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Productivity Tie-Breaker: How Will You Feel Afterwards?

Should you push a major creative project forward, or answer that nagging email? Psychological tricks for making better decisions about your work priorities.

So the key to creating remarkable things is to prioritize your big creative challenges over the seemingly urgent but actually ephemeral demands of the day. But it’s easier said than done, right?

In the split-second when you have to decide whether to plough on with the next stage of a difficult project, or to answer a ringing phone or pinging email, it can be hard to resist the pressure to respond. After all, the other person is waiting now – and your project may not be done for weeks. What difference will one more phone call or email make?

And of course ‘just one more’ doesn’t feel like it makes a big difference. But if it’s a habitual practice, that amounts to thousands of emails, phone calls, and errands a year – and whole weeks of creative worktime lost.

But if you keep steadily chipping away, day after day – at the blank page, empty screen, canvas, block of stone, or whatever – you are slowly and steadily filling your time with remarkable work. By the end of the year, you will be looking back on a series of achievements (or at least notable failures, that taught you something valuable). Compare that with a year’s worth of inbox zero and placated colleagues, and there’s no contest – not for a true creative.

So how can you ensure you end up with a full portfolio instead of an empty inbox?

Having coached many people on this, and struggled with it myself, I’ve noticed a subtle but important difference in mindset between those who get swept away by the demands of the moment and those who persevere and create something that endures.

Those who get swept off track do so because they are thinking short-term:

The phone is ringing now, so I need to answer it.The email has just arrived, I need to get rid of it ASAP.I’ll just get this one out of the way, it shouldn’t take long…

When you think like this, the pressures of the moment will always feel more urgent than settling down to wrestle with something truly important (and difficult).

But those who persevere take a longer perspective:

Firstly, long before the moment of decision, they’ve taken time out to consider where they are headed, and the long-term consequences of their daily working habits.

And secondly, when faced with a choice in the moment, they ‘fast forward’ in their mind, to a few hours in the future, and imagine how each option will make them feel afterwards.

Try it for yourself, right now.

Picture yourself in a few hours’ time, having spent the best part of your day firefighting email and running errands for other people. I’m guessing you’ll feel frustrated and disappointed. Because you’ll know you missed an opportunity to create something remarkable today. And you won’t get another today.

OK scratch that scenario.

Now imagine you have spent several hours working away steadily on your latest and biggest creative challenge. You have faced down the Resistance, knuckled down and made some progress, in spite of the difficulty. Deep down, you feel a sense of satisfaction, knowing you did what you set out to do. You still have a long way to go, but you’ve taken another step in the right direction.

Sure, you may have to play catch-up on email and phone calls, and smooth over a few ruffled feathers, but most people will forgive you if you give them what they want in the end. And it’s a small price to pay for what you’ve achieved.

So as we approach the end of 2011, here are three things you can do to make sure 2012 is your most creative and productive year yet:

1. Before the start of the year

Look ahead and decide what are the big projects you want to achieve next year. Imagine how you will feel at the year’s end once you’ve achieved them. That’s your reward. Write the projects down – including deadlines – and put a reminder in your calendar so that you hold yourself accountable.

2. At the start of every week

Look ahead and decide what you want to achieve that week. Work out how many days/hours you’ll need to block off for sustained work. Imagine how you’ll feel at the week’s end once you’ve done this. That’s your reward.

Now think ahead to anticipate important deadlines and demands from others that are likely to arise during the week. Schedule time to get the necessary work done on time, to avoid letting people down on critical projects.

3. At start of every day:

Look ahead and decide what you want to achieve today. How many hours do you need to block off for focused work? Imagine how you’ll feel at the day’s end once you’ve done it. That’s your reward.

At each step, you should also consider an alternative universe, where you let other people’s demands dictate to you – hour by hour, day by day, year by year. How does that feel? Again, that’s your reward, if you choose this path.

Next time you’re faced with the temptation to cave in to the apparently urgent instead of getting on with what’s truly important to you – remember the two paths ahead of you. Look ahead, and choose wisely.

What Do You Make Of This?

What difference does it make to your decision-making when you look ahead and imagine how you’ll feel after choosing each option?

Any other tips for staying focused on important work in the midst of demands and distractions?

Comments (24)
  • Liz Broomfield

    What an interesting post! I’m not a creative as such, but I do large (and small) projects including ones where I create content, etc. But I do also have to respond to queries in a timely manner, as many of my emails are from regular clients who have fast turnaround times and new clients who have a deadline. I recommend using classic time management strategies, like setting aside a small, regular block of time (first thing, just before lunch … ) to look at emails and respond to them. I also use my smartphone – it pings when there’s a message, I can see who it’s from without having to switch the screen on my PC, then I can tell whether I do need to look into it sooner rather than later.

  • Mantas

    I love the repeated use of “Thats your reward” It’s in general good idea to make up rewards or awards. Maybe we should even create level systems in our every day work. We could learn from these systems in games that tend to be so addictive. I’ve listened a talk some time ago, dont remember by who but the topic was why people so easily become addictive to games and not to real life tasks, rating and level systems were introduced too.

  • Srinivas Rao

    I love this. I think when you’re intentional about what you want to get done each day you tend to be far more productive. But I think more importantly you brought up the creative work. I think it’s important to notice patterns in your own productivity. I’ve noticed that mine occurs in spurts. I’ve found over the last few days if I shut down all distractions for 30 minutes to an hour at a time, I get fa more done.  Thanks for this. 

