As a creative, you've got two sets of demands to handle. The first is what you need for your own growth and inspiration. The second is what your clients want and expect from you.
Creative work isn't magical; you're not a fairy-dust unicorn who needs to be surrounded by gauzy rainbows and sunbeams. You do, however, need to understand and respect what your brain requires. You need time for rest, for deep thinking, for idea development, for new connections, for staring into space: for inspiration, which is essential for continued, high-quality, and ever-improving creative output.
Continually working under pressure reduces your ability to be creative. But ignoring opportunities, missing deadlines, or only working when you feel like it isn't an option, either. You need inspiration, but you also need a dependable income.
Like me, you probably chose your line of work because you love it; the need for continual creativity, however, can drag you down. In this tutorial, I'll help you learn how to organize your task list and your schedule according to your creative energy, so you can work inspired instead of stressed.
The Standard Approaches to the Task List
Most people approach the task list according to urgency level, according to priority, or according to what feels most interesting or attractive at the moment.
For your standard task list of, say, household chores or personal needs, these approaches might suffice. When it comes to managing a continual workload of creative output, however, you need something better.
The Urgency Approach
The urgency approach, tackling your tasks by the one that is due next (or now, or yesterday), results in always working under pressure. For creative thinking, this is not a great way to work.
One extensive study found that time pressure reduced creative thinking ability. The authors note that "people seem to be largely unaware of this phenomenon. ...participants in our study generally perceived themselves as having been more creative when time pressure was high. Sadly, their diaries gave the lie to those self-assessments. There was clearly less and less creative thinking in evidence as time pressure increased."
Working creatively on an urgency basis is a great way to continually produce shoddy work and not even realize it. While having some boundaries can help you focus, constant time pressure will stress out your threat-sensitive brain. Stress makes it really difficult for you to relax and make those creative connections you need to make in order to do good work.
The Priority Approach
Approaching your task list by priority gives you more control: you can make sure you're putting the time in on your important projects and not simply bowing to the tyranny of time-demands. However, if your high-priority work doesn't match your energy level, you'll struggle to be productive and inspired. This ongoing situation leads to frustration, discouragement, and a strong temptation to drop the important stuff because it's just too difficult, too slow in progressing, and too draining.
The Haphazard Approach
The do-what-feels-interesting, haphazard approach can work until the deadlines pile up: then you're stuck dealing with a pile of urgent demands, working under pressure, and wondering why you didn't get to this stuff sooner. Having some set of boundaries or guidelines, some plan for how you'll use your time, helps you focus and overcome that starting barrier to creative work. A haphazard approach doesn't give you any, and results in a rollercoaster of terribly stressful days followed by unproductive recovery days.
An Alternative Approach
Working under pressure isn't something you can avoid entirely. However, it is something you can minimize; the key is to be proactive, managing your task list according to your energy level. If you categorize tasks by creative energy level, then schedule them to match the ebb and flow of your creative energy, you can have the best of both worlds. More flow, more working when inspired, and a dependable rate of production.
1. Mapping Out Your Creative Energy
Determine Your Circadian Rhythm
First, you need to get a good idea of your personal creative ebb and flow. Circadian rhythms play a pretty important part. You probably already have a good idea of whether you're a night or morning person.
Map Your Hourly Energy Level
Use a simple spreadsheet to map out your creative energy levels. There will probably be some times you're not sure about. For those, simply mark "Unsure." Here's what my spreadsheet looks like:
Track Your Time
If you have any "Unsure" hours in your day, keep a time log to figure out what's happening with your body, mental state, and energy. Yes, each day will have variation, especially depending on scheduled obligations. If you keep a time log for three days to a week, however, you should be able to pick out some definite patterns. Then update your spreadsheet according to what you discover. Productivity author Laura Vanderkam offers several time tracking spreadsheets, or you can use an app like Toggl, Hours, or Timeneye.
If you're stuck on mapping your creative energy levels, ask yourself the following questions:
- When do I prefer to do my hard thinking work?
- When is work easiest?
- When is work most difficult?
- When do I produce at a higher rate?
- When do I work slowly?
Review Your Activities
Next, think about activities in your schedule that affect your creative energy level.
Meditation, exercise, yoga, sleeping, trying new things, and being alone are all activities that have consistent positive effects on creative ability.
Other activities, like meetings, client calls, social outings, family interactions, and so on, will affect different people in different ways. Study yourself, and start noticing what happens to your creative energy after each of these activities. I tend to need recovery time after being around people; if I have a meeting or social outing, I should expect low-energy time immediately after, even if those hours might normally be high-energy for me.
2. Categorizing Work Tasks by Energy Level
Now you need to make a list of all your work tasks. You can be as detailed as you'd like. I prefer to group similar tasks; for example, I have "Social media" as one item on my task list, even though that's a collection of several different activities.
Map Your Tasks by Energy Level
Once you've made your list, sort the tasks into categories: is a Low, Medium, or High Level of energy required to complete each task? (For now, ignore the column labeled "Spark"; we'll get to that in a minute.) Here's a look at my categorized task list:
Your peak energy time is best for doing most creative work but not all creative work; recent studies show that when you're tired, you are better at coming up with novel ideas and solutions. That's because the "logical" barriers are more relaxed. You get more of those weird, crazy, and, sometimes, amazing connections because your brain is not as good at filtering things out.
