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Productivity

Getting Creative Things Done: How To Fit Hard Thinking Into a Busy Schedule

Is your creativity at war with your to-do list? Meet GCTD, a simple system for balancing meaningful creative work with mundane logistical work (e.g. email, meetings, etc).


It started a few weeks ago. I had to write an academic research statement: a high stakes, ambiguous, beast of a creative project. For the first week, I kept telling myself, “this is my most important priority,” and hacked away at the project whenever I got a chance. I continuously felt guilty about not spending enough time writing. One night, toward the end of the week, I holed up in my office until 9 pm, desperate to get things done.

The result was near useless. I had 15 pages of rambling text (a research statement should be 3-5 pages, at most), and still had more to cover. The message was confused and drowning in adjectives.This situation is common for to-do list creatives – workers who have the juggle creative work – like writing or devising strategy – with logistical work – like prompt email replies and meetings. I’m a to-do list creative: as a theoretical computer scientist, I must switch between solving mathematical proofs – one of the most purely creative endeavors – and the logistics of reviewing papers and meeting with grant managers. To keep things interesting, I also sometimes write.

Here’s our quandary:

To-do list creatives advance in their careers based on the quality of their creative output. Our logistical responsibilities, however, fight against this goal. Most to-do list creatives cannot drop everything to spend days lost in monk-like focus. But the result of instead squeezing creative work into distracted bursts, driven by deadline pressure, is mediocrity. (Exhibit A: the first draft of my research statement).

Fortunately, however, there is hope…

Driven by the demands of academia, which requires the regular publication of high-quality creative work to maintain your job, I developed a system. As an homage to David Allen, I call it “Getting Creative Things Done” (or, GCTD), and it has helped me publish academic papers at a fast rate while also writing three books and managing a popular blog, all the while dispatching the never-ending, non-creative tasks required by my position.

Most to-do list creatives cannot drop everything to spend days lost in monk-like focus.

Excited about starting the faculty job search process, for example, I had ignored my system when I first dived into writing my research statement. After the debacle of that first week, however, I stepped back, took a deep breath, and let GCTD work its magic. Three days later, I had a beautiful draft complete.In this article, I want to explain this system. I’ll start by summarizing what’s required to produce high-quality creative work, then describe how the GCTD system integrates these demands into a normal schedule.

What Is Needed for Good Creative Work?

In his oft-cited essay, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” Paul Graham highlights the unique demands of creative work (the type of work produced by a “maker,” in Graham’s lexicon).

The maker’s schedule, he explains, is defined by long, open stretches of uninterrupted work. For a maker, “a single meeting can blow a whole afternoon.” Graham describes his own schedule, from his time working in a software start-up, as starting after dinner and lasting until 3am, explaining: “At night no one could interrupt me.”

In Graham’s construction, I identified two justifications for the importance of long stretches of uninterrupted work:

  • Shifting Mental Modes: When the mind knows it has no interruptions looming, it can shift into the flow state required to produce high-quality output.
  • Providing Freedom to Explore: Real creative work is non-linear, often requiring long, unexpected detours to uncover the contours of the problem at hand. Long stretches of time provide the freedom needed to feel comfortable indulging in these detours.

As mentioned, the problem faced by to-do list creatives is that we cannot afford to integrate Graham’s long stretches of uninterrupted work into our schedules. (Though we might want to dedicate a full day to one project, our bosses might disagree.) With this in mind, the GCTD system attempts to replicate the two benefits of uninterrupted work, as described above, in a more realistic, logistics-respecting workday structure.

Getting Creative Things Done: The System

The GCTD system works as follows:

  • At the beginning of each week, decide on the one (or, at most, two) big creative projects that will receive your attention over the next five days. Ignore the temptation to make a small amount of progress on a large amount of projects. Creative work is hard. If you want high-quality output, you have to focus your energy.
  • Block out time for these projects on your calendar. The increments should at least 1 hour long, and preferably 2 to 3. When you block these hours out depends on your schedule for the week. What’s important, however, is that you treat these blocks like you would any other important appointment: the time is inviolable, and you must work around these blocks when scheduling meetings or other work.
  • Set rules for your creative blocks. The rules should describe what is NOT allowed during creative work. For example, I have a strict ban on email during creative blocks.
  • Focus on process, not goals. The final piece is arguably the most important: don’t set goals for your creative blocks. Creative work is not a task to be checked off a next actions list. If you decide that you need to complete a particular project by the end of a block, for example, you’re likely to either be frustrated by your lack of progress or rush out something mediocre. Instead, focus on process. Decide how, exactly, you are going to approach the work. This focuses your energy. High-quality results will follow naturally from this focused work.

I want to provide some examples of GCTD in action. Here’s a screen shot of my calendar from a recent week:

The appointments highlighted in red are my GCTD blocks. Notice, this is a busy week; I have lots of other meetings already on my calendar, many of which came up as the week progressed. The GCTD system kept my creative blocks intact, forcing me to schedule my other obligations around this pre-defined work.

My small tasks, by contrast, were accomplished in the open spaces that remain on the calendar. (A bonus of the GCTD approach is that by defining my creative time in advance, I can tackle small tasks without feeling guilty about not working on something more important.)

