How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. – Annie Dillard
This life-changing quote made me pay more attention to my daily activities, and since then, I have been obsessed with this idea of crafting a perfect day that aligns with my goals and values. Needless to say, I could not help but take notes on this phenomenon of building a daily routine when I read the book, ‘Manage your day-to-day‘.
Creative minds are exceedingly sensitive to the buzz and whir of the world around them, and we now have to contend with a constant stream of chirps, pings, and alerts at all hours of the day. These days the demons are more insidious; they are the everyday annoyances, the little things that suck away our potential to do big things.
Paradoxically, we hold both the problem and the solution to our day-to-day challenges. No matter where we work or what horrible top-down systems plague our work, our mind and energy are ours and ours alone.
There are four key skill sets we must master to succeed: building a rock-solid daily routine, taming our tools (before they tame us), finding focus in a distracted world, and sharpening our creative mind. The right solution for us will always be personal — an idiosyncratic combination of strategies based on our work demands, habits, and preferences.
1. Building a rock-solid daily routine
What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.
To make great ideas a reality, we must act, experiment, fail, adapt, and learn on a daily basis. While no workplace is perfect, it turns out that our gravest challenges are a lot more primal and personal. Our individual practices ultimately determine what we do and how well we do it. Specifically, it is our routine (or lack thereof), our capacity to work proactively rather than reactively, and our ability to systematically optimize our work habits over time that determine our ability to make ideas happen.
If we want to create something worthwhile with our life, we need to draw a line between the world’s demands and our ambitions. Routines help us do this by setting expectations about availability, aligning our workflow with our energy levels, and getting our minds into a regular rhythm of creating. At the end of the day—or, really, from the beginning—building a routine is all about persistence and consistency so that we do not have to wait for inspiration; we just need to create a framework for it.
a. Creative work first, reactive work second
The single most important change we can make in our working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. Start with the rhythm of our energy levels. Certain times of day are especially conducive to focused creativity, thanks to circadian rhythms of arousal and mental alertness.
b. Use creative triggers
Stick to the same tools, the same surroundings, even the same background music, so that they become associative triggers for us to enter our creative zone. You will know it is effective when your daily schedule starts to feel less like a mundane routine and more like a creative ritual.
c. Frequency provides momentum
We tend to overestimate what we can do for a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Frequency makes starting easier. Getting started is always a challenge. By working every day, we keep our momentum going. As we become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. Because of working every day, no one day’s work would seem particularly important. This consequent lack of anxiety would put us in a more playful frame of mind and allows us to experiment and take risks.
Frequency sparks creativity. Frequency nurtures frequency. That is why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work.
Frequency does not have to be a daily frequency; what’s most important is consistency. The more widely spaced our work times, however, the less we reap all of these benefits.
2. Taming the tools
This section of the book cannot be more timely and relevant.
Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused.
We have welcomed technology so fully and lovingly into our lives that we no longer take the time to stop and question the relationship. Self-respect and etiquette are being nudged out of our lives in lieu of convenient connection. Even work has no time or place and spills out all over our personal lives.
We have been sold on the false idea that working from home or, worse, on vacation to help a harried client is a good thing. We are expected to be on call and available to everyone all the time. We have been fitted with an electronic leash for bad bosses, demanding clients, and bored friends.Researchers tell us that when we are sedentary, our skeletal muscles, especially in our lower limbs, do not contract, thus requiring less fuel. I would further postulate that lymph and blood are more stagnant. Which is why standing and treadmill desks, and looking for opportunities to stand or walk during the day, can contribute to supporting a healthier digital lifestyle. However, the negative impact of sitting is just the tip of the iceberg. Screen time also feeds into a vicious cycle of chronic stress in a way that most of us do not even realize.
We do not even realize this because on some levels social media satisfies some of our primary needs.
Psychologists suggest that social media appeals to such a wide range of people because it fulfills our most fundamental needs, including a sense of belonging and self-esteem. We all want to feel like we are part of something larger than ourselves, and we all want to believe that what we do matters. Research shows that we get a small rush of endorphins—the same brain chemicals we enjoy after completing intense exercise—when we receive a new message. Talking about ourselves also triggers the reward center of our brains, making it even more compelling to narrate our daily activities.
The primary culprit is our email inboxes. Our e-mail represents a sort of digital extension of our brain. The bottleneck occurs because our digital selves—firstname.lastname@example.org—can handle far more input than our physical selves. Moreover, short of dramatic increases in artificial intelligence, we are going to need to solve for the difference ourselves.
