One of the chief goals of living the creative life is to do to it for the long term. There’s a time and a place for sprints, but without careful integration, sprints often make your work incoherent and deplete you at the same time.
At a gut level, we know this. We understand that this is more of a marathon for us — why else invest so much of ourselves in it and dream of a life where we get to do it? — but we resist the idea of the steady pace of creative productivity.
We need to reassess what it means to work at 100%. Working at 100% capacity is depleting and short-sighted, but working with 100% focus is incredibly effective, optimal, and the key to finishing your creative work. Rather than thinking about working at 100%, try to work at 85% capacity with 100% focus.
It may seem that this is giving less than everything you’ve got – because it is – but by keeping a little capacity in the tank every day, you can stop the sprint/crash cycle that seems to be a natural part of the creative life. Save a little every day so you can do more over the course of a week.
Capacity and Margin
One of the foundational practices that lead to creative momentum is leaving some margin. Like capacity, margin is one of those ideas that we understand but can be a bit hard to define. That makes sense, though, because margin and capacity are relational concepts: margin is the difference between your total capacity and how much of that capacity you’re using.
Imagine that you have 8 hours of time to work in a given day. Those 8 hours are your (time) capacity. Planning to use every minute of those 8 hours working is not leaving any margin. Your total capacity is allocated, so if anything happens that prevents you from working those full 8 hours, you’ll inevitably have to drop something you planned to do.
Consider your work patterns. How likely is it that you’ll use those 8 full hours at full capacity? How likely is it that something will either interrupt or distract you?
How often, though, do you implicitly assume that 8 hours of capacity equals 8 hours of work done?
Following this same case, working at 85% capacity means assuming that you’ll plan to do a little shy of 7 hours of work. If something comes up (and it inevitably does) then you still have enough capacity to handle it and complete what you set out to do. Or if you underestimate how long something should take (and we inevitably do) you can still finish your key projects and call it a day.
Side note: In case you think that the time you’ll spend on a project scales with the time you have available, you might want to check out my piece on how time crunching prevents your best creative work.
As you get more in tune with your workflow, you’ll also get more intuitive about what capacity means for you. Capacity is really time, energy, and attention, and it’s the energy and attention that are both the hardest to quantify and the ones that are limiting factors for creative work. Margin has the greatest effect on your energy reserves, with energy being understood as your physical, emotional, social, and mental energy.
There’s a reason why marathoners don’t run at a full sprint; they’d never finish the race if they did. What’s true of the physical is also true of the other aspects of our lives. That 15% margin gives you the additional resources to take care of yourself and continue the next day without burnout.
100% Focus: Giving Fewer Things Your Full Concentration
Let’s separate focus from attention, since we sometimes use them interchangeably. By focus, I mean keeping the fewest number of things on your list as possible and making it a priority to get them done. By focusing, we stop the habit of project shuffling and instead concentrate our resources on completing projects.
If you’re struggling to finish the projects you’re currently working on, adding another item to the list isn’t going to help you. Finishing one item on the list will.
This principle of focus works on the different levels of action perspectives. If you try to do too many tasks at once, you end up not completing any. If you try to handle too many projects in a given day or week, you end up spending a lot of time in project management mode. If you try to handle too many objectives per month, they all suffer.
The key to getting more done is to focus on completing fewer things. Imagine that you were able to complete one project a day every day. At the end of the month, that’s 30 projects. How much better off would you be at that rate than you are now?
Deadlines are there to guide your project, but remember that it’s your capacity that drives your project, no matter what the deadline is.
For what it’s worth, three projects a day seems to be a good, sustainable goal that balances everything that actually needs to get done with what we can do consistently. Three projects completed per day equals 90 projects per month.
Completion + Consistency = Long-Term Flourishing
Working at 85% capacity with 100% focus gets you the consistent completion that builds the type of creative life where you’re not just thinking, dreaming, planning, talking, and hoping, but are actually doing.
Think about all of the creative people around you. Who are the dreamers? Who are the doers? I bet it didn’t take long for you to come up with names of both. Which do you want to be?
In every domain I can think of, the people who are the most regarded are the doers. The thing that separates successful entrepreneurs and business people often isn’t a killer idea; it’s their execution. Successful managers actually get results. Leaders have teams that get stuff done. What separates authors from everyone else is that authors actually write books. Musicians get on stage.
The doers not only get the social rewards, but they also get the personal satisfaction of actualizing their best selves. This, of course, assumes that they aren’t just mindlessly doing stuff. We become by doing, but whether we’re becoming cogs or our best selves depends on how principled our actions are.
But it’s not just about doing something once. It’s about doing it repeatedly. If you’re a regular reader of this website, you’re a regular reader because you anticipate that I’ll write something worth reading. Even when I miss the mark, you still hang around because you assume that the missed step was an exception to the rule.
What’s true for me and the people you put in the “doer” list above is true for you. Don’t just do great work once or sporadically; do it consistently, for the long haul. And do it by working at 85% capacity with 100% focus.
For more ways to build your project roadmap so capacity drives your project, read part 2 of Start Finishing.
Archan Mehta says
The key word here is…..habit.
