A few weeks ago I was due to run a workshop on Time Management for Creative People, based on my e-book of the same name. Normally, I arrive for presentations at least an hour early, to set everything up, deal with inevitable technical hitches and get in the right frame of mind for the session.
Not this time.
For once, the audience arrived at the venue before I did. In fact, they were all sat there waiting and chatting, with less than a minute to go before the start time – and I was nowhere to be seen.
With just 30 seconds to go, I burst through the door, apologising to my host as I strode to the centre of stage. After frantically fumbling my slides from a USB stick onto the big screen, I laid my notes on the table, took a deep breath and turned to face the audience.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Mark McGuinness. I’m sorry for cutting it so fine this evening.
I know what you’re thinking – “Time management trainer late for his own workshop?!”. It doesn’t look good, does it? However, I do have a good excuse …
I’ve just come from the hospital where I’m pleased to say my wife has just been delivered of two beautiful children.
Cue the biggest standing ovation I’ve ever received.
Like many of you, I now know that parenthood is a wonderful thing. And like many wonderful things, it’s full of challenges. This isn’t a parenting blog, and I’m a rank beginner at the art, so I won’t venture any advice on that subject. What I will do is share some of the lessons I’ve learned from road-testing my productivity system in a high-demand, low-sleep environment. Extreme conditions are great for revealing truly essential behaviours, so most of these lessons should hold true for ‘ordinary’ life as well.
And for those of you who haven’t yet experienced the joys of parenthood: just imagine a very large, charming, fluffy, Godzilla-sized creature picks up your house (finely-tuned productivity system and all) shakes it, turns it upside-down, and plonks it back into place. Several times a day. Then several more times a night. For weeks on end. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is carrying on as usual, and expects you to do the same…
1. Forget Your Routine
Some creators thrive on chaos, others prefer order and routine. I’m definitely in the latter category – I’ve written before about the importance of routine and ritual to my writing process. My ideal working day kicks off with coffee and Google Reader, before proceeding to several hours of uninterrupted writing. Sadly, that sentence now reads ‘kicked off…’.
I’m writing this at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, the first chance I’ve had all week to settle down to writing Monday’s piece for Lateral Action. The only remnant of my previous routine is the fact that I got up not long ago – after spending half the night ministering to my twin bundles of joy, I needed a couple of hours’ kip over lunch before my brain was fit for writing.
Funnily enough, it wouldn’t be so bad if it were like this every day. But every day is different. Tonight the babies could sleep reasonably well, and I could find myself happily ensconced at my desk at breakfast time tomorrow. But there are no guarantees that would continue into Tuesday. And so on.
But here I am, writing away – if you’re reading this, then it must have got written somehow. And I know you’ll let me know in the comments if it’s not up to the usual standard. 😉
Takeaway: A routine is great, but not essential. Don’t get too attached to yours. A master works with whatever tools are available.
If the doctors hadn’t shoved me out the door of the delivery suite with the words “Your babies are fine – go and do your work!” I would have cancelled the workshop. When they’re yelling and I’m ‘on duty’ at home, I drop everything and pick them up.
When I’ve made a commitment to a client to get something done, and my e-mail inbox is filling up, then I let the inbox overflow. When I look at my day’s work, I took out two or three big items that must get done today. Everything else can wait its turn.
I’ve been consciously prioritising like this for several years now. It’s fair to say this habit has saved my bacon over the past few weeks. Even with little time and less sleep, I’ve been able to pick out my top priorities, which has made it easier (if not easy) to get them done.
Takeaway: Keep up – no, get ahead – with the big things. Catch up with the small things.
3. Systems Are More Robust than Routines
Inevitably, my children’s arrival coincided with a particularly intense period of client work. As a result, I have a backlog of 167 e-mails, several guest articles, and a long list of to-do items. You may have noticed that recently I’ve been slower than usual to reply to comments on Lateral Action. Clearly, this isn’t an ideal situation for a productivity teacher!
The good news is, I know exactly what to do about it. Having a well-established productivity system means that:
- I’m clear about my priorities – so I’ve kept up with the really essential stuff.
