Ten years ago, I got my first book deal—with almost no writing experience. I quickly realized nothing I had learned about productivity had prepared me to write a book.
Since then, I’ve dug into the neuroscience and psychology behind creativity, I’ve redesigned my life around creative work, and I’ve even worked on a productivity app that sold to Google.
More than anything, I’ve learned that—when creativity matters—productivity is about mind management, not time management. Here’s why.
1. Time management is squeezing blood from a stone
“There’s only 24 hours in a day,” people say. They think that means you should get as much as you can from each of those hours.
What that actually means is there’s a limit to the time you can save. Time management is squeezing blood from a stone.
2. We’re entering the creative age
According to Kai-Fu Lee, AI and automation are poised to take forty- to fifty- percent of jobs in the next couple decades.
But not all jobs will disappear at the same rate. Jobs that require creativity will be out of reach for AI.
We’re entering the Creative Age.
3. Creative thinking is different from other thinking
Creative thinking is promoted by a positive mood and relaxation.
The creative state is also a fragile state. It’s hard to get into, easy to get out of.
Here’s what the moment of insight looks like in the brain.
4. You’re most creative when you’re least sharp
We each have our “peak” and “off-peak” times of day.
Counterintuitively, the science shows you’re most creative during your off-peak time of day.
If you’re groggy in the morning, don’t reach for coffee first thing: That grogginess is a creative gift.
5. Creative work happens in stages
A great idea doesn’t mean your idea is ready to ship. There are four stages of creativity:
1. Preparation: Learn about the problem
2. Incubation: Let it sink in
3. Illumination: Have the idea
4. Verification: Get it ready to ship
Respect these stages, don’t get blocked.
6. Not all hours are equal
Some hours are great for having ideas — other hours are great for executing on those ideas.
Here’s what the late, great, Anders Ericsson saw when he looked at the practice schedules of the very best violinists: Intense practice in the morning. Sporadic practice the rest of the day.
7. The world works in cycles
You can work with cycles in your world to propel your ideas forward.
Days, weeks, seasons, and years can be harnessed to cycle through the Four Stages of Creativity.
For example, you can use a night’s rest, a relaxing weekend, or a cozy winter as Incubation:
8. Creative work is best tackled by mental state
If you look closely, you’ll see that creative tasks you expect to power through are actually best tackled with a variety of competing mental states.
I’ve identified seven mental states of creative work, and I organize my week by those states. Like this:
9. Creative systems ride your mental state
Instead of cramming work into time, work according to stages of creative thinking, and mental state.
I have systems I’ve built to go through the four stages and ride the waves of my mental state.
Here’s how I work on my podcast, throughout the year, the month, the week.
I conduct podcast interviews during two three-month “seasons”:
Each week of the month I spend on a stage of podcast production:
Throughout the week, there are days I don’t work on my podcast (such as Mondays), and days I work on my podcast heavily (such as Thursdays).
The systems I use to produce my podcast, my weekly newsletter, and write books, make special use of incubation.
What used to be an hour-long, grueling task, is now spaced into three 5-minute bursts. Incubation does the work for me.
10. You need to be in the right mental state to do a task
Organize tasks not by project but by mental state.
Who cares what project the task is in? As long as your due dates are correct, it doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re mentally able to do the task.
Here are the tags I use to organize my tasks in my task-management system:
11. A chaotic world presents creative opportunities
In a chaotic world, your systems have to be antifragile.
When you work according to mental state and have the right slack in your systems, chaos doesn’t throw you off-balance.
Instead, chaos presents creative opportunities: Ideas you can store for when you need them.