This creative productivity system quadrupled my writing output and helped me publish three books in only six months
After I emerged from the harrowing experience of writing my first book, I knew I had to do something to manage my creative process.
I’m driven to create, but that drive sometimes creates a lot of stress. So I became determined to build a system that would help me produce a large volume of creative work, and to run a creative business, while also staying sane.
What follows is the creative productivity system that I have built and tweaked over the past eight years. It has enabled me to quadruple my creative productivity. Here is my word output for one year over another.
I haven’t tracked my word output in awhile, but I’m sure my output has continued to increase. After taking six years to publish my second book, I published three books in only six months.
I’ve also published countless blog posts, and I produce a weekly podcast every Thursday without skipping a beat.
I’ve grown my output while managing a chronic illness and living in a foreign country—and all of the surprises and challenges that come along with it. It’s a freeing feeling to know that you have a “trusted system” for putting your work into the world, rather than allowing it to languish inside of you.
Creative productivity is about mind management, not time management
Time management is so integral to the modern world that we can hardly imagine it ever being a new idea. Yet before the industrial revolution, few people thought of making the most of their time each day.
We were well into the knowledge-work revolution before time management became standard practice. The first time management book was The Time Trap—published in 1972. David Allen started what you might call “thing management” with Getting Things Done, in 2001.
Just as some cultures only have a few names for colors, despite still being able to see just as many colors as you—just as the Inuit have dozens of words for what you might just call “snow”—the world around you is full of phenomena to be identified, and optimized.
Now that everyone already manages their time, what’s next? David Allen himself gave us all a great clue when I interviewed him on my podcast. He said, “GTD frees up your creative energy. What you do with that creative energy is up to you.”
Well, what about that creative energy? I believe creative energy is the next resource to be managed—at least in the age of creative productivity. That’s why I’ve built my own system specifically to manage my creative energy.
My morning creative sessions help me get the most important creative work done
The main building blocks of my creative productivity system is a habit of creating every weekday morning. I spend the first hour or two of each weekday working on my most important creative project.
I choose the mornings for this work for two reasons: I’m still groggy in the mornings, yet I have fresh energy, so it’s my creative peak. Also, no other distractions have yet had a chance to get in my way.
I think of it the way Chicago O’Hare airport is one of the worst airports in terms of delays, unless your flight leaves early—then it’s just fine.
I have a couple of ways of mentally categorizing my morning creative sessions.
- Front-burner: The project I work on first thing in the morning is a “front-burner” project. It demands my best creative energy.
- Generation: As I’ll explain in a bit, I categorize my work by mental state. These morning sessions are dominated by the “Generation” mental state. I’m generating the work that will become my final products.
Energy cycles help me use my freshest energy
I try to manage my creative energy so that I work like a perpetual productivity machine. Each action depletes one kind of energy, while building another kind of energy. This cycle keeps me driving forward.
I have my morning creative sessions because that’s when I have my best creative energy.
But my creative energy doesn’t just change throughout the day. My creative energy also changes throughout my week.
This is why I also focus my creative energy in the early part of my week. I reserve Mondays for front-burner projects. As I shift into Tuesday, I start working on the podcast. I try to do podcast interviews on Thursday afternoons. I save all administrative work for Fridays.
In addition to weekly cycles, I also think in terms of monthly, seasonal, and yearly cycles. There are even longer cycles: I find I tend to hit milestones in my business every three years.
Sometimes I recognize cycles on the fly. For example, I may be finishing up a project, or a “Black Swan” event may happen in my business, thus prompting me to recognize the beginning of a new cycle.
Other cycles are more formal. Here are some things I currently do on a monthly basis.
- First week of the month: Evaluate book sales vs. ad spend in previous month.
- Second week of the month: Collect and compile a monthly income report. Begin drafting podcast intros.
- Third week of the month: Record podcast intros, articles, and sponsorship spots for coming month.
- Fourth week of the month: Prepare coming month’s podcast episodes for post production.
I’m also experimenting with a seasonal approach to doing podcast interviews. If I do an interview per week during two three-month “seasons,” I’ll have roughly enough interviews for the entire year:
- March, April, May: Season one of podcast interviews.