When I think about my inbox as an extension of my brain, the notion of inbox zero becomes both more meaningful and more elusive.The most important rule in achieving your goals via your inbox is that distracting opportunities have to die for your most important goals to live. As you move through your inbox, if an idea or opportunity is catching your eye and asking for your focus, think hard about whether pursuing it will help you achieve your complex goals.
The crux of this problem is that we are losing the distinction between urgent and important—now everything gets heaped in the urgent pile. Moreover, it is quite frankly easier to do the trivial things that are “urgent” than it is to do the important things.
However, when we choose urgent over important, what we are choosing is other people’s priorities over our own. This busywork pulls our attention from the meaningful work—taking the time to think, reflect, and imagine. It is these pauses that make our lives better and lay the groundwork for our greatest accomplishments.
Any technology-aided shortcut robs you of the work. Why cheat yourself of the effort? The work, the process, is the goal. It builds character. It makes us better. As Marshall McLuhan theorized, “We shape our tools, and after that our tools shape us.”We let our tools take the lead because it is the path of least resistance—the easy way. Moreover, the easy way is always a trap. We have become so trusting of technology that we have lost faith in ourselves and our born instincts. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your Google. Mistakes are a part of life and often the path to profound new insights—so why try to remove them completely?
It is easy to blame the tools, but the real problem is us. Rather than demonizing new technologies unnecessarily or championing them blindly, we must begin to develop a subtle sensibility.
The heroes of the next generation will be those who can calm the buzzing and jigging of outside distraction long enough to listen to the sound of their hearts, those who will follow their path until they learn to walk erect—not hunched over like a Neanderthal, palm-gazing.Don’t trust technology over your instincts and imagination. Doing busy work is easy; doing your best work is hard.
3. Finding focus
This section in the book, according to me, offers the most important actionable insights.
We are being asked to simultaneously resist and embrace distraction to advance in our careers—a troubling paradox. I believe that this phenomenon has a lot to do with the lack of clear metrics in the knowledge work sector. Because of this lack of clear metrics, we have sunk into a productivity morass, where the focus in adopting a new administrative practice is on short-term convenience rather than long-term value.
The second issue is that in doing things, we like to feel that we are making progress. So if you get to erase ten e-mails from your inbox, you feel like you have achieved something. However, if you think carefully about it, it is not clear that you are going to get something out of it. The next thing working against us is the calendar. It has a tendency to represent tasks that can fit into thirty-minute or one-hour blocks. Moreover, tasks that take, say, fifty hours—which could be how long it takes you to complete a meaningful creative task—don’t naturally get represented in that calendar. Then there’s opportunity cost.
With time, there is also an opportunity cost—but it is often even harder to understand. Every time you are doing something, you are not doing something else. However, you do not see what it is that you are giving up. Especially when it comes to, let’s say, e-mail versus doing something that takes fifty hours. It is very easy for you to see the e-mail. It is not that easy for you to see the thing that takes fifty hours.
This is the essence of our convenience addiction: because we lack clear metrics for these behaviors’ costs, we cannot weigh their pros against their cons. Therefore, the evidence of any benefit is enough to justify continued use.
The basic combination of the three things: (1) that the world around us tries to tempt us; (2) that we listen to the world around us (e.g., choice architecture); and (3) that we do not deal very well with temptation. If you put all of those things together, you have a recipe for disaster.
With one eye on our gadgets, we are unable to give our full attention to who and what is in front of us—meaning that we miss out on the details of our lives, ironically, while responding to our fear of missing out. For many of us, mindlessness is the default state.
Here are some recommended remedies to this problem:
a. Understanding and cultivating self-control
Studies show that the human mind can only truly multitask when it comes to highly automatic behaviors like walking. Even if you have cast-iron willpower, the mere fact that the Internet is lying in wait on your computer takes a toll on your work performance. The very act of resisting temptations eats up concentration and leaves you mentally depleted. Committing to ignore distractions is rarely enough. Like Franzen, we must strive to remove them entirely from our field of attention. Otherwise, we will end up using half our mental energy just keeping ourselves from breaking our rules. What’s more, anxieties and self-doubt can multiply when fed with silence and an abundance of time. Self-control has two elements. There are self-control problems and self-control solutions. Self-control problems are all about “now versus later.” As we invent new technologies, we also invent new ways to kill ourselves. Think about obesity. Think about smoking. Think about texting and driving. All of those are self-control problems.
