If you face your day, and your list, with a feeling of panic…If you wonder “when, with all this chaos, will I finish my novel?”… I’ve got some good news. You can get to the novel before you figure everything else out, and even if you never do. All you need to do is pay yourself first.
What does that mean? I’ll get back to that in a minute.
After teaching the Creative Focus Workshop for a couple of years, I’ve discovered that there’s a typical path that people take to going from feeling totally swamped and out of control to making real progress on their creative projects.
Level 1 Creative Focus
The first step is to go from doing nothing to doing anything at all. This includes the skills that fall under “time management” or “project management.”
Students start by getting control over what’s actually in their lives, what they’re intending to do, and figuring out how to make choices about which things belong on the calendar, where.
These simple changes can have remarkable, powerful effects very quickly. Feeling unable to get anything done (including on creative work AND on other priorities) is a recipe for misery, further procrastination, and self-blame. But the elements of a system to getting the chaos under control are in the grasp of basically anyone, and are worth it for anyone who suffers from anxiety about procrastination and all the stuff that’s not happening.
The fact that there are further levels to the journey should not in any way diminish the importance of Level 1.
When I went through that transition, now 15+ years ago, it was life changing. (H/T to David Allen for catalyzing this stage)
When you attack this problem, you will reduce your daily anxiety level so fast, and so dramatically, that all other improvements you make to your process and practice will feel incremental in comparison to the impact this has on your day to day life.
Level 2 Creative Focus
Level 2 fears: I’m never going to finish my big projects, and who would even care if I did, anyway.
Notice that this fear is one you’ll have even if you haven’t started working on Level 1. Just because you don’t have the tools to do much about this fear yet doesn’t mean you don’t feel it.
The second phase on the path is to devote more time to the higher-value, more important projects that have been begging for attention. This is more than time management. This is what I call “focus management” along with setting, and respecting, your priorities. This phase also includes starting to face the self-doubt monsters that undermine all these crucial decisions.
This level requires people to make hard choices and to say no, as well as to get much more realistic about their time and energy reserves. And at a basic level, it requires embracing a degree of self-belief, that the work is worth it, and valuable.
It’s hard to achieve this level, and not everyone gets there. It takes time and practice. But developing a system for reflection and review is key to mastering this phase.
Level 3 Creative Focus
Level 3 fears: Sure, I’ve finished things, but what does it all add up to? What the hell is all this busyness and frenzy to create really for? Is this the life I set out to create?
At the third level, you pull back and allow yourself the time and space to reassess which projects and which work will lead to reaching major life-expanding goals…
…And then to devote open blocks of time to developing that work on an ongoing basis. (In other words, it means creating, and defending, margin in your life and calendar.)
To do this, you must trust the system—that is, trust that making time for this work in the short term will result in the long-term outcomes you so desperately desire.
Frankly, very few people—including me—get to level three more than occasionally, because what it means, in real terms, is that you allow white space in your calendar when you ignore pressing concerns and let yourself live with the uncertainty of developing difficult, future-focused work on its own timeline.
This is hard because there’s always something more “important” to do, and always always always something more pressing. In the moment, the choice to spend time on the work that will build the future-you you dream of, is brutally hard to make.
If this sounds like a years-long journey to enlightenment, in some ways, you’re not wrong. It takes time to develop new habits, to assess what’s going wrong, to decide how to fix it, and then to implement those changes.
But here’s the good news. You can decide, way back in the middle of step one, to leap straight to step three.
You can choose to focus on your highest values without having your entire life dialed in.
You won’t be perfect at it. You’ll experience a lot of resistance and backsliding.
But the effort to visit Level 3 at any moment in your creative life will be its own reward.
Sound improbable? Here’s how I know.
I’ve struggled to make sense of Level 3 for years. I’ve felt that fear, that big “what’s it all mean?” hovering behind my frenzied activity.
I’ve spent my life telling myself I was going to take a breather…when I just finished this one thing.
I was going to step back and get perspective…just as soon as I wrap up this project.
And here’s the crazy thing: I did all this basically, in some sense, knowing I was doing it. But not seeing how to stop.
Nope: it was fear.
“Not seeing how to stop”? That’s an excuse. While I did—and do—have major issues with allowing white space, it’s not because I literally don’t know how to stop.
What really kept me from Level 3 was fear. Fear of losing control of all the things, yes. But not only that, the really big fears:
What if I can’t find the answer to “Is this the right thing to be doing with my life?”
What if there is no answer?
I kept that door tightly closed with “I’M TOO BUSY” to think about it. The stakes felt just too high.
But every once in a while, I’d sort of accidentally find myself with too much time on my hands, while on a solo business trip, for example. Then, all the big thoughts, and the anxieties that come with them—pressure built up from months of politely knocking at the front door to be let in—would instead come crashing through the wall, and flatten me.
