If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.
If you’re not careful, one of the greatest blessings of the creative mindset can turn into a huge curse.
You see opportunities everywhere. Things you read, people you meet, places you go, experiences at work, at home, even in love – all of them are liable to spark a new idea for a great project or piece of work. You imagine how great the finished outcome will be, and enthusiastically start work. But if you keep doing this, day after day, you will inevitably find yourself starting more projects than you can possibly finish. It’s the creative equivalent of having ‘eyes bigger than your stomach’.
And if you have a thriving network of creative contacts, new ideas and opportunities will come to you every day, in your inbox, in meetings, text messages and casual conversations. Because of the way our mirror neurons work, it’s easy to get infected with other people’s enthusiasm (the invisible carrot); and you’re a nice person, so you hate to disappoint anyone by saying ‘no’ when they come to you with a proposal (the invisible stick).
All of which adds to a pile of projects on your desk. You feel stressed, overloaded, guilty, rushing around yet feeling that you’re getting nowhere. Something has to give. And that something is your creativity. Stress, guilt and anxiety take up the mental bandwidth that used to be reserved for imaginative thinking and focused execution. You may be cranking stuff out, but it’s less and less remarkable. It can get to the point where your commitments become so overwhelming that you procrastinate to avoid contemplating it – which only makes things worse.
This is the situation described by Mats, in response to our invitation to tell us about your creative blocks:
My problem is all about execution, I get too excited at first, involved in to many projects and then I get overloaded with things to do. This makes me procrastinate, do other less important things and many things doesn’t get completed. This in turn makes me more overloaded, feel bad about myself and the threshold to to do what needs to be done gets huger and huger like an evil circle.
Family responsibilities and many “must do’s” add to the problem.
Mats, you need to stop taking on so many projects.
That’s the answer, but it’s probably not much help. I’m sure you know it already. And well-meaning friends and colleagues have probably told you something similar. But if it were that easy, you’d have done it by now, right?
So here’s a four-step process to help you cut down your commitments and get back in the creative and productive zone.
1. Stop Saying Yes so Quickly
It sounds like you have plenty of natural enthusiasm, which is a terrific asset. But it’s leading you to say ‘yes’ too quickly and too often. And once you’ve said ‘yes’ to someone else, it’s hard to go back on your commitment.
So the first place to start is to make this your default response when anybody comes to you with a new project:
This sounds a great idea and I’m really excited about it. I think it’s got a lot of possibilities, but I’ll need to think it over before deciding whether I can take it on. Is it OK if I get back to you tomorrow?
It’s important to make this your default response even if you are 100% convinced that it’s something you want to do. If it really is such a great opportunity, and the other person really wants you on board, they can wait 24 hours. If they pressure you for an instant decision on a big commitment, I’d question their motives – and whether they’re going to be a great person to work with anyway.
This will give you a breathing space, an opportunity to reflect and consider the implications of taking on the project. Not to mention looking at your schedule and list of current projects (see below). ‘Sleeping on it’ is a great idea, because it allows your unconscious mind time to process all the details, and gives you the opportunity to take a fresh look at it tomorrow morning. In the cold light of day, you may notice a few niggling doubts or concerns that need to be ironed out – or which could even be a showstopper.
Apparently the Vikings used to make every important decision twice – once drunk and once sober. You may not need to go that far, but beware of making decisions when you’re intoxicated by enthusiasm. A little sober reflection could save you from a big hangover. 🙂
2. Know When Your Schedule Is Full
When you fill a glass with water, it’s obvious when it’s full, so it’s easy to stop before it overflows. If only it were so easy to see when a schedule is full.
Compared to a glass of water, our schedules are invisible. They are made up of bits of information that we can arrange in all kinds of ways – in a diary, calendar, to-do list, or those little scraps of paper that have fallen down behind your desk. We need to find ways of making the information more visible, and gauging when the diary is full.
Step back and look at the big picture of all of your commitments right now. Make a list of the projects you are currently committed to. For each project, estimate how many days work they are likely to take – then add a few on for good measure.
Now look at your diary or calendar for the next three months. Assume that you can only work on one project per day. Mark the deadlines. Now count up the number of days you have available to work on your projects. Compare the number with your estimates for each project. How do they match up?
- If you’ve got fewer ‘project days’ than ‘calendar days’ you may be doing okay – as long as you’ve got your estimates right. For the next three months, tick off the actual number of days you spend on each project, and use this information to get better at estimating.
- If you’ve got the same number of project days and calendar days you’re at full capacity and can’t take anything else on for the next three months.
- If you’ve got more project days than calendar days you need to make some changes. Your choices are: cancel some projects; renegotiate deadlines; get help; find ways to improve your productivity (that don’t include ‘working harder’!).
Whatever the outcome, you now know whether you have the capacity to take on any new projects. You know whether your glass is half empty, full, or overflowing.
