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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)
  • Dee Wilcox

    Thanks for reminding me how important it is to put my truly creative work first everyday, rather than all of the reactive tasks I spend most of my time trying to knock out. It’s tricky to find the balance as a freelance – got to keep the clients happy and business coming in. However, if I stay in a reactive mode, I will never accomplish anything truly remarkable. I needed a kick in the tail to remind myself how true that is!

  • CarlisleGroup

    Sometimes the answer is right before your eyes, You’ve created an ‘A-ha’ moment that should be shouted from the rooftops. I’ve been loosely applying this strategy without realizing it, simply because I’m an early riser, so I tend to do my work in the morning instead of late at night. Thank you again.

  • Chris Greaves

    “Do you agree that â??creative work first, reactive work secondâ?? …”
    I am blessed with an early wake-up, usually by 4 a.m. I am at my home-office desk, and get 4 hours work done before the phone rings.
    I set my mail filter to “every 120 minutes” so I don’t react to emails, but do get to them quickly enough – after all, how does a client know that I was NOT out at a meeting?
    I turn my phone OFF when a client visits me, so they get my undivided attention; after all, THEY took the time to drive to meet ME.
    And yes, in time-critical projects I rack the mail down to every 5 minutes and carry a mobile phone in my pocket.

  • Jake Blackburn

    First off. Yes! I definitely agree that â??creative work first, reactive work secondâ?? is the key to creating remarkable things.

    I look at reactive work as just busy work. Yet it has to be done. Don’t let it rule your life.

    I have worked in both business office and home office settings. I can definitely say that it doesn’t matter where you are, reactive work follows you.

    If you are micromanaged by someone this could be a tough situation for you. Because you end up stuck in your important but not urgent work. If you do it long enough it becomes mindless and you lose interest in the creative. DONT LET THAT HAPPEN!!

    Do you really want to get into your creative mode and be able to focus? I recommend turning your internet off (unplugging it) totally and sit back and relax for a couple hours. Take a nap even. Eventually your brain will kick into creative mode and you will surprise yourself with what you output. (This should be done in your own time and not in an office setting, that is if you are working for yourself.)

    I have gained enjoyment in my work and life doing this. Definitely do the VIP thing, it works well along with start your day off creative. If you have a webcam, record a video of everything you want to accomplish that day. Saying it out loud helps you remember it in the midst of all your requests throughout the day. Play it back later in the day to remind you, and if you don’t need that it will just give you a humorous look at yourself when you wake up. 🙂


  • Laurence McCahill

    Nice article.

    I wrote a similar blog post recently (… in which I talk about how distractions (or work fidgets) mean creative work can suffer. If you want a work/life balance, to reach your potential and to not be bombarded with information then you need to be disciplined, thick-skinned and focused. In the long run your clients or customers will benefit too. I think one of the main things you can do is not to check your email first thing (midday at the earliest) as before you know it the day runs away with you responding to requests.

    I love the analogy used in the Rework book by 37 signals: “It’s like REM sleep: You don’t just go directly into REM sleep. You go to sleep first and then make your way to REM. Any interruptions force you to start over. And just as REM is when the real sleep magic happens, the alone zone is where the real productivity magic happens.”

  • Kirsty

    Thanks for this! I often end up putting the creative stuff off or not doing it at all because it takes so much time for me. I’m still learning the tools of the trade for design and it makes getting an idea from my head onto the web really time consuming. I’ll often just ditch it and go back to the more practical work.

    This has inspired me to put more time into the creative stuff. It’s what I love to do most!

  • Jason Herrick

    This is GREAT info. Thanks for the article. As I look back on my most creative and productive times, I now realize much of it was spent doing crap. ie….checking hobby blogs, returning friends emails, and lots of other things that don’t mater. This a great call to attention. Thanks!


  • Anthony Roosevelt Daniel II

    I’ve recently adapted this approach before reading this article and I found I became less stressed and my days were a lot better than before. Clients will drive you crazy and they are self-centered but that will always be the case. Now, I take the time to organize my days the night before.

    I set a specific time to reply to emails, follow up, and make calls.

    Great article!

  • Basel

    Great! This would definitely work if your creative work is a solo project, but would tumble at the sight of collaborative work.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Actually a lot of my projects are collaborative, and the same principle applies. Except that you do it in terms of prioritizing people, not tasks.

