When we think of productivity we typically think about tasks and to-do lists, working habits and routines. We focus on how to make the most of our time on a daily or at most a weekly basis.
All of which is great, but if this is all we focus on, there’s a danger of getting stuck at the tactical level, getting caught up in the daily round of tasks.
We end up making decisions each morning about what to work on today — based on what feels urgent or important at that moment, not what will bring us the most fulfilment and success over the long term.
If you’re serious about your creative ambitions, you should not be making that decision every morning.
If this is where you find yourself, it’s time to stop and look at the big picture. Crucially, you need to think about your work in terms of projects, not tasks. Because ultimately the level of your achievement will depend on the quantity and quality of the projects you complete.
What do I mean by a project? A substantial piece of work. A book. A movie. An album. An event. A product. A major artwork or a collection of smaller works.
A single poem or song or painting wouldn’t count as a project, but a book of poems or an album full of songs or a series of paintings would.
What do we remember Beethoven for? The symphonies.
What do we remember Picasso for? Guernica.
What do we remember Shakespeare for? King Lear. Macbeth. Hamlet.
What do we remember Sylvia Plath for? Ariel.
What will we remember Francis Ford Coppola for? The Godfather trilogy.
What will we remember Kate Bush for? Hounds of Love.
We won’t remember them for the tasks they ticked off their to do lists, only the major works they produced.
So once in a while, lift your eyes from your daily task list and your weekly calendar, and look to the future.
Start by asking yourself: what do I really want to make? What will fulfil me the most? What do I want to be known for?
If you’re struggling to answer that, here’s the negative version:
When I’m lying on my deathbed, what kind of work will I regret not doing, if I never get round to it?
That will give you the kind of project you need to focus on: books, albums, events, movies, or whatever.
Next, divide your year up into manageable chunks. I divide mine into 3: New Year to Easter, Easter to July, September to Christmas. Some people prefer to divide their year into 4 seasons.
3 or 4 months is a good timescale to think in terms of – big enough to do something substantial, small enough to hold yourself accountable.
Now, it’s decision time! You want to pick one project and make that your focus for the next 3 to 4 months.
Why one? Because if it’s a project worth doing, you’ll need single-minded focus to push through the inner Resistance and external obstacles you’ll encounter.
If you’re anything like me, at any one time you probably have several projects you’re keen to get on with. But unless you focus on one at a time, it’s hard to build the momentum you need to make it happen.
If you try focus on two or more projects, they will jostle for your attention every day, and each project can become a distraction from the others.
But when you have a single project as your main focus, you don’t need to decide what to do on a daily basis. Whatever time is available in between your various responsibilities, you simply devote it to your current project.
This saves you a huge amount of mental effort each day, because you don’t need to decide all over again what your priorities are. And it forces you to stick with the project when it gets difficult, and push through the obstacles.
It also means you can live inside the project for an extended period. When I’m writing a book, or recording a season of this podcast, I’m inside the book, inside the season, for weeks and months at a time, not just the hours I spend writing or recording.
So part of me is always thinking about it, and probably figuring things out at the unconscious level. I notice connections in the world around me and in articles and books I read, or news stories, or in conversation with other people.
And the book or the podcast is all the better for this immersion.
I’m not saying you completely ignore your other projects. Sometimes you have to do a bit of work here and there to keep them alive, especially if they involve other people. But always have a single project as your main focus, and don’t let the others distract from it.
And at the end of your allotted 3-4 month period, it’s time to stop and go up to 10,000 feet again, to review your progress and consider your priorities for the next period.
For example, last year I was working on the funding, launch and promotion of my poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air, so it was the main focus for my spring, summer and autumn seasons.
At the start of this year, it was time to rebalance and focus on The 21st Century Creative podcast again, so I made that my main focus for the spring. Now that it’s finished and rolling out, I’m turning my attention to another project over the summer, that I’m talking about in the 21st Century Creative Patreon group.
And when I reach the autumn, I know I’ll have several projects vying for my attention, so it will probably take me a while to think through which one to prioritise.
So how do you decide which project to focus on when you have several ideas that you want to execute? That’s a great question – I’m going to answer it in next week…
Right now, I suggest you write down the answer to two questions:
Firstly, that question about what kind of work you really want to do and be known for.
And secondly, make a list of all the projects and ideas for projects that you currently have, that you’re itching to get on with.
Next week, I’ll give you some suggestions about how you go through that list and decide which one you’re going to focus on next.