If you value your creativity, beware of filling your glass all the way to the top. Outstanding creators typically leave some blank space in their schedule, to relax, recharge, do nothing and allow their minds to wander – which as we all know, is the time when inspiration is most likely to strike. And Google doesn’t let its engineers spend 20% of their time on their own projects out of the goodness of its heart – it knows that freedom, autonomy and downtime are essential for innovation.
3. Decide on Your Priorities
So much for your present capacity. But quantity isn’t quality – how can you know whether or not to take on future projects, whether they come from other people or your own imagination?
The key to good decision-making is knowing your real priorities. And a good place to start is psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s arranged in a pyramid with our basic biological needs at the bottom, because these need to be satisfied before you can move up the pyramid to the other needs (if you ain’t breathing, you ain’t doing much else).
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Once physiological and safety needs are taken care of, we are free to focus on social needs such as love, belonging, esteem and status. And once our physical and social needs are assured, argued Maslow, we have enough of a solid base to focus on self-actualisation, i.e. becoming all that we can be, by using our talents to the full, for sheer pleasure and achievement. Note that he placed creativity in this category.
The psychologists are still arguing over whether Maslow got it right with his pyramid, and it may not be an exact fit for you and your life. But what I want you to do is to draw your own hierarchy of needs, so that you can use it as the basis for future decisions.
- Draw a pyramid like Maslow’s, with different levels. Start at the bottom, by filling in the things you absolutely have to do for your career/business to survive. If you’re an employee, this includes all the non-negotiable stuff in your contract. If you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur, this is the stuff that pays the bills. Neglect it at your peril!
- Now fill in the very top of the pyramid – this is the stuff you would do if you won the proverbial lottery, i.e. if you had all the money you needed and could spend your days doing exactly what you pleased.
- Now fill in the levels in between – these represent the finer grades of ‘stuff I have to do’ versus ‘stuff I love to do’. You might also want to include things that may not bring you money, but will boost your network and social status – stuff like writing a blog, speaking at a public event, attending a conference or helping out in your professional community.
Your pyramid shows you your priorities. Pin it up above your desk, make it your screensaver or get it printed on your duvet – whatever will help to keep it front of mind for you for the next few weeks, until it’s burned into your memory.
I am not going to tell you to start at the bottom and work your way up. That may sound a sensible option, but if you take it too literally you’ll end up spending all your time on grunt work and none on the stuff you really enjoy. And obviously you should be aware of starting at the top of the pyramid and working your way down (unless you find the ‘starving artist’ lifestyle attractive :-)).
Have another look at your diary. Promise yourself that over the course of the next three months, you will give yourself a reasonable balance between all the different levels of your pyramid. You’ll be doing everything you need to to fulfil your responsibilities, keep everyone happy and keep the cash rolling in. And you’ll also be making time to work on your own pet projects, as well as other things that are both personally and professionally rewarding.
No, you won’t be able to do a bit of everything every day. Some days, you just have to put your head down and crank things out, whether you like them or not. But try to visit every level of your pyramid at least once a week. That should make every week more creative, productive – and enjoyable.
4. Start Saying ‘No’
OK, from the first three steps in this process, you now know how to:
- avoid committing to new projects too quickly
- estimate whether you have the capacity to take on anything new
- decide whether a new opportunity is a good fit with your priorities and other commitments
That should save you from filling up your schedule with projects you dream up yourself. But what about all those proposals and demands from other people? How can you stop committing to more than you can deliver?
Well firstly, 1-3 will help you decide whether the other person’s idea is something you want to do. It will give you the time to think it over, see how much time you have available and whether it’s aligned with your own priorities. So when you say ‘yes’ you can say it confidently, knowing you will keep your promises.
But what if the answer you come up with is ‘no’? How can you tell that to the other person without disappointing them or annoying them?
The short answer is that you can’t guarantee that they won’t react badly. Other people are outside of your control, that’s what makes them so
annoying interesting. Sometimes they’ll fly off the handle or act hurt, or try to guilt you into doing stuff you really know you shouldn’t. Sometimes you just have to stand there and take it. Then say “I’m sorry, but the answer’s still no”. And get back on your real work.
Sometimes you have to risk looking ‘selfish’ in the short term in order to do the things that make the most difference in the long term.
If you’re worried about disappointing people, then it’s better to disappoint them a little bit up front by saying ‘no’, than to disappoint them a lot later on by not delivering on your word.
But a lot of the time, it’s not as bad as that. Since I started taking this approach, I’ve often been pleasantly surprised by people reacting positively, and telling me they respect my decision.
And if you weigh up all those little disappointments against the big satisfaction you deliver each time you complete a task on schedule and over expectations, you’ll probably find the balance tipping in your favour.
But what about the ‘family commitments’ I mentioned?”
Don’t worry, I’ve not forgotten them. For commitments to adult family members, have a look at the earlier piece in this series, How to Find Time for Creative Work.
If there are children involved, they are a special case – which we’re going to address later in the Creative Blocks series …
Over to You
Have you ever found yourself overloaded by taking on too many projects? What did you do?
Can you see this four step process helping you?
What advice can you offer Mats?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.