    E.g. You need to decide who your ‘VIPs’ are – the key collaborators who get access to you whenever they want (you pick the phone up and answer their emails straightaway) and those who have to wait a little longer (letting the phone ring to answerphone, answering their email after your meeting with the VIPs etc).

  • Mark McGuinness

    Great to hear it’s working for you!

  • Peter Emil

    Like Dee I’m a freelance artist and struggling to keep up my creative side whilst working reactionary most of the time – and then I’ve three kids to look after. Seems that I’ve never have time for myself and my true interest. But that’s the most important lesson here: to take your own priorities, not to – in my scenario this is often the case – wait for emails from important clients if they have requests… Luckily for us we are freelance; we can own our schedule and agenda. Last weekend I attended a conference in Amsterdam to enlighten my 3D-aspirations and I must admit that’s what my heart goes out for…
    So I start with this easy reminder, first thing!

  • Benjamin Parisot

    I usually prefere to work in team. And I have actually some problems to get a balance between sharing (which I love) and working hard (which I love too, but I feel like I learn more sharing than working, even if that’s not always true)

  • ManishaThakor

    FANTASTIC piece – could not agree more. “Creative work first, reactive work second” will be my new entrepreneurial mantra. And thank you for highlighting that while some people may feel frustrated the clean inbox syndrome is really about “sacrificing real productivity for the illusion of professionalism.” Amen to that – thanks for the inspiration to put first things first, Mark!

  • kobyackie

    Focus is the key here. It seems as though keeping focus over time is very difficult. Employing some of these strategies is helpful with doing that. I’ve found that certain distractions can eat up your time like a termite eats wood.

    This is a great reminder of the importance of finding ways to maintain focus.

  • Billy Kirsch

    Great tips, I work with groups to help them tap into their creative potential and your article hits on habits that are vital to enabling us to get to our ‘real work’ when there’s still quality time left in our brains.

  • jeremyhead

    Thought provoking post, but I disagree.
    1) I think you can do both – though I guess it depends on your reactive workload. For me, I can do half an hour to an hour first thing, making the list of stuff to do, getting rid of the urgent emails and calls. And then I can focus on the real stuff.
    2) I know that I am best late morning and late afternoon and so if I can, I prioritise these times to do the creative stuff. For me, doing the creative stuff first thing in the morning would be a waste of time.
    I think learning about yourself and your natural creative rhythms is in fact more important by far than anything else.

  • Trudy

    Amazing post! I know that this is very applicable to photographers because we often do our most creative work last! I love this paradigm shift and it makes sense. The only reason I’d view it on the flip side is if the person happens to be more creative nocturnally (which I am) so that’s the only reason why that work gets done at night. But, the middle of the day is empty and mornings and nights are used. Weird schedule for now but it works.

    Again, great tips.

  • Christineintouch

    “Creative work first, reactive work second” … I’ll remember to keep that in mind. Is it just coincidence that the two words are spelled with the same letters swithced around? Cool.

  • CS

    I totally agree. I find myself struggling to sit down and write because of my never ending to-do list. I will put this new approach in full force!!

  • Michelle M. Lyon

    I disagree. I am NOT a morning person AT ALL. I hate mornings. I answer messages in the mornings when I’m still having coffee and am still bold enough to say “no.”

  • Pat Joyce

    Maybe I’m just lucky… I’m not an early bird, and so I get my best energy late in the day. So I spend mornings on the “reactive” work (love that name!) and clear my decks to spend time on my creative projects in the afternoon. But it’s a good tip, nonetheless. Always good to spend time prioritizing so you don’t spend too much time on things that don’t pay!

  • Chari of CIC

    Great post! I think this is a great idea! It would be hard though lol. I will try blocking out time and trying to stick to that and move on to creating first reacting second.

    ~Stay blessed!

  • Jennifer K

    Yes, this is a great tactic! I so often get caught in the trap of thinking I need to take care of this kind of stuff first so my mind will be clear, but it’s never done (like laundry). I just did this yesterday, getting something worked on that was neglected for several days, and glad I did. If I never create anything, what’s the point of keeping up the other “stuff”?!

  • Camilo

    I agree. My best work is usually done when I put it ahead of reactionary work. I really believe too that we can make our day.

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