When it comes to process, my strategy differed depending on the work. For tackling my research statement, for example, my process had me complete and polish each short section before moving on to the next section. This meant: thinking carefully about what I wanted to say, writing it well, then adding the citations and editing before moving on. I discovered that, for this style of writing, this process harnessed my mental energy better than blazing ahead fast and heading back to fix things up later.

When working on proofs, by contrast, I use another process. I dedicate the final 30 minutes of these creative blocks to carefully summarizing my thinking on the problem in a $45 lab notebook I bought expressly for this purpose. (The expense of the notebook signals to me the importance of the information recorded in it.) Carefully summarizing my thoughts forces me to organize my thinking. It also helps me remain focused during the earlier parts of the block, sifting through the mental pieces that form a proof, and sidestepping the urge to wander.

Why the System Works

Here’s how the GCTD system replicates the benefits of Graham’s long uninterrupted stretches of time with a smaller schedule footprint:

First, the inviolable nature of the scheduled creative blocks, combined with the strict rules for avoiding interruption during these blocks, enables a quick shift of mental mode. The act of defending these pre-scheduled times from other meetings and tasks helps your mind take them seriously. You will quickly habituate to this system: when a creative block comes up, your mind will know what to do.

Second, the focus on process (not goals), supports mental detours. When you face a block of time dedicated to finishing a milestone, your mind avoids detours as they might delay your progress. When you instead focus on process, your mind is free to follow the path most important to eventually producing high-quality output.

The focus on process (not goals), supports mental detours.

When working on a proof, for example, it is not uncommon for me to dedicate 10-15 hours of creative energy to grappling with a strategy that’s ultimately abandoned. This exploration can be crucial for building an intuitive understanding of the problem. My process, which focuses on clarity in thought, allows for these detours. If I instead demanded measurable progress – e.g.  “produce five lemma statements a day!” – I would soon become stuck.In addition, the GCTD system is sustainable due to its flexibility. It harnesses the appointment/calendar system that’s already a respected part of the work process for most knowledge workers. There’s no need to retrain your bosses or employees to cooperate with your system (a dubious task) – they already know what it means, for example, when you say: “I have something from 2-4pm that afternoon, can we try earlier?”

Conclusion

At first glance, the GCTD system seems obvious. “Block out time on my calendar for big projects,” you might think. “I’ve tried that.”

Creative work, however, is a subtle affair. If your mind is not in the exact right state, it’s difficult to produce high-quality results. Because of this, details matter.

This is what’s important about GCTD, not the general idea of blocking out time, but the carefully-calibrated details that accompany it: the blocks are treated like real appointments and are dedicated to only one (or, at most, two) projects in a week; absolutely zero interruptions are allowed during the blocks; and the focus is on process, not goals.

These little things add up to a system that consistently produces the types of ambitious results that, as Graham puts it, are “at the limits of your capacity.” The type of results that can make you a star.

More Posts by Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University and the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. If you pre-order Deep Work before Christmas, you’ll gain access to a invite-only webinar in which Newport will breakdown exactly how he prioritizes deep work in his own professional life (see here for details).

Comments (69)
  • Don Schaffner

    I’ve recently stumbled across an essentially identical system myself. And the real key here is to focus on process not goals. It’s hard to convey just how important this key component is to the overall success of the system.

  • Aaronj

    Thanks for writing the post that I’ve been looking for – for about a month. I’m in the middle of a 100 day experiment in doing my creative work first and one of the big questions/problems that I’ve been exploring and writing about has been, “How do you build creative momentum when your full-time gig just doesn’t foster it?” We’ve got 2 kids under 2 1/2, I work full-time, teach part-time, and I want to write. The feeling of fragmentation is what really tanks me. So, I’ll be adding the GCTD to my experiment. I’ll try to drop by your blog and let you know how it’s going. Thanks, great piece.

  • Tahira

    While I would not attempt anything like theoritical math, this too is my world – clients demand creativity, I am the “Director, Creative” and therefore must live up to that title, with a calender that looks much like yours. I am going to start to block in time for this in a more solid way – it now seems so obvious! Thanks!

  • Dawn

    This is a truly useful, helpful, and entertaining piece. I’m definitely subscribing. thanks for sharing your system.

  • ALTRUIST

    Thanks for sharing. I use a similar system to get projects done when many are piled in the same week. However the boundaries are never as strict. Treating each project as an appointment might be a good adjustment.

    Love the expensive notebook logic too.

  • Roberta Faulhaber

    Thanks for sharing this useful approach. My only suggestion would be to find another word than “block”! “Creative block” can certainly mean something else…
    Now I have to figure out how to avoid interruptions in a space I share with others…
    I think A Room of One’s Own is a crucial component of this strategy…

  • Roberta Faulhaber

    Amen to that!

  • JPC

    This makes me feel good as it’s exactly what i have been doing recently with a huge increase in my output !

    May I add a few other points : don’t just not check email . unplug the system (if you can) ! I used to think I might need to look something up online . If you don’t and work analog or make music like I do there’s really no use for the internet other than to get an update etc if you are having tech problems ..