  • Alaia Williams

    Great article – thanks for this. I definitely need to share this with my clients (many of them are creatives) and colleagues!

  • Brianna Crowley

    I love the post and the reminder that the slower, less definite, and hazier projects usually have a much bigger reward. I would offer one caveat to the reminder to ignore emails and phone calls–if your big end goal is to build those networks and stand out among your colleagues for being quick to respond and sincere in that response, than the quick reply and time for a phone conversation IS accomplishing the bigger goal. Currently, I feel that my creative projects need to have a LOT of support from my colleagues, so sometimes my priority is building that support now for an endeavor later. 

  • Mike Scobie

    I always had challenges with this problem in the past. I took influence from 2 excellent books. Firstly, Steven Covey’s 7 Habits. Particularly, the habit Begin With the End in Mind. When you practise this every day you can work with much more purpose.

    Secondly, Tim Ferris in The 4 Hour Work Week points out the pareto principle in relation to tasks. It’s an interesting point that if correct, 80% of your achievements result from just 20% of your tasks. Even if this isn’t strictly true it’s a good question to ask yourself when planning your work.


  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, depending on your role, being accessible and instantly responsive may be critical to your bigger goal, in which case there’s no conflict. And we all need to get back to people in a reasonable amount of time – so you need to be good at catching up after taking time off the grid!

    The problem I’m attacking here is when we know we could/should be getting on with focused work, and we let urgent-but-unimportant demands (in Covey’s terminology) sidetrack us.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Nice observation – which should make it easier to tune things out. After all, the world usually doesn’t end if we make ourselves uncontactable for 30 mininutes… 😉

  • Mark McGuinness

    Good choices, I got a lot out of both of those books. Come to think of it, they probably complement each other pretty well.

  • Mark McGuinness

    My pleasure, thanks for sharing!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Might it have been Steven Johnson’s book  Everything Bad Is Good for You? He has some interesting things to say about video games. 

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, if you’re going to be unavailable sometimes you need really solid systems for capturing and responding to emails, phone messages etc at other times. I usually do a scan for potential emergencies before switching everything off!

  • Todd Clarke

    Thanks for the useful way to visual the year, week and day.
    I just created this digital poster to reckon with our email addictions:

  • @PazzaArchitect

    So true. Daily mundane firefighting is a huge mental drain. The fast-forward >> visualisation technique does work.

    As a creative procrastinator, I also find it useful to have some ammo lined up in the form of mental gatekeeping repartee:
    Phone is ringing / email pinging: Say “That phone/email does not have a constitutional right to be answered!”
    le asking you lovely things like giving a talk, pitching a new project, meeting for lunch: Say “I’d love to but I’m not taking on any new commitments right now.”

    Being mentally prepared helps me to say ‘No’ when both my inner salesperson and my inner procrastinator are ganging up on me.



  • @PazzaArchitect

    btw … are you the Mark McGuinness who co-wrote a book with Sarah Thelwall (MyCake)? if so then ’tis a small world indeed

  • 99designs reviews

    Good article, i think its a great experience if we get some good profitable productivity in our firms to fills the empty slots. Great article to read which is very informative and good to share with others. I am taking this article for my reference. Thanks

  • Mark McGuinness

    I am indeed! Yep, small world on the internet. 🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    That’s a great poster! Just shared it on my Facebook wall, thanks.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, helps to have a mental bouncer ready with a stock line to keep undesirable commitments out. Although as a Brit I don’t get to use the ‘constitutional right’ version. 😉

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  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Great advice Mark!

    I definitely block off time for focused work, and during those periods will sometimes turn off my phone and e-mail.

    Even if I don’t answer a call or text, knowing it’s there can be a mental distraction. It’s better for me to not find out about these messages until after the fact.

    To a brilliant 2012!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • John

    Please go to and read “ Political Economy 2011, a Call To Action “by John
    J. Dell Aquila,Author Publisher / Editor & Chief.The Book and
    Website.News & Commentary/ The Who What Where When and How and
    Advocacy News Reporting.We are not part of the Corporate Press, We are
    Independent.We are a Public Interest Research Group.We are published on
    the Worldwide Web on;Google, MSN /
    Bing & Yahoo.Some of the issues covered are;* “ The Free
    Enterprise System and Alternate Economy”.A fairer economic system.* “
    The Concept of a Cameral Congress “, one house legislature and better
    fairer operating rules.* “ Union Reforms “. Union Card Check, End Write to
    Work Laws, Strengthen the Wagner Act and limiting and reforming
    the Taft Hartley Act.* “ The Concept of the American People being Most
    Senior Sovereign with Supremacy of the Federal Government and
    the 50 State Governments “. God Bless America and the American People
    as well as the American Declaration of Independence.* “ Political
    and Economic Eugenics “ being thrust on the American People “.* “ A Living
    Constitution “, American Living Constitutions, not Constructionist.
    John J. Dell Aquila,Author Publisher / Editor &

    (1 ) “ The whole world is watching
    (2 ) “Let justice be done, no let the heavens fall

  • David

    One thing I’ve done that really helps is that I only check email in the morning and in the afternoon. I work with a small team so I was able to simply tell them how I intended to handle my email, but for people with larger teams or client bases, you may want to activate a short auto responder for a few days that makes people aware of how you’ll be handling email, and more importantly, the reason behind your decision. 

    Communication is the key. If people know what to expect, and they understand why you’re not glued to your mail client all day, they will wait for a response. And if it’s urgent, you have a phone. 

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