One thing we often forget when we make new commitments is that time is only one of the various factors to consider. Because we’ve been taught to think about time quantitatively rather than qualitatively, we mistakenly assume that we can handle more because a proposed commitment will “only take a few hours a week.”
The reality is much different when you’re thinking about creative work because it’s not just about the number of hours it’ll take to get the project done. It’s about the type of work it’ll take to get the work done.
Creative work doesn’t happen in steady slices – it comes in very intense bursts followed by slices of time in which you can’t do that type of work. Let’s make this more tangible: I know that on a given day, I may have three or four creative blocks of about 90 to 120 minutes. These chunks of time are when I actually do the things that bring money in.
I’ll pause here and talk about metaprojects and their relation to time and creativity.
Metaprojects: An Unfamiliar Name for a Familiar Situation
I’ve been struggling for quite some time to come up with a good name besides metaproject because it sounds too much like something a productivity guy would say. But to hell with it: I’ll get it out and revise it later.
A metaproject is a project with a scope so large that it covers many other projects and has the effect of changing how you orient yourself to your work. For instance, completing a dissertation, writing a book, creating a web application, maintaining a blog, starting a new online business, finishing a basement, or recording an album all count as a metaproject. In this case, I’m using “meta” in the “bigger than” use and not the “about” use, as in metaphysics and metalanguage.
Completing a metaproject normally requires a massive amount of effort spread out over weeks and months. Furthermore, an important feature of metaprojects is that they rarely sit still: either they’re moving forward (usually by you working on them), or they’re falling behind (because the further away from them you get, the harder it is to get back in and complete them.)
On that point, what makes creative metaprojects so tricky is that they require a lot of proactive action to complete. You can’t just show up and put in time – you have to show up, put in time, and push the project forward through hard work and expending creative energy. Creative metaprojects, then, call for the very limited blocks of time in which you are creative.
Supply, Demand, and Creativity
The problem with taking on that new commitment when it is a creative one is that the supply of creative time is much less than the supply of available time. Instead of thinking about it in the amount of hours it’ll take, think about it in the amount of creative blocks you have available.
So, let’s presume you have four creative blocks of time a day. How many of those blocks are already taken by other commitments and/or creative metaprojects? As I’ve said before, you can’t write that blockbuster novel as you’re sitting in a staff meeting. That staff meeting, whether you like or not, has taken away one of your creative blocks.
Also consider the natural ebb and flow of your energy throughout the day. I, for one, know that I’m not going to get any creative work done before 6:30 am and will be pretty much done after 8:00 pm. I can fight, whine, and moan, but outside of those times, nothing spectacular will happen.
The point: time-wise, I may have a couple hours (after 8:00 pm) extra a day, yet I don’t have another creative chunk during that time. There may be other things that I can do during that time that are productive, but those things really won’t push the ball forward on a creative metaproject.
In retrospect, this is what I’ve been saying when I’ve been talking about ToDo lists and underplanning your day. If you have only four blocks a day, why plan your day as if you had five? Especially when the reality is that it’s a rare day when the theoretical four blocks a day are used to their full potential.
So one of our goals should be doing what we can to get more creative chunks of time. Another goal should be to get the non-creative crap out of our creative blocks. But the hardest one, in the end, is to recognize when we don’t have any more of that time to give, and plan accordingly.
Or we could just remember what we learned in preschool: the circle block won’t go into the square hole, and once you’re out of blocks, you have to find a new toy.
We really have to step back and objectively “manage” ourselves from time to time to be able to perceive and adjust to these issues, don’t we? What I’ve noticed recently is a change in my most creative hours. It’s only recently become apparent to me that working on deadline after 8pm is no longer very productive (even though that used to be my most concentrated time). Replotting my entire day around not having that time slot is still difficult.
Lisas last blog post..Stuck in the middle
Interesting concept. I’ve experienced beating myself up for doing things like catching up on RSS feeds or e-mails, when I “could” be moving projects forward. Often that’s in the evening when I just don’t have the brain for it. This gives me perspective on why I might be doing that. Thanks.
Tzaddis last blog post..Friends in the City (Yay!)
Sara at On Simplicity says
You nailed something that’s been bugging me. I’ve got time in the evenings, but I never make much progress on creative projects. It may be time (or well past time) to rethink when I try to accomplish creative tasks.
Sara at On Simplicitys last blog post..Three Experiences You’d Like to Have
Mike Stankavich says
I have been calling my metaprojects initiatives, or sometimes major initiatives. It’s not necessarily an ideal term either, but at least it serves as a reasonable term to differentiate the larger, proactive, long term type projects. And as you say, creative and psychic energy are critical to making progress on those initiatives to drive major change in your life.
I really take your point about attempting to overload. Not only do you fail to complete that extra task, you compound the feeling of being overwhelmed and guilty because you broke a commitment to yourself. One book that I found to be useful is The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The premise is that you should manage energy as well as time by balancing stress and recovery for mental and creative efforts as well as physical fitness for sports performance.
@Lisa: Self-management is critical – unfortunately it’s a hard skill to learn. And the after 8 thing is a relatively recent thing for me, too – and it’s frustrating realizing that I have to either make up for that time somewhere else or do less. But it’s the reality of the situation.
@Tzaddi: If the things you’re doing are productive, then, by all means, go for it. It’s what I do, too, although I sometimes wonder if my blog friends and email victims get the short end of the stick…
@Lisa: If you wake up in the morning and have to redo all the creative “progress” you made last night, then, yes, it’s time to rethink about when you’re planning your work. Maybe play Risk instead?
@Mike: I’ll have to run and check that book out – it’s what I’ve been saying for a while, just not very coherently or clearly. I wonder how differently we’d view things if we treated creativity and (mental) energy in the same way that we treated athletic skills and physical energy? Thanks for commenting!