Self-control solutions are all the things we try to get ourselves to behave better.
Then finally, there is ego depletion, which deals with what happens throughout the day as we resist temptation over and over. The results show that it takes energy to resist each temptation and that as we use more and more of this energy as the day goes on, we have less and less of it left, which increases the chances that we will give in to temptation.
One of the best ways to combat negative distractions is simply to embrace positive distractions. In short, we can fight bad distractions with good distractions. In the Stanford study, the researchers gave children an option to eat one marshmallow right away, or wait a few minutes and receive two marshmallows. The children who were able to delay their gratification employed positive distraction techniques to be successful. Some children sang; others kicked the table; they simply did whatever they needed to do to get their minds focused on something other than the marshmallows. Self-Control is not genetic or fixed, but rather a skill one can develop and improve with practice.
Baumeister suggests many strategies for increasing self-control. One of these strategies is to develop a seemingly unrelated habit, such as improving your posture or saying “yes” instead of “yeah” or flossing your teeth every night before bed. This can strengthen your willpower in other areas of your life. Additionally, once the new habit is ingrained and can be completed without much effort or thought, that energy can then be turned to other activities requiring more self-control. Tasks done on autopilot do not use up our stockpile of energy like tasks that have to be consciously completed. Entertaining activities, such as playing strategic games that require concentration and have rules that change as the game advances, or listening to audio books that require attention to follow along with the plot, can also be used to increase attention. Even simple behaviors like regularly getting a good night’s sleep are shown to improve focus and self-control.
As much as we cultivate it, however, self-control is still finite—so we must combine this approach with other strategies.
b. Focus block technique
People are used to the idea that they cannot demand your attention during times when you already have a scheduled appointment. The focus block technique takes advantage of this understanding to buy you some time for undistracted focus without the need for excessive apology or explanation.
c. Schedule time for some solitude
Set the time for your first block of solitude now—and make it an essential part of your daily routine. How to notice the urge to switch tasks and not act on that urge, but just return your attention to the task at hand. This is what you learn in solitude, and it is everything.
Make a point of spending some time alone each day. It is a way to observe unproductive habits and thought processes, and to calm your mind.
Sleep is more important than food. You can go a week without eating, and the only thing you will lose is weight. Give up sleep for even a couple of days, and you will become completely dysfunctional.
Even so, we are all too willing to trade away an hour of sleep in the false belief that it will give us one more hour of productivity. In fact, even very small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our cognitive capacity.
In summary, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. In a world filled with distraction, attention is our competitive advantage.
You have a choice in where to direct your attention. Choose wisely. The world will wait. Moreover, if it is important, the world will call back. Distinguish between compulsive and conscious behaviors. Are you acting out of boredom or blind habit when you could be serving a higher goal?
Listen to your gut as much as you listen to others. With all the new sources of communication and amplification, don’t let yourself be persuaded by the volume of the masses. Nothing should resonate more loudly than your intuition.
4. Sharpening your creative mind
It is so easy for creativity to become a means to a very practical end—earning a paycheck and pleasing your client or manager. However, that type of work only uses a small spectrum of your abilities. To truly excel, you must also continue to create for the most important audience of all: yourself.
Firstly, we need to understand creativity and then, how to cultivate it.
a. Understanding creativity
The process of creativity highlights two primary mental patterns, idealism, and judgment, that lead to the two central emotional states, fear, and pride.
From a perfectionist’s point of view, if you manage to force yourself into producing at the level you envisioned in your head, you feel on top of the world. If you cannot measure up to those standards, you are crushed. Admittedly, this striving can lead to some pretty incredible work. Artists, writers, and designers have produced breathtakingly executed pieces due to their relentless pursuit of the ideal. However, at what cost?
An overemphasis on perfection can lead to enormous stress (think angry flare-ups or spontaneous tears). At best, it can make you hesitate to immerse yourself in a new project. At worst, this pattern can lead to you abandoning your creative pursuits because of the toll they take on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Ironically, perfectionism can also inhibit your ability to reach your full potential. If you refuse to put yourself in a situation where you might give an imperfect performance, you will prevent yourself from receiving the proper feedback, input, and direction necessary for additional growth.
