulty concentrating; excruciating repetitive strain injury (RSI) from too much time at the keyboard; and a nagging sense that my most important work was being left undone.

If you’re excited by the opportunities of the creative age, but worried about the effect of all those interruptions and digital distractions on your creative work, this book is for you. It’s a collection of insights, tips, and techniques gleaned from my own practice as a poet and nonfiction writer, plus 20 years spent coaching creative professionals like you.

The book started out back in 2007 as a series of articles about time management for creatives, published on Catherine Morley’s Business of Design Online website. The series was well received, so I made it available as a free ebook, Time Management for Creative People—which was when I realized I’d struck a chord with the creative community. It was enthusiastically downloaded and shared on social networks, and picked up by influential blogs including Copyblogger and Lifehacker. I lost track of the numbers after 100,000 downloads, and I’ve lost count of the number of people who have emailed, commented, or tweeted their thanks, or told me in person that the ebook changed the way they worked for the better.

After publishing the ebook, I continued to write about creativity and productivity on my own blogs, Wishful Thinking and Lateral Action, and in my column at 99U.com. My own working habits and ideas have evolved over the years since I published Time Management for Creative People, and the pace of technology has accelerated, making the challenges for creators even more acute. So I thought it was time for a new edition. For this version I have extensively revised and restructured the original material, and added to it from my other writings on the subject.

The result is Productivity for Creative People—a guide to getting creative work done amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life. I hope it helps you create time for the extraordinary work that only you can do.



[]How to use this book

Let’s start by making one thing clear:

This is not a productivity “system.”

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to creativity, so there is no point trying to devise a rigid system that will allow for the idiosyncrasies of your unique creative talent, work situation, and working habits. Instead of a system, this book gives you a menu of options, a set of parts for designing your own way of working. I invite you to read through the book, test the ideas in your own working life, and take what works for you.

The book is divided into three sections, taking you through a process of, firstly, reflecting on your working habits and big-picture decision-making; then carving out time for your most creative work; and finally, keeping up with the rest of your work.

Part 1. Laying the Foundations

Unexamined assumptions—about your true priorities and the most effective ways of working—are often the biggest barriers to high-level performance. Grasping some key concepts and getting clarity about your priorities will have a huge impact on your working life.

The chapters in this section challenge some common myths about creativity and productivity, and will help you make decisions about your goals and ways of working that will make everything you do more effective.

Part 2. Doing Creative Work

Whether you’re an independent artist, a freelancer working for clients, or an agency or studio creative, producing outstanding creative work is the source of your greatest fulfillment and generates the most value for you (artistic, financial, and otherwise). It needs to be your top priority.

The chapters in this section will show you how to devote your most valuable time and energy to your biggest creative challenges—while overcoming your inner Resistance and fending off external distractions.

Part 3. Dealing with the Rest

You can’t spend your whole week working in the creative zone, tempting as it might be. So you need to have reliable ways of dealing with incoming demands and more mundane tasks.

The chapters in this section will help you build your own robust systems for capturing ideas and commitments, never forgetting any of them, and doing everything you consider important within a reasonable timeframe. Not only will your systems make you more productive, they will free up your mental bandwidth for more creative pursuits.

There are a lot of ideas in this book—don’t try to implement them all at once! Make one or two changes at a time, test them for at least a week, and see what results they produce for you. You can then layer in more changes, tweaking and adjusting your work habits and systems—to the point where they become effortless and automatic, leaving you free to focus on the work in front of you.


**]Get organized, get (more) creative

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.”

Gustave Flaubert

So you start the day full of enthusiasm. You’re excited about a new creative project and itching to put your ideas into action. Firing up your laptop, you see the familiar cascade of new emails in your inbox, on top of the ones you didn’t get round to answering yesterday. Scanning through the list, your heart sinks—two of them look as though they require urgent action. You hit “reply” and start typing a response . . .

Half an hour later you realize you’ve been sucked into the email zone, where you have been sidetracked by interesting links sent by friends, and are writing replies about issues that aren’t a priority for you. You close email and get back to your project . . .

After a few minutes you’re really enjoying being in your creative flow—when the phone rings. Somebody wants something from you, something to do with a meeting last week. You rummage through the papers on your desk. You can’t find your notes. Suddenly your heart jumps as you lift up a folder and find an important letter you’d forgotten about, that needed an urgent response—several days ago. “Hang on, I’ll get back to you,” you tell the person on the phone.

You put the phone down and pick up the letter—this needs sorting out immediately, but you remember why you put it off—it involves several phone calls and hunting through files for documents you’re not sure you even kept. By now you’ve only got half an hour before your first meeting, and you’ve promised to ring that person back . . .

Your project stares at you reproachfully. The email inbox is filling steadily—already there are more messages than before you started. Your enthusiasm has nosedived and the day has hardly begun. Creative work seems like a distant dream.

. . .

Is this a familiar scenario for you? I’ve been there far too often. In an ideal world we’d be putting all our time and energy into our creative work, but the realities of modern work often seem to be conspiring against us. And in lots of ways the scenario is getting worse.

The wonderful thing about modern technology is the amount of communication and information-sharing it facilitates. And the awful thing about modern technology is the amount of communication and information-sharing it facilitates. We are deluged with new information and connections all day long at work, and all day and all night via our phones and tablets. No wonder people are running workshops on “digital stress.”

All of which is bad enough whatever your line of work. But if you’re a professional artist or creative, it’s even more damaging. Concentration is essential for creative work—certain stages of the creative process require single-minded focus on the task in hand. When we’re really in the zone, we experience creative flow—the “almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness”1 that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified as characteristic of high-level creative performance. Interruptions, multi-tasking, and the anxiety that comes from trying to juggle multiple commitments—these are in danger of eroding the focused concentration that is vital for your creativity.

In the chapters ahead I will offer you principles and practical methods for maintaining your creative focus under pressure—while managing the stream of information and demands to inform and stimulate your creativity, instead of drowning it out.

And that means being organized.

There, I’ve said it. Organization, structure, discipline, and habit—these are often seen as threats to creativity. Not to mention corporate-sounding phrases such as time management” or “workflow.” We like to think of creativity as a space for untrammeled imagination, free from all constraints. Yet while freedom, rule-breaking, and inspiration are undoubtedly essential to the creative process, the popular image of creativity overlooks another aspect: examine the life of any great artist and you will find evidence of hard work, discipline, and a hard-won knowledge of their craft.

I’m not suggesting that all artists and creatives need to be organized” in a way that would satisfy a corporate boss. You might get up at noon and work at home in your dressing gown. You might check into a different hotel room every day and work on the bed. Your creative process and working habits might look like total chaos to an outsider, but if they work for you, that’s all that matters. Yet there will be some method in the madness—patterns in your daily activities that are vital to your creativity. These are the things you need to do to keep your imagination alive—whether it’s sitting at a desk by 6:00 a.m., using the same pen, notebook, or make of computer, hitch-hiking across America, putting rotten apples in your desk so that the scent wafts into your nostrils as you work; or sitting in your favorite café with a glass of absinthe.

My aim in this book is to help you find the method in your working habits, and to develop a truly creative routine and rhythm to your working day.




Do you see organization as soulless and uncreative or as a necessary, helpful part of your creative process?


What effect does feeling disorganized have on your creativity? Which areas of your work would you like to be more organized about?


What do you like about chaos? Where in your work do you want to give chaos and randomness free rein?




1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper and Row, 1990)

**]Do what’s important, not just urgent

Back in 2005 I was facing a brick wall. In the second year of a part-time master’s program, I was invited to edit an issue of Magma Poetry, one of the top poetry magazines in the UK. As a poet, this was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I was also getting married, which took a fair amount of preparation—and that was one opportunity I was definitely not turning down! Meanwhile, I somehow had to keep my business going, keep my clients happy, and fund all these extra-curricular activities.

As if that weren’t enough, I had just discovered a new phenomenon called blogging—or rather, discovered that people were using it to spread their ideas and promote their businesses, rather than just to write about their cat’s breakfast menu. It looked like a perfect medium for me—I loved writing, I had ideas I wanted to get into circulation, and I loved connecting with new people. But where was I going to find the time?

I’d already made a reluctant deal with myself to put my poetry writing on hold until the end of the M.A. But I was still faced with the seemingly impossible task of finding quality, focused time, away from interruptions, to write my essays, read poetry submissions with the care they deserved, and start a blog. After scanning my diary and surveying the tasks in hand, I came to a sobering conclusion:

I was going to have to get up early.

There was simply no other time in my schedule—or not the quiet, uninterrupted time I needed for my work, without the intrusion of phone calls, emails, meetings, and classes. I had never considered myself one of nature’s early risers, and working from home much of the time had allowed me the luxury of avoiding early starts for commuting. On a good day I’d be up by 7:30 a.m., on a bad day it was closer to 8:30 a.m. Still time to get a reasonable amount of work done by starting at 9:00 a.m. But faced with an unreasonable amount of work, drastic action was called for.

My new start time became 6.30 a.m. If you want to know how I managed this, read Steve Pavlina’s excellent article [+ “How to become an early riser.”+] Here, I’m more concerned with the effect—within a few months of making the change, I had edited a postbag of thousands of poems into Magma Poetry issue 34, achieved a distinction in my master’s and created the Wishful Thinking blog which transformed my business and opened up many new creative avenues for me to explore. Most importantly, I made it to the wedding on time!

Since making that switch, I have used my morning writing hours to create another two blogs, at LateralAction.com and MarkMcGuinness.com, two full-length books for creatives, five shorter ebooks, three in-depth e-learning courses, a series of live workshops, and numerous articles. Not to mention my poetry: I’m currently working on the manuscript of my first poetry collection, and translating a long medieval poem into modern English verse.

I’m not listing the above to blow my own trumpet, but to illustrate the value of ring-fencing time for your own creative work in the midst of urgent demands.

I could easily have justified turning down the poetry magazine. I could have said I was too busy. It would have been even easier to put off starting the blog until I had more time. I could even have reasoned my way into stopping or deferring the master’s. But the thing is, there will always be something “urgent” taking my attention away from my own creative initiatives. Yet when I look back over the last ten years, the time when I’ve created most value—for myself, my readers, and my clients―has been those first hours of the day spent writing. It’s the creative wellspring of my work.

So how can you find time to achieve your creative ambitions?



Prioritize work that is “important but not urgent”

In his classic book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey classifies work tasks according to whether they are important and/or urgent. He points out that many of us spend too much time on tasks that are urgent and important—in other words, staving off emergencies by rushing around to solve problems or responding to others’ demands at short notice.

Sometimes this is unavoidable—“deadline magic” can spur us on to feats of creative production we wouldn’t otherwise attempt. This can be an exciting and productive experience—but it’s up to you whether you want to work like this most of the time. The example of the computer games industry—where extended “crunch” times can mean endless overtime to meet a deadline—suggests that prolonged deadline magic can turn into deadline misery.

Covey’s solution is to prioritize work that is important but not urgent. Though this is hard to do on any given day, it is the only way to ensure you are making progress towards your own goals and dreams, instead of merely reacting to what other people throw at you. And over time, the more you deal with important things before they become urgent, the fewer “urgent and important” tasks you will have to deal with.

The most obvious way to do this is to work on your own projects first every day, even if it’s only for half an hour. Whatever interruptions come along later, you will at least have the satisfaction of having made some progress toward your own goals.




Think of the achievements you are most proud of, and that have added most value to your life and work. When you were working on them, how many of them fell into the “important but not urgent” category?


How do you feel at the end of a day where you have made even a little progress towards a cherished goal?


How do you feel at the end of a day that has been totally swamped by others’ demands and urgent tasks?


What difference would it make to your life if you devoted more of your time to “important but not urgent” work?

**]Reduce overload

Many coaching clients ask me for help with an overloaded schedule and the feelings of overwhelm that go with it. With more projects, clients, and opportunities each year, there have been plenty of times when I’ve felt overloaded myself.

If you’re pursuing a stimulating creative career, it’s normal to feel overloaded from time to time. But it’s not good to feel chronically overwhelmed by work. Because if we’re not careful, overload can turn into [+ creative burnout+].

On the other hand there’s a big difference between feeling like you’re “always” overloaded and actually having too much to do. So if you’re feeling overloaded, the first step is to do a reality check:

Exactly how busy are you right now?

Is this a temporary state, or is it likely to continue (or get worse)?

Can you manage it, or do you need to do something about it?

To answer these questions, divide your work into four categories:

p<{color:#000;}. Ongoing—work you have to do every day, every week, or every month.

p<{color:#000;}. Events—work related to one-off events, or events that happen at longer intervals than a month, e.g. an annual conference.

p<{color:#000;}. Backlogs—things you wish you’d done already, and need to catch up on.

p<{color:#000;}. Asset building—investing time in creating something that will generate ongoing value in the future.

1. Ongoing work

These tasks are not going away—they are essential elements of your daily, weekly, and monthly routines.

Here are some of my core ongoing tasks:

p<{color:#000;}. Coaching clients

p<{color:#000;}. Talking to potential clients

p<{color:#000;}. Email

p<{color:#000;}. Accounting

p<{color:#000;}. Maintaining my websites

p<{color:#000;}. Keeping my office tidy

Depending on your line of work, your ongoing tasks might include some of the following:

p<{color:#000;}. Team meetings

p<{color:#000;}. Client meetings

p<{color:#000;}. A weekly podcast

p<{color:#000;}. Writing a column

p<{color:#000;}. Band practice

p<{color:#000;}. Monthly reports

Things to bear in mind about ongoing work:

p<{color:#000;}. It must be manageable.

p<{color:#000;}. If you have nothing else on your plate and you’re struggling to deal with ongoing work, you are definitely overloaded and you need to reduce your commitments.

2. Events

Events take place on specific dates, leading to deadlines and deadline magic/stress. They are exciting to be involved in, and have a tendency to swamp your schedule.

Here are some of the events in my business:

p<{color:#000;}. Launching a new book

p<{color:#000;}. Speaking at a conference

p<{color:#000;}. Working with a coaching client on location

p<{color:#000;}. Running a live workshop

And here are some types of event that may feature in your working life:

p<{color:#000;}. Showing your work in an exhibition

p<{color:#000;}. Performing in a live show

p<{color:#000;}. Major project deadlines

p<{color:#000;}. Attending/speaking at a conference

p<{color:#000;}. Launching a new product or service

p<{color:#000;}. Running a webinar

p<{color:#000;}. Running a seasonal sale

p<{color:#000;}. Applying for a job

p<{color:#000;}. Applying for funding

Things to bear in mind about events:

p<{color:#000;}. They consume a lot of time and energy, so the payoff needs to be worth it, whether in money, PR, fulfillment, impact, or some other measure.

p<{color:#000;}. They tend to swamp your schedule and create backlogs; but if the payoff is big enough, a backlog is a small price to pay.

p<{color:#000;}. Because they consume a lot of energy, you need to allow time to prepare before and recuperate afterwards—one event after another is a recipe for burnout.

