Whether it’s writing, marketing, making art, starting a business, or working on a big technical project, being able to produce creative work is a highly valued skill.
But what’s the secret to it?
I’ve written a PhD, co-written a New York Times bestselling book, produced over 200 articles for a dating advice website and helped create weekly content for a YouTube channel with over 500,000 subscribers. That sounds impressive as a list, but truthfully, I work pretty slowly.
Whatever creative breakthroughs I’ve had have emerged like hard-won jewels after digging through a tunnel of constant self-doubt, agonizing procrastination and struggles to find the right thing to say.
Yet, I’ve learnt some tricks along the way, and I currently have the best handle I’ve ever had on being consistent with my creative output.
So is there a formula?
This is one I’ve toyed with lately that I especially like, but it requires a bit of explanation:
Creativity = Time + Not Enough Time
Let me unravel these two elements…
During my teenage years and early twenties, I treated life like a buffet.
I would pile tons of commitments and activities on my plate until it was overflowing with much more than I could swallow down.
At one point in my mid-twenties, I was rowing in a team 6 times a week, working on a PhD, writing a book, teaching philosophy to undergraduates, speaking at seminars, and trying to keep up with a bunch of other activities I had committed myself to.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking on a lot. But if you want to be creative, you need to be very careful about how you select your projects.
At this point in my life, I’ve finally learnt that I can only take on one large “elephant” at a time.
I define an “elephant” as anything that will require hours of focus, concentration, and effort over many months for completion.
It could be making a movie, starting a company, designing a new product, building a house, writing a novel…whatever.
To do these things well, you need time. And lots of it. As Phillip Roth says in American Pastoral, it’s “the secret of making a product perfect – You work at it”.
You need plenty of mental space to really put your head in a creative task. It’s hours of your day, every day. And when the tank is empty, you don’t have the bandwidth to suddenly switch and start on another huge creative endeavor. Try writing a book all morning then trying to work on a business in the afternoon – it’s extremely taxing to demand that much of your brain.
You need time to attack the beast you have in front of you – time to read around your subject, time to try and fail at different approaches, time to make a few wrong turns.
In the past, whenever I spread myself too thin, I ended up doing everything at about 60-70% capacity. I never did projects quite as well as I could, because I just didn’t have the time to give the task what it fully required.
If you want time, you must do these things:
Pick one or two major focuses
Say ‘NO’ to lots of other stuff
If you want to finish anything huge in life, there simply in no other formula.
Writing books is just too difficult. Making a movie is too strenuous. Working on a big project, whether technical or artistic or business-related, just demands too much attention and time.
It was only when I began scaling back my commitments in a way that made them all compliment one another that I found my output increasing a lot over the last couple of years. (For example: this year my focus is one big writing project until July, my day job of writing articles/blogs, and training for a marathon in May. That’s just about my limit.)
But of course, just having time isn’t the whole story.
Because you also need something else to be creative…
Not Enough Time
I’ve written a regular dating blog on the Get The Guy website for 3 years. At the time of writing I have published over 200 posts. For 2 years, I had a strict schedule of producing one article per week, and whether good or bad, I stuck to the program.
The only reason I was able to produce at such a quantity was because of strict weekly deadlines. Even when I wasn’t ready, I would have to hit publish on the blog every Wednesday.
There was no room for excuses, especially since I was being paid for those articles.
And on the seldom occasion that I would skip a week, it was because as a company we had decided to focus on other big projects that demanded serious time and attention (e.g. books, creating products, live programs).
The lesson here is simple: The only way to get myself to produce regularly was to have LESS time than I ideally would have liked.
There’s a myth of the dreamy artist who takes all the time they need crafting something of exquisite perfection, but the truth is, infinite time to create is not a good thing. It’s a curse. It’s a curse because you never have someone forcing you to get to the finish line and release your work.
But wait…doesn’t that completely contradict what I said earlier, about needing lots of time to be creative?
You need enough time to give the work the focus it deserves, but not enough time that you lose all motivation to finish.
You need plenty of time and space in your day so that your plate isn’t over-crowded and you can set aside at least 2-3 hours to just work hard on your project (preferably as your first task of the day, since that’s when creativity tends to be at its highest).
BUT, you also need the pressure of knowing that by the end of the week/month/year, you’re going to have to turn in your work.
I’ve noticed that people who struggle to produce creatively (including myself on many occasions) suffer from one of these two problems. They are either so overloaded with daily tasks and commitments that they fail to give themselves the time and space to be creative, OR they have too much time because they’ve failed to give themselves deadlines with real consequences if they fail to produce.
So ask yourself: Are you suffering from not enough time, or too much time? Or both?
Let me know your thoughts on this below. I’d love to discuss this formula more and get your opinions!