The way to develop a habit is to actually do something repeatedly until it becomes your second nature.
Habits can be of help in every walk of life. Just make sure to develop helpful and constructive habits.
However, we also need to sometimes break out of our habits. This, in order to gain a fresh perspective. That’s why we take breaks and vacations and pursue our hobbies outside of work.
Even for people with a bias for action, for example, day-dreaming can be hugely important.
If you are not in the habit of dreaming, pray, what are you so busy doing?
So, in that sense, dreaming and doing are complementary like the yin and yang. Having said that, however, there are bound to be exceptions to the rule.
Some people are better at dreaming (creatives) and others are better at getting things done (executives).
Although society needs both, it is better to let people play to their strengths rather than put them into a box.
Let Picasso paint because that’s what drives him and let Jack Welch execute, so he can marshall his forces and get things done for an organisation.
Thanks for this timely piece. Cheers.
Tony Ryan says
Cool post Charlie. I’d say 3 big to-do’s (the less the better) is most optimal for me.
Like most bloggers, the 20% of my actions that result in 80% of my results is writing amazing, evergreen content. I personally use Chris Guillebeau’s guideline of 1,000 words written each day. No matter what happens throughout my day, as long as I hit that requirement I’m satisfied with how my day was spent. I try to make it a priority to complete this task before I start any other.
You state…If you’re struggling to finish the projects you’re currently working on, adding another item to the list isn’t going to help you. Finishing one item on the list will.
What do you suggest for those of us who are not in control of our lists…(corporate worker bees)? I agree that finishing one item on my list would be very helpful, but the list keeps shifting in items and priorities. Any words of wisdom?
Charlie Gilkey says
Great question, Heather, and I know what that’s like. It really depends on the relationship you have with your supervisor/manager. If it’s open, tactfully ask what the priority is, since it’s not clear that you’ll be able to complete what you’re currently assigned.
A question that I’ve found to work pretty well is: “which of the items you’ve assigned me would you like to complete first, and then what would you like me to complete after that?” It gets their buy-in at the same time as it gives you some room autonomy.
I hope this helps!
@Heather – many years in the corporate world have taught me to deliver what the boss wants first. I rather enjoy the shifting priorities – they give me a buzz. And my list gets done somehow.
Karl Staib - Work Happy Now says
This post hit home for me. I get too caught up in trying to create the perfect day that I end of feeling unsatisfied at the end of most days. After a serious illness I’ve put my life under the microscope. I’m adjusting how I work and live.
My adjustments haven’t been easy. It’s a work in progress, but every week I’m getting a little bit more efficient without the added stress.
Jim Everett says
Great post Charlie. Just to add my take on the 85% – there is always 1 limiting factor (or constraint) to the capacity of any system. Your career is a system and if the constraint to how much you get done is your personal capacity, then as you suggest, you’re going to be in a sprint/crash cycle.
Instead we can have the amount of work we get done limited by what we commit to. This keeps some reserves in the tank to handle the unexpected AND maybe more importantly, gives us time to rejuvenate so we can give the 100% focus to the tasks we put on our lists.
Laura White-Ritchie says
Thanks Charlie for this! I 100% agree with your 85% assessment.
I was just writing about how, when you’re self-employed, the days seem to get a lot shorter. You’re so easily pulled in 1000 different directions. Its so important to work that into your day when you’re thinking about projects, milestones & tasks.
Otherwise, you’re totally setting yourself up for failure. Then you’ll be wondering what’s wrong with you? Why are you such a screw up? When you really aren’t….you just haven’t been realistic about how much time you have to get stuff done.
Personally, I have toddlers at home, so I try to predict 5 or 6 hours of project time a day, tops. When I stopped looking at 8 – 10 hours a day, I actually started getting so much more accomplished every day.
Thanks again for this reminder!
This is SO helpful. I find myself always setting my day up as a sprint and I wonder why I feel so burned out. For those of us who are addicted to the energy around starting a new project, sticking to completing one project everyday can keep from having the growing list that just gets longer and longer everyday which ends up being nothing but an energy drain. Thanks for a really useful post.
Eduard - People Skills Decoded says
Glad to see you’ve left that 15% aside Charlie. You’re obviously familiar with the concept of burnout. Too much work can actually make you less productive then you were with less work.
Jennifer Louden says
you are brilliant
now next post: how to stick with this? there is this inner compulsion to keep adding things, doing more… and that really is what gets me into trouble.
Andrew @ Blogging Guide says
This is really an advice that one should consider. Doing this would I think help reduce stress and help you get more relaxed in doing your work. I will definitely be applying this principle you’ve shared. Thanks so much.
Good article. I like your take on Focus. It is amazing how much quicker and better I can get something done when I start something with the intention of giving 100% focus.
Christina Crowe says
What a great article. I hadn’t thought about working an hour less, but with more focus before. Ingenious idea!
With the new year upon us, this article came at a terrific time. I think it’s important to focus on fewer tasks at a time as well, though a little change every now and then is also refreshing.
Charlie, brilliant as usual. -Amanda!
Amanda Machina says
don’t burn yourself out too quickly, it’ll kill your game by friday you’ll drop with exhaustion