3. Backlogs

These are things that you wish you had done earlier, but didn’t get round to. Typical backlogs include:

p<{color:#000;}. Email

p<{color:#000;}. Accounting

p<{color:#000;}. Admin of various kinds

The main causes of backlogs:

p<{color:#000;}. Disorganization

p<{color:#000;}. Unrealistic workload

p<{color:#000;}. Illness

p<{color:#000;}. Holidays

p<{color:#000;}. Events (see 2. above)

p<{color:#000;}. Building assets (see 4. below)

In my life, book writing tends to create backlogs—especially towards the end, when the writing becomes all-consuming. I publish the books myself, so a book’s production and launch take up more time, making the backlog bigger. But it’s worth it, because at the end of the process I have a new book—an asset that I own and control, and which will keep adding value to my business for the rest of my life, and may well continue helping readers even longer than that.

Things to bear in mind about backlogs:

p<{color:#000;}. In an ideal world, they wouldn’t exist, but this isn’t an ideal world, so you probably need a way to deal with backlogs.

p<{color:#000;}. They clog up your system—just think of that overflowing inbox—so the quicker you separate them from the rest of your system, the better. Treat them as separate projects (e.g. an email “backlog” folder) and tackle them in dedicated time.

p<{color:#000;}. Backlogs due to disorganization and unrealistic workload are avoidable and should be tackled as soon as possible.

p<{color:#000;}. Backlogs due to illness and holidays are unavoidable, so budget for them.

p<{color:#000;}. Backlogs due to events and building assets are manageable and even desirable—if the payoff is big enough.

4. Creating assets

This is where you invest time in creating something intended to generate ongoing value in the future.

Here are some of the asset-building activities in my business, with the asset in brackets:

p<{color:#000;}. Personal development work (asset: me)

p<{color:#000;}. Educating myself via books or courses (assets: skills + knowledge)

p<{color:#000;}. Writing books (asset: intellectual property)

p<{color:#000;}. Blogging on my own website (assets: intellectual property + website + mailing list)

p<{color:#000;}. Writing guest articles (assets: intellectual property + mailing list)

All of these things take time and effort. None of them are ever urgent (unless I commit to a deadline for an article). But once done, they add a lot of value to my business for relatively little ongoing effort, while I’m busy doing other things.

Here are some asset-building opportunities that may be relevant to your business or career:

p<{color:#000;}. Creating artworks or products

p<{color:#000;}. Building a website

p<{color:#000;}. Compiling a portfolio of your best work

p<{color:#000;}. Writing a series of autoresponder emails to grow your mailing list

p<{color:#000;}. Studying and practicing to acquire knowledge and skills

p<{color:#000;}. Gaining a qualification that will open doors for you

p<{color:#000;}. Growing your network

p<{color:#000;}. Recruiting and developing a team

Things to bear in mind about asset building:

p<{color:#000;}. There’s always a risk—your product might fail, your qualification become obsolete, your search engine rankings plummet, and so on.

p<{color:#000;}. It’s hard to carve out time for it—it’s always easier to focus on email and other incoming demands, which give you external validation.

p<{color:#000;}. If you do it right, the payoff can be massive. For example, a portfolio that wows potential clients and employers; a website that helps the right people find you; a product that earns money while you sleep; a podcast that people enthusiastically recommend to their friends.

p<{color:#000;}. As with events, if the payoff is big enough, a backlog is a small price to pay.

p<{color:#000;}. The more assets you have, the easier life gets. If it feels good having one best-selling product or popular website, how much better will it be when you have three or four? If you’re seeing good results with a basic proficiency at a new task, how much better will it be when you’ve mastered the skill?

p<{color:#000;}. Different types of asset can combine to produce outsize results. If you’re an artist, producing art is your foundation. If you then learn how to present your work effectively in person and build an effective website, those same artworks can reach a bigger audience and have more impact.

So are you really overloaded?

Now we get to the first critical question:

How busy are you right now?

To answer this:

p<{color:#000;}. Get a sheet of paper and write the four headings along the top, to form four columns: Ongoing; Events; Backlogs; Assets.

p<{color:#000;}. List everything you currently do at work, placing each task under the relevant heading.

If you’re feeling overloaded and most of your tasks are in the “Ongoing” column, an alarm bell should be ringing. This is a clear sign you have made too many commitments! So you need to rethink (and if necessary renegotiate) how you spend your working life. Urgently.

But if your tasks are scattered more evenly across the different columns, it’s a good sign, because it’s telling you that a high proportion of your work is temporary, so things can (potentially) ease up in future. If you’re in this situation, and you don’t have an urgent deadline looming, here’s an experiment worth trying:

Spend a week or two doing nothing except Ongoing tasks. This will give you a baseline sense of how much work you have to do to keep the show on the road.

Whenever I’ve given this task to coaching clients, they usually cheer up: they feel lighter and more energized—and find themselves getting far more done than usual. They often feel so motivated that they mention having done “a few extra things” once they had completed the day’s work, either to reduce a backlog or to prepare for an upcoming event.



How to reduce overload and build a better future

Now that you’ve got a sense of how busy you really are right now, here’s the second critical question:

How can you reduce your current sense of overload, and ensure you achieve more with less effort as time goes by?

A rule of thumb:

Sustainable workload = Ongoing work + 1 Event, Backlog, or Asset-building project at a time

So if you have a big event coming up, forget about clearing a backlog or creating a new asset; until you meet the deadline, just focus on the event, plus doing your minimum ongoing tasks.

Or if you have a big backlog to clear and a big new project you’re eager to start, don’t try to do both at once. Pick one, and do that (plus ongoing tasks) until it’s done.

It’s not easy to stick to this rule, but if you do, you should notice the following benefits:

p<{color:#000;}. Your workload looks more manageable, so you feel less overwhelmed and more motivated.

p<{color:#000;}. Because you are more motivated, you apply focused effort to the tasks in hand, and achieve more in less time.

p<{color:#000;}. Each task or project you complete boosts your motivation further.

p<{color:#000;}. As time goes by, you have fewer and smaller backlogs, which unclogs your system and makes you more efficient (cycling back to 1).

p<{color:#000;}. As time goes by, you have more assets that make your life easier in different ways, so that you achieve more with less effort (cycling back to 1 again).

And so on . . . once you reverse the vicious cycle of overload, you become more efficient, motivated, effective, and creative. When you’re preparing for an event, clearing a backlog, or building an asset, you may feel under pressure and work longer hours than usual—but that’s very different from the crippling sense of “always” being overloaded. When you know the pressure is temporary, it’s a lot easier to handle.

**]Don’t try to multitask

You wouldn’t drink and drive. But would you drink and write?

Maybe a glass of wine could be just the thing to get you started on that poem to your sweetheart. So how about a few beers before writing an important email? Or a business proposal? Could you do with a shot of whisky before taking a phone call from a client? How about some Dutch courage before a big presentation?

It sounds absurd when I put it like that. But did you know that there is strong research evidence that the popular working practice of multitasking can reduce your performance level to that of a drunk?

In his book Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina cites research into the effects of using a cellphone while driving a car. Cellphone users were found to be slower to hit the brakes in an emergency, less careful in their “following distance” behind the car in front, and to miss more than 50 percent of the visual cues normally registered by attentive drivers. Taken together, these effects mean that talking on the phone while at the wheel is like “driving drunk.”

That may sound like an extreme example, but by attempting two tasks simultaneously (driving and talking on the phone) these drivers were essentially doing the same thing as an office worker who is simultaneously writing a document, responding to email, fielding phone calls, surfing the web, and/or engaging in conversations via social networking sites. Yet multitasking is often spoken of with approval, as a skill to be cultivated. Multitaskers are admired for their efficiency and seen as people who get things done.

Don’t get me wrong—multitasking would be great, if it existed. But it doesn’t.



There’s no such thing as multitasking

In Brain Rules, Medina points out that the brain cannot multitask, because it can only focus on one thing at a time. Even though we can physically do more than one thing at a time, such as walking and talking, or driving and talking on the phone, we can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Which is not a problem if one activity doesn’t require full concentration, like walking in the park or running on a treadmill. Dave Crenshaw, author of the book The Myth of Multitasking, calls this background tasking. But if both activities require attention—like walking across a busy street while checking email, or driving and talking on the phone—the results can be disastrous.

If you’ve ever put on some music to listen to while working, and then noticed with surprise that the music has finished and you can’t remember hearing any of it, you’ll know what the researchers are talking about. Because we can only concentrate on one thing at a time, when we try to do multiple tasks that require attention, we end up task switching, not doing them simultaneously.

So there’s no such thing as multitasking—just task switching, or at best background tasking, in which one activity consumes our attention while we’re mindlessly performing another.



How task switching affects your work

Other research cited by Medina shows that people who are interrupted—and therefore have to switch their attention back and forth—take fifty percent longer to accomplish a task, and make up to fifty percent more errors.

This matches my experience as a former hypnotherapist. When I trained in hypnosis, we were taught that one of the easiest ways to create amnesia is to interrupt someone. An everyday example is the experience of chatting to a friend in a café or restaurant, when the waiter interrupts to take your order—and when he’s gone, neither of you can remember what you were talking about.

As well as amnesia, task switching creates delays. According to Medina, each time you switch tasks, your brain has to run through a four-step process to disengage the neurons involved in one task and activate the neurons needed for the other. The more you switch, the more time you lose. In 2007 the New York Times reported a research study which found that a group of Microsoft workers took an average of 15 minutes to return to the task in hand after they were interrupted by emails or instant messages; answering one message often led to answering several more—or even browsing the web for news and entertainment—before they got back to work. The cumulative effect of all this lost productivity is mind-boggling: the same Times article includes an estimate from Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, that the cost of interruptions to the US economy is around $650 billion a year.

So next time you’re tempted to “multitask” between phone, email, web browser, and creative work, you might stop and think about the effect on your productivity—and ultimately, your prosperity.



Focus creates creative flow

If multitasking is so unproductive, what does a high-performance state look like? We’ve already glimpsed it in Chapter 1 in psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of creative flow—a state of consciousness experienced during periods of peak performance. Its characteristics include pleasure, clarity, serenity, timelessness—and focus. Whereas our limited attention bandwidth is a hindrance when it comes to multitasking, it is a positive advantage when it comes to flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, when we devote all our attention to the task in hand, we tune out distractions from our environment, and can even lose our sense of self.

Medina, Crenshaw, and Csikszentmihalyi provide us with the fruits of sophisticated research on the effects of multitasking. But the implications for our daily work are not rocket science. They are not even news. Neuroscientific researchers are hardly the first to tell us to do one thing at a time:

“When you are walking, walk. When you are sitting, sit.” ~ The Buddha

“Always do one thing at a time, that of the present moment.” ~ G.I. Gurdjieff

Of course, there is a lot to be said for distractions and interruptions—they stimulate our creative thinking. But there’s a time and a place for everything. At lunchtime or towards the end of the afternoon, I enjoy dipping into the chatter on Twitter to see what’s new. But when it’s time to get down to work, it’s time to switch all that off.

So feel free to let your attention wander across multiple software applications, browser tabs, email, Twitter, instant messaging, and phone calls. Just don’t confuse it with being productive.

**]Do more nothing

Have you ever spent a whole day doing absolutely nothing—for either productivity or pleasure?

The closest I’ve come has been on silent meditation retreats at a Buddhist monastery. The schedule and rules are designed to minimize not just fun and distractions, but also productive activity. That means no talking at any time, except for practicalities such as “Where are the saucepans?” It also means no TV, radio, internet, phone, or entertainment of any kind. There are a few spiritual books, but you’re even discouraged from reading those, as they take you away from the present moment. No work either, apart from an hour of “working meditation” each day, vacuuming floors and cleaning toilets to keep the retreat center running. And everyone is tucked up in single beds at night.

So what do you do all day? The wake-up bell rings at 5:00 a.m., giving you half an hour to get ready for the first meditation session. The rest of the day alternates between sitting meditation and walking meditation (walking back and forth between two fixed points, while maintaining present-moment awareness). Breakfast is at 7:00 a.m. and the last meal of the day is lunch at 11:00 a.m. The eating part’s not as bad as that might sound—the food is delicious and there’s plenty of it. If you’re really feeling faint during the afternoon someone will probably find a piece of chocolate, which technically counts as “medicine.” In the evening there is a talk from the retreat leaders.

So what is all this designed to achieve? As usual with Buddhism, that’s the wrong question. It’s not designed to achieve anything—quite the opposite. The idea is to be very present and aware of every moment, and to let go of your desire to achieve things. In short, the idea is to do nothing at all—except to pay attention to present-moment experience. Which, according to Zen priest Steve Hagen, is the only activity that does not involve “doing something.”1

If you’re anything like me—someone who loves your work so much it can be hard to switch off at the end of the day—this is quite a shock to the system. Suddenly you’re off the hamster wheel, but your mind is still racing, thinking, planning. You’re itching to get on with things, and you feel lost with nothing to do. The first few days of the retreat are usually the hardest, when you’d rather be anywhere else on earth—back in the office, in a meeting, in a pub, even in an argument—at least that would give you something to do, someone to spark off.

You’ve probably had a similar feeling at the beginning of the holidays. After weeks and weeks of activity, it takes a few days before you can really relax. But after that, it takes you into a different place entirely. You almost become a different person.



So what does this have to do with creative work?

Absolutely nothing.

Seriously. Meditation is not designed to make you more creative or productive. If the monks saw me writing about meditation in the context of these things, they would probably find it amusing. Like watching someone climb into a jet plane, only to use it to drive down the road to the local supermarket for his weekly shopping.

If you approach meditation with the goal of boosting your inspiration or productivity, you will be disappointed. You’ll also miss out on the opportunity to experience what meditation does have to offer, which is far beyond the scope of this book. It would be like approaching a relationship with the goal of “developing your emotional intelligence.” While that might be a nice side effect of falling in love, the “falling in love” part is surely the main event.

