I recently got mentioned in a Mastodon discussion about creativity.
Here is the exact wording from Q.
It’s hard to be productive as a creative person in the modern age because we are inundated with media that demands our attention and responses.
I’d be interested to hear from other folks who do creative work. How do you focus your energies on producing substantial amounts of creative work while having to constantly tear your mind away from your task at hand to consume and engage with information that has no direct relevance to your work?
So how do I create a video a week, a members newsletter, and PKM weekly pretty much every week? How have I written 3000+ blog posts over a decade?
Step 1 – Stop Telling Yourself Stories
Inherent in this is a story I often see people telling themselves. They must keep up with…whatever. If they don’t keep up with it then clearly their uninformed and uneducated. We should look down on people that don’t “keep up” with everything online because they’re lesser beings than those of us that do “keep up.”
This is the lie that social media and a 24-hour news cycle has convinced us is true. There are only a few things in life that truly demand my attention. My wife, my kids, and the new puppy. My wife because I love her. My kids because they’re children and I like them, plus I need to make sure they don’t die. The puppy, because I don’t want poop on the floor1.
Nothing else demands my attention. It can all wait for another time when I have the space to think about it.
I don’t read the news, and I don’t have Facebook, and I’ve noticed that I’m spending too much time on Mastodon so I’ll need to be curbing that. Because I choose to not do these things I have time to read books and think. Reporting on something fast to hit a 24-hour news deadline, or be the first to share on social media, means that you never have the time to think deeply about the topic. You don’t have time to develop any opinions.
This would usually be a member post so if you want to read more from my research notes and thoughts on creativity become a member
I’d much rather read someone who has thought deeply about a subject and then written a book, or a long piece, than a few hundred words hastily put together to make sure they break the story.
The other part of this is that work “demands” our attention. Years ago I had a creative project to finish on a deadline and I had been pulled away from it many times. This left me with 4 days to write/design/record/edit a course. I decided that I’d just do nothing but this project for those 4 days. I didn’t check email or project management systems despite my assumption that clients would be mad and I’d lose work.
In the end, no one even noticed that I was gone for 4 days. Not one client asked why I didn’t respond to them for 4 days. They solved their own problems and were happy to pick up wherever we left off when I got back to them on Monday.
Even now as my main income comes from managing 80+ US cities, I shut off Slack and other communication methods a few times a week. No one notices. In fact, the people I work for often tell me how happy they are that I get so many issues resolved quickly. I am able to do this because I focus on things and I force them to make decisions about what I should be focused on. I never take on a new issue without telling them it’s pushing off some other item they had previously said was important.
We tell ourselves that work will fall apart if we ignore it for a few days, but it won’t. We just over-inflate our importance to work figuring that we’re the lynchpin of everything all the time. We’re not, things will happen without us.
Step 2 – Choose Focus
The first way I choose focus is by muting everything on my phone. The only people that can regularly get in touch with me are my wife, my oldest daughter, and the kid’s school. Notice that my parents and friends aren’t on that list. My parents live across the country and there is nothing I could do for them if some emergency comes up that couldn’t be done just as well in an hour or two when I’m not focused on writing. My friends aren’t on there because I’m working and I would never dream of calling them at work to interrupt them.
Sure I make exceptions, like this weekend my youngest child is traveling with another family so I’ve added both those adults to the list of people that can break through my focus anytime. Once my daughter is back with me I’ll take them off the list of people that can break into my focus anytime.
I also regularly choose a focused device in my iPad Pro. While I still wish that the iPad would get some more power, I find that it’s the most focused operating system I could choose to use. The easiest thing to do with my iPad plugged into an external monitor is to have my writing app of choice on the main screen and have any research material on my iPad.
For some reason, the windowing paradigm of macOS, Windows, and Linux feels more cluttered to me than what I get on my iPad. Yes, I must use a desktop operating system for programming work, but for everything else, I reach for my iPad first.
I also schedule time to focus, most often using The Mullet Method I first wrote about in 2017. I get up early2 and work for a number of hours without distraction. I try to not schedule any meetings or requirements on my time until at least 9 am. When you start your day with focused work, you get stuff done. The times I have to start my day with meetings and other people’s ideas about what is important, I just write the day off for unfocused work and don’t worry about it.
Step 3 – Choose Breaks
Way back when white people came to North America religion was king, and one of the biggest influences on how we work today was Calvinism. A key tenet of that was that doing hard work all the time was a signifier of how “good” a believer you were. The harder you worked the better you were.
While many people have left religion behind, this view is still pushed strongly by capitalists because they want you to work hard and pin your self-worth on how hard you’re working all the time. They want you to feel bad if you’re not “productive” with every spare moment. They want to engineer your work so that you get paid so little that you have to spend all your time working for them. They want you to feel terrible when you’re not productive, and a whole industry has sprung up in showing you how to always be productive.
I’m in the enviable position of only needing to work for others Tues – Thurs for 5 hours a day. I reserve Monday for producing my YouTube videos and Friday for writing pieces like this and doing research. I try to start each day by reading a book3 for an hour to start my day with quiet focused tasks. I schedule my writing “creativity” for Friday morning and Monday. I sit down and find ideas to write about from my big stock of ideas that I keep in Obsidian.
Not every idea is going to be a winner, and not every idea will get written. Sometimes I’ll get some other inspiration, like today, and write about that instead of what I had planned.
But I also choose breaks. One of the key principles of The Mullet Method is that you work for 2 – 3 hours then you take a break. I often take a 90-minute break to ride my bike outside when the weather is nice. Then I come back to work after being away from screens ready to work again.
Unfortunately Puritan Work Ethic doesn’t let this happen. Working in an office doesn’t allow for this type of break, it expects butt-in-seat time even if that time isn’t productive.
Friday I maximize my break time. Once I’ve written my member newsletter and finished PKM weekly, I do whatever I want. Sometimes that’s more writing, sometimes it’s video games, sometimes it’s riding my bike or taking a nap.
I give myself permission to not be productive. I give myself permission to only work 15 hours a week on things that make money, and then spend the rest of my time doing things I enjoy (which includes reading and writing) because it’s good for me.
I recognize that I’m a cis-hetero-white dude and I’m a programmer and get paid well. I have so many advantages that others don’t have. If you need to work 60 hours a week to pay the bills, then you read this and think I’m entirely out to lunch.
At this point, I’m not sure how to change that for everyone. I advocate for basic income, though I don’t think I should qualify for it because I make too much4. I say no to speaking requests because I figure there is someone out there that is not white-hetero-cis that is more qualified.
This is just how I did it. It took me almost 10 years to get to a point in my career where this works so it’s hard work.
- My wife is away and oh my goodness the puppy has been crazy while I write this. It’s taken me 3 hours to get focused writing time as the puppy has been crazy in my office. ↩
- Okay I don’t love getting up early but my wife is a figure skating coach and needs to go to work after school. This leaves me to take our three kids to all their activities so I need to be done work by 2pm. ↩
- I’ve been failing at this lately as work is really busy and life is really busy and I do need to work enough to pay bills. ↩
- Though my wife should as her income is lower and this would give her freedom to leave if I turn into an asshole and she needs to get out. ↩