Adobe-full-color Adobe-white Adobe-black logo-white Adobe-full Adobe Behance arrow-down arrow-down 2 arrow-right arrow-right 2 Line Created with Sketch. close-tablet-03 close-tablet-05 comment dropdown-close dropdown-open facebook instagram linkedin rss search share twitter

Productivity

The Key to Creating Remarkable Things

What is the one simple change you can make to vastly improve your creative output? It starts with aligning your focus with your real priorities…


No one likes the feeling that other people are waiting – impatiently – for you to get back to them.At the beginning of the day, faced with an overflowing inbox, a list of messages on your voicemail, and the to-do list from your last meeting, it’s tempting to want to “clear the decks” before you start on your own most important work. When you’re up-to-date, you tell yourself, your mind will be clear and it will be easier to focus on the task at hand.

The trouble with this approach is that you end up spending the best part of the day on other people’s priorities, running their errands, and giving them what they need. By the time you finally settle down to your own work, it could be mid-afternoon, when your energy has dipped and it’s hard to focus on anything properly. “Oh well, maybe tomorrow will be better,” you tell yourself.

But when tomorrow comes round there’s another pile of emails, phone messages, and to-do list items. If you carry on like this you will spend most of your time on reactive work, responding to incoming demands and answering questions framed by other people. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel. And it will never lead to remarkable work, in Seth Godin‘s sense, “worthy of being remarked on.” We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded, or when we are surprised by something completely unexpected.

The single most important change I’ve made in my own working habits has been to start doing things the other way round – i.e. begin the day with creative work on my own top priorities, with the phone and email switched off. And I never schedule meetings in the morning, if there’s any way of avoiding it. This means that whatever else happens, I get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded.

These days, I have two popular blogs that bring me plenty of new business. I have e-books, training programs, an e-learning program, and a network of great contacts I can call on for help. I have qualifications, and more importantly the knowledge and skills I acquired through my studies. All of these things are assets that create ongoing value for my clients and for my business. Yet there wasn’t a single day when I sat down to write each individual essay, blog post, training plan, or e-book chapter, without a string of people waiting for me to get back to them.

It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, particularly when I get phone messages beginning “I sent you an email two hours ago…!”

By definition, taking this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations, and the pressures they put on you. It can take an act of willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour, during the working day. For some strange reason, it feels “unprofessional” to be knuckling down to work in this way.

The thing is, if you want to create something truly remarkable, it won’t be built in a day. A great novel, a stunning design, a game-changing software application, a revolutionary company – this kind of thing takes time, thought, craft, and persistence. And on any given day, it will never appear as “urgent” as those four emails (in the last half-hour) from Client X or Colleague Y, asking for things you’ve already given them or which they probably don’t really need.

So if you’re going to prioritize this kind of work – your real work – you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done. And you’ll probably have to put up with complaints and reproaches from people who have no idea what you’re trying to achieve, and can’t understand what could be more important than their needs.

If you’re going to prioritize your real work, you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done.

Yes, it feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset, but it’s much better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to sacrifice the big things for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing real productivity for the illusion of professionalism.

Here are a few tips to help you make the switch:

1. Creative work first, reactive work second.

Either start the day on your creative work, or make sure you block out time for it later in the day – preferably at a time when you typically feel energized and productive.

2. Tune out distractions.

You know the drill – email off, phone off, work from home if you can, stick your headphones on if you can’t.

3. Make exceptions for VIPs.

Don’t be reckless. If you’re working with a client to a deadline, or your boss needs something urgently, treat them like VIPs and give them special access – e.g. leave the phone on and answer if they ring (everyone else gets the voicemail).

4. Be really efficient at reactive work.

You can’t ignore everybody all the time. The better your productivity systems, the more promptly you’ll be able to respond to their requests – and the more time you’ll have free for your own work.

Over to You

Do you agree that ‘creative work first, reactive work second’ is the key to creating remarkable things?
 
How do you prioritize work on important-but-not-urgent projects? What benefits have you gained from doing this?

Comments (67)
  • Lauren

    I am a sucker for getting caught up with reactive work. As a result I get all my best creative work done between the hours of 10pm and 6am – when there’s no one around to distract me! I’ve always thought that I just become more ‘switched on’ late at night – which I think is partly true, but perhaps lack of discipline is also a major player. Thanks for the article – I’ll have to work hard to turn off the emails/phones for a few hours but I’m gonna try!

  • Juan

    creative work first, reactive work secondâ?? – That is correct, i already use this, i use to do creative thinking and work in the morning and schedule reactive work right after lunchtime.