So what follows are the side effects of meditation. If I’d set out to achieve them, they probably wouldn’t have occurred. To a degree, they are likely side effects of any non-productive activity, such as taking a holiday, a day off, spending an hour in a [+ floatation tank+], or even taking a short break during a busy day. My aim is to highlight one of the paradoxes of productivity and especially creativity: beyond a certain point, doing more or working harder is actually counter-productive. Your energy and concentration levels dip, your frustration increases, and if you’re not careful you could be on the slippery slope to [+ creative burnout+].

I’m not suggesting you rush off and join a monastery, but if you’re serious about creating and achieving things that really matter, you can’t do it all through sheer hard work. It feels counterintuitive, but in the context of your creative process, sometimes the most “productive” thing you can do is chill out at a barbecue, lie on a beach, watch a movie, or muck about with your friends. Apart from any effect on your career, it will do you a world of good.

So here’s what I learned about productivity from getting nothing done:


“Damn braces: Bless relaxes”—William Blake

It’s only when you relax that you realize how tense you’ve been. After a few days of doing nothing but paying attention to my breathing, I could literally feel the tension easing out of my body. It struck me how uncomfortable and probably inefficient it was to be tensed up by constant activity.


Put things in perspective

A retreat is a quiet time to step away from your everyday life. All your usual concerns and activities are far away, beyond the monastery walls. They start to seem small and trivial. It occurs to you that maybe, in fact, they are small and trivial. Things around you seem much more real and important—the grass beneath your feet, the blue sky yawning over your head, steam rising from a cup of tea in front of you. A bird singing. Your own breathing.


Some things are more important than others

If you’re focused on getting things done, there’s a danger that you will do this indiscriminately—trying to do everything, for everyone, all the time. But when you step away from your to-do list and look at the big picture, some things strike you as more important than others, either because you care about them more, or they are areas where you can make a bigger difference, or both. From this perspective, being “busy” starts to look like an excuse, a distraction from your real business in life. Once you see your real priorities clearly, it’s harder to go back to the old way of doing things.


Thinking is overrated

A few days into my first ten-day retreat, I noticed something odd happening—I started to experience moments of clarity, or sudden insight, about situations and problems I was living with at the time. It became obvious how I had been limiting myself, or looking at things in an unhelpful way. I could clearly see a next step towards resolving the issue. And the odd thing was, I hadn’t been thinking about the situation at all—the insight just struck me, out of the blue. If you’ve ever had an idea pop into your mind while you were doing something else, you know what it felt like.

It usually didn’t happen during sitting meditation, when I found it very easy to get lost in my imagination instead of paying attention to the present moment. More often than not, it was during walking meditation, out in the meadow at the back of the monastery. At no time did the insight come through thinking about or analyzing the situation. All I was doing was being very present and paying attention to my senses—my breathing, the sensations of my body walking, the texture of the grass under my feet, the sight of cloud-shadows racing across the meadow.

As someone who had always performed well academically, and taken a certain pride in intellectual accomplishment, this was a surprising experience. It suggested that reason is a fairly limited tool for understanding myself and making important decisions. The parallel with the well-known “Eureka!” moment of creative inspiration didn’t escape me.

Since then, I haven’t given up on rational analysis altogether, but I find it faintly comical that so many people seem to deify reason.2 And I now incorporate physical activity and body awareness into my daily routine, particularly before writing. The best thing I can do before sitting down to write is to stop paying attention to my thoughts and get centered in my body. When I do that, writing becomes a breeze.


Work to your own clock

Inevitably, I got attached to the moments of clarity. I started to wonder whether they meant I was good at meditation. I wanted more of them and was disappointed when an insightful morning was followed by an afternoon full of irritation, frustration, and boredom. This happened for several days running until I realized I was simply much more alert in the mornings.

So instead of getting frustrated during the afternoons, I became fascinated by the ups and downs of my energy and concentration during the daily cycle. It was like riding a rollercoaster or a water slide—after a few goes, you get to know where the big dips and climbs are, and you can relax and go with the ride instead of clinging on full of tension.

When I went back to work after the retreat, I noticed how much easier it was to do focused tasks, such as writing, in the morning. After lunch, the words and concepts wouldn’t flow, and I found myself getting frustrated. After about 5:00 p.m. I realized my mental energy was almost depleted. Doing a little research, I learned that scientists call this daily cycle the circadian rhythm, or human clock.

So I redesigned my working day around my circadian rhythm: now I keep the mornings free for writing and schedule coaching sessions for the afternoon, by which point I’m ready for some human interaction. Afternoons are also for email, errands, and less demanding work tasks. By the end of the day I’m pretty unproductive, so this is a great time for exercise—and I’ve come to distrust any decisions or conclusions I arrive at after 5:00 p.m. I hardly ever work evenings. Apart from the fact that I won’t get much done, there’s more to life than work. Taking the evening off also helps me get a good night’s sleep, ready to start afresh the next day.




Do you make time for doing nothing? How? When?


What time(s) of the day are you most alert and productive?


What benefits have you noticed from doing nothing?




1. Steve Hagen, Meditation—Now or Never (Penguin, 2012)


2. My friend John Eaton tells me the insights came from Bodymind, which he defines as “the intelligence of the body, working through the brain, the nervous system, the glands, the cells and the immune system.” He would remind me that there is no absolute distinction between the brain and the rest of the body, just the artificial one in our mind.

**]Work out

If you’re a writer, designer, or artist, it’s easy to think of your work as an affair of the mind and heart—that has nothing to do with your body.

If you’re a performer, you’re probably more aware of the importance of physical fitness to your work: for a dancer, strength and flexibility are essential to every performance; an actor or presenter needs to master posture and body language.

But did you know that exercise can make you not only physically fitter, but mentally more alert? Even more creative?

This is the argument of Harvard Professor of Psychiatry John Ratey in Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain, and he has a mountain of scientific research to back it up. He points out that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lead incredibly active lives compared to us—searching for food each day, running towards prey and away from predators, and migrating across continents in search of abundant food and better living conditions. The giant brains that set us apart from other species evolved within a highly active body. This means our brain cannot function normally in the absence of activity. The modern cubicle-worker-cum-couch potato is starving the brain of the oxygen and other resources it needs to function properly.

Drawing on research studies from education, sports, and medicine, Ratey demonstrates that exercising more will stimulate the growth of brain cells, enhance memory and concentration, and improve the “cognitive flexibility” vital for creativity. Not only that, exercise can reduce anxiety and stress, lift depression, and lessen addictions—removing some killer obstacles to creative work.

I’ve recently had first-hand experience of the kind of transformation Ratey describes. I’ve almost recovered from an injury that has stopped me engaging in vigorous exercise for several months. I thought I was managing the situation pretty well, but when I started cycling last month, I was amazed at what a dramatic difference it made. I instantly felt more energized, more alert, more positive, and more focused—and these feelings have persisted. I realize how much low-grade irritability and frustration I have been tolerating during the months of restricted activity. I normally sleep pretty well, but now I sleep like a log and feel much more refreshed each morning.

Rebooting my system through exercise has put me in mind of Richard Branson’s response to being asked for the secret of his legendary creativity and productivity:

“Work out.”1

Maybe you’re reading this thinking: “It’s all very well for the Richard Bransons of this world to take time out to exercise each day, but I have a busy schedule/demanding boss/huge amount to get done. I can’t spend hours in the gym on top of everything else.”

I know how you feel. It’s tempting to work all day and all night, especially if you love your work and your livelihood depends on it. But as we saw in Chapter 5, beyond a certain point, doing more or working harder is actually counter-productive. The quickest way forward is to take a break and recharge to allow space for new ideas to emerge. An hour in the gym—or on a bike, or the sports field, or just going for a walk—is a great way to step away from your work and reboot your mind and body.

Don’t take my word for it. If you’re remotely curious about the possibility that exercising more might improve the quality (and maybe even the quantity) of your creative work—as well as boosting your health and well-being—then why not test it for a week? Adding two or three sessions of exercise to a single week is unlikely to derail your entire career, so you don’t have much to lose. Yet the potential gains are enormous.

Important: if you currently spend most of your time sitting at a desk during the day, then sitting in a car or commuter train, and then sitting in an armchair watching TV, don’t jump straight into an unsupervised program of vigorous exercise! Get expert help from a personal trainer or teacher. Ask for medical advice to ensure that your program is appropriate for your current state of health. And don’t ignore pain, especially if it persists!

The injury that took me out of action for months was entirely self-inflicted—I went from days at my desk to swinging a kettle bell around after watching a few instructional videos. When I experienced a sharp pain in my shoulder, I thought “It’s probably nothing,” and carried on regardless, because I was “too busy” to get it checked out . . . with predictable consequences. This time round I’m taking it slowly, and getting expert advice and feedback as I go. So take it from me, starting slowly can save you a lot of time, money, and pain in the future.

When creating your own exercise program, here are three factors to make it easier to stick with the plan:

p<{color:#000;}. Pleasure—it’s always easier to find time for a sport or activity you actually enjoy.

p<{color:#000;}. Convenience—the quicker you can get going, the fewer excuses you will have for missing a session. I used to enjoy the gym, but traveling too and from the venue took a huge chunk out of my day; one of the things I love about cycling is that I can be out of the house and on my bike in minutes.

p<{color:#000;}. Social support—if you find it hard to motivate yourself to exercise on your own, pick a team sport, or join a running club, or hire a trainer, or attend a class, or “buddy up” with a training partner; on a particularly busy day, when you need the exercise the most and the temptation to skip it is strongest, it could make all the difference to know that someone else is waiting for you to show up.


1. Richard Branson, quoted in The Four Hour Body, by Tim Ferriss (Vermilion, 2011), p.13

**]Talk to your team mates

“But people are constantly interrupting me, it’s impossible to concentrate in the office.”

“But I have to be at my desk all day every day, even though I know I can get more done at home.”

“But we’re expected to be constantly checking email—if I switch it off for even a few minutes, I might miss something urgent.”

“But everyone has to attend the meeting, whether it’s relevant to their work or not.”

This book is designed to help you become more creative and productive by changing your own work habits. But if you are part of a team, whether working in an office or remotely, it’s not always enough to change the way you work—the obstacles to getting your real work done may be created by the company culture.

In some cases there are good reasons for these rules—but often they are the result of habit and unquestioned assumptions. And they can cause huge productivity losses, as well as massive frustration in people who are chomping at the bit to get on with their work.

If you are struggling with this kind of working culture, here are four conversations to have with co-workers to help you find more effective ways of working together. If you can get agreement on any one of them, I guarantee you will save far more time than it takes you to have the conversation.



1. Agree on priorities

In an ideal world, there would be a perfect fit between the work you consider your top priority and the priorities of people around you—such as your boss, your peers, contractors, and suppliers. But realistically, there will be disagreements over priorities from time to time.

Sometimes this is purely logistical. For example, your boss may ask you to prioritize a piece of design work so that it gets to the printer earlier and keeps the project on time. Or you might have to wait for a writer to send in an article before you can edit it. In these cases, goodwill and planning can go a long way—so make sure you talk to the relevant people about the schedule well before deadlines start to loom, and keep talking as the project progresses.

Other times the conflict is political—different people have different responsibilities, and may well be rewarded according to competing criteria. A classic case is the agency account team who are incentivized by commission to land a new client—only to encounter pushback from the creative team, who find the brief dull and conservative, and who worry that it will harm the agency’s reputation for cutting-edge creative work.

How you respond to this kind of situation depends on your role in the company. If you are the creative director, you will have more clout than if you are a junior copywriter. Use your authority to speak up for what you believe are your team’s true priorities. This may take some tough negotiation, but things will be much tougher if you avoid the negotiations.

If you are further down the ladder, you may not have the authority to set priorities yourself, but there is often room for “managing upward” by bringing the priority conflict—and its effect on your work—to the attention of the relevant manager(s) and asking them to resolve it. The worst case scenario is finding yourself caught between two senior people engaged in a power struggle, with your team as the pawns. At which point, you may start to wonder whether it’s worth your while to stay.



2. Looking busy versus being productive

One of the biggest drains on productivity is when people are pressured to put in “face time” at their desk or in meetings, when they could be more usefully engaged elsewhere. To an extent, this is an inevitable part of teamwork—we need to keep others in the loop about what we’re doing. Collaboration demands communication. But beyond a certain point, “looking busy” becomes a substitute for being effective.

So people come into the office five days a week and achieve less than they could by spending a couple of days of uninterrupted work at home or in the library. Or they sit chained to their desk trying to think clearly amid the office bustle, when a stroll in the sunshine or trip to a café with a notebook would vastly improve the quality of their thinking. In places like this, saving face means losing time and opportunities.

An extreme solution is the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), created by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler and first used at the company Best Buy. In a ROWE, employees are paid purely by results, not by the hours they work. They can work when, where, how, and how long they please, as long as they deliver on their agreed targets. Snarky criticism of others’ working habits is classed as “sludge” and actively discouraged.

Your company may not want to go this far, but maybe your team could benefit from a frank discussion about the difference between looking busy and being productive. Does everyone need to be in the office every day? Is it OK to be away from your desk? Do we need the whole team at this meeting? Sometimes a little flexibility can generate a lot of creativity and productivity.



3. “May I interrupt you?”

As we saw in Chapter 4, when one person interrupts another’s work, it not only breaks their concentration and creative flow, it costs the company money. Too many interruptions lead to frustrated workers and reduced profits. Of course, interruptions can also create value—provided the interruption is about a genuinely important issue. So it’s worth discussing the issue as a team and creating some ground rules for when and how to interrupt each other.

Before interrupting a co-worker, everyone might want to ask themselves: “Is this important AND urgent enough to justify interrupting?”

You can make huge productivity gains if you agree on a system for making requests that are important but not urgent. For example, instead of interrupting someone at their desk, drop your request into a “request box” (real or virtual), including the time you need a response by. This benefits everyone—as long as everyone uses the system. The more reliably people respond to requests dropped into their inbox, the more confident the requesters become in using the inbox and the less tempted they will be to interrupt.



4. Email rules of engagement

Left unchecked, email can destroy a team’s productivity. Recognizing this, some companies have a rule that if an internal email conversation generates more than five replies, someone has to pick up the phone. At others, they have “email-free Fridays.” Some companies only allow their people to check email at specified times.

Maybe none of these systems will work for your team—but the worst system of all is to have no system. Most email problems arise because people have not stopped to think about how to use it effectively, let alone discuss it within a team.

