It’s easy to fall into two traps when it comes to doing our best work: 1) we can either be too critical about what we’re not doing or 2) we can know that we need to do something but not be quite sure what we need to do. Either state is counterproductive.
I’ll start with the first. To be human and creative is to constantly dream up a bunch of cool ideas to do. Unfortunately, our ability to dream is not coupled with the ability to do everything we dream up — yet we often forget that as we’re writing things down on our ToDo lists. And those items that make it to the list but don’t get done, in time, morph into hairy, warty, and growing-by-the-day frogs that require catching.
The second trap is a bit more complicated, but it has to do mostly with how we work. It’s often the case that we find jobs or other work that allows us to manage our own time or do our creative stuff in the time we own. And those periods can carry the same terror for us as a blank screen can for writers — they’re filled with so many possibilities that it’s hard to focus on any one thing and get going.
So, on the one hand, we overcommit ourselves and get frustrated. On the other, we don’t commit ourselves and don’t have a clear idea of what we need to be doing. The middle ground is clearly where we want to be, but how do we get there?
The Important Things We Do Fall into Create, Connect, and Consume Buckets
The important stuff that we need to do falls within three broad categories. We need to create something. We need to connect with people. And we need to take in and digest information — we need to consume.
I used to describe what we need to do using breath metaphors: you can’t breathe in and breathe out at the same time. Taking in information is breathing in, and creating something is breathing out. The reason I liked this metaphor is that it helps us think about how off-balance we are.
Consider how much of our lives we spend in school, in training, or just reading the works of other people, when what we need to do is take that information and output something. There’s a balance in the rhythm of breathing, just as there should be a balance in the intake and output of information.
Where the metaphor breaks down, though, is that connecting with people is not something that should be squeezed in in the leftover time. True, meaningful connections with people happen only when we take the time to invest in those relationships and people, and we can’t do that as a byproduct of creating or consuming. We all know this on some level, yet it’s both too easy to forget and hard to put on a list, so we leave connecting with people to chance, habits, and history. Chance, habits, and history don’t create meaning; intentions (and following through on those intentions) make meaning.
Though I’ve presented these as discrete categories, the reality is that it’s possible to connect with people while you’re creating and/or consuming. For instance, making the deliberate choice to watch a movie with someone and being fully with them while watching is a way to both connect and consume. Working on a collaborative project that all parties enjoy and find meaningful is a way to connect while creating.
Be real with this one, though; it’s far too easy to try to add one category to the other without asking whether you’re fostering the connection or are merely just there.
Using the Create, Connect, and Consume Categories to Prioritize Your Work
Knowing that we have only those three categories of things that we actually need to do makes it easier on the day-to-day level to figure out what we need to be doing. And the fact that they’re all qualitative helps us get over the tendency to beat ourselves up — there’s not a list of things to do per se, as much as a meaningful metric we can use to evaluate our day.
We can also use the categories to help us set priorities for the day. We know on a gut level which component we need to be working on, and as we become more self-aware, we know what we’re capable of doing. There are some times in which we can’t be creative but we do have the energy and desire to connect with people. There are times when we don’t have it in us to either create or connect. And there are times when all we want to do is create.
At the same time, though, we can’t leave all of this stuff to fate; and this is especially true with connecting with people since they have their own lives and time. This is the point behind the heatmapping ideas: grab the reins of your creativity by learning how to figure out the trends in your days and weeks — trust me, they’re there — so that you can plan around when you’re going to be able to do what you need to do. If you’re especially creative from 9:30 am – 11:30 am, that time block is probably not the best time to be consuming. If you’re dead past 4:00 pm, don’t plan your creative work for that time.
But while you’re at this planning stuff, don’t leave your Connecting time to your dead time. Don’t give the people you love and enjoy being with what’s left over. They deserve the best parts of you, too.
I’ll use my priorities as an example of what I mean by using the categories to prioritize your day. In general, my default daily priorities are Create, Connect, and Consume, in that order. I have a lot of projects to complete — a dissertation, some information products, etc. — and the only way they’re going to get done is if they’re my first priority. I’ve discussed this with the people I connect with, and they understand and agree with these priorities. Then comes the connections, both online and offline. Consuming gets what’s left over, but in reality, I consume throughout the day anyway; I’m going to do that one way or the other, although I’m now better about asking myself whether it fits in with what I need to be doing.
Converting the Create, Connect, Consume Categories into Action Items
Of course, knowing that you should be connecting (for example) is helpful only if you can connect that up with something you can actually do. Here’s where the rubber hits the road.
Develop a list (I know, yet another list) of action items that relate to those three categories. For example, logging onto Twitter can be a great way to connect with people. So can reading blogs with the intention to comment rather than just read. Or see how your friends are doing.
Do a similar thing for consuming and creating. What counts? What doesn’t? Are there some activities that you can do that are synergistic, i.e., both creating and connecting?
It may help if you see this like building a deck of cards. You may have a Create deck, a Connect deck, and a Consume deck. They should all be things that are actually important to you. Then you can use the deck in one of two ways.
The first way is probably the optimal way: put the things on your calendar and do them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s “personal” or “work” or whatever — put it on there. It takes the guessing game out of the equation and helps solve the “I should be doing something but don’t know what” problem.
The second way is more intuitive and less structured, but it still has its place: use the decks either during those times that are unscheduled or when your schedule doesn’t match what you’re able to do. The reality is that sometimes you can’t or would rather not do what you planned to do during a certain time, for instance, if your kids get sick and had to stay home from school, there’s no amount of discipline that’s going to allow you to both take care of them and do that creative project you had planned. But you may be able to read during that time… or catch up with your friends… or do something else you had on your deck.
The decks, then, help solve the “I was supposed to do that and didn’t” problem. Sure, you may not have written that chapter of your book, but you still rolled with things and managed to do some other things that were really important.
Still No Free Lunch
A pitfall to watch out for is always deferring the things you don’t want to do for the things you actually do want to do. For instance, you may know you need to Create but instead decide to Connect, not because you can’t create, but because you’d rather not for one reason or another. If this deferral becomes a habit, you may be further ahead because you’ve done some other important stuff, but it’s not really solving the problem.
Truth be told, though, there’s no productivity system or bunch of creative tricks or tips that will help you with the continual deferring problem. You’ll have to have the discipline or fortitude to either stick with doing those things when they’re hard to do or quit them and take them out of your deck. Do them or don’t do them, but get the hell out of the middle so you can have some peace.
The other thing to remember is that you can only really do one thing at a time. If you’re doing a Create task, do that task until it’s done. Don’t bounce around between three or four Create tasks and a few Connect tasks sandwiched between some Consume tasks (yes, I’m looking at you, Twitizens – #twitterAA). Do it, complete it, and move on. (Tweet this.) Rinse and repeat a few times, then call it a day.
The point of all this is to get you out of trying to figure out what you need to do when you should be doing it. There’s a time to plan and review (a Weekly Review, perhaps?) and a time to do and hopefully, thinking about some of this helps you develop a system that works for you. And in case you’re wondering, this is one of my Create tasks for the day. Thanks for consuming it!
Taking it to the next level: Can each aspect of our beings — the physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual — be viewed this way, too?