How do you spend more time performing the hard creative work that matters, and less time distracted by the work that doesn’t?
The full effort of my entire creative career can probably be distilled down to that single question.
I’ve experimented with many productivity hacks over the years to stay ahead of my writing. A lot of things work. But I’ve never found a golden tactic, habit, or principle that works perfectly every time. The mind is hard to tame. What works for me one week doesn’t necessarily work the next.
That’s why, rather than relying on a single tactic, I collect them. When something works, I apply that tactic consistently to maintain my writing practice until it fails. Maybe that tactic will work again in two weeks or six months. But until then, I return it to the shelf and try another.
None of these tactics are novel. You’ve likely seen them somewhere before or even thought of them yourself. I mention them because I use them. And I use them because they work.
Hack #1: Focus comes first
Schedule your hardest creative task so that it is the first thing you do once you wake up. Don’t check email. Don’t open Slack. Avoid social media and news sites.
Pour yourself a cup of coffee and dive straight into your most important work for the day. Don’t stop until it’s done. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. But it can be harder to do than to say.
If I’m scheduling creative work for the first thing in the morning, I need to decide the night before what that creative work should be. Otherwise, I spend a few minutes piddling around wondering what to work on. And piddling usually leads to getting lost in subreddits instead of working.
Determine your most important creative task for tomorrow
Write it down
First thing in the morning, armed with fresh coffee, dive in
Hack #2: Escape the internet
The internet is an irreplaceable tool on my best days. It enables me to write fast. I can research across human history at the click of the Search button. What could go wrong?
On my worst days, the internet is simply too much to handle. It contains more opportunities for distraction than my curious brain can handle.
On those days, my best productivity hack is simply to step away. I close my laptop, pull out the pen and paper, and do my work freehand.
Ironically, some of my fastest articles were written by hand. That tells you very little about my typing vs. writing speed. It tells you a lot about how easily I can be distracted.
Hack #3: Motivation by deadline
Nothing motivates me to take action faster than the fear of disappointing someone who is counting on me to deliver.
I work best with a deadline. Without a date on the calendar, any project can be procrastinated to infinity. That’s why, even if a client doesn’t give me a deadline, I try to tell them one. Telling them my deadline does more for me than it does for the client. It causes me to work.
Hack #4: Break a sweat, drink some water, or take a nap
Sometimes you’re just in a funk. You’re staring at the creative work in front of you and absolutely nothing comes to mind.
In these moments, typical hacks matter less than simply giving your mind what it needs. For now, put the task aside and do one of these three things:
Go for a run or to the gym
Drink a tall glass of water
Take a 20-minute nap
Sometimes, all you have to do is take care of your mind and body. The creativity takes care of itself. These methods can be like clicking restart on your brain.
Hack #5: Change your scenery
Most days I write from a desk in my home office. I have two monitors and am surrounded by my favorite books and a few notebooks. This can be a great place to work—until it’s not.
On those days, change your scenery. Work from the couch or a coffee shop. Buy a day pass at your favorite coworking space. Sometimes I’ll pop into a library and get inspired by books I’ve never heard of.
If I’ve had a particularly long workday, I’ll sometimes go to a quiet bar and have a drink while I finish out my tasks. Giving your mind a novel work environment can ignite your internal creative fuel.
Hack #6: Don’t break the chain
This tactic feels most to me like play and I think that’s why it works.
You can gamify the creative process to keep returning your ass to the creative seat. This idea was originally popularized by Jerry Seinfeld, who used this method to write jokes. Here’s how it works:
Set an achievable creative goal for yourself. This should be a goal you can realistically achieve every day without much effort.
Open a spreadsheet (or notebook) and give each space along one side its own date. First, add today’s date. Next to that, add tomorrow’s date, and so on.
Put a checkmark beside each day that you achieve your goal. Every consecutive day that you check off builds your chain.
Don’t break the chain.
Tame the brain
I spoke with a college student recently who was struggling to accomplish some creative deep work. I mentioned a few of these tactics but they weren’t interested. “It’s easy for you to say. You’ve got this all figured out.”
It’s natural to look at artists and business owners who are further along than you and assume they have everything figured out. In reality, I think most people have a hard time sitting down to perform creative work—even people like me who build entire businesses around it.
In creative professions, the most prolific people are simply the ones who learned how to tame their brains. It’s not a one-and-done task, but instead is something every creative person must work actively to maintain.
Creativity takes hard work. And that hard work is worth it. Hopefully, some of these ideas help you and me get after it.