Spend half an hour as a group identifying (a) your biggest gripes about email, and (b) what you can do as a team to resolve them. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

p<{color:#000;}. If you need a response today, don’t rely on email. Pick up the phone or go and see them. This means no one is under pressure to check internal email more than once a day (client-facing employees may be an exception).

p<{color:#000;}. Batch process emails. It’s far quicker to answer 30 emails at one sitting than it is to keep stopping and answering them one at a time throughout the day. Block out a regular time to handle all important emails.

p<{color:#000;}. Use email for correspondence, not conversation. Correspondents don’t send letters every five minutes. Correspondents don’t expect an instant response. Correspondents take care over what they write, and keep their reader in mind.

p<{color:#000;}. Take the conversation elsewhere, such as a conference call, Instant Messenger, or private team forum. Or better still, sit down in a room together. You’ll have a more productive conversation, you won’t be clogging up your inboxes, and you’ll all feel better.


**]Panic early

For many creatives, leaving things to the last minute is a way of life. They spend weeks procrastinating, then work all day and night for days in a row as the deadline approaches. Some of them prefer things this way—they say it’s hard to beat the adrenaline-and-caffeine rush of all-night work sessions. If you’re happy with that lifestyle, I’m not here to spoil the party. There are plenty of ways to get creative work done.

Let’s return to the four types of work from Chapter 3. When it comes to Events, deadlines and last-minute sprints are often unavoidable, and are part of the fun of doing them, especially in the performing arts. But if you leave all your Ongoing work to the last minute, the job becomes a treadmill of ongoing stress and the Backlogs pile up. And when it comes to Asset Building, surely this is one area where you want to do the very best work you can? Which generally means allowing some time to review and improve on your prototype or first draft.

So if the magic of deadline magic is starting to wear thin and you’d rather find a less stressful way of working, here’s a suggestion. It’s a habit I’ve noticed in a certain type of creative person, who seems to have no issue with deadlines, who never seems to procrastinate, and who gets a hell of a lot more amazing work done than the average person:

Panic early.

Look ahead, work out how much you have to do and how much time you really have to get it all done. And notice how that makes you feel.

I can practically guarantee you’ll feel a twinge of fear. Not a full-blown panic, but enough of a shot in the arm to give you a sense of urgency about your work.

I’m a morning person as far as writing is concerned. There’s a window of about three or four hours each morning, during which I’m more alert and can get more written than at any other time of the day or night. Later in the day I have client sessions, as well as all the other things I need to do to run the business (not to mention family responsibilities). Which means I never have more than a few short hours a day to write in.

So if I get to ten o’clock in the morning and I haven’t started writing, it’s time for me to panic. Because I’m on the verge of losing an entire day’s writing. Five more minutes could be fatal . . . !

It works like magic. Some days that flutter of fear is just what it takes to get me out of procrastination and into my text.

It also works on a larger scale for planning and completing large-scale creative projects. Last August I was nearing the end of writing Motivation for Creative People, but after feedback from my editor and beta readers, I decided to rewrite a whole section, about 20 percent of the book.

I had been looking forward to taking a week off that month. With a bright sun overhead, it felt like I had all the time in the world. But when I looked ahead and extrapolated the production schedule, I realized I had to finish writing by the end of August to avoid launching the book in the middle of the Christmas stampede.

The twinge of adrenaline told me my choice was clear: miss the holiday or delay the book launch until the new year. So I bit the bullet, stayed home, and got the book done. I managed to get the book out before the Christmas rush—but only just. (And paid myself back with extra time off after the launch.)

Panicking early could work for you too. At the start of each day/week/month/year, ask yourself:

“How much do I want to get done?”

“How much time do I really have to do it in?”

“Can I afford to wait another minute before getting started?”

In other words: instead of waiting to the last minute for your adrenaline rush, why not have it now, while you still have time to put it to good use?

**]Put hard edges in your day

The great thing about setting your own schedule is that there’s no one to tell you what to do or when to do it—when to start, when to stop, when to have lunch, and whether to work the weekend.

And the hard thing about setting your own schedule is that there’s no one to tell you what to do or when to do it.

How do you decide how to arrange your day? Should you work nine to five, or just four hours a week, or all the hours God sends?

And how do you get yourself to stick to the schedule, when no one would ever know if you had an extra hour in bed, or played “one more game” on your phone, or took a long lunch, or quit early, or took the whole day off?

Freelancers the world over know that freedom comes with a hidden cost: you have so many choices you can feel paralyzed by indecision, like a writer staring at the blank screen or an artist terrified to make the first mark on an empty canvas.

Even when you decide, it’s hard to know if you made the “right” decision: if you push ahead on a creative project, you feel anxious about slipping behind on email; if you catch up on email, you feel like you’re neglecting your real work. Spending 30 minutes on the phone to a client or supplier feels like 30 minutes out of your day; if you put off the phone call, the thought of it hovers over you, making it hard to concentrate.

The end of the day brings no relief. After all, there’s always more to do and no one to tell you when you’ve done enough. You can end up feeling guilty all the time you’re not working.

Increasingly, this isn’t just an issue for freelancers. Many employees negotiate “work at home days” in order to be more productive, only to find organizing their own time is harder than it looks. An open plan office is far from perfect, but in some ways the peer pressure makes it easier to show up and get things done.

If you’re suffering from freedom paralysis, I invite you to consider an alternative to treating every day as a blank canvas.



Put hard edges in your day

Instead of redesigning (or improvising) your entire schedule each day, decide on a few important boundaries that will stay the same and save you several decisions each day.

For example:

p<{color:#000;}. start time

p<{color:#000;}. finish time

p<{color:#000;}. lunchtime

p<{color:#000;}. fixed times for different types of work—e.g. creative work, admin, meetings, email

Begin by analyzing your circadian rhythms (see Chapter 5) to identify the time(s) of day when you find it easiest to create, and block this time out for creative work.

Next, allocate the other tasks to the rest of the schedule, so that things like email, accounts, and social media are fitted around your creativity, never interfering with your core creative work.

Finally, add hard edges to your week by deciding which days you will work and which days will be your weekend or days off.



Creative benefits of a structured workflow

Commit to testing your new system for at least a week, then review the results to see if you are experiencing the following benefits.


Better work

When I coach clients through this process, the single biggest benefit I hear them report is a sense of relief: finally, they have dedicated time for creative work when they can focus on it 100 percent without feeling they should be doing something else.

Not only do they get more and better quality creative work done, they find themselves more motivated and energized. They look forward to their creative time, and don’t resent meetings or admin so much, since these things are no longer interfering with their creativity.


Get more done

The same principle applies to other types of work—when you focus on one thing at a particular time and batch similar tasks, you become more efficient and get more done overall. You might even experience a low-key kind of satisfaction during those times when you’re working through your email, sorting out your filing cabinet, or entering receipts into your accounting system—with no pressure to be brilliant at that moment, knowing there will be a time and a place to get all your other work done.


Zap procrastination

Supposing you decide to do your creative work from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. each day. When 2:00 p.m. comes round, there’s no decision to make: you are either sticking to the plan or breaking your promise to yourself. And knowing that you only have five hours to complete today’s work can help you panic early enough to get it all done.

Which is very different from coming back to your desk at 2:00 p.m. and then deciding what to do. In this scenario, your chances of procrastinating are a lot higher, because you always have the option (and the temptation) of faffing around with email or Twitter instead of getting on with your real work. And if you have not fixed a finish time, you can always kid yourself you’ll get to the hard work “later.”


Reduced decision fatigue

Making decisions is hard work that uses up valuable mental energy. Your work is hard enough without adding to the neurological load. Making a few key decisions up front will leave you free to make more creative use of your brain power every day. This is why Barack Obama makes sure all his shirts, suits, and ties match each other—he has plenty of big decisions to make later in the day, so he doesn’t want to start the morning by agonizing over what to wear.


Stop feeling guilty

Guilt is a great way to turn freedom into misery by spending most of your waking hours telling yourself you should be doing something different:

p<{color:#000;}. More work –“Can you afford to knock off work this early?”

p<{color:#000;}. Different work –“Shouldn’t you reply to those emails before playing with your paintbrush?” vs. “Why are you wasting valuable painting time on email?”

But once you decide which hours to allocate to different tasks and stick to the plan, you can stop feeling guilty. It’s fine to work on your masterpiece now because you’ll catch up with email before the day is out. And when you have put in your creative hours, it’s no great tragedy to spend time in your inbox.

. . .

If you don’t experience most of these benefits, go back to the drawing board and ask yourself which elements need to change. Keep adjusting and experimenting until you find the right balance of freedom and structure.



Use templates for different types of day

If you do the same kind of work every day, you’ll only need one daily schedule. But chances are you have different types of day—depending on the kind of work you’re doing or what stage you’re at with a project. I’ve seen plenty of clients who start a new schedule full of enthusiasm, only to get frustrated and even disappointed with themselves when they can’t stick to it under changing circumstances.

My default daily schedule is writing in the morning, coaching in the afternoon. But sometimes I spend a whole day, or even several days, in person with a client, which means I can’t fit in my usual writing hours. Other days, I have no client appointments, leaving me more time to play with. Travel days are different again.

So I have different scheduling “templates” for each day, by analogy with a web developer, who creates different page templates for different types of web page: blog posts, product pages, information pages, and so on. For my all-day client sessions, the template is coaching all day + only reply to urgent and important emails. I don’t worry about anything else—I can catch up afterwards.

If your work changes in a similar way, then schedule templates can save you a lot of stress:

p<{color:#000;}. Work out how many basic types of working day you have; the fewer the better, otherwise it becomes hard to remember all the templates.

p<{color:#000;}. Design a different template for each day.

p<{color:#000;}. Don’t try to put everything into every template! Different days have different priorities—as long as you capture everything over the course of a typical week, you will be fine.

“But aren’t these limits constricting?”

Only if you decide on limits that don’t work for you. In which case, change them!

Remember, I’m inviting you to design your ideal working day, to minimize drudgery and maximize creativity. Whether you prefer to create in the morning, afternoon, or the middle of the night, make that the foundation of your workflow. To me, that’s a pretty liberating concept.

Freedom isn’t about reinventing the wheel every single day: it’s about making decisions you are happy with. Some decisions—like choosing what to eat at the restaurant—are fun to make afresh each time. But others—such as what hours/days to work—can be made once and only revisited if you don’t like the results. You’re still exercising your freedom, while freeing your mind up for more interesting activities.

[] [CHAPTER 10
**]Ring-fence your most creative time

It’s easy to put hard edges in your day when that means keeping your commitments to other people—colleagues, clients, collaborators. If you fail to turn up at a meeting at the agreed time, you lose face, fast. But it’s much harder to keep a commitment to yourself, to show up and put in the hours on your most challenging creative work—especially if this is a self-starting project such as a novel, a new product idea, or a piece of art that hasn’t been commissioned.

In the moment it may feel more important to keep promises to others than to yourself. But in the long term, nothing is more important than doing the creative work that only you can do. This is where you find your greatest fulfillment. It’s also where you create the most value for others, and therefore for your own career or business.

Each time I finish writing a book, I’m lucky enough to have plenty of people around me who pat me on the back and tell me how pleased they are for me. But each day when it comes to writing another page of the next book, there is no one to cheer me on. If I look at my inbox, it can feel like the world is encouraging me to do anything but write! This is as it should be—it’s my responsibility to write the book. Just as it is your responsibility to turn your creative dreams into reality.

This can even be an issue with creative work commissioned by your boss or client. It’s not only intrinsically rewarding, it’s what you’re paid to do. But the modern workplace seems to conspire against you doing it, with meetings, email, and other interruptions breaking your thread of concentration.

So it’s up to you and me to make sure our creative work has pride of place in our schedules, and to protect it—from our own excuses as well as intrusions from outside. Here are some tips for making that happen.



1. Pick your most creative time of day

Back in Chapter 5, I told you how I discovered my own circadian rhythms while meditating in a monastery. My mind is at its brightest and sharpest in the mornings, so mornings are my designated writing time.

Back in 2005, I had the luxury of getting up in time to start writing at 6:30 a.m. These days I have two children who have far more energy than I do, so frankly I take every moment of sleep I can get! They rightly consume my attention first thing, so my writing time has been shunted forward, till after they have had their breakfast and set off for school. This isn’t a huge issue, but it does mean I have to be even more careful not to let the morning get clogged up with appointments and non-creative work.

When it comes to creating, are you a morning, afternoon, or evening person? Maybe even a night owl? Whichever it is, do whatever you can to rearrange your schedule so that you are working on your biggest creative challenges in your peak creative time.

Don’t worry if this isn’t possible for you right now, but carve out whatever time you can. The most important thing is that you have designated creative time on your schedule. When I worked full-time in publishing, evenings were the only time I had for my own writing projects, so I made the most of them. (A post-work nap can work wonders here—see Chapter 18.)



2. Protect this time from intrusions

From now on, do everything in your power to keep your creative time free. Each time you make an appointment, offer the other person any time but that. If you’re an afternoon creator, then your default setting should be to offer appointments in the morning or evening—whether it’s a client, your boss, your best friend, or the dentist. You can usually find another time without inconveniencing them. And most people will never even notice you are avoiding a certain time of day.

Whatever you do, don’t tell them, “I can’t meet then because I’m painting/writing/etc.” Unless they are creators themselves, they won’t understand. “That’s okay,” they will cheerfully say, “it won’t take long.” They haven’t read the research on interruptions (see Chapter 4) and they have no idea of the devastating effect their “quick chat” will have on your day’s work. Don’t try to explain. Just tell them you’re “unavailable,” “booked,” or “busy” at that time. And be very helpful and flexible in finding them another time.

Sometimes you need to make exceptions. If it’s a mission-critical meeting and there really is no alternative, maybe it’s your turn to take one for the team. But in that case, make sure you pay yourself back by carving out another block of time for your own project. Don’t allow the exceptions to become the rule, otherwise you’re relegating your own project to the status of a daydream.



3. Give your work a place

Lots of creators have a special place they go to for work: the painter’s studio, the musician’s rehearsal room, the writer’s study, or the editor’s office. Philip Larkin said he wrote all his best poetry on the top floor, and experienced writer’s block when he lived in a basement flat. Maya Angelou used to leave her home and check into a hotel room for the day, in order to write. This effectively separated her writing from the rest of her life, eliminating distractions and helping her focus.

Maybe you have a special place you go for focused creative work—a secluded office, a particular chair, a seat in your favorite café. Once you get into the habit of working in this place, it builds up positive associations and helps you to get into the creative zone.

