This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here.
Everyone is so busy. And I don’t blame us. We live in a world where there is an endless supply of things to take up our time. Meetings, phone calls, work, the Internet, Facetime, Social Media. We are drowning in a sea of possibilities where there is always another thing to read, another event to attend, another great friend to meet. And yet, the “busier” I got, the worst I felt.
There were days when I ran all over the place, caught up in meetings and coffee dates and social obligations. Answering yet another email about another event hosted by another great person. Don’t forget to walk the dog, and hit the gym. Not to mention upholding the minimum requirements to keep my Responsible Grown Up card valid: laundry, grocery shopping, house cleaning. What’s that? You want to take a hip hop class? Take a few music lessons? Learn to paint? Sure, I’ll just add it to the list.
But wait- what about the work? You know, the creative work that feeds your soul? The ideas that need expressing? The creative legacy you’re supposed to be building? Where does that fit in to this jumble of busyness? Why is it that at the end of the day, I sometimes feel like I ran a marathon but didn’t take a single step in the right creative direction? I had become too busy for my own creativity.
Figure out the Non-Negotiables
I realized that I had a budget of what I called “effort-points,” an energy currency that corresponded to the amount of effort I had to expend to do something. Let’s say I have 50 points. Going to the gym? 5 points. Each coffee meeting? 3 points. Cleaning the apartment? 10 points. Cooking an amazing dinner from scratch? 8 points. Waking the dog? 1 point. Writing is probably the biggest expenditure: 30 points. And this was only a tiny sample of the things I needed to do.
It turns out I was trying to spend way over my budget. I simply couldn’t continue to treat my energy like a never-ending resource because it was only leaving me exhausted and unhappy. The distinction here is that we’re not being constrained by time, but by energy. I was wasting my points on small ticket items and leaving myself without enough points to fuel my creativity. That was a depressing realization, so I decided it was time to try another approach.
I made a giant list of everything that I needed to do. My own to-do list, combined anything and everything that was being asked of me. Whether it was a social obligation or an someone wanting to network over coffee, I wrote it down. Then I put that list aside for the moment.
I asked myself a very simple question: what are the 5 essential things I need to do each day in order to be healthy, happy and fulfilled.
These were my non-negotiables. They were the base that I needed to invest my points in, every single day. Mine were simple:
3) Meditate & Journal
4) Eat Healthy Food
5) Stay Connected with loved ones.
The days that I did those things, I felt amazing, connected, happy. Everything else needed to take be a lower priority. You’ll notice that doing the laundry or cleaning out my closet didn’t make it into my non-negotiables. Neither did going to conferences or networking. And yet I was so willing to spend my effort on the things that weren’t directly tied to my ultimate well being. (That’s not to say that I stopped doing laundry, I just got much better at prioritizing it.)
Face your FOMO
Then I looked at the rest of the list and asked: what am I afraid of missing out on? Everyone tells you to not have “FOMO,” as thought it’s something you can switch off at will. In reality, this behaviour is rooted in your emotional centre, a vulnerable part of you that is reacting to a set of beliefs and expectations. In order to get past it, you have to first understand what it is that you’re afraid of losing. My FOMO was pushing me to go to events and attend meetings because I was scared to be left out. I was afraid I would miss networking opportunities, fun experiences with my friends and inside jokes. I wanted to feel connected to my friends and my community. It’s not that I really wanted to go to all of these events, but I was letting fear motivate me, and that wasn’t a good way to spend my precious effort-points.
Could I schedule some of the things that I needed in a more deliberate way? I started being very specific. Face time calls with close friends who live abroad to maintain our bond, a few weekend getaways with extended family, picking key events to attend to network with people in my industry: small things that helped address the root cause of my anxiety, and helped me strengthen the bonds with the people I cared about.
I began to feel happier and more in control, which made it easy to say no to events or obligations that came up without feeling like I was missing out. I focused on quality of interactions instead of quantity.
Suddenly, I had a more points to play around with. I was getting closer to be able to afford my creativity.
Step 3: Focus on Missing Out
It was easy enough to cut out the things that I didn’t want to do, but now I had a much more difficult challenge: to say no to some of the things that I really wanted to do. Author Elizabeth Gilbert articulates the challenge of maintaining discipline from distractions, while pursuing a creative endeavor:
This was where I really had to choose, to prioritize the creative work that I needed to do in order to feel fulfilled. For me, right now it’s my novel (for fun) and my new book project (for work – details to be announced soon!) that have the majority of my attention. Everything else (with the exception of my non-negotiables) has to wait. I still have some time, but I’m extra choosy about what I do. I’ve moved from a fear of missing out, to focusing on missing out. I say no to anything that will make it hard for me to invest in my creative projects. It no longer feels like missing out, but on choosing to do something I know will be more rewarding in the long run.
Suddenly, I’m not that busy. I have more time than I ever thought possible. Blocks of hours on my calendar to actually get the work done. It’s been so liberating . Thanks to this system, I’ve made more progress on my creative projects in the past few months than I have in the past several years. Everything has a price, whether in time, money, or energy. Understanding the true cost of what you’re paying when you engage in these “busy” activities will help you make smarter choices, and, hopefully, invest in the things that really matter.
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