Fair warning: We’re going to try to convince you to plan for creative work.
You may have some of the following points churning in your head already:
- Squeezing creative flow into a bunch of time boxes is one of the best ways to kill it, guys.
- If it’s predictable (i.e. schedule-able) how creative can it be? Penciling in Have a great idea at 2pm on Wednesday doesn’t work too well.
- The most disruptive parts of my week are my scheduled meetings. I spend the hour before them unable to focus and the hour afterward trying to find my place. Scheduling more certainly won’t help.
- Schedules are depressing! Every day I’m faced with the reality of what I didn’t get done.
Great points. We agree with them all. For the maker, planning can suck the life out of the creative process to the point where all you hear is the ticking of the clock in your head. Nothing gets done and you’re left dispirited and frustrated. But there’s another way: the maker’s way. With the maker’s way, we structure what’s around the creative work, but not the creative work itself. We dispense with the time boxes and attempts to predict the unpredictable and focus instead on building a framework. A framework within which creativity doesn’t just live but flourishes. Here’s how:
Leverage Routine to Facilitate Deep Work
To make things, we need to concentrate, to become engrossed for sustained periods of time. Which is a pursuit less predicated on will than on routine. As Cal Newport teaches us in his excellent book, Deep Work, wanting to immerse oneself in concentrated effort is easy; actually doing it is much more difficult. A consistent pattern of daily activities helps in much the same way that a child falls asleep more easily when every evening brings with it the same sequence of events (e.g., dinner then bath then bedtime story). When observed regularly, a routine has a kind of hypnotic effect, coaxing its adherent into the frame of mind necessary to sleep or exercise or—and this is the best part for makers—focus.
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” - Haruki Murakami in an interview with the Paris Review
The key here is to routinize both the activities around making something and the general time of day dedicated to doing the making—not the making itself. This cultivates the conditions necessary to create rather than stifling them. It greases the skids, so to speak, allowing for more time spent creating and less time spent batting away the distractions and mental blocks that get in the way.
Still, none of us can stay immersed indefinitely without burning out altogether. Which brings us to another challenge of creative work that planning helps us surmount: getting back in the zone the next day.
Leave Yourself Breadcrumbs
Creating requires heading purposefully into the weeds. We can’t blaze new trails from existing paths. So out into the unknown we go, where things get complicated, where getting lost is a real possibility. If your project is short and yields satisfying results quickly—say, in just one work session—then going plan-less isn’t likely to be a problem. But making something exist that didn’t previously exist is rarely a one-and-done sort of thing. More often than not, you head into the weeds, try a few things, make some discoveries, then dig your way out to have dinner with the family in a preoccupied state, churning through the things you don’t want to forget. Even worse is the dreadful awareness that you’ll have to reorient yourself to the evolving landscape of your project all over again tomorrow.
Try this: Plan the next day while you’re out there in the weeds. That way, you’ll have breadcrumbs leading back to where you were mentally before you packed it in for the day. By assessing your thinking—while still immersed, mind you—and creating tasks for the next work session that trigger the same cognitive context, you set yourself up for a quicker, smoother re-entry. Perhaps more importantly, sketching tomorrow’s plan today allows for greater conscious disconnect from the project when you’re not working. You don’t have to hover on the fringes of the rest of life for fear of losing your place in this one piece of it. Your day plan for tomorrow is your map back.
Again, the maker’s way is not about structuring the magic. It’s about structuring that which gets in the way of it—everything else, essentially.
Plan Everything but the Magic
Let’s not kid ourselves about this: creating is messy. It inevitably involves false starts, reroutes, and scrapped ideas. On top of which you can count on regularly getting stuck. And because this is real life and not a glossy Hollywood montage, you can also count on plenty of tedium and distractions. Don’t fight it, we say. Plan it. Some ideas that work well for us:
- Meta Planning: Plan to Plan
Too often, we think of planning as a nonevent, not worth scheduling and tracking. Which may be part of why so many of us don’t invest the handful of minutes it takes to do it. We suggest making planning a daily, scheduled item that you time-track like any other to-do. Some of us here at Open Door Teams call this recurring task Shutdown—the time for leaving breadcrumbs, fleshing out the next day’s plan, tying up loose ends, and logging off. Call it whatever you want, just get it on the docket. Legitimize it. Do it daily and it won’t take long before its validity proves unquestionable.
- Update When You Deviate
Perhaps the single biggest reason makers don’t like day plans is the constraining sense of commitment that goes along with them. I planned to do A, but here’s an unexpected opportunity to work on B. Now what? We’ve got good news for you, friend: a day plan is your tool. It works for you, not the other way around. Reroute, switch gears, mix it up. With one caveat: add the new task to your day plan too. If you don’t get to things you planned, that’s okay. This isn’t a diet where straying off-plan means extra pounds and the stink of failure. On the contrary, it means you’re using your maker’s day plan as intended—to support creativity. And by updating, you don’t just keep track of your movements, you sanction them. Which spells freedom, not constraint.
- Hack the Mundane
It can be easy to think of making things as a lofty pursuit, of creativity as holy ground, and of the day-to-day as less valuable. But, properly leveraged, turning the compost or switching out the laundry can actually boost your creative output by giving your subconscious—that fertile ground where coveted aha moments are born—a chance to take the reins for a while. Weave the humdrum into your plan and tackle it when you’re wrestling with something gnarly or you’re just plain stuck. Since that dishwasher isn’t going to empty itself, you might as well get a eureka moment out of doing it, right?
- Plan to Thrash Around
We makers tend to assume that if we’re not actively writing that code or designing that logo we’re not really working. But the truth is that much of the creative process is abstract and intangible. Are you brainstorming? Mulling over different directions your team could go with a new concept? Bouncing ideas off a coworker? If it’s part of what gets you from nothing to something, it’s work. Make room for it.
- Plan Those Distractions
Schedule email/messaging/alert checks, for example. If you’ve allotted space in your day for them, you’ll be less likely to interrupt creative work sessions to see what’s come in. Do the same with one-offs, e.g.: A website that just appeared on your radar that might prove inspiring to an upcoming project. You want to browse, see what it has to offer. Great. Add it to tomorrow’s plan. If you’re still drawn to it then, it’s probably worth your time. If not, delete the task and move on. Distraction managed.
Ultimately, when you plan the maker’s way, you’re clearing a path for creativity. And the basic rule of thumb is this: if it’s getting your time, it belongs in your day plan. Once planning has become a habit, you’ll be better able to spot those things that shouldn’t be getting your time as well as those things that have proven to be worth more of it. And then? Why, you simply adjust. Slough off the time-wasters and dedicate more space to what works.
And don’t be surprised when your creative output increases.
Create More with (Some) Structure
We make software here at Open Door Teams. And over the years we’ve found that while traditional day planning is too rigid for us, this more maker-centered approach actually nurtures the creativity that the wrong kind of structure can easily suffocate. We even built an app to help us plan our days. But you don’t necessarily need digital tools to plan the maker’s way. Pencil and paper will do the job too, at least at first. We challenge you to try it for a few weeks. Leverage routine, leave yourself breadcrumbs, and plan everything but the magic. If you’re like us, you’ll find that making things is easier with a little of the right kind of structure.
Photo by Estée Janssens