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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)
  • rg

    anyone know which notebook is is referencing?

  • Angela Page

    Although I have ‘known’ and understood the theory of blocking out time on my calendar to allow space for thinking and creativity, I guess I have struggled to allow myself to actually do this, seeing creative time as something of a luxury. Having been a teacher for ten years, I came to see my day as being permanently on call and available first and foremost to others: students, colleagues, management etc. After all, I couldn’t possibly justify taking time out to read, write and think when others may need something from me. This left me in an ongoing cycle of trying to squash my creativity into evenings, weekends and ‘spare’ time, even though I was quite often exhausted by then and no where near as productive. I am now actively trying to break the cycle but it’s hard not to slip back into old habits.

  • Israel Jernigan

    Loving this idea of blocking out chunks of time for specific projects. Limiting the quantity of projects so that the quality can come out. Love it! Thanks for this chunk of gold in a world full of chaotic creativity.

  • Habi Girgis

    Very useful post, thank you!

    It’s always a hard equation, refuse projects or get everything and try to deal with the load. From a personal perspective, many times when I worked under pressure the output was better! but it needs the guts to accept this commitment in the first place, while you are not sure how good you will do in each project. What really helps in these situations, is to commit to your vision: delivering only a high quality standard of work. Creative job is hard…

  • Suzanne Hinds

    I found this article quite interesting and shared it with a friend. U R basically subscribing to an idea similar to Stephen Covey’s ‘First things First’ where U give priority 2 the ‘larger’ or most important things then let the others fall into plc around them. U R also indirectly saying that we sld determine what is important for us rather than allow others 2 do so. U supported the argument with some good, tho seemingly simple, insights into how the creative mind works. I also discovered the Action method project mgmt software and am goin 2 try it out b/c it luks like it will help. This is a gr8 article Cal. I’ve also gave a quick luk-see @ UR blog…somebody is a bit paranoid/suspicious–but @ least U R aware of it. I think I like UR mind. No I know I like UR mind. 🙂 And since I am hoping 2 return 2 the classroom after 11 yrs out of it, UR blog sld help. God bless U! 🙂 & Thanks

  • Suzanne Hinds

    Yeah…this sounds a little like me 🙂 but I had nt allowed the theory 2 come into my conscious thinking, b/c I wz afraid that others wld nt understand…as if they usually understood me anyway. But thinking is not a luxury, everyone wld admit tht. But wen U R nt in a managerial posn & sit w/ everyone else, tking time 2 do intangible creative work @ UR plc of employ is nt easy b/c U luk like U R nt doing anythg. I shall hv 2 find a way tho

  • Paul

    Great article. What would be interesting is to hear how some creative workers BILL clients for this kind of time. Like if you spend 10-15 hours knocking around a strategy for a proof and you don’t ultimately use that strategy, do you bill for all of that time – even though it didn’t directly yield the product the client need? It’s a part of the time management puzzle that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

  • Jeff Dolan

    Brilliant post. I’d venture to guess that there are certain sweet spots for certain creatives as far as how many hours at a time work best.

  • jkglei

    In a recent conversation with The Energy Project’s Tony Schwartz, he shared research that indicated that 90 minute increments are the ideal working block. And that the max you can do per day (for difficult creative work) is three 90-minute blocks with breaks in between. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but it’s an interesting yardstick for thinking about how to carve out creative blocks.

  • lehacarpenter

    I think clients should have to pay us a “stall rate” by the hour until they provide the promised content. (-;

  • efoolstak

    .

  • Peter Knight

    Tony Schwartz also states that will power is a finite resource. But that and the yard stick 3×90 minute blocks simply isn’t true (the former being proven in a recent study). Belief in what you can or can’t do plays a huge factor.

    In my mind it does come down to learning how to create the right working conditions that fit your personal situation and personal qualities (something Schartz advocates). It’s going to be different for everyone. I suspect that scheduling creative time in a calendar works for a lot of people, but others might now start resisting the forced push to be creative. They may end up procrastinating or fabricating disruptions despite efforts to shield those. To offer an analogy, when you force someone to play, it isn’t play anymore. If the mind feels reason to rebel, it will. I think this article is great because it alludes to a notion that we sometimes fall into: the needing to be continually measurably productive, by clawing our way at concrete, defined tasks that lead us to our goals. In that mindset a large block of time devoted to creativity can seem daunting, because you don’t know for sure what it is going to deliver in advance.

  • stormchild

    impersonate |imˈpərsəˌnāt|
    verb [ trans. ]
    pretend to be (another person) as entertainment or in order to deceive someone

  • Trickymcdee

    Hi,
    really good to read your post. There are so many people trying to sell this kind of reflection. I have come to similar conclusions in recent months. Unfortunately the boss doesn’t quite get it and so doesn’t often give me time to work on things.

    Thanks again.

  • Sandra | Get Relationship Back

    I wonder if this technique will work. As a writer, I notice that if I don’t try to correct anything and just write whatever comes to mind for set amount of time, it removes any writer’s block I may have – even if the result needs serious editing. It’s a great way to be creative in my field.

  • Joey Camire

    Summary: Focus.

  • rolaine

    Great point! I too want to know how people handle those instances. I’ve been told before that those failed attempts would just be non-billable hours and should be taken as learning curves. A 10-15 hours that yields good product = awesome paycheck 🙂

  • ddotcom12

    thanks for this. i found myself saying “exactly” many times while reading. nice to know [however not at all surprising] that creatives share the same challenges. going to try it.

  • Jake Rocheleau

    This has been an amazing read. The one problem I always faced was attention to detail – now that you’ve mentioned focusing on the smaller details will always yield better results I’ve started to come into terms with my past. This new way to approach working has changed my entire outlook on project development.. so thank you!

  • NA03

    Excellent article, really worthwhile the time spent reading carefully. Am at a Bay Area high-tech company and face the same ‘prompt/deadline’ vs creativity challenge. One subtle difference for me is, I actually find that setting a goal for the creative time helps my mind concentrate and make the flow happen. If I focus instead on inputs/process, my ‘ADD’ or love of thinking can cause me to skirt the actual solution/results for hours, just enjoying the thinking process.

  • Zara Lawler

    Great article! Thank you for posting it. I am a musician, and I have crafted a system of blocking out times to practice, and times to do business (emails, calls, etc). I write a blog about it, and have been planning a post on where GTD overlaps with an efficient and effective mode of practicing music…your article will be a nice additional follow up to it. You might enjoy my post on “Process, not Progress” http://thepracticenotebook.com

  • Mroberts

    Refreshing and very helpful. Thank you! You found the root of my problem and solution by singling out the creative process and addressing its unique demands.

  • Daniel Atwood

    Great article. As a side note – do you have any similar ‘sacred time’ system for reading?

  • hanadu

    I am wondering, if you do not set goals for each time block, what “title” do you appoint for each allotted chunk of work time? Using your research statement example, would each time block be dedicated to “Work on research statement”? Particularly for me, I would think this would push back the date of completion, since there would be nothing to set pace.

    Thanks for this article, I’m eager to put it to use!

  • Alyssa Roll

    At the same time though, the failed attempts may have paved the way for the “right solution”- definitely makes it tricky!

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