- September, October, November: Season two of podcast interviews.
These seasons account for times of year when potential guests tend to be busy—the holidays, the beginning of the year, and summer.
My interview “seasons” also allow for a very important cycle at the end of the year: I try to do very little work during late December so I can return to my work with fresh eyes in early January. I try to allow several weeks to think about how I want to spend my year, and give myself time to evaluate my business as I re-immerse in work. If I’m in the weeds, I can’t see my business from 30,000 feet.
My system creates urgency: There is only NOW
My cycles are an attempt to reconcile the ebbs and flows in my own energy with the beginnings and ends of projects, and the rhythms of the rest of the world.
But these cycles have another powerful effect: They bring a sense of urgency and focus to my work.
For each block of time that I make it a point TO work on something, I also make it a point to NOT work on other things.
So if I get an email from my accountant on a Monday, I will NOT answer it. I’ll use the Boomerang Gmail extension to send it back to myself on Friday. If I need to have a meeting, I will NOT have it on Monday or Tuesday. My first week of each month, I try my best to NOT work on the podcast. During the interview off-season, I also try to minimize time invested in the podcast.
By having a clear picture of not only what I need to be doing right now, but also what I DON’T need to be doing, I make it so that there is only NOW to do the work in front of me.
I find that this kills procrastination and deepens my focus. The fewer things you have to attend to in a given block of time—whether that’s a day, a week, or a three-month period—the more you can focus on what’s in front of you.
The seven mental states of creative productivity help me make the best use of my creative energy
With my energy cycles and my front-burner morning sessions, I can attack my most important creative projects with my best energy, and with deep focus.
But my business is more complicated than just morning writing sessions, some reports, and prepping podcasts. There is a lot of creative work to be done: Reading potential guest’s books, listening to other podcasts for research, coming up with questions to ask guests, and prepping books for publish, just to name a few things.
Creative work is not procedural. You can’t sit down and go through the steps and be done.
Through trial and error and research, I’ve settled on the following seven mental states that make up my creative work:
- Prioritize: Establish clear priorities for what work needs to be done, and what should be ignored.
- Explore: Collect information, in an exploratory fashion, that can later be connected to make creative insights.
- Generate: Generate creative work. Deal yourself another hand in the hopes of making creative insights happen.
- Research: Look for answers to specific questions for a creative project.
- Polish: Put the finishing touches on a creative product.
- Administrate: Take care of the details that keep my creative business running, such as reporting, invoicing, or paying bills.
- Recharge: Disconnect from work to replenish my energy.
Whenever I enter a task into Todoist, I label the task as one of these seven mental states (I don’t put “Recharge” items in Todoist).
This saves me from having to “Prioritize” on the fly, which—according to neuroscientist David Rock’s Your Brain at Work—is the most mentally-taxing type of thinking. If I’m in a given mental state — say I’ve reached a stopping point on a “Generate” session for my front-burner project—I can immediately go to Todoist and find another Generate task.
Yet if I’ve reached a stopping point in a Generate session, I may be too mentally fatigued to do another Generate task. I might have the energy for an “Explore” task. I can click on the tag and quickly find Explore tasks waiting for me.
These mental states have fuzzy borders and may vary for you based upon your workflow. I was surprised myself to find that brainstorming fits better in “Explore” for me than “Generate.” It reminds me to be loose—that I’m not looking for a solution, but rather raw materials that will eventually make up a solution.
I try to organize my week by mental state, like so:
This makes it easy for me to assign due-dates for tasks. I just think of what time of week I would generally work on a task like this one and assign it for then, along with the appropriate mental-state label. (Hat tip to Ari Meisel on this way of thinking.)
I even use these mental states to organize my podcast listening. Having podcast episodes pre-loaded according to mental state helps my mind be productive even if my body is busy with something such as cooking.
- Explore is generally reserved for listening to prior appearances of upcoming guests.
- Recharge is things I want to listen to that don’t directly apply to any of my projects.
- Research is for when I know or suspect a podcast episode has the answer to a question I’m looking for.
