Your new superpower: NOT trying to do everything
AKA: “How to escape panic mode and embrace your life-expanding projects”
Does creative project FOMO have you in a stranglehold, leaving you stuck trying to do everything at once (and finishing approximately nothing)? Do you struggle to find time to focus on the creative project you’ve left on the backburner for months (or years)?
If, amidst the chaos of your days, you wonder, “Where am I going to find the time to finish my novel?” I’ve got some good news.
You can get to the novel before you tame your to-do list.
You can even get to it even if you never do all of your other tasks.
In fact, you have to.
If you ever want to do the things that really matter—I mean ever, in your life—you have to stop trying to clear the decks and somehow “earn” your creative time.
I mean it.
There will never, ever be time to finish all the things you think you “should” do.
As a creative person committed to your work, you need to know. This is the ONLY way your most important projects actually get finished:
Stop trying to do everything: Pay yourself first (with your time)
“Pay yourself first” is a game-changing concept — I’ll get into exactly why a little further down the page. Short version, it means “put your own oxygen mask on first” in terms of your focus and time (and yes, financially, too).
Whether you’re suffering burnout, task paralysis, or textbook overwhelm leaving you feeling totally swamped and out of control, the path is open to making real progress on your creative projects.
How to stop trying to do it all (and instead focus on what’s most important to you)
- How not to be “busy”
- Use The Eisenhower Decision Matrix to set your priorities
- The simple, 3-step system to focus on what’s most important to you
- What’s the purpose of productivity?
You can choose to focus on your highest values without having everything in your life figured out
You won’t be perfect at it. You’ll experience a lot of resistance and backsliding.
But choosing your most important work over everything else at any moment in your creative life will be its own reward.
I’ve struggled to make this choice my whole creative life—I’ve felt that fear, that big “what’s it all mean?” hovering behind my frenzied activity:
🙃 I never gave myself the margin to actually focus on the answer.
🙃 I’ve spent years telling myself “I’ll take a breather…when I just finish this one thing.”
🙃 “I’ll 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.
I thought that it was impossible to find a way to stop trying to do everything.
The real reason I was trying to do everything? Fear.
“Impossible to find a way 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 stopping trying to do everything 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.
Turns out, the big thoughts were worth thinking. The anxieties worth facing.
Those few windows of clarity were painful…and exhilarating.
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 relates to how you think about your time and your focus. The way out of trying to do everything is recognizing that no, you don’t have to do it all. Not only that…
You literally can’t.
So which things make the cut? And which don’t?
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 big-picture reflective 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. That’s how you end up trying to do everything.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix | Learn how to set your priorities
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 that big-picture reflective place in my creative journey.
A while back, I stumbled on a hilariously 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 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, trying to do 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. maybe, 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
The simple, 3-step system to stop trying to do it all (and focus on what’s most important to you):
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, that’s not a deal-breaker. 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 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.
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 find yourself out of work for one reason or another 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 Creative Focus Workshop 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, and 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 trick 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 be a perfect time. 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 living in a state of reaction 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, and 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.
- Decide: what is in your Q2?
- Pay yourself first: carve out time for you before giving it to other Pressing needs.
- Trust that this time will pay off.
And it will.
What’s the purpose of productivity?
Oliver Burkeman, in his article “Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives,” said,
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
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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Fantastic post, Jessica. Gets to the heart of it for sure. I love that you adopted the “vital” vs. “pressing” terminology we came up with in the pilot group! So, now I just have to figure out how to do the thing…because even when you set the time aside, the “pressing” stuff tends to crowd in. A very sneaky form of procrastination, for sure, to be a “successtinator.”
Thanks for commenting, Susan! Your pilot cohort was so valuable for giving me new insights into how this process works in real lives. I’ve had some success carving out time for bigger projects (like this article) lately by putting it on my calendar way ahead of time and then treating it like a dentist appointment. I get an alert that it’s time to leave pressing-land…and I go. It doesn’t always work! But knowing ahead of time what tradeoffs it will take, and deciding, is key.
I adore your question, Who is taking care of the non-deep work in Cal Newport’s deep work days? I live like this in my choices (having moved to Buenos Aires from Silicon Valley) to gain more time to focus and yes it’s always a trade off..
I’ve just finished reading this with my mouth wide open – as a working composer, writing ‘stock’music for television which can be a bit of a rush job and is taking up almost all my time (at the expense of further developing my skills, or pursuing a dream of writing more interesting autonomous work that I can be proud of), this article is EXACTLY what I needed to hear. I can’t thank you enough for sharing this! Cheers, Gijs
Thanks, Gijs, and I’m really glad it’s giving you some clarity. You’re pretty much exactly who I wrote this article for.
I’m actually posting a new article today that I think you’ll find even more enlightening…