Even if you have to work in an open-plan office, there are things you can do to minimize distractions and interruptions. Switch off your phone and email. If the office noise is distracting, listen to music on your headphones. Set up a signal (e.g. a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your desk) to let your colleagues know they will interrupt you at their peril!



4. Decide on the rules of your game

Treat your work day as a game in which you get to make up all the rules. In my case, when it comes to writing time, I allow myself to write, drink coffee, and listen to music. Anything else—even if it’s kind of related to writing, like researching or reading—is off-limits. It makes the game beautifully simple: I’m either writing or avoiding writing. Faced with that choice, sooner or later the coffee runs out, and the most interesting thing to do is to start writing.

It’s critically important that you decide on the rules of your game before it’s time to play. If you wait till the appointed time and then allow yourself to start revising the rules, it’s all too easy to take the easy option—which opens the door to Resistance and procrastination. Maybe the rules are flawed. Maybe they could do with tweaking. But you can decide that another day—after you’ve played full out today.

Remember: the rules are there to make the game fun! They are your rules, and it’s your game. You can play it any way you like, as long as you enjoy yourself and you’re happy with the result.




When is your most creative time—the time when you are most alert and find it easy to focus?


If you could arrange your ideal schedule, what time would you ring-fence for focused creative work?


How close to your ideal schedule can you get within the constraints of your current situation?


Do you have a special place for creative work?

[] [CHAPTER 11
**]Use ritual to get in the creative zone

Rituals of preparation are as old as human history, and persist even among intelligent people in advanced civilizations:

The Priestess of Apollo—Greece, 403 B.C.

She has fasted for several days prior to the seventh of the month, the day sacred to her God. She washes in the Castalian Spring, then drinks the waters of the Kassotis Spring, which confer the gift of inspiration. Clutching laurel leaves and a cauldron of water, she descends into a chamber beneath the temple and mounts a high tripod seat. Alone in the darkness, she waits.

Minutes later the famous Spartan general Lysander is led into the temple above. Like the priestess, he has undergone rituals of purification and arrives clutching a laurel branch. He brought a black ram as a gift for Apollo. The ram was showered with water and closely watched to make sure that it shivered from the hooves upward. The animal was then sacrificed and its organs examined for auspicious signs.

The voice that comes up to Lysander from the darkness is sluggish, as if the speaker were entranced or waking from sleep. Some of the words are unintelligible to him, but a chill runs though him when the voice hisses: “Beware the earthborn serpent, in craftiness coming behind thee!”

Eight years later Lysander is killed in battle—stabbed from behind by a warrior with a serpent painted on his shield.


Friedrich Schiller, poet—Germany, 18th century

The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visits the house of his friend and fellow writer Friedrich Schiller. While waiting for Schiller to return home, he notices a terrible smell coming from the writing desk. When he comments on it, Schiller’s wife laughs in embarrassment and explains that her husband always keeps rotten apples in the desk, claiming he is unable to write without that smell wafting into his nostrils. Frau Schiller shakes her head as she adds that when writing at his desk, her husband also immerses his feet in a tub of icy water.


Knife fighter—Philippines, 20th century

A middle-aged man prepares for a duel. The machete he clutches has had the poison of deadly spiders beaten into its blade during the forging process. Around his neck is an amulet and around his waist is an apron inscribed with a prayer which he recites with utmost seriousness, certain that these preparations will make the difference between life and death.


The England rugby team—UK, 2007

Jason Robinson keeps an eye on the clock in the buildup to kick off. He has a strict routine of bandaging his arm and leg joints in a particular order and at specific times before the game. His teammate Mark Cueto, having eaten his usual pre-match meal of beans on toast, is careful to put his left boot on before his right. As usual Cueto was last off the team bus, but he will be jostling with Mark Regan when the teams are called out, as both players like to be last out of the changing room for every game. Other players will make a point of touching the ceiling as they leave the room or putting on their mouth guards at the precise moment they step across the touchline onto the pitch.


Steven Pressfield, novelist—USA, 21st century

The writer puts on his lucky boots, ties up their lucky laces and heads for his office where he finds his lucky hooded sweatshirt, lucky gypsy charm, and lucky name tag. On his shelf is a lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. A lucky model cannon sits on top of his thesaurus. He points the cannon towards his chair then recites a prayer to the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey. Only then does he start to write.

If you’re a hard-core rationalist you will probably dismiss such antics as “superstition.” Even if you’re not wedded to scientific materialism, you may find this kind of behavior a little odd.

But if you are an artist, athlete, actor, or another kind of performer, you may well have similar warm-up rituals of your own. You might feel slightly embarrassed by such illogical behavior—but not enough to change it. While coaching professional creators, performers, and sports players, I’ve often heard clients say, “You’ll think it’s silly but . . .” before telling me about their warm-up ritual.

I’m going to suggest that this kind of ritual is far from silly or irrational. In fact, if you’re a creative professional, it may be one of the most important things you do all day.

You may know from your own experience that your ritual works—when you stick to it, things go better than if you skip it. And you probably have your own explanation as to why. While respecting your explanation, I’m going to offer another perspective based on my original professional training, in hypnotherapy.



State-dependent performance

From a hypnotist’s perspective, each of these people is engaged in a ritual that helps them enter an altered state of consciousness essential for enhanced performance. If any of these people were prevented from carrying out their ritual beforehand, the chances are they would fail to perform to their usual high standard.

Dr. Ernest Rossi is a leading hypnotherapist and investigator into the connections between mind and body. Years ago I had the privilege of attending a residential therapists’ retreat with Dr. Rossi, and I can testify to his deep understanding of states of consciousness and their effect on performance. Central to his work is the concept of state-dependent memory, learning, and behavior (SDMLB), which means that as we acquire skills and knowledge, they become associated with a particular mental, emotional, and physiological state.

For example: right now you’re reading this book so you’re probably in “reading mode” which makes it easy to absorb these words and relate them to other things you’ve read –whether in books, blogs, journals, or other sources. But you don’t spend your whole life reading. At other times you exercise or play sports, work in the garden, the house or workshop, run around with your kids, or do some other kind of physically engaging activity. There’s a whole lot of skills and knowledge tied up in those activities, but right now it probably seems a bit vague and far away, because you’re not in an active state.

Next time you’re engaged in energetic activity, fully absorbed in whatever you’re doing, I wonder how vivid the world of books will seem to you. You probably won’t give it a thought—and if you were suddenly interrupted and asked to recall the details of this chapter, you would likely struggle to remember at first.

When it comes to creative work, your state of mind is critical. Many of the clients who have consulted me about creative blocks over the years have been looking for ways to access the SDMLB of their creativity. The ones who told me about their “silly” rituals were in fact describing a very elegant and effective way to get into their creative zone.



Rituals are gateways to high performance states

Rituals are important for creativity because they can unlock the state of mind in which you do your best work. They may seem silly or irrational, but they are powerful precisely because they are so different from the kind of activities you associate with other areas of your life.

When I trained in hypnotherapy one of the first things we were taught was the power of a unique stimulus to “anchor” a state of consciousness. Three of the most important factors that affect the power of a hypnotic anchor are:

p<{color:#000;}. Emotional intensity—the stronger the original emotional state associated with the anchor, the stronger the emotional response whenever the same anchor is encountered again.

p<{color:#000;}. Distinctiveness—the more unusual the anchor, the less diluted the emotion will be by other associations.

p<{color:#000;}. Repetition—the more often the intense emotion is experienced in combination with the distinctive anchor, the more powerful the anchor becomes.

For most of us a coffee cup doesn’t act as a powerful anchor—we’ve drunk so many cups of coffee in so many different situations that the object is not particularly distinctive or emotionally charged. But I have a very special coffee cup—a fine china one covered in Japanese calligraphy (distinctive) that I bought when I visited Kyoto to get married (emotional intensity) and which I only drink from first thing in the morning as I’m sitting down to write (distinctive + emotional intensity + repetition). Over the years it’s become a kind of touchstone, connecting me with what’s most important before I start writing.

Note that the anchor itself is not necessarily possessed of magical properties. Its power comes from unlocking an ability you acquire through sustained practice. You could run through exactly the same routine with exactly the same objects as Steven Pressfield does without producing a successful novel. But that particular ritual has become magically charged for him because it gives him access to skills he has developed through thousands of hours of practice.

Have another look at the examples that opened this chapter. Can you see how each of the rituals combines emotional intensity with a distinctive set of circumstances and actions that are repeated over many occasions? Far from being illogical or silly, they are vitally important to the performers’ preparations.

Is it time for you to take such “superstitions” a little more seriously?



Devising your own creative ritual

An effective creative ritual doesn’t need to be an elaborate affair involving incense, priestesses, or goat sacrifices. It can be as simple as putting on a favorite piece of music, or ordering your usual coffee and sitting in your favorite seat in your local café. As long as it incorporates the three key elements, it should have the desired effect:

p<{color:#000;}. Emotional intensity—you need to be passionate about your creative work, in order to associate the anchor with a powerful emotional state. Since you’re reading this book, I’m assuming this is already the case!

p<{color:#000;}. Distinctiveness—choose anchors that you don’t experience in other areas of your life, so that your unconscious mind comes to associate them with the distinctive state you enter while creating. For example, if you do client work on the computer, you could switch to pen and paper for your own creative projects.

p<{color:#000;}. Repetition—use the same anchors over and over, so that they become more powerful with time.

There are many different types of anchor for you to choose from, including:

p<{color:#000;}. Objects—tools of your trade, your favorite mug, lucky charms, etc.

p<{color:#000;}. Places—your studio, your favorite café, your favorite armchair in the corner, etc.

p<{color:#000;}. People—if you enjoy collaborating, then your creative partners and team members will become anchors as you bring out the best in each other.

p<{color:#000;}. Sounds—music, the background noise of your co-working space, etc. Some creators like to recite a prayer or mantra, silently or out loud.

p<{color:#000;}. Images—the view from your desk, a favorite picture hanging in the studio, etc. Also, you might close your eyes and visualize imagery as part of your ritual.

p<{color:#000;}. Smells—incense, the smell of your favorite coffee, etc.

p<{color:#000;}. Posture—sitting, standing, lying on the bed, walking and dictating into your phone, etc.

The anchors themselves might be fairly mundane, but the combination of different anchors can produce a distinctive set of anchors for your creative state. For example, sitting facing the window as you burn sandalwood incense on the windowsill, or drinking strawberry milkshake and listening to “Whole Lotta Love.” Give it at least ten days of using the same anchor so that the associations become automatic. Once you develop a really effective ritual, it should become second-nature, an easy and familiar way to slip into the creative zone and get to work.

[] [CHAPTER 12
**]Play the calendar game

When working on a big creative project, it can be challenging to keep going week in, week out, with the finish line far off in the distance and little or no feedback and encouragement from other people. In the absence of external validation, the same questions keep circling in your mind:

Is this any good? Is the whole project futile? Am I wasting my time?

If you’re working on something the size of a novel, a feature film, or an album, you can’t answer these questions until you’ve done a lot of work and created a lot of material. If this is the first time you’ve attempted a project on this scale, you have to keep going on blind faith and determination. One way to stay motivated over the long haul is to track your progress using some kind of objective yardstick.

Many writers set themselves targets for the number of words they write each day. I know painters who track their hours per day or days in the studio, and musicians who do the same for their practice. Some people use software apps to do the tracking for them.

I write my books using Scrivener, which allows me to see each chapter as a separate file in the left-hand margin of my screen. When I start writing, the first thing I do is create a file for every section and chapter in the book: after a few minutes, I have the whole structure of the book laid out before me. That alone feels like I am well on the way!

As I work my way through the book, each time I complete a chapter, I change the icon in the sidebar to a blue flag. When I go back and revise each chapter for the second draft, I change the blue flag to a green flag. The final draft, after feedback from my editor, will be marked with a column of yellow flags. Scrivener also allows me to set a word-count target for the book, and displays a colored bar to mark my progress towards the goal.

Writing a book takes a long time. It would be easy to get discouraged, or to think “It doesn’t really matter if I skip a day.” But looking at these markers each day gives me a sense of progress. On the days when it feels like I’m not getting anywhere, I can look at the flags and the word-count bar and have a sense that I’m getting somewhere, however slowly. And when my wife asks me, “How’s the book going?” I can show her at a glance!

Of course, quantity does not equal quality. There is no guarantee I am not writing thousands of unusable words. And tracking is not much use for some creative activities—like writing poetry, where inspiration tends to be erratic, there aren’t many words to count, and most of the actual writing time is spent revising earlier drafts. But whenever you are working on a big creative project with no built-in markers of progress, it can be surprisingly motivating to create your own milestones.

The point is not to turn your work into drudgery, but to gamify it so that it becomes fun to turn another flag green, or mark another X on your calendar, or watch an app’s progress bar inch closer to completion. Each progress marker becomes a micro-reward for your daily effort. If you’ve ever collected stickers to fill an album you will know how addictive this can become—and from a motivational standpoint, making your work addictive is a good thing.



The Calendar Game

Here is a simple game I invite coaching clients to play1 when they are struggling to put in consistent daily work on a project or practice on their art:

p<{color:#000;}. Buy or make a monthly calendar and hang it somewhere prominent so you will see it every day.

p<{color:#000;}. Each day you actually do your creative work (hours put in, word count, etc.) color that day red. The aim of the game is to turn the month red.

p<{color:#000;}. Each time you skip a day, color that day blue.

Clients tell me the game becomes simultaneously addictive and challenging—as they put together a run of red days, they become more energized and committed to keeping it going. When life events or laziness threaten to blot the calendar with a blue day, they are determined not to give in. I’ve even had clients tell me they did their work at the eleventh hour just to salvage their red mark (and creative satisfaction) for that day.

A few tips to ensure the Calendar Game raises your creative game:

p<{color:#000;}. Only count real work on your project—i.e. actually creating or performing/rehearsing your material. Research, admin, networking, and other secondary tasks don’t count.

p<{color:#000;}. If you work in an office or studio separate from your home, display the calendar at home, where you can’t help seeing it. If it’s at the studio, it becomes a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” but seeing it every day when you get up makes it hard to ignore.

p<{color:#000;}. When you put together a run of red days, watch out for complacency.

p<{color:#000;}. If you get an occasional blue day, put in more effort. If you get a run of blue days, stop and work out what the problem is.

p<{color:#000;}. If you want to build in extra accountability, tell others in the household what the calendar means. Or show it to your teacher/coach/accountability partner. (Only do this with people whom you trust to express their opinion in a helpful way!)

p<{color:#000;}. Keep your old months—they are a good reminder of consistent effort (for red months) and how much you are improving (for blue months).