It wasn’t what you’d call “fun.” But the big thoughts were worth thinking. The anxieties worth facing. Those few windows of (accidental) clarity were painful…and exhilarating.
More important, those windows of time are what put me where I am today, on a path that’s increasingly aligned with my higher goals.
Busy is a defense mechanism. Busy is a choice.
Let me be clear: Having a lot to do is not (always) a choice. But how you treat those pressing tasks, how you conceptualize them, that’s absolutely under your control. That’s about how you think about your time and your focus.
Try this: If someone wants you to do something and you can’t, or don’t want to, say, “That’s not a priority,” instead of “I don’t have time.” This will remind you that you make choices.
Here’s a quickie activity that might just change your life: Don’t say the word “busy” for the next month.
After so many years of not taking those breaks, and not getting that perspective, and racing like a maniac from one thing to the next—dropping friends, family, hobbies, culture, just to crank one more widget before I die—I realize that those breaks I didn’t take, and that perspective I didn’t get, wasn’t something extra. It was—it is—the key to actually arriving where I want to go.
And here’s the secret I referred to above, that discovered when I accidentally found myself in Level 3 mode: You don’t have to travel via urgent to arrive at important.
In fact, you can’t.
Urgent (“busy”) has a way of creating and maintaining itself indefinitely.
I’ll get back to exactly how you do this magic trick in a bit.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
If those two words, “urgent” and “important” ring a bell, it’s because they have been popularized as part of the “Eisenhower Decision Matrix” invented by author Stephen Covey based on a quote from Dwight Eisenhower, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
In the matrix, there are four quadrants along two axes, and you’re meant to sort your possible actions into one of the four.
According to this principle, things that fall in Quadrant 4 (neither urgent nor important) should be deleted.
Things that are in Quadrant 3 (urgent, not important) should be delegated.
Quadrant 1 (Both) you do immediately, and Quadrant 2 (important, but not urgent) you decide when to do (meaning, you put it on the calendar… but we all know this is exactly the stuff that ends up being, “I’ll get to that as soon as I finish…”)
Now, putting aside the question of whether you actually have anyone you can or want to delegate Q3 TO, there are obviously a few issues with this framework.
For example: Q4 is not only where mindless, procrastinating noodling goes, it’s also where reading a good book, sitting around a campfire shooting the shit with friends, knitting for fun, doing a puzzle, learning to decorate a cake, and all kinds of other worthwhile stuff goes. You don’t want to delete it. You just want to make sure you’re doing it when and how you want to, instead of ending up there by accident.
Q2: the land of your dreams
I could go on. To be fair, most of these issues stem from the fact that Covey intended the matrix to be used by business executives (who have teams) in a work context, but the framework has been applied much more widely.
As it should be. There is no bright line between work and non-work, particularly today, and even more particularly if you’re a self-employed creative worker.
Despite all this, at a basic level, the Eisenhower framework is truly helpful. It was the source of a major insight into why I kept failing to get to Level 3 in my creative focus journey.
A year or so ago, I stumbled on a self-lacerating article about the nature of procrastination, “The Procrastination Matrix,” by Tim Urban, on his site WaitButWhy. I didn’t consider myself a procrastinator. I was only reading it for research, to help you, my readers.
“To a procrastinator, Quadrant 2 is a strange and foreign land, far, far away…The reason this is disastrous is that the road to the procrastinator’s dreams—the road to expanding his horizons, exploring his true potential, and achieving work he’s truly proud of—runs directly through Quadrant 2. Q1 and Q3 may be where people survive, but Q2 is where people thrive, grow, and blossom.”
Replace “Procrastinator” with “normal human being” and you have your problem defined.
Urban uses the Eisenhower Matrix to break down different styles of procrastination, and when I got to his definition of “Successtintator,” I felt revealed, laid bare: SEEN.
“A Successtinator can be happy with his life, but isn’t usually that happy in his life. And that’s because being a Successtinator does not make you a success. Someone who does something well professionally at the expense of balance, relationships, and health is not a success. Real success means having both professional life and lifestyle working well and in harmony—and Successtinators are too stressed, too unavailable, and are often completely deprived of Happy Playground [this is Urban’s term for Q4] time, which is a critical component of a happy life. A Successtinator is also usually limited in his professional possibilities—great work can be done in Q1, but it’s often more on the maintaining side of things. Q2 is still where most of the professional growth and out-of-the-box thinking takes place, and like all procrastinators, Successtinators rarely set foot in Q2.”
And yes, there are a lot of worse things to be. (Disastinators and Impostinators, for example). But having a word for what felt so wrong was incredibly powerful, and simply identifying what had been missing for me has allowed me to begin pulling steadily in the direction of Q2.
