When a major project is staring us in the face, our emotions want to know what we’re dealing with.
How big is this ocean we need to boil, anyway?
Unfortunately, our zest comes crashing to a halt when we turn around to see that reality has only left us a tin can and a Hibachi Grill for the job.
Our rational brain doesn’t care what our emotions want to do. It only leases out focus in small and scarce pockets of time everyday. We have to figure out if those limited bursts of concentration are best spent filling up the can (focused work) or painting the can (other work).
After hours and hours of testing, I’ve figured out how much energy my brain can give out and how that energy needs to be broken up. I thought you might enjoy my creative process to better help yours.
I can only do focused, uninterrupted, creative work – like blog posts, web copy, proposals – for about 30 minutes at a time (this is my fuel capacity). After that, my brain starts to think about plane tickets, spoonfuls of Nutella, or why it took me so long to start watching The Walking Dead.
I can only do a maximum of 4 hours of this kind of work on an average day (this is my battery life). If I do more than this, my concentration fully abandons its post, leaving the gorillas to run the banana factory.
During these focused sessions, there is no phone, no Facebook, no emails, nothing else. If I have to go to the bathroom, I stop my timer. That’s right, I set a timer to go off in 30 minutes. Instead of it being me vs. the task, it’s me vs. the clock. And I know I’m getting a life raft in less than half an hour.
That is the key for me to being able to work unabashedly. I never have to wonder if I “should” be doing more work because I know exactly how much I’ve done and how much I can do each day. I’ve given myself permission to feel good about my efforts because I’ve learned the limits of my battery life and the size of my gas tank.
Am I drinking Scotch and skateboarding in Union Square outside of those 4 intense hours? No, there is “other work” to do – not to mention that I’d likely kill myself on a skateboard, even without the Scotch.
“Other work” is the stuff that still has to get done during the day but that doesn’t take a whole lot of gray matter to do, like returning certain emails, calling people back, picking up dry cleaning and all that. I typically do “other work” in 20-minute segments but they can vary.
I love me some chill time. My breaks can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours depending on the mood I’m in or what I have planned. Breaks include anything non-work related: movies, facebook, exercising, socializing, yadda yadda
Putting It All Together
Before I start doing any work on a given day, I take 10-15 minutes to split my up my to-do’s between focused and non-focused work. If I want to work on something for an hour (this blog post, for instance), I’ll give it two 30-minute slots. Below is a photo of what my list looks like this very second. Every line on the left hand side is something I planned to work on for 30 straight minutes. Every line on the right is other work I’d like to get done at some point.
If something comes up during my day that absolutely has to be done and it will take focused energy to do it, I may have to bump something else off my list on the left. So goes life.
I don’t always do 4 full hours of creative work but I’d rather have a day that had 1.5 hours of dedicated output over a day with 10 hours of procrastination and guilt.
Again, the trick is to judge your days on what you’re capable of doing, not on what you want to be doing. Because your success depends not only on what you do today but the mindset you’re in before you go to bed tonight. Is what you did today a springboard for how you want your day to go tomorrow or are you dreading what’s on the far side of your Circadian Rhythm every single night? That’s your choice.
Finishing a big project takes putting together a whole lot of seemingly average days in a row. You have to figure out how to enjoy it.
If you’d like to start a process like this, first figure out how big your gas tank and battery life are. Everyone is different. Without knowing this, you’re like Clark Griswald asleep behind the wheel.
Or maybe you feel like you don’t have a life that allows any autonomy of deciding when to focus deeply and when not to (you’re a nurse, an air traffic controller, a mechanic, or on the floor of the Stock Exchange), and you’d like to use what little focused energy you have left to wring my neck.
That’s ok too. Let’s be honest, my neck could use a good wringing from time-to-time. I just hope you’re able to get the mental breaks you need to be able to do your job to the best of your ability, and to feel more or less that you’d like to do it again tomorrow.