With that in mind, peruse your task list for the activities that need this kind of creative, connective thinking. I use "Spark" as the category name here. For me, there are two main activities that fit this category, as you can see above. Instead of putting off these tasks because I'm tired, I can use those afternoon or evening low-energy hours to let my tired brain come up with new, creative, intriguing ideas.
3. Putting It All Together
Now it's time to see how all this works on a daily basis, with your schedule.
Define Time Blocks
On your hourly map, you will probably see sets of time: several hours with the same energy level grouped together. I have one set of high-energy time (morning), one mid-level set (afternoon, with a couple of hours I'm unsure of), and one low-level set (evening). Consider your normal family or personal routines and scheduled activities, and mark out within those sets the hours you can actually work. These are now your time blocks for work.
Match Tasks to Time Blocks
The next step is to match the right kind of tasks to the energy level of each time block. You can use a categorized task list, so when it's time to work all you have to do is start working on the tasks in the appropriate category.
This is when the conflict between tasks and time will become apparent: if you have too many high-level tasks and too few high-energy hours, you'll have to make some decisions. You can power through those high-level tasks no matter what your energy, you can rearrange your schedule so you have more high-energy hours, you can get extensions on your deadlines, or you can eliminate some of those tasks from your life.
You can use productivity tactics to reduce the amount of time needed for tasks. Batching low-level, administrative tasks, for example, can effectively lower the amount of time needed to accomplish them. You might also be ready to hire out some of the tasks that take forever but aren't creatively rewarding or interesting. Trying to squeeze too much work into one hour won't make you more productive, and it certainly won't make you feel more inspired.
Work Ahead to Avoid Urgency
It will be tempting to jump to whatever seems urgent, perhaps spending high-level time on answering emails or finalizing a project that's due soon. But the only way to give yourself the freedom to work according to your energy level is to work ahead, putting the high-energy time in on the high-level tasks even when there's nothing immediately due. For most of us, we've trained ourselves to work to deadline; working proactively, by choice and energy, will take some retraining.
4. Protecting Your Most Important Time Blocks
Your most important hours for creative work should be pretty clear, now. They're your high-energy time blocks and, as we've learned, some of those low-level hours that you can use for spark tasks.
Use Your High-Energy Time
Your high-energy time blocks can be easily invaded by low-level stuff. Getting lost in email or piddling around with website updates are easy ways for me to "get started" and end up wasting my best working hours.
By categorizing your high-level tasks, you've defined what you really should be doing during your high-energy time. Now it's up to you to do it. You can use a timer to get yourself started on high-level tasks, and use those five or ten minute breaks in between sessions to tackle a gratifying but low-level task.
Use Your Low-Energy Time
I'd long ago given up on doing any type of creative work in the evening, which is clear from my time blocks. But, as it turns out, I was just trying to do the wrong kind of creative work: the productive kind instead of the idea-sparking kind. Now I've started spending some time in the evening with my notebook open before I fall asleep on the couch watching Netflix.
Your low-energy time is often when your willpower is lowest, so if you want to use that time to spark ideas, make it easy on yourself. Ease in with a short time of reading, walking, talking, or whatever tends to get your ideas flowing. Then ask yourself to spend just a few minutes recording those ideas.
5. Setting Up Routines, Quotas, and Other Helps
Routines, rituals, and quotas can help you to make the most of your time blocks and adjust to managing your tasks by energy rather than urgency.
Set Up Routines & Rituals
Regular routines save your brain a lot of decision making. Setting time blocks, and then sticking to them on a fairly consistent basis, is a routine itself. The more routine you make your work hours, the easier it is for your brain to get right to work. You can use routines that enhance the type of work you're about to tackle, as well: post-exercise can be a great time for creative work (as can post-sleep) so you might schedule a workout or a short nap before a high-energy time block.
You can also set up rituals to move from one energy level to another, cuing your brain that it's time to switch from one type of task to another. If you start a time block in a low or medium level of energy, you could spend time on those low or mid-level tasks, then use your ritual to get you going on high-level tasks. Rituals can be simple: pouring a cup of coffee, stretching for a few minutes, moving to a different work position or area, or opening up a specific program on the computer. Make each ritual specific and easily repeated. You don't want something so generic that it's meaningless, nor something so complicated that you avoid it.
Use Quotas and Cues
Quotas can help you get started and stay focused. If you're goal-oriented, having a specific daily or weekly quota is motivational. I love working toward a specific daily word count, and feeling like I've won if I meet it or, better yet, beat it. You could set a quota to finish a certain amount on a project each day, each week, or during each time block. Or you could ask yourself to complete X number of high-level tasks per hour or day. If you use quotas, track your progress; it's motivating to see what you've done.
Cues like keeping a notebook open on your desk, playing a certain type of music, or designating some screen-free time can help you make the most of non-optimal time. If you start noticing what triggers ideas and inspiration, you can put more of it into those low-level hours.
Try, Test, Adjust
Nothing's perfect, especially not on the first time around. Set your schedule according to what you think you know about your creative energy, try it for a week, and then assess your progress. You might find that your energy levels are not what you thought, and that you'll need to adjust your schedule.
The goal is not just to be productive: you can force yourself into productivity with great systems and imposing deadlines. But you want to enjoy your work, not suffer through it. The goal is to give yourself a work life that enables flow and inspiration rather than stress and burnout. By mapping your creative energy, categorizing your tasks, and fitting each task to an appropriate time block, you can do just that.
Graphic Credit: Flow icon designed by Yamini Chandra from the Noun Project.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in June of 2015. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.