The trick is to go to Q2 without having to lock down Q1 and Q3.
You can, and you must.
Because if you wait for the perfect moment, you’ll die waiting.
Vital vs. Pressing
The core of the problem is that Q2 (which is where what I called Level 3 in the Creative Focus journey happens) is full of self-generated creative work.
This means that nobody’s assigning it to you. There’s no boss, and there’s no deadline. You made it up, literally.
And that means that doing it requires a level of self-belief that’s really difficult to maintain day to day.
In a given moment, you have to believe that spending your time on your future-focused projects is more important than all the other (important and urgent) things that fill your life.
Of course, people give lip service to Q2 all the time. They say, “This [comic, novel, blog, feature film, whatever] is the most important thing for me. This is what I truly want to do with my life.”
But when it comes down to actually choosing to spend time on it, to putting the time in the calendar, everything else comes first.
In that moment of choosing what to do with your time, you’ve got to hold onto your belief and say, “This work is important enough to me to take this other thing that’s also important and make it wait. Or never do it at all.”
And maybe part of the problem is the terminology. In the Creative Focus Workshop, my students found the terms “important” and “urgent” neither compelling nor entirely clear. So we translated them to words that more accurately reflect the nature of the work:
Important work is Vital. It builds your future, the life you want to have; both on a personal level and on a professional level.
Urgent work is stuff that’s Pressing. This is work that screams “do it now,” and “You gotta do this thing, it’s coming up!”
Vital and Pressing. These words ring truer to the real battle before you.
And when you have to decide for yourself what’s Vital to you (and—spoiler—you always have to decide for yourself), that’s when self-doubt and imposter syndrome will come around to bite you. (But that’s the subject of my next article…)
As Tim Urban says: “…the only way a procrastinator can take the wheel in his hands is if his self-fulfilling prophecy—his storyline— says that he can. And storylines only change with real-world action. Quite the chicken and egg issue.”
The answer to this dilemma is to make Q2 time automatic.
Build a system where you pay yourself first (with time as well as money) and then trust the system.
This is a 3-step process.
Step One: Trust yourself.
Easier said than done, but no one knows what’s truly Vital to you better than you do. Tim Urban counsels, “We need to develop well-thought-out definitions of urgent and important, which will be different for everyone and requires a deep dig into the highly personal question, ‘What matters most to me?’”
If you’re not clear on what matters most to you, you need to spend some time with yourself, figuring it out.
That’s a bit of a Catch-22, since time is what you’re already not spending in Q2, where such realizations get made.
Fortunately, it’s not an overwhelming problem. Just implement the second step in the process and you’ll make the time you need.
Step Two: Pay Yourself First.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years working on the financial side of my personal and business life. I’ve read many books, and radically upgraded my tracking and strategy. And the one piece of advice I see over and over, the one thing everyone says will transform your financial life, is this principle: Pay yourself first.
Amanda Steinberg, founder of the Daily Worth, embraced this principle in a podcast interview (and throughout her philosophy of building wealth represented by her company).
Profit First, by Mike Michalowicz, is an entire book dedicated to the subject.
The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan has this principle as the core of its system…
…A system that’s also at the heart of the tracking software I swear by, YNAB.
I could go on. And it’s not only financial experts. I just read a Srini Rao (Unmistakable Creative) article (see #3) about precisely the same thing.
[some links in this article are affiliate links, FYI.]
The underlying concept is, if you don’t start saving for your big goals—your retirement, the house you want to buy, the big investment crucial to the future of your business—out of every dollar you bring in, now, today, there’s no magical point as which it becomes easier to save. Your spending will expand to fill (and overfill) your available resources.
There’s no dollar amount that’s “enough” to start saving. Save something, no matter how little, for you…every single time you get paid.
OK, so. The same goes for your time.
If you don’t save a bit of your time for you, now, out of every week, there is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.
Think about it: you know it’s true.
How often have you told yourself, “I’ll get to work on my novel, but first I just need to finish these last 3 emails…oops, forgot I need to go pick up my cleaning…oh and I’ve got to text Kat back, and…”
There goes your time window.
Then, despairing, you think, “…Oh how I wish I could go on a retreat, or quit my job! Then I’d work ALL THE TIME on my book!”
And then you are out of work for one reason or other and nothing happens on your book then either.
Because you STILL aren’t paying yourself first.
Insisting on going through Urgent to get to Important, trying to clear up all the nagging Pressing things that (seem to) keep you from Vital work…it does not work. You will never arrive.
“The major lesson here is to beware of Quadrant 3 [Pressing but not Vital]. Q3 grabs you by the collar and thrusts you onto a treadmill of reacting to things. It’s not a place of self control. And if you’re not careful, Q3 will suck your life away.”
