We all get really busy and when we’re really busy, it’s easy to get into reactive mode. Answer that @mention in slack, make decisions in meetings, or jump on quick ad-hoc calls. This can feel really productive since you’re keeping things moving forward. However, when you reflect on yesterday’s achievements, can you even remember what you did? Do you find yourself looking at your calendar to see what you accomplished for the week?
That’s no way to live your life.
You’re never going to have a significant impact operating this way. Sure, you can get things done. You might even be seen as one of the most productive people around since you are always on top of things. However, if you’re working this way you’re artificially limiting your impact.
But that’s not the best work you could be doing even if it seems that way sometimes. Your biggest potential impact comes from doing creative work. If that’s not the case, you need to find a different job. And while inspiration comes in bursts, creativity takes time. You have to cultivate it and give it the room it needs to breathe. There’s nothing worse than a spark of inspiration that gets forgotten or remains unexplored. That’s your best stuff and you’re wasting it.
Creative work and interruptions
What do I mean by creative work? Creative work is the work that is setting you and those around you up for future success rather than just success in the moment. Maybe it’s a blog post that you think could be useful to others. Maybe it’s an idea about how your team can do something better. Maybe it’s preparation for a 1-on-1 or a review. If you’re an software dev, maybe it’s a refactor that you’ve been wanting to do for a long time but never seem to get to. Whatever it is, it’s important and it’s these kinds of things that often slip when you’re living day-to-day.
How do interruptions kill creativity? One limiting factor is context switching. Every time you get interrupted, your brain has to do a reset to get you into the right state of mind to deal with the interruption. Some people are good at this, but most aren’t. And what happens to the work you were doing before the interruption? In the best case, it takes you quite a bit of time and energy even to get back to where you left off. In the worst case, you totally forget what you were doing or jump on something else and you end up not being your best, creative self.
Realistically, interruptions are going to happen. I once measured how many people I spoke to in slack in a two week period. The answer? Fifty people. Fifty. That’s not even counting the walk-up conversations, ad-hoc meetings, planned meetings, etc. I bet if you did a similar measurement, you would see similar results. That’s the world we live in now. If people respect you, they’re going to seek you out. As you build your career and have a greater and greater impact, you get pulled into more and more things.
What can we do?
The answer is actually really simple. Ok, sit down because this is going to blow your mind. You have to make time. Are you amazed with my super inspirational thought?
Seriously, though, there’s a key word in that sentence that you shouldn’t overlook: make. You can’t be thinking along the lines of “I have some time later in the week where I can do that important thing I need to do.” Gaps in your schedule fill up. People need things. Stuff happens.
Making focus time
You have to block off time. Create two to three hour slots in your calendar and let everyone know that you’re going to be inaccessible during that period. Log off. Seriously, log off. Don’t peek at your email. Don’t look at your slack notifications. Ok, so I do cheat a little. I let people know that they can text me or call me if an emergency comes up.
You might be thinking, but didn’t you say you had fifty people who needed something from you in a two week period? Won’t those fifty people actually need to get in touch with you? Turns out, the answer is usually “no”. We have an expectation of instant answers today, which can actually stunt the growth of the people around you. Think of how we used to navigate when we were going to unknown places. You’d get some basic directions like “turn left at the big red barn.” You had to be aware of what you were doing even if you had directions. These days, with GPS, it’s too easy. I find that it takes me many more trips to learn a route. The same is true when people get instant answers. They learn less than they would if they have to figure things out sometimes.
It also helps to have a supportive environment if you’re using this technique. I’ve never had a problem when I let people know I need focus time. People get it and they may even start doing it, too. And if you don’t have a supportive environment? Again, you might want to think about finding another job that recognizes what people need in order to be productive and creative.
Another idea I’ve explored is the pomodoro technique, in which you break your work down into short, measured intervals. It’s definitely worth trying, but I couldn’t sustain it. I tried it for a while and it can definitely be useful for accomplishing small to medium tasks. However, I don’t believe it gives you the time you need to really be creative. Not to mention the pressure of the clock. You may disagree and it’s definitely worth a try, but I’m a much bigger fan of bigger chunks.
Don’t lose the spark
Finally, I love the idea of jumping on inspirational ideas right away when you have them. In fact, that’s what I did when I wrote this blog post. However, sometimes you really don’t have time to act on an inspirational spark in the moment. I keep a running list of inspirational ideas that I can explore during my creative blocks. Inspiration can strike at inconvenient times, but you don’t want to lose it. So get a notepad or throw the idea in a text file or use a note taking tool. The point is, write it down and provide enough context that you will remember what you need to remember to get all creative on it.
I’ve found that these techniques have gone a long way to increase my satisfaction and help me be more productive. That being said, I don’t consider this to be a solved problem for myself. I still struggle with it. I would love to hear your ideas, so if you have more ideas you’d like to share, please drop them in the comments below.