    Very very good article, tweeted it 3 times, this might be useful for me and for a lot of friends that i know have problems, always working in reactive mode.

  • Nicole Leafty

    “Creative work first, reactive work second” is most helpful to me when I’m working on a project that has particular meaning or pull for me. These projects make it easier to delay reactive work, which has only given me positive results. Thanks for the article!

  • Justin

    There is a give and a take. There will always be the time when the situation is reversed, and your needs become the “reactive work” to someone else =)

    But prioritizing you “real work” is a must, you are absolutely right. At the end of the day…what is more fulfilling?

  • Peter

    Many of these comments were written down by Peter Drucker in “The Effective Executive” in the 1970s. They’re still fresh and powerful today! (and, I recommend you read the book, it’s definitely helpful.)

    Proactive / Reactive also gets at being a creator — creators typically have erratic schedules, crazy routines to get into ‘the zone’, and other such needs. Reactivity almost never is brilliant, and the difference between awesome reactivity and only good reactivity is very small in terms of final work output.

    All this to say, the creative work should get what it needs in my opinion. (Today, mine is suffering as I read blogs).

  • Hemal

    Definitely agree with what has been said. I have always done the reactive work early in the morning to “get it over with”, but morning time is usually also my most creative time of the day. Thanks for the tips, ill try them out!

  • Elizabeth Kaylene

    I don’t know why I never thought of this on my own! I’ve been trying to work on my own projects for a long time, and even when I need to work on important business related stuff, it always gets pushed to the backburner as soon as I open my email. I feel so overwhelmed when I start off with three things to do and end up with seven or more because I’ve opened my inbox and listened to my voicemail.

    Thanks Mark. You rock!

  • Michael

    I love this idea, and I agree it can be hard to pull off. I’ve been trying recently to make this shift happen, because I find myself much more creative in the morning.

    I think the proposed process makes sense for people whose primary responsibility is to do creative work. I think this is probably assumed in this article, but a person who is a project manager is responsible to keep other people moving forward. In that case I might flip the order.

  • Dustin Geddis

    Its true. The best time for me to really focus my attention and have a clean slate if you will, is in the morning. I would add that if turning off your email is a “no-no” at work then at least turn off the pop up window that gives you a heads up when new email comes in. So hard not to look when its staring at you in the corner or for mac users, when its at the bottom of your desktop with the little envelope smiling at you.

  • Hillel Dov

    I want to say I’ve already thought of this because it seems so obvious, but wow, I’m trying this starting tomorrow. I usually do reactive first then creative. By that time I’m back from lunch and sleepy, answering emails after a food coma may just help me respond more calmly too. Thanks for the tip.

  • Samurai

    Cool. I do the same, and don’t have a personal PDA to distract me during the day either.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks everyone, glad it struck a chord, and good luck putting it into practice!

    @ Dustin Geddis – “if turning off your email is a “no-no” at work then at least turn off the pop up window that gives you a heads up when new email comes in.” Great idea. Another rule I have is that just because I check e-mail, it doesn’t mean I need to start answering it. I find it easier to be disciplined about not answering e-mail than not checking it. 🙂

    @ Michael – “I think the proposed process makes sense for people whose primary responsibility is to do creative work. I think this is probably assumed in this article, but a person who is a project manager is responsible to keep other people moving forward.”

    Good distinction, although the same basic principle applies – you need to filter out the really important stuff from the rest, and prioritize that. It’s basically about deciding on your VIPs and making sure you give them everything they need, while having a slightly slower turnaround for everyone else.

    @ Peter – I’ve not read the Drucker book, but I’m not surprised to hear he said something similar. There’s nothing new under the sun, a lot of the time we just need reminders.

    @ Justin – “There is a give and a take. There will always be the time when the situation is reversed, and your needs become the “reactive work” to someone else =)” Yes, this is the point where personal productivity dovetails with collaboration. Whenever I work on this stuff with teams, it always evolves into a discussion about how they can work together better and negotiate priorities without either interrupting too much or keeping each other waiting too long.

    @ Lauren – Well the neuroscientists tell us some people are naturally ‘night owls’ who work better late at night, so it could be the case for you. And it’s funny how many people I work with who tell me it’s easier to get work done outside the office because there are fewer distractions!

  • alfmatos

    It’s hard to postpone reactive work, when you see it dangling in front of you. But, the benefits seem really worth it. I rather deal with the anxiety of delaying reactive work, that getting stuck in a vicious circle of ordinary work. Well worth the read, and a try!