    Also for me : It’s important to make a short but effective transitional zone ! of about 15 mins to 30 mins before entering your creative zone : walk , meditate, read , ( read stuff that will distract you later) Otherwise you carry the baggage from meetings etc into your creative time.

  • Clifford Anderson

    Love this. Very effective. It’s the creative work time that needs to be cordoned off.

  • Steven

    Focusing on process over goals is a big mind-bender for me – but it makes perfect sense. I really appreciate it!

  • Parin Patel

    Great point on the “Shifting Mental Modes”.

    It’s so true that when you place a limit just for the sake of placing a time limit, it works against you and your intuition. I used to do this and I found myself constantly checking the clock to see “how much time I had left”. Little did I know, I was sabotaging my own efficiency (and getting quite frustrated in the process).

    And I like your tip to “block out time for these projects on your calendar”. Key part: “on your calendar”.

    We tend to say we’re going to “do it”, but unless we make an active effort to literally schedule it into our calenders (whether it’s Outlook, Mobile, Paper, etc.), you tend not to respect it and other things end up taking over.

    Great read! Thanks for sharing this!
    Parin

    Parin Patel
    http://www.thegreatnessmind.co

  • Parin Patel

    Sorry guys! Didn’t mean to include my email in the bottom of my comment above (I know it’s frowned upon as it can be considered SPAM). It was left from an email I was writing and while I was writing this comment. Copy+paste error!! :S

    My apologies again!

  • Parin Patel

    and by email, i mean website … jeez, looks like im a roll today … apologies again.

  • James

    I love the aspect of treating your work block as an appointment that can’t be worked around. One of the biggest hurdles is distractions during creative work blocks breaking the flow of things. However, when I’m teaching an hour and a half lecture, for instance, my text messages and emails somehow manage to wait. I’m going to try this out, treating my scheduled work when I’m alone in the same way I treat my meetings — for me I think this comes down to being more about self-discipline and setting rules than anything else. Thanks for the write-up.

  • Jane

    More and more I find this kind of thing is essential. Both a busier schedule and too many self-generated projects is requiring it.

    But here’s the rub. As the to-do list increases (a good thing in many ways), my tolerance for client delays is shrinking. It’s no different than it’s ever been. It’s just that now I care so much more. When I expect to work on a project in a specific chunk of time, I’m constantly thrown out of whack by not having what I need (and what was promised).

    If only I had a magic wand. I know the time blocks can be shifted. It’s our schedule after all. And even if I tell a client I can’t meet their deadline without materials in hand, I know I’ll still try to, they’ll still mostly expect me to, and I remain frustrated.

    But maybe by employing a system like this, I’ll get more aggressive about extracting what I need from clients.

  • Jeremy Green

    I love the idea of blocking off creative work just like other appointments at the beginning of the week. My workload with clients is starting to build up and I’m trying to find a way to balance the logistics of getting all the projects finished on time and still producing a creative product.

    I’ll try this out next week and see how it goes.

  • Randy

    “Place” plays an odd role when I am trying to do creative thinking. When possible, I leave my office and relocate somewhere else…a bookstore, a university setting, coffeeshop, etc.

  • lettergrade

    I feel like this is a method I’ve been semi-consciously working towards, being frustrated with the mental clutter of to do lists and multiple clients and regular email interruptions. It’s never so much about the actual time or looming deadlines as it is about too many things jumping around in my head. Thanks for laying this all out. I hate to say it, but sometimes we need someone else to validate a radical shift in process or we don’t feel conscience-free about adopting it.

  • Megan Cutter

    Such great reminders! I am constantly in flux over carving out time for purely creative projects. For a long time, I found that my creative projects were the first to be cut and delayed on a busy day. Frustrated that several personal creative projects had stalled, I began to look at why I was not valuing those creative projects, especially when they are personal. I flipped the paradigm and now begin the morning with unblocked time for a creative project, and the day ends up being amazingly productive.
    Warmly,
    Megan Cutter, http://www.cuttersword.com

  • Keir64

    wow, an amazing and simple process there, this is exactly the kind of thing ive been needing, i think my current system of having my thinking time right before i go to sleep and not remembering any of it the next morning needs thrown out! cheers

  • Dianedfrierson

    I just had a AAAAHHHHAAAAAAA Monent.. Blocking out time.. Thx

  • Leigh Reyes

    I’ve just realized that the meetings are the ones that go into the calendar, which makes my brain think that I need to work around the meetings to get the creative work done, when in fact the opposite is much better. Thanks for this.

  • parisvega

    I think Cal has been looking over my shoulder the last two weeks. I’ve been struggling with deadlines/quality a lot lately. Thanks!

  • Stephanie Chandler

    Really enjoyed this article. I have a hard time shifting gears from task to task to creative project. I think I’ve been going wrong by trying to block off an entire day for creative projects, and that just isn’t realistic. I’m going to give this a try–thanks!

  • Malte Holm

    Great post! I personally use FranklinCovey’s approach to putting “the big rocks” into you schedule and plan ahead every Monday to fit the week’s priorities…

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