Career Advice

Carving Out Time For Focused Creative Work

When I’m busy, sometimes the best thing I can do is just leave behind everything and write.

My periods of extreme focus work best when I ignore email, chatter, phone calls, newspapers, Twitter. Nothing but me, my writing and a deadline. Ideally this happens in the morning, before 11 a.m. which is my very best writing time.

Turns out most creative people have optimal times – and many fritter them away tidying up the kitchen, returning phone calls or reading Facebook.  To be creative and productive, “close down email, set aside a block of time and work on an important activity with no distractions,” said Laura Stack, a speaker and author who calls herself The Productivity Pro.  The biggest mistake creative people make is “not setting aside structured time to do focused work.”

“We don’t even realize how much we’re being distracted by our brains, by technology, by our environment, by the dog,” said Stack. So start by acknowledging those things that trip us up, our bad habits. Then establish some ground rules – such as no email or phone turned off – for the focused time.

Next step: Put your creative time blocks on your calendar. “Create smaller windows” of perhaps 20 to 30 minutes at first, Stack said. Then over time, “train yourself to focus on that creative task for longer and longer periods.”

She suggests setting a timer – an old fashioned kitchen one that goes tick, tick, tick. That makes it a game, a contest, to see if you can concentrate for the entire 35 minutes. “You’re kind of racing yourself,” she said. “It makes it more fun.”

But it also makes it more efficient and effective.

Other tips from Stack:

  • Start your day with two straight hours of work – before you check email and before you go visit all those social media sites that gobble up our time and attention – Stack suggests.
  • Work ahead so you have a good draft done ahead of deadline. “You have to let it simmer and marinate,” she said, and give yourself enough time to allow creativity to simmer and words or ideas to be polished.
  • Set up your office to minimize distractions and interruptions. Or create a place that is your creating space.

Stack checks into a hotel a mile from her Colorado home on Friday to write non-stop for the weekend. She’s done the research and outlines ahead of time. In four such writing retreats, she finishes the first draft of a book, such as her new one called SuperCompetent (Wiley, August 2010).

“I don’t like writing at all,” said Stack, who makes her living speaking on productivity. She developed the get-away-and-write routine years ago when was trying to write and “failing for the 100th time.”

For those who want to be creative but only when they feel like it, Stack says they are choosing a hobby not a career. The rest of us must “shape habits and behaviors that are going to achieve” our hoped-for career goals, even if we ignore our email and social media for a few hours to get there.