Another problem associated with creativity is having mixed motivations. There is quite a bit of evidence that extrinsic motivations—such as money and reputation—have a negative impact on creativity. It is only when you are focused on intrinsic motivations—such as your fascination with the material or the sheer pleasure you take in creating it—that you do your best work.
This can be resolved to a large extent by making progress visible. Marking progress is a huge motivator for long-term projects. Make your daily achievements visible by saving iterations, posting milestones, or keeping a daily journal.
For many things, it is hard to figure out how much progress you are making. When you answer a thousand e-mails, you see every e-mail you answer. When you are thinking about a difficult problem, it feels like maybe there were thirty wasted hours and then finally you had a half hour at the end that was useful—because the idea kind of came to you. There isn’t a linear progression and a sense of progress. So I think the big question is: how do we make ourselves feel like we are making progress?
Because if you can create that progress, I think many of the other things would become smaller barriers. If you are working with a pen, you have evidence of all the things you have done. You can see your path. However, if you work on a computer, it is just the current state of the work—you do not have the previous versions. If that is the case, you could think about some tricks to remind yourself of your progress. Maybe we should keep a diary? Maybe we should keep older versions of our efforts? Maybe every day we make a new version of a document we are working on so that we can keep a visible record of our progress?
b. Cultivating creativity
(1) Morning pages
Cameron argues that writing three pages of free-flowing thought first thing in the morning has been the key to unlocking brilliant insights for the many people who have adopted it as a ritual.
(2) Unnecessary Creation
It is essential for anyone who works with his or her mind. If day-to-day project work is the only work that you are engaging in, it follows that you are going to get frustrated. Unnecessary Creation allows you to take risks and develop new skills that can later be applied to your on-demand creating. It is difficult to learn new methods or develop new skills in the midst of your on-demand work because you are being paid to deliver predictable results. Unnecessary Creation provides a forum for the pursuit of voice and a reminder that you are not the sum of what you make. Unnecessary Creation grants you the space to discover your unique aptitudes and passions through a process of trial, error, and play that won’t often be afforded to you otherwise. Initiating a project with no parameters and no expectations from others also forces you to stay self-aware while learning to listen to and follow your intuition. Both of these are crucial skills for discovering your voice.
The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it is a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. However, to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity. Creative minds must learn to train their attention and marshal their creative energies under the most chaotic circumstances.
(4) Filling the well
What’s the first thing you do when you get out of a meeting or a class? When you are walking between conference rooms? When you are waiting in line? These in-between moments used to be opportunities to pause and reflect. Now, we eagerly jump into the communication stream, tuning into the world instead of tuning into ourselves. Taking time to experience the flip side of connected, intentional activity—to disengage from the stream and truly be present in the now—is crucial to the well-being and performance of creative minds. Consider it “filling the well,” as poet and artist Julia Cameron once put it. When we turn off one type of stimuli, we unleash another.
(5) Allow serendipity in your life
Most of us find very little time to casually explore, follow our whims, or think big, but this capacity is a major competitive advantage in the era of constant connectivity. Develop the discipline to allow for serendipity. Be aware of the cost of constant connection. If your focus is always on others—and quenching your appetite for information and external validation—you will miss out on the opportunity to mine the potential of your mind.
(6) Alternating between mindful & mindless tasks
Creativity and efficiency can be enhanced over the course of a workday when workers alternate between mindful and mindless activities. To relate it to physical exercise, the human mind is better suited for running sprints than marathons. Shifting from mindful to mindless work gives the brain time to process complex problems in a relaxed state and also restores the energy necessary for the next round of mindful work. Any excellence ultimately requires observation, refinement, adaptation, and endurance.
(7) Embrace limitations
Poverty can be a hindrance to creativity. It is not just about money, although a lack of cash is a perennial problem for creatives. You could also be time-poor, knowledge-poor, have a threadbare network, or be short of equipment or other things you need to get the job done.
However, sometimes embracing your limitations is the best route forward. Similarly, many creative directors, designers, and architects often say their best work stems directly from specific client restrictions. Having a set of parameters puts the brain in problem-solving mode; there’s something to grip. It may seem counterintuitive, but too big a playing field can muddle the results. Frank Lloyd Wright insisted that constraints historically have resulted in a flowering of the imagination: “The human race built most nobly when limitations were greatest and, therefore, when most were required of imagination to build at all.” Whether or not they are created by an outside client or you, a set of limitations is often the catalyst that sets creativity free.