I teach students in the CFW to identify and corral open loops (unfinished commitments to yourself and others) and, while that’s a necessary step to get the procrastination anxiety under control, the lesson can be problematic, ad it can reward “bad behavior” as well. Open loops drag on you. They are the definition of Pressing, and identifying them can fool you into thinking that if you can just close those loops, you’ll be able to focus.
We fool ourselves into thinking is that there will be a perfect time. We just need to clear our schedule, finish all the small, urgent things and then we can focus on the real stuff. There won’t. There never will be.
You can take your “abundance” and shove it you-know-where
There are times when I’ve found the word “abundance” intensely annoying. It just feels insulting to urge poor artists and writers to “be more abundant.”
Abundant with what??
But abundance isn’t about money per se. It’s about valuing what you do have (including your money, but also your time, and most importantly, your attention) and choosing to align those things with your values and priorities first, rather than reacting first to outside influences and demands.
Abundance is just an annoying, touchy-feely, and unclear word for a principle I deeply agree with.
So let’s be clear: what “abundance” means, what you need to do, is to put on your own oxygen mask first. Emotionally, in terms of your focus and time, and yes, financially, too.
Step Three: Trust the system.
Cal Newport’s book Deep Work offers excellent insights into the value of spending time in Q2. His thesis:
“I firmly believe that deep work is like a superpower in our current economy: it enables you to quickly (and deliberately) learn complicated new skills and produce high-value output at a high rate. Deep work is also an activity that generates a sense of meaning and fulfillment in your professional life. Few come home energized after an afternoon of frenetic e-mail replies, but the same time spent tackling a hard problem in a quiet location can be immensely satisfying.”
However, his representation of his own life in the book is an unattainable ideal of daily clear deep work time, shutting down at 5:30, and heading home for quiet family time. Either he’s misleading us about how much time he spends on deep work, or he’s got a spouse (and/or paid assistant) who handles all the open loops of life.
My thoughts as I read the book ran along these lines (from my reading notes):
What I am teaching is deep work for people who can’t necessarily count on making a living at it, though they may be working towards that.
They have to fit deep work into a full life.
They have to build up their tolerance for isolation and concentration.
They must deal with the emotional level—how hard this feels.
There ARE costs. you have to be ready to pay the costs.
AND somebody’s got to do the shallow work. Someone has to handle the marketing. Someone has to cook and do errands. Who is that person in Cal Newport’s life? We don’t always have control over that.
But even an hour or two of deep work are very very significant. And that’s usually possible.
But when it comes down to it, you have to trust me on this. More importantly, you have to trust yourself. I can talk to you all day about how much doing Q2 work means to me. I can talk to you about Cal Newport and Tim Urban, and…who is your creative hero? Pretty much guaranteed they spent a lot of time in Q2 to get to where they are.
That’s it. It’s not rocket science.
1. Decide: what is in your Q2?
2. Pay yourself first: carve out time for you before giving it to other Pressing needs.
3. Trust that this time will pay off.
And it will.
What’s the purpose of productivity?
“The archetypal Silicon Valley startup, in the last few years, has been one that promises to free up time and mental capacity by eliminating some irritating ‘friction’ of daily life—shopping or laundry, or even eating, in the case of the sludgy, beige meal replacement Soylent—almost always for the purpose of doing more work.”
When I first started doing this teaching, and was struggling to figure out how to talk about what the Creative Focus Workshop was all about, I said that I taught “creative productivity.”
But productivity to what end? What’s the point of productivity?
Life hacking can get very distracting. It creates tunnel vision, because it’s entertaining and satisfying in its own right. Checking off boxes gives you a dopamine rush that makes you want more.
But what’s the big goal?
It can differ over time. But me, I want more freedom. Doing more things doesn’t lead to more freedom. I lose sight of that.
Now, when I talk about the CFW, I talk about teaching creative focus, and more than that: sustainable creativity. How can you build a life where you make your work in a way that’s aligned with your life goals?
Yes, making that happen includes learning time management tools, and some “how do you overcome bad habits and lack of organization” and “how do you finish a project.”
But you’ve got to keep hold of the larger WHY.
My challenge to you is to begin to pay yourself first.
Before other things impinge on your calendar, decide that you’ll save some small percentage just for you. And then make the rest of your life conform to that.
I know that’s a scary thing to ask. I’m telling you to walk out on that wire. Way out, where it’s bouncing.
First, you’ll have to believe it’s possible.
But then it’s time to dare to try.
Leave a comment below: What will you do FIRST tomorrow?
This second in a series of articles about carving out space in your life for the creative work that’s truly important to you. First: Margin. Third: There is No Gatekeeper. The conclusion: What taking action looks like, and how to go about it.
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