The four stages of creativity help me reach creative solutions efficiently
Working according to mental states helps me manage my creative energy, but the “four stages” of creative work help me understand how the projects themselves progress.
Creativity scientists generally agree that creative work follows these four stages:
- Preparation: Learning about the problem.
- Incubation: Resting after learning about the problem.
- Illumination: The moment of insight—the “aha!” moment.
- Verification: Evaluating your solution to see that it’s a good one.
Why have seven mental states when there are these four stages? These stages are the progression by which creative problems are often solved. My mind, however, doesn’t necessarily follow these stages.
My “Incubation” on one problem may happen while I’m doing the “Generation” on another problem. “Illumination” can happen at any moment. It often happens when you’re in “Recharge” mode.
Yet it’s important to be aware of these stages to reach creative solutions efficiently. Look, for example, at how I prepare for a podcast interview, along with deadlines and mental states. As I’ll explain, I use Incubation to be more efficient.
T = Interview date
- T-21: Spend 5 minutes brainstorming curiosity. @Explore
- T-21: Load prior podcast appearances onto Overcast. @Administrate
- T-14: Spend 5 minutes brainstorming conversation arc. @Explore
- T-7: Listen to prior podcast appearances in Overcast. @Explore
- T-7: Spend 5 minutes drafting questions. @Generate
- T-0: Read guest’s book. @Explore
- T-0: Finalize questions. @Polish
Ideally, I have three weeks to prepare for an interview. Yet, I spend very little time writing much of anything. I have a few five-minute brainstorming sessions, spaced a week apart from one another. I then finalize my questions just before the interview.
By actively thinking about the interview for a short burst, I make a lot of progress, provided I give myself enough incubation time. These short sessions are the “minimum effective dose” for reaching a creative solution.
I find that three five-minute sessions, spaced a week apart from one another, is less mentally-taxing and makes good solutions come much more easily than if I had tried to sit down and power my way through to a perfect list of questions.
Since these short sessions are loaded into Todoist by mental state, I can quickly do them, without having to switch mental states in the moment, which would be a waste of mental energy.
The alternating incubation method helps me multitask creative projects in a pinch
I have my interview preparation down to a process now, but if I end up in a pinch, where I need to produce multiple creative pieces in a short amount of time, I use what I call the “alternating incubation method.”
The alternating incubation method makes use of both your conscious and unconscious mental resources. You can usher two or more projects through the four stages by alternating which project you’re working on. While you work on one project, you’re incubating the other project.
Here’s what that would look like if I were working on both a podcast intro and an article:
These are relatively simple creative projects that I have a high degree of skill in producing, so incubation can happen quickly. Consider that, in his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends novelists to hide their first drafts in a drawer for six weeks before looking at them again. The amount of incubation a creative problem needs will vary depending upon skill level and complexity of the problem.
Focusing on the big pieces helps the little pieces fall into place
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells a story about a professor who brings a jar to class. He fills it with big rocks, and asks the class if the jar is full. They agree that it is.
Then, he pours in smaller pebbles and asks again. They again agree that the jar is full.
Then, he pours in sand. Surely it’s full now!? But it’s not. Finally, he pours in water.
The professor was illustrating that the big things in your life have to go first. Only after you’ve concentrated on the big things do you find the room for the smaller things.
Since I’m prioritizing for creative productivity, I put that first, with my morning creativity sessions. Those sessions are so important and automatic, I don’t have to put them in my task manager—much like I don’t put brushing my teeth in my task manager.
It’s around that habit that I place the rest of the system: The attention I pay to the ebbs and flows of my creative energy, the categorization of tasks by mental state, and the regard for incubation—all of those things go around the most important things.
The system I follow isn’t a hard and strict system. Sometimes I deviate from it, but I’m always iterating on it, experimenting to see what works for me, and what doesn’t.
If you try a system like this, go easy on yourself. Focus on the most important things first. If you can’t control your whole schedule, focus on the little pieces of your schedule that you can control.
By having a formalized way to think about your creative energy, and how you use it to make your creative work happen, you’ll be doing more work, better work, every day.
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