1. A friend who read the manuscript of this book pointed out that comedian Jerry Seinfeld uses a similar technique to get himself to write new material every day. See James Clear’s article: How to Stop Procrastinating on Your Goals by Using the “Seinfeld Strategy”

[] [CHAPTER 13
**]Incubate, don’t procrastinate

The creative process can look a little odd from the outside. Sometimes it looks like we’re doing nothing at all—strolling in the park, lazing on the beach, or staring into space while the rest of the office is busy being busy. Yet this might be the most productive time we spend all week, with ideas bubbling away under the surface, waiting to burst into consciousness. Creativity theorists refer to this as incubation, as if the artist or thinker were some kind of chicken waiting patiently for the eggs of inspiration to hatch.

Yet at other times our apparent inactivity conceals an even more profound inactivity. We look as though we’re doing nothing, because we really are doing nothing. We’re wasting our time, and we have better things to do. Procrastination has reared its ugly head.

So how can we tell the difference between the two? How do we know whether we’re doing just the right thing for our creative process—allowing brilliant ideas and inspiration to incubate quietly—or whether we really ought to be rolling up our sleeves and producing a little more perspiration?

As a coach I’ve been privileged to observe plenty of creative people at close quarters, in various stages of procrastination, incubation, and inspiration. As a writer, I’ve also wasted plenty of time on procrastination. And there have also been times when I’ve driven myself too hard, trying to complete a piece too quickly, without taking a break and allowing time for incubation to work its magic.

All of this has brought me to the following conclusion about the difference between incubation and procrastination:

Procrastination happens before hard work.

Incubation happens after hard work.

Procrastination is a way of avoiding hard work and creative risk. It is usually accompanied by anxiety (we’re not looking forward to the work) and guilt (we really should have done it by now). And it happens to the best of us. Thumb through the pages of Daily Rituals, Mason Currey’s excellent compilation of accounts of the working habits of great creators, and you’ll find plenty of descriptions of procrastination accompanied by self-lacerating guilt.

Incubation takes place when we have worked ourselves to a standstill, when we’ve tried our best and reached the limit of what we can achieve with conscious effort. Sometimes we give up in despair. At other times we stop with relief and maybe even a hint of anticipation. Experienced creators learn to recognize the tell-tale signs that it’s time to take a break.

One of the most famous accounts of incubation comes from the mathematician Henri Poincaré, who described several instances of working furiously to solve a mathematical problem, giving up in despair, and then realizing the solution in a flash of insight while doing something unrelated to his work, such as strolling on the beach or stepping into a bus. Poincaré’s explanation was that the initial burst of hard work had set “the unconscious machine” of his mind going, so that it worked on the problem in the background while his conscious mind was focused on other matters.

Next time you find yourself in an idle moment on a creative project, unsure whether to push yourself harder or chill out in search of inspiration, ask yourself the following question:

Is the initial phase of hard work in front of me or behind me?

If the work is in front of you, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. But if it’s behind you, feel free to take the day off and relax, secure in the knowledge that you are working as hard as you humanly can.

[] [CHAPTER 14
**]Make the most of boredom

Like most creators, you probably have a low boredom threshold. You’re hardwired to pursue novelty and inspiration—and to run from admin and drudgery. Boredom is the enemy of creativity, to be avoided at all costs. Or is it?

In an interview for the Guardian, comedy writer Graham Linehan remarked that he uses software to cut off the internet and force himself to endure boredom, “because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

I know how he feels. I get really excited when I dream up the idea for a new writing project—yet when it’s time to knuckle down and start the first draft, it’s amazing how suddenly I feel bored, and how many seemingly more interesting alternatives pop into my mind: Twitter; rearranging the books on my shelf; the new Amazon package that arrived this morning; emailing a friend I haven’t spoken to for ages; doing some more “research” . . .

Steven Pressfield would not hesitate to label this kind of boredom as Resistance—the invisible force that rises up within us, whenever we set our minds to a difficult creative challenge.1 Resistance knows how hard the task will be—and uses boredom to nudge us away, while offering us all kinds of easy distractions.

Like Linehan, I’ve come to expect the boredom so I prepare myself to deal with it. I know what time I’m supposed to start writing. After that point, I know I’m either writing or procrastinating. Secondly, I go into airplane mode—switching off the phone and email, and using Freedom to lock me off the internet.

That usually does the trick for writing prose. But poetry is much harder—and I know the boredom/resistance will be that much stronger. So sometimes when I’m working on a poem I leave the laptop at home and head for the British Library with just a pencil and paper. The British Library is a beautiful building, and purpose-designed to be one of the most boring environments on Earth—there are no enticing distractions, and the “wall of silence” peer pressure from your fellow readers makes it hard to do anything other than sit still and keep quiet.

Whether it’s poetry or prose, I experience the same familiar pattern: once it’s just me and the blank screen/page, a wave of boredom rises up to meet me. I feel the urge to go somewhere—anywhere—to get away. Because it’s expected, I let the wave wash over me. I accept I am bored, that boredom is part of the process—and I trust that if I sit here long enough, it will subside, and reveal a flicker of curiosity. That flicker is like the tiny flame a match sparks in kindling—easily snuffed out, but if you are patient, it will start to grow and burn brightly. Curiosity becomes interest, becomes fascination . . . and soon I’m lost in my writing, the words are flowing and I wouldn’t be anywhere or doing anything else in the whole world.

The secret Resistance omits to tell us is that on the other side of boredom is the most exciting experience a creator can have—the state of being fired up and discovering new possibilities beyond anything you could have imagined before you sat down to work.

So how can you remind yourself of that long enough to break through the boredom and out the other side?


1. Make sure it’s the right kind of boredom!

The wrong kind of boredom is the kind you experience when you’re doing something tedious or pointless—something that doesn’t inspire you or help you achieve your ambitions. The right kind of boredom is the kind you experience in spite of the fact that you know this is something you really, really want to do—i.e. work on a big creative challenge. That should alert you to the fact that it’s only a smokescreen for Resistance.


2. Decide beforehand when you’re going to start work.

If you wait until tomorrow to decide whether to start work in the morning or the afternoon, you give yourself an opportunity to procrastinate. But if you decide to start at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, when 9:00 a.m. comes round you have a stark choice—do your work or break your promise.


3. Cut yourself off from distractions. Don’t rely on willpower.

Is it enough to use software to switch off the internet? Do you need to avoid the computer altogether? Or do you require a high-focus environment like a library or shared studio? You know yourself better than anyone.


4. Prepare to be bored. Don’t resist it.

Sit there and experience it—notice how your body feels, what thoughts and temptations parade through your mind, and what emotions you experience. (A regular meditation practice can be enormously helpful here.) Get to know your boredom—when you really study it, it can actually be quite interesting!


5. Stay where you are until the boredom subsides.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to come up with something amazing straight away. Just lay your paper/laptop/canvas/guitar/whatever in front of you, and look at it. If it’s a work in progress, look at what you did yesterday. When I do this, I usually find myself tempted to make a few light edits here and there. Before long the edits get bigger, I cross out fewer words and start adding more and more. Give yourself permission to do nothing or just tinker around—as long as you stay focused on the work in front of you.


6. Make a habit of it.

The more times you see the pattern—first boredom, then curiosity, then interest, then absorption—the more easily you will recognize the boredom as just the first part of the process, and the easier it will be to persist.




1. For advice on tackling Resistance, see Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art (Black Irish Entertainment, 2012)


[] [CHAPTER 15
**]Get things off your mind

So you’re sitting at your desk, trying to focus on a piece of creative work—but it’s hard to concentrate, because there’s something nagging at your attention. Suddenly it pops into your mind—you’ve forgotten to send your colleague an urgent piece of work! Or even worse, you get a phone call or an email out of the blue demanding to know why you haven’t delivered on a promise. Or you notice a Post-it Note on the floor, that has fallen off your monitor, containing a reminder to DO SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT . . . by yesterday.

If this happens to you often enough, you get used to living with a constant low-level anxiety—scanning your memory, your desk, your emails, your Post-its, your scattered to-do lists—worried that you’ve forgotten something important. When you agree to do something, you may write it down—but can you be 100 percent sure you’ll notice the note in time to do it? Or if you’re out and about and make a commitment, how can you be sure you’ll remember to put it on your to-do list when you get back to the office? Wherever you go, whatever you’re doing, somewhere at the back of your mind you’re wondering whether you’ve forgotten something vital that could blow up in your face at any moment.

How about this for an alternative?

What if you could be totally present with a “mind like water” in the midst of your daily activities, confident that you have not forgotten anything important, so that you can focus all your attention on the task in hand?

I’ve spent time in Buddhist monasteries in search of this state of mind. The phrase “mind like water” is from the Japanese mizu no kokoro of Zen Buddhism. Yet I first encountered it in David Allen’s bestselling time-management book, Getting Things Done. When I read this section of the book, I grasped the true value of having a system for managing your workload—not merely to be more productive, but to reclaim your own mind by clearing out unnecessary mental clutter caused by trying to remember all your work commitments.

Before reading Getting Things Done, I would typically have several to-do lists on different sheets of paper, not to mention the Post-it notes stuck to my monitor. But I wasn’t in the habit of writing everything down, so there were always several items I had to remember at any one time. I was vaguely aware that the effort to remember—and anxiety about forgetting—was taking up valuable mental energy and clouding my mind. I resented this all the more because I had experienced the opposite. I had been on retreats where I had experienced a wonderful mental clarity and peace of mind after several days of silent meditation. But each time the retreat ended, I was frustrated when this clarity was eroded by the demands of everyday life.

When I read David Allen’s book, I saw the possibility of experiencing a “mind like water” in the midst of my daily work. Apart from the obvious emotional benefits, I could see that it would help my creativity. So how can we achieve this state of mind while dealing with the pressures of work?



Capture your commitments in “buckets”

David Allen recommends setting up “buckets”—physical or virtual containers—to capture your commitments so that they can’t leak away and be forgotten. You should have as few of these as possible, but as many of them as you need. Here are my buckets:

p<{color:#000;}. My email inbox

p<{color:#000;}. The voicemail on my iPhone

p<{color:#000;}. A stack of Post-its on my desk—for today’s and tomorrow’s to-do lists

p<{color:#000;}. The “Reminders” app on my iPhone—for ideas and commitments that arise while I’m away from my desk

p<{color:#000;}. Google Calendar—for appointments, deadlines, and other time-bound commitments

p<{color:#000;}. A Scrivener file for each of my current projects—for things I need to do at some point that don’t have a fixed date yet

If you are using buckets, it’s essential that you put all your commitments into them. Even if you think you can remember a task easily, the effort to remember will take up valuable mental bandwidth. Once you put it into a bucket, you get it off your mind. And never put a commitment anywhere but in your buckets. If I don’t put it in one of the above places, I have to assume it won’t happen. Doing this was a bit odd at first, but now it’s almost automatic and I even feel a slight sense of relief each time I get something off my mind and into a bucket.

Getting things off your mind has several benefits. Firstly, you can stop thinking about them and give your full attention to whatever you’re doing in the momentsuch as your creative work. Secondly, you will stop forgetting important things. Soon after that, you will stop worrying about potentially forgetting important things—for some people, this is a life-changing reduction in anxiety. Finally, because you can easily review all your current commitments, you can see exactly how busy you are, so you will be less likely to take on more than you can manage.

So am I now living in a constant state of blissful peace and clarity? Not quite. If that’s your goal, it’s hard to beat the monastic routine. But I’ve definitely removed one big source of stress from my life—the effort of remembering important commitments and the danger of forgetting them. My mind is a little more like water.




What difference would it make to your life if you knew you would never forget another important commitment?


What would it be like if you could get your commitments off your mind and stay focused in the present?


What difference would it make to know that you could review all your current commitments by looking in five or six convenient buckets?


What buckets do you / could you use to capture your commitments?

[] [CHAPTER 16
**]If it won’t fit on a Post-it, it won’t fit in your day

Have you ever had a to-do list that was so long it felt like you’d never get to the end of it? Or have you ever started the day with a manageable list, but by the end of the afternoon it was longer than when you began—because of all the things that got added during the day? Too many days like this and your to-do list starts to look like a wish list.

This was a familiar scenario to me a few years ago. It was compounded when I started using digital to-do list managers—which enabled me to create a literally endless to-do list. However much I prioritized, however hard I worked, I always seemed to end the day with a longer list than I started with.

The solution turned out to be counterintuitive: I got more done by making my to-do list shorter.

Now, one of my most valuable productivity tools is a stack of Post-it notes. Not the smallest size, but the 3″ x 3″ squares. The top Post-it contains my to-do list for today and today only. Because my day is a limited size, I figure it makes sense to limit the size of my to-do list. If I can’t fit the day’s tasks on the Post-it, I’m not likely to fit them into the day.

The top left corner is reserved for the One Big Task I need to accomplish today. It could be an article, a presentation, a training plan, a client proposal, or the draft of a poem. I start the day by devoting my full creative energy to the most important task on my list. The rest of the Post-it is taken up with everything else I have to do today, roughly in order of priority.

And once I’ve finished the to-do list, I’ve finished work for the day. As a self-employed creative workaholic, after years of feeling there was always something else to do at the end of the day, I can assure you this is a magical feeling.

But what about all the rest? All the phone calls, emails, and requests that come in during the day? Not to mention all the new ideas that pop into my head as I work? Good question. There’s a place for all of these things, and that place is the second Post-it on the stack, a.k.a. my to-do list for tomorrow. Unless something is seriously urgent AND important (such as an emergency request from a client), then I never add anything to today’s list once I’ve finalized it first thing in the morning.

This is a variation on the Do It Tomorrow approach to productivity advocated by Mark Forster in his book of that name. Forster draws a distinction between open lists and closed lists. An endless digital to-do list is an open list, because new items can be added anytime. The to-do list on my Post-it is a closed list, because it’s finite in size and I don’t add anything new to it.

Forster points out that we are more motivated to work on a closed list than an open one. If I know that I have 20 things to do today, and I do the first one, then I only have 19 left and I feel like I’m making progress. But if I work through five items and then another six are added to the list, I feel like I’m going backwards. And it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for going backwards.

