The challenge in doing creative work is understanding and managing limits. The most obvious limit is the amount of time you have to work. However, even if you could somehow remove all interruptions and practical concerns you couldn't possibly do high quality creative work for 18 or even 10 straight hours a day. You only have a fixed amount of creative energy to use before you need to relax and renew that energy store. Even if you're young, highly motivated or if you drink all the coffee, there is no sense in working beyond that limit. The work you do will either be junk or your mind will freeze up and slide you right into procrastination mode. Sometimes you may be able to push hard and get another hour or two but this usually comes at the expense of tomorrow. This creative energy is your most precious resource. There are many ways you can waste that energy but I think a very insidious way is by inventing new ways to repeat yourself. When you do creative work you are inventing not only the thing you make, but also a way of framing the problem. To do any of this you have to think. When you complete your work you will forget that thinking. The next time you work on a similar problem you will waste energy re-thinking it. Any work you do isn't really done until you can repeat it.

Maybe one of your many responsibilities is fixing broken technology. You can treat each incident as separate, start from scratch, and try to determine what things you need to know about the problem. Then you can hunt down evidence and follow the leads from the symptoms, take broken notes, and you will eventually build a solid mental picture of what is wrong and a possible solution. As an alternative, you could automatically do