- I’ve captured all my commitments in buckets – so I probably haven’t forgotten anything important.
- Thanks to Mark Forster, I know how to clear a backlog.
Takeaway: A good routine is desirable; a good system is essential. A routine is broken the moment you interrupt it. But an effective system is like good suspension – robust and flexible enough to carry you over rough terrain.
4. You Can Get Used to Anything
One of the best bits of advice I’ve received was from a friend who became a parent a few months before us: “It gets easier once you accept being tired all the time”. She’s right. Mental clarity and focus are essential for my work, as a coach and trainer as well as writer. I could spend my time lamenting the loss of my usual mental energy, but I’m getting a surprising amount done by working with the time and energy I do have.
Takeaway: Even the worst case scenario will have its plus points. Accept your limitations and see what you can do with them. Creativity thrives on constraints, right?
5. Catnap and Sprint
I’ve written before about the productivity benefits of an afternoon nap, including a technique for napping in a matter of minutes. Have I been glad of that technique these past few weeks!
Nothing beats a good night’s sleep, but I’m discovering that ‘little and often’ is the next best thing. I’m being woken up several times a night, but at least I know how to get to sleep again.
And by catnapping during the day – particularly before high-focus tasks – I can regain enough mental clarity for intensive bursts of concentrated work. My work days feel more like a series of sprints than an extended run, but I’m still managing to cover the ground.
The gym next to our home has been a lifesaver. I can pop down for a 30-45 minute session and feel totally revitalised, even if I’ve been feeling like a zombie all day. We’ve looked at the mental benefits of exercise before, so it’s no surprise but a great relief to know I can recharge my brain with a session on the bikes or treadmill.
Takeaway: When you’re feeling too tired and busy to exercise, that’s a sure sign it’s time to exercise!
7. Teamwork Works
Any productivity writer who becomes father to twins can expect plenty of jokes about ‘batch processing’. 🙂 In the long run, I fervently hope that having twins produces efficiencies of scale, but right now dealing with two babies at once as first-time parents feels incredibly hard work. And we’re grateful for all the help we can get.
My wife heads the list of indispensable people, particularly on days of workshops and client sessions (and the nights before), when she does more than her fair share of childcare, to keep me fresh for my meetings. Family and friends have been incredibly generous with their help. And especially at the beginning, when we all spent the best part of two weeks in hospital, I was glad of good business partners, when I was able to leave the good ship Lateral Action in the capable hands of Brian and Tony.
Takeaway: Businesses are like babies – you can’t create them on your own! Make sure you have good people around you, and don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it.
8. You’re Not Superhuman
As some of my e-mail correspondents will tell you, I haven’t been all things to all people these past few weeks. In some cases I’ve tested people’s patience, and I haven’t felt great about writing so many e-mails beginning “Sorry for the delay getting back to you …”.
But as a recovering perfectionist, I’m trying not to beat myself up too much on that score. We’ve said many times here on Lateral Action that if you want to create anything remarkable, you have to prioritise the big, challenging, inconvenient, exciting projects over the clamouring demands of the moment. And babies certainly fall into the former category.
Takeaway: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Choose wisely.
9. Some Things Are More Important than Work
I try not to take myself too seriously, but I am serious about my work. We have a lot of fun working on Lateral Action, but we’re also on a mission to change the world, in our own small way – by empowering creative people to create remarkable things. All of which is important.
But there’s a different kind of important – a more everyday, down-to-earth, moment-to-moment kind of important. One with no ambition to change the world, just accept and enjoy it the way it is – and share it with those who are close to you. After just two months, I’m still a novice at this parenting game, but I’ve not found any better reminders of this kind of important than the two little bundles of fun who have just fallen asleep, with impeccable timing, just as I’m finishing my day’s writing.
Takeaway: Sometimes the small things are the big things.
How Do You Manage?
Parents – How do you keep your work on track while taking good care of your kids? All suggestions gratefully received! 🙂
How has parenthood affected your creativity – positively and/or negatively?
Non-parents – have you ever had a major disruption to your working routine? How did you cope?
Image: Wikimedia Commons
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.