  • Claire Tompkins

    Yes, we all need reminders of this! People get sucked into reactive work because it comes right at them, no need to go looking for it. Also, even if they’re annoyed by it, I think people have a need to be needed, to be in the loop of work with others. Creative work is often championed only by you; no one’s scheduling an update meeting, no one’s calling for a status report. That can be lonely and it takes willpower to stick with something that no one else cares about but you. However, it’s often the most important work you’ll ever do.

  • Raschella

    Elizabeth said it all – once that email box is opened, I get completely overwhelmed and all plans seem to fly out the window. The trick is not to open the damn thing in the first place!

    But I do think there’s more to it…the fact is, I have often considered doing “my stuff” first, but the idea always made me feel very guilty. Why? You’re right, no one likes to feel that other people are waiting, but neither do I! Yet by taking care of everyone else at my own expense, I am keeping MYSELF waiting. I think the question is why am I disrespecting my own needs/creativity in favor of others? After all, if I don’t take care of me first, I’ll eventually have nothing left for others anyway.

    Wow. OK, this is way too deep. I feel like I just spent an hour with my shrink:-)!
    GREAT article. Thanks!!

  • Rasmus

    In theory, I agree that this is the best approach to getting your creative work done. In the real world though, I find that I get stressed out by the looming reactive work, sometimes to the point where it distracts me from the creative work just thinking about it.

    I do a toe-dipper, to overcome this. I start by getting an overview of the reactive work that’s waiting for me, just so I can estimate how much time I will need to finish it. Then I set a time, at which I will switch over and start answering e-mails and what have you. This approach significantly lowers my stress factor.

    In general, dividing my work into time slots is a huge help for me. Reactive or otherwise.

  • Duff_McDuffee

    “We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met â?? only when they are exceeded.”

    While I basically agree with this notion, I’ve also been part of organizations that try so hard to do remarkable things that they don’t follow through with the fundamentals. This will kill your brand faster than anything else. Finding a balance between doing the important, fundamental work (shipping orders, responding to customers, etc.) while also doing something remarkable is the sweet spot we are all aiming at…and it is easier said than done!

  • Mark McGuinness

    @ Raschella – Great insights! Yes, it’s basically about valuing your own work and the contribution you can make. Re not opening the inbox – see my response to Rasmus below…

    @ Rasmus – I actually take a similar approach to you. i.e. check my e-mail for emergencies, and list out what I need to do later today, before I get on with my big task for the morning.

    For me, there’s a BIG difference between checking my e-mail and answering it. If I check it, I can be confident that I’ve not missing anything important and urgent; but just because I check e-mail, doesn’t mean I’m going to answer it. 99% of it can wait until this afternoon…

  • radj

    Doing creative stuff in the morning (before reactionary work) also has benefits asides from what’s on the post. An example is the brain is more active for intuition in the morning while it is still fresh from rest. This concept fits in great with the article!

  • radj

    Doing creative stuff in the morning (before reactionary work) also has benefits asides from what’s on the post. An example is the brain is more active for intuition in the morning while it is still fresh from rest. This concept fits in great with the article!

  • Mariusz Bielawa

    One hundred percent agree! And it is so true about feeling “less professional” when you put everyone (almost) on ignore while you try to capitalize on your early-day energy. What I’ve always found, though, is that if I chase all other things first, by the time I get around to having time for creative work I’m a zombie. By then I can only really perform mechanical tasks which don’t require creative thought or emotion. If I try to do anything creative it just leads to frustration and/or obvious, boring solutions.

    Thanks for this post! It reaffirms what I hoped to be true. Cheers!

  • Melinda

    I also get caught in the reactive work cycle – usually for about 10 hours a day! Which means the creative, important, business building work gets left on the todo list (more like wish list most days!!). Tomorrow I’m flipping this approach and will start the day with the important stuff! Thanks for the reminder of what’s important!

  • Ivan

    This is amazing…it’s almost as if this article was written for me. I actually think that i have produced some of my most creative work when i know that i have a million other things to do, and the funny thing is that I think Im being ‘naughty” for doing it…this article has given me so much clarity, I now realize I am in the position i am in because of the really creative stuff I put out, not the day to day crap that will never stop piling up no matter how quickly I work through it

    Thanks

  • Michele

    I can soooooo relate to the reactive work vs. creative work. Distinguishing between the two and reversing the order I do them in is a good place to start! Thanks!

  • Mark McGuinness

    @radj “Doing creative stuff in the morning (before reactionary work) also has benefits asides from what’s on the post. An example is the brain is more active for intuition in the morning while it is still fresh from rest.” – Yes, very true!

1 2
blog comments powered by Disqus

More articles on Productivity

Illustration by the Project Twins
Female Athlete Gymnastics by Gun Karlsson
Painting Woman By Emily Eldridge
Two figures looking at painting