Two great things about my Post-it system are that, firstly, it forces me to think hard about my priorities at the beginning of each day. Every item has to earn its place on that list, so it keeps me disciplined about doing the most important things. And secondly, when I start work I know—barring emergencies—exactly what I need to get through today. If it’s a full day, I can see that at once, and it spurs me on to do more and waste less time. And if it’s a relatively quiet day, then I get to use the extra time creatively.

Obviously your mileage will vary depending on the nature of your job and working situation. If you’re working in a fast-moving agency and it’s part of your core role to handle incoming requests and turn them round immediately, then you’ll need to be more flexible than me. Although having consulted with a few agencies like that, I’d say that if everything is urgent, nothing is urgent: you can’t do everything at once, so you still need to prioritize. And a short to-do list with strict criteria for what gets on it is a great way to do that.




How do you manage your daily to-do list?


Could you get more done with a shorter list?

[] [CHAPTER 17
**]Treat email as correspondence, not conversation

As the name suggests, email started out as a variation on mail. Back in the old days, when people wrote to each other with ink and paper, it was taken for granted that letters took time to compose, time to be delivered, and time to be read and considered before a reply could be expected. Taking your time to write a good letter was a sign of respect and consideration. Receiving a handwritten letter felt like an event, even a treat.

Nowadays, email has morphed from correspondence into conversation. We treat it like instant messaging or SMS, expecting an immediate response—and getting irritated if we don’t receive it. We work with our email open and pinging away in the background—at any moment there could be another message demanding our instant attention. We carry email everywhere, reflexively checking it everywhere we go, even in bed at night. In an “always on” world, the conversation never ends.

It’s time to stop this madness.

The key to reclaiming your life from email is to treat it as correspondence, not conversation. Which means:

p<{color:#000;}. Not responding to emails instantly by default

p<{color:#000;}. Not expecting an instant response from others

p<{color:#000;}. Setting aside dedicated time for email

p<{color:#000;}. Giving your correspondents a considered response

p<{color:#000;}. Taking time off from email

It takes two to tango, of course. So you may need to talk to some of your correspondents (would-be conversationalists!) and explain your new approach. The alternative is to let other people’s expectations run your day, and undermine your efforts.

Here are two different options for managing your email correspondence, followed by a tip for taking a break from email without throwing away your smartphone.



Option 1: Keep up with email by putting it off till tomorrow

In Do It Tomorrow, Mark Forster provides a provocative and elegant solution to these problems. He suggests we create a buffer between incoming demands and our response—by making “do it tomorrow” our default response to all requests. Not “tomorrow” as in “tomorrow never comes,” but literally tomorrow.

For example, here’s how “do it tomorrow” applies to the never-ending stream of email:

p<{color:#000;}. Supposing you received 40 emails yesterday (not counting spam)—the first thing you do is move these 40 emails into a folder marked “action.” These are the only emails you are going to deal with today.

p<{color:#000;}. Sit down and answer them all in one batch. Or at most, two or three concentrated bursts of effort.

p<{color:#000;}. Any emails that arrive in your inbox are collecting there for tomorrow—whatever you do, don’t get caught up in responding to them, or you will be back on the treadmill of endless email!

Using this approach means that on a typical day you only have to deal with one day’s worth of emails—i.e. those that arrived yesterday.

Of course there will be exceptions—some emails have to be answered today—e.g. one from your boss demanding a document by 5:00 p.m. But these should be the exceptions rather than the rule. Forster argues that most tasks are not nearly as urgent as we think they are—ask yourself, “Will there be a disaster if I don’t answer this until tomorrow?” The answer is usually “no.”

Answering your email tomorrow has several benefits:

p<{color:#000;}. Batching email is more efficient. You can get into “email mode” and zip through them in one go.

p<{color:#000;}. It’s more motivating to deal with a finite number of emails than an ever-expanding inbox. It presents you with a manageable task instead of a never-ending one.

p<{color:#000;}. Today’s emails can’t interrupt you—because you’re not going to respond to them today. I experience a feeling of relief each time I look at an email containing a request, then mentally let go of it and return to the task in hand—confident that I will deal with it tomorrow.

p<{color:#000;}. You answer emails in a better state of mind—so you will likely make a more thoughtful and helpful response. You are also less likely to take on unnecessary commitments by agreeing to something in order to get rid of the email.

p<{color:#000;}. It doesn’t really matter how often you check your email. Personally I can see the benefit of only checking email once a day, but I’m not disciplined enough to resist, especially if I’m waiting for something important. This way, I can check my email as often as I like without getting caught up in responding to it.

p<{color:#000;}. You deal with the difficult emails. Most of us have a few tricky emails that we put off answering for various reasons. But this system means you answer all the emails that came in yesterday—so you end up clearing out the difficult ones and getting them off your mind.

p<{color:#000;}. You know when you’re finished for the day! Once you’ve answered yesterday’s email, you have finished your email.

p<{color:#000;}. The same principles apply to other communication channels: mail, phone calls, text messages, and commitments you take on at meetings. They all go into the in-tray for tomorrow. So at the start of every day, you know exactly how much you have to do to keep abreast of your commitments. Once you’ve dealt with a day’s worth of email, mail, phone messages, and verbal requests—you’re free.

Option 2: The fast lane / slow lane approach to email

These days, I use a simple fast lane / slow lane system for dealing with email:

p<{color:#000;}. Fast lane = clients, current project collaborators, close friends, and other VIPs

p<{color:#000;}. Slow lane = everyone else who should reasonably expect a response

When an email arrives from someone in the fast lane, I mark it with a red star in Gmail. This means “answer today.” I mark slow lane emails with a yellow star, which means “answer this week.” All other emails get archived or deleted.

I check my email in the morning to see if there are any urgent client emails that need a response before lunch. Other than that, my rule is: I am not allowed to respond to emails in the morning.

Once a day, in the afternoon, I attack my inbox and answer all the emails with red stars, and as many yellow stars as I have time for.

I also give my coaching clients my cellphone number and tell them to call or text me if something is really urgent. This gives them the peace of mind of knowing they can reach me when they really need to, and me the piece of mind of knowing I don’t have to sift through my inbox for emergency messages.

It’s not a perfect system, but mostly it allows me to keep on top of all the vital email, and to catch up with all the rest once a week or so. It stops email from derailing my working day. And it means I keep my two most important working commitments: to my clients and to my writing.



Disable email on your phone

One reason I resisted getting an iPhone for years was that I didn’t want to find myself checking email at weekends or evenings—I don’t want to bring work issues into time with friends and family. But eventually I decided the benefits outweighed the risk, and resolved to use my willpower to stop checking email outside of working hours.

I’m sure you can guess how successful that was.

As usual with willpower, it worked fine for a short while or when I wasn’t waiting for any particularly exciting or important news. Or until I got tired or distracted and found my thumb automatically pressing the magic email button.

It only takes a moment to check your email. And it only takes one email with an unexpected problem to spoil a nice afternoon out. The last straw was the night I found myself checking my email as I was getting into bed—and downloaded a problem that kept me awake for several hours.

Then I found freedom from mobile email.

Disable the email account on your phone. Don’t delete it entirely—just disable it. On the iPhone, I need to flip through five different screens before I get to the “Mail on/off” button. That means it’s impossible for me to check it on impulse—I have to go through the slightly clunky and annoying process of switching on the email account first. I can still access email if it’s important, but this little barrier makes me think twice before doing it.

The instant I disabled the email account, my body breathed a sigh of relief. No prizes for guessing what it was telling me.




What difference would it make if you started treating email as correspondence instead of conversation?


Who are the VIPs in your working life? How can you make it easy for them to reach you when they need your help urgently?


What difference would it make if you disabled email on your phone?

[] [CHAPTER 18
**]Nap like a NASA pilot

Imagine I could show you a simple technique that would take just 20 minutes out of your day and was scientifically proven to boost your productivity by 34 percent. Would you try it?

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Now supposing I told you you that this technique involved lying down to take a nap every day after lunch. How does that sound?

A nice idea? Too good to be true?

I know what you’re you’re thinking. “That’s all very well—but what would the boss say?”

Come to think of it, what would your colleagues and clients have to say if they saw you fast asleep at your desk, or reclining in a hammock? What would that do for your reputation at work?

If you work from home, then logically none of these objections should stand. After all, who would even know if you lay down on the sofa for 20 minutes after lunch? Maybe the cat, but I don’t know many cats who disapprove of naps.

Oh yes. I know who. Your Inner Boss. The little part of your mind that tells you, “Just because you work from home, it’s no excuse for being a slacker. You should be working just as hard as anyone in an office. You want to lie down and rest during working hours? Have you really got enough done to justify that?”

This kind of puritan work ethic seems to be deeply ingrained in our culture—at least in northern Europe, where I live. We associate naps and siestas with slacking off. It feels much more productive to steel ourselves for a long hard day of toil, pushing through the barriers of sleepiness and laziness.

It may feel that way, but the scientific evidence contradicts it.



The power of naps

In his book Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina identifies the “nap zone” as the time in the afternoon when the brain craves a 15-20-minute nap in order to “do a reset.” If we give in to our natural inclination, we awake refreshed and ready for the next challenge. But if we ignore the urge to nap, we’ll be fighting sleepiness all afternoon, and our productivity will suffer.

So gritting your teeth and working in spite of drowsiness is merely the illusion of productivity. I know the feeling well. On the days when I feel too busy to take a break, I notice my brain slowing down in the afternoon. The simplest mental operations start to feel like wading through treacle.

I had a twinge of recognition when I read Medina’s explanation that the brain “wants to do a reset.” That’s exactly the feeling I get after a nap—as if my brain were a laptop that becomes slow and glitchy after a few hours, but starts running smoothly again once it’s rebooted. If I make time for a 20-minute nap after lunch, I get a renewed sense of energy and focus in the afternoon. I invariably get a lot more done—and to a higher standard.

It turns out this is one of the few things I have in common with NASA pilots: Medina describes a research study conducted by Mark Rosekind which found that if the pilots took a nap during the nap zone, their mean reaction time performances improved by 34 percent. As Rosekind commented, there aren’t many techniques that will give you a 34 percent boost in productivity within 20 minutes.



The art of napping

Notice when you want to nap. For most people this is during the first hour or two after lunch. Start to pay attention to your circadian rhythms—the rising and dipping of your energy levels throughout the day.

Once you’ve identified your nap zone, start to schedule meetings and intensive bursts of work around it. When it comes to nap time, here’s the drill:

p<{color:#000;}. Switch off all your phones so you won’t be interrupted.

p<{color:#000;}. Lie down or recline in a comfortable chair. Take your shoes off and loosen any belts or ties.

p<{color:#000;}. Set an alarm to go off in 25 minutes’ time, giving you five minutes to get to sleep, plus a 20-minute nap. It’s important not to nap longer than this—Medina tells us that if you sleep for an hour you will actually become more drowsy than if you didn’t nap.

p<{color:#000;}. If you find it difficult to doze off, try this simple technique: focus your attention on your feet. Count to ten in your mind while imagining your feet becoming more relaxed with each number. Then switch your attention to your lower legs and do the same. Gradually move your attention over your whole body and relax each part in turn. Chances are you’ll be asleep before you reach your head—but if not, start again from your feet up. The more you practice this, the easier it will get, to the point where you can power nap just about any time you need to.

p<{color:#000;}. Pay attention to the results. Do you feel more or less alert and productive after a nap? For a few days, alternate napping with staying awake and see how much you actually get done.

[] [CHAPTER 19
**]Speed up your writing with speech recognition

You realize I’m not writing these words, don’t you?

I’m speaking them into a Bluetooth headset mic. As I talk, the words are appearing on the screen in size 30 font, which means I can step away from the desk and stroll up and down as I dictate to the computer. It’s my robot secretary.

I discovered speech recognition seven years ago when severe repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my arms made it impossible to type, and threatened to bring my writing career to a halt. I was so impressed with the results that I stuck with the software even when my RSI improved. I use it for the first draft of all my articles and books.

If your work involves a lot of writing, speech recognition can significantly boost your productivity by making it quicker and easier to get words out of your head and onto the screen. It’s also a great option if you are tired of sitting hunched over your laptop for hours on end. I’ve read several comments from dyslexic people attesting that speech recognition has given them a tremendous boost of confidence in their writing, as it eliminates spelling errors. If you suffer from RSI, or you have an injury or disability that makes typing a challenge, it could be life-changing for you.



Getting started with speech recognition

Speech recognition software picks up your spoken words—via either live dictation into a microphone or from a recording—and translates them into text. As well as transcribing your speech, it can activate spoken commands for editing your text or operating your computer or other devices.

I started off using Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Windows, which is excellent. These days I use Dragon for Mac, which isn’t quite as good, but still very effective for generating drafts. Others have told me the built-in speech recognition for Windows and Mac OS are pretty good—and whatever smartphone you use, there will be a range of speech recognition apps for you to choose from.

Whichever system you use, be prepared for a learning curve as you and the software get used to each other. Personally I found this much quicker than I anticipated, but some people find it a frustrating process requiring significant patience.

And don’t expect perfection: I find Dragon about 90 percent accurate, which means I need to keep an eye out for errors. It never makes spelling mistakes, but often makes “word mistakes”—i.e. inserting the wrong word entirely. Because the word is invariably spelled correctly, it doesn’t jump out at me as I proofread. So I’ve had to learn a different style of proofreading, reading every sentence for sense rather than scanning it for spelling errors.



How speech recognition can improve your writing

Get your thoughts down quicker

I’m a pretty fast touch typist, but even so, my fingers often struggled to keep pace with my thoughts as I wrote. There were many times when I simply couldn’t get the words down quickly enough and found myself feverishly typing, trying to hold several sentences in my short-term memory. While I was doing that I had to keep in check the impulse to follow the train of thought further. My mind was like an eager dog bounding ahead across the landscape, while my fingers plodded along afterwards, like the dog’s owner. Every so often the dog would have to stop and impatiently retrace its steps, yapping at the owner to speed up.

The act of typing was also taking up part of my attention as I wrote. After many years of typing, it felt pretty automatic, so I didn’t really notice this. But switching to speech recognition removed an element of friction that I hadn’t realized was there. It’s common sense when you think about it, but the act of speaking is a far more natural and efficient way of generating words than moving your fingers over a keyboard. Making the switch is a bit like leaving the optician’s with a new set of lenses and suddenly noticing all the fine details that you hadn’t noticed you were missing.


Capture your speaking voice

Soon after switching to speech recognition, I dictated an email to my brother-in-law, who responded by commenting that it sounded like hearing me speak—more so than my previous hand-typed emails. I’ve also had feedback from readers that my style has become clearer and sharper over the years, and I’m convinced that the switch to speech recognition has had something to do with this.

Dragon allows me to capture the natural quality of my speech. It feels more like talking to someone directly than trying to create literature. Writers are often advised to “find your voice”—which is a lot easier when all you have to do is open your mouth and speak! And the false notes in your writing are much more obvious when you speak the words aloud—they just don’t feel right. Trust that feeling, it can be a great editor for you.


Write with your whole body

If you try speech recognition, I strongly suggest you use it with a wireless headset. Using a Bluetooth headset means I’m no longer chained to my desk—I’m writing these words strolling around the room, which gives me an incredible sense of freedom. After spending years typing away at my desk, it feels like I’ve escaped from prison.

This is important for me because I become very animated and un-British when I’m talking about something that matters to me. I wave my arms about and walk around the room. My wife thinks it’s hilarious that I walk up and down when I’m on the phone. There’s something about walking and movement that facilitates the flow of words—and it’s sheer joy to utilize this in my writing.

As a poet, I’m claiming kinship with some of my heroes with this habit—Wordsworth and Coleridge are two of the many famous poets who composed verse while out walking in the countryside. (Although I don’t find speech recognition very useful for writing poetry—I write it so slowly that pen and paper is easily quick enough to keep up.) I’ve heard several writers describing the joys of writing their next chapter while out for a stroll in the woods or on the beach.


Make writing more fun

You can probably tell I enjoy writing by talking. Instead of sitting hunched over my laptop, willing my fingers to keep pace with my thinking, I’m free to wander around the room, speaking in my natural voice and watching the words appear on the screen almost at the speed of thought. Which makes writing a positive pleasure.

So I’m now more motivated to write every day. I know from experience—and having coached many writers—how much Resistance and procrastination can get in the way of sitting down to start writing. And I’ve been delighted to discover that using speech recognition has significantly reduced my own Resistance to writing.

There’s still some friction—probably there always will be. But these days I actively look forward to writing every day, and speech recognition has to take some of the credit for that.

[] [CHAPTER 20
**]Make smarter use of your smartphone

Many of us have discovered there’s a downside to our favorite gadget.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to have so much media and so many gadgets and connections at our fingertips. On the other, the smartphone is fiendishly addictive. For a few people the compulsion to keep checking their phone is so strong they are in treatment for full-blown addiction. Thankfully most of us aren’t affected this strongly, yet many of us can relate to some of the following symptoms:

p<{color:#000;}. Checking the phone compulsively, without any clear idea of what you want from it.

p<{color:#000;}. Reaching for it automatically to kill time while waiting or traveling.

p<{color:#000;}. Your phone is the last thing you touch at night and the first thing you touch in the morning.

p<{color:#000;}. You get fidgety if your phone is out of reach.

p<{color:#000;}. Someone calls you out for looking at your phone instead of listening to them.

If you want to avoid this kind of experience, but aren’t prepared to give up your phone, I have a simple suggestion. It builds on Scott Belsky’s advice to use your phone or tablet “with ‘intention’ not ‘impulse.’”1 Scott’s point is that if you pick up a device with a deliberate intention to perform a specific action, you will experience more of its benefits and fewer of the symptoms of “‘check-in’ addiction.” But if you surrender mindlessly to the impulse to pick up the phone, you can find yourself opening and closing apps, and scrolling through text, without taking any of it in, and experiencing a growing feeling of agitation.

It’s great advice, and not always easy to follow—compulsion is often largely unconscious, making it harder to resist. But Scott’s words stayed with me, and led me to ask myself a simple question whenever I become aware of the urge to check my phone:

Do I want the phone or something on the phone?

If I can instantly think of something specific that I want to do with the phone, such as checking the football score or reading a book on my Kindle app, then I can pick up the phone. But if I can’t think of a specific “something on the phone” then I obviously just want the phone—so I resist the temptation to pick it up.

This question doesn’t work every time—there are still occasions when I reach for the phone without thinking. But every time I ask the question I’m glad I did: if I want something on the phone, I enjoy giving it my full attention; and if I just want the phone, it’s a relief to realize this and let go of the urge.

Try it yourself. The hardest part is becoming conscious of the urge to grab the phone before you act on it. But with practice, you can train yourself to ask the question as soon as you feel the urge. And whatever the answer, you’ll be making a conscious choice about what to do next. Practice for a week and you should find yourself using your phone with less compulsion and greater pleasure.




1 [+ “How to Control Your ‘Check-In Addiction,’”+] Scott Belsky


[]Motivation for Creative People: How to Stay Creative While Gaining Money, Fame, and Reputation

I love my work so much I would do it for free.”

Many creative people have uttered these words in a moment of enthusiasm—they express the joy of creative work. But they also hint at some of the pitfalls that lie in wait for creatives . . .

In one sense, creative people have no problem with motivation. We fall in love with our creative work and pursue a career that allows us to do what we love every day.

Psychological research confirms what we know in our hearts: we are at our most creative when we are driven by intrinsic motivation—working for the sheer joy of it, regardless of rewards. Focusing on extrinsic motivation—such as money, fame, or other rewards—can kill your creativity.

If you don’t feel excited by the task in front of you, it’s impossible to do your best work, no matter what rewards it might bring.

You may be determined not to sell out, but selling yourself short can be just as damaging. And when it comes to public recognition, comparisonitis and professional jealousy can consume far too much of your creative energy.

Working for love is all well and good, but if you’re a creative professional you can’t ignore the rewards.

You need money to enjoy your life and to fund your projects. You may not need to be famous, but you do need a good reputation within your professional network. And if you’re in a fame-driven industry you need a powerful public profile, whether or not you enjoy the limelight.

There’s a precious balance at play—get it wrong, and you could seriously damage your creativity and even your career.

Motivation for Creative People helps you rise to these challenges and create a fulfilling and rewarding creative career. All the solutions have been tested with real people in real situations, including ways to:

p<{color:#000;}. stay creative and in love with your work—even under pressure

p<{color:#000;}. overcome Resistance to tackling your creative challenges

p<{color:#000;}. reclaim your creative soul if you wander off your true path

p<{color:#000;}. stop selling yourself short—and start reaping the rewards of your creativity

p<{color:#000;}. attract the right kind of audience for your work

p<{color:#000;}. cultivate an outstanding artistic reputation

p<{color:#000;}. avoid destroying your creativity through attachment to money, fame, and other rewards

p<{color:#000;}. surround yourself with people who support your creative ambitions

p<{color:#000;}. avoid getting stuck in unhealthy comparisonitis or professional jealousy

p<{color:#000;}. balance your inspiration, ambition, desires, and influences in the big picture of your creative career

Motivation for Creative People is the perfect guide to figuring out your various motivations and how they affect your creativity and career.

The book is packed with practical advice and inspiring stories from Mark’s own experience, his transformative work with coaching clients, and famous creators and creations—including Stanley Kubrick, Dante, The Smiths, Shakespeare, kabuki drama, and Breaking Bad.

You can pick up your copy of Motivation for Creative People via:


“Indispensable reading for anyone in a creative field who is seeking to achieve not just a flash of brilliance but a lifelong career.”

Steven Pressfield, bestselling author of The War of Art and Turning Pro

Motivation for Creative People is chock full of stories and tips, carrots and prods. It will give you the kick in the seat of the pants you need to get down to the business of creating. An enjoyable read!”

Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative and the Creative Whack Pack

Motivation for Creative People will encourage you to reflect sincerely on the factors that underpin your artistic achievements, ultimately giving you a ‘clarity of mission’ that will take your creativity to new heights.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

[] Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success


If you want to achieve something original and meaningful with your life, you must learn to deal with rejection and criticism.

If you’re an artist of any kind your work will be rejected by editors, curators, and other gatekeepers. Each time you put it in front of the public, you expose yourself to criticism.

If you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur you face rejection by (potential) customers, partners, and investors. Those same people won’t hesitate to criticize you if they are unhappy.

If you’re chasing your dream job you’ll receive your share of rejection letters. And once you land the job, taking flak when things go wrong is part of the deal.

Many people set out on their chosen path full of hope and inspiration, only to turn back because they can’t deal with the emotional impact of crushing rejections and vicious criticism.

Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success explains why your reactions to rejection and criticism are completely normal—and how to deal with them effectively.

Through stories from his own experience as well as those of famous creators, he will show you that you are far from alone in suffering from rejection and criticism.

Resilience is based on my experience of coaching hundreds of creative people like you, so the ideas are tried-and-tested.

You will discover:

p<{color:#000;}. Why rejection and criticism hurt so much

p<{color:#000;}. Several ways you may be making rejection worse (without realizing it)

p<{color:#000;}. How to keep going in the face of multiple rejections

p<{color:#000;}. Why your Inner Critic is (potentially) your best friend

p<{color:#000;}. When to ignore the critics—and when to listen

p<{color:#000;}. Whether (and how) to respond to insults and abuse

p<{color:#000;}. Why success is harder than it looks—and how to deal with it

This is not a theoretical book—it’s packed with practical tips and techniques you can apply to your own challenges right away.

Whether you’re just setting out, in the middle of your journey, or dealing with the unexpected challenges of success, Resilience will show you how to keep moving forward.

You can pick up your copy of Resilience via:


“Read this book and you will be bulletproof!”

Steven Pressfield, bestselling author of The War of Art and Turning Pro

[]Your opinion counts

Thank you for reading this far—I hope you found the book helpful and I wish you success and fulfillment on your journey.

I’d appreciate it if you would take a few moments to leave a brief review of Productivity for Creative People. As well as helping me, it will help other creatives decide whether the book is for them.

For your convenience this page links to all the online stores where the book is available: LateralAction.com/Productivity

[] Coaching with Mark

I coach creative professionals who want to achieve great things with their lives.

They are drawn from the entire spectrum of the creative industries: fine artists, entertainers, commercial creatives, and creative entrepreneurs.

They live all over the world—the internet means I can coach them wherever they are.

They are doing work they—and I—find inspiring.

They are ambitious to succeed professionally as well as creatively.

You can learn more about my coaching here: LateralAction.com/Coaching

[] About the author

Mark McGuinness is a poet who has been coaching creative professionals since 1996.

His poems are published in leading poetry journals, and he writes about classic and contemporary poetry at: MarkMcGuinness.com

Mark’s previous books are Motivation for Creative People: How to Stay Creative While Gaining Money, Fame, and Reputation and Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success. He is also a co-author of the best sellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential, both published by 99U.

Based in the UK, Mark coaches clients all over the world via the magic of the internet. He also consults for leading creative agencies and studios. His blog at LateralAction.com is read by thousands of people every week, and over 10,000 students have taken his free course The Creative Pathfinder.

His work has been featured in publications including Creative Review, the Wall Street Journal, and Vogue US, and on television at the Discovery Health Channel.


Contact Mark: LateralAction.com/Contact

Coaching enquiries: LateralAction.com/Coaching

Twitter: @markmcguinness

Facebook: Facebook.com/LateralAction

[] Thank you

To my clients and readers, for everything we’ve learned together.


To Irene Hoffman, for yet another terrific book cover.


To David Colin Carr, for editing the book and guiding me through the wilds of US usage.


To Sarah Ridley, for meticulous proofreading.


To Polgarus Studio, for formatting the ebook edition.


To Catherine Morley, for commissioning Time Management for Creative People as a series for Business of Design Online.


To Brian Clark, Tony Clark, and Sonia Simone, for helping me develop my thinking about creativity and productivity as we worked together on LateralAction.com.


To Scott Belsky, Sean Blanda, and the rest of the team at Behance, for giving me a platform to road-test my ideas with the creative community at 99U.com.


To Jocelyn Glei, my former editor at 99U, for invaluable feedback and encouragement over the years.


To Mami, Kano, and Issa, for cheering me on.

Productivity for Creative People

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.” Jocelyn K. Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U We are living in an age of unprecedented creative stimulation—via the internet, social media, all-pervasive technology, and an “always on” working culture. Which means we are living in an age of unprecedented distraction from focused creative work—from all the same sources. First, computers and the internet transformed the work we did at our desks. Then along came smartphones to transform our social lives and make our work mobile. Now we have our work, our network, our media, and our social media with us wherever we go. Augmented Reality (AR) is layering more and more virtual elements over the physical world we inhabit, and Virtual Reality (VR) promises us escape to unlimited virtual worlds. The pace of change is exciting, overwhelming, and unstoppable. And creators are increasingly discovering a downside to the brave new world: * countless distractions and interruptions * endless email * pressure to keep up * anxiety about falling behind * difficulty concentrating * aches and pains from too much time at the keyboard Dig a little deeper, and the biggest concern for many creatives is a nagging sense that their most important work is being left undone. If you’re excited by the opportunities of the creative age, but worried about the effect of all those interruptions and digital distractions on your creative work, Productivity for Creative People has been written for you. For the past twenty years creative coach Mark McGuinness has helped hundreds of creatives like you to overcome these challenges. A poet and creative entrepreneur, he is the author of Motivation for Creative People and Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success. He is also a co-author of the bestselling books from 99U, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential. Mark’s latest book, Productivity for Creative People, is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – while managing your other commitments. All the solutions he shares have been tested with real people in real situations. You will learn: * How getting organized can make you more creative * Why multitasking doesn’t work * How to tell if you’re really overloaded – and what to do about it * The importance of panicking early * How doing nothing can make you more productive * The crucial difference between incubation and procrastination * How to carve out time for your most important creative work * Why boredom is necessary for creativity * What to do about all that email * How to nap like a fighter pilot * A simple technique to reduce smartphone addiction Productivity for Creative People is the perfect guide to creating extraordinary work without (necessarily) disappearing to a cabin in the woods, or even giving up your smartphone. “Many creative people are busier than ever, but rarely get around to the work that truly matters. Mark McGuinness offers solid and practical advice for busy creative people who want to make their mark on the world.” Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative “Authors now have amazing online tools to reach readers all over the world, but those same tools can distract us from the focused creativity that we love and that we need to write better books. In Productivity for Creative People, Mark McGuinness outlines a way of working that will help you sort out what’s really important and achieve your creative goals, while still managing your daily tasks. Recommended for any author who is feeling overwhelmed.” Joanna Penn, bestselling author and award-winning entrepreneur. TheCreativePenn.com

  • ISBN: 9780957566484
  • Author: Mark McGuinness
  • Published: 2016-09-15 19:50:23
  • Words: 25849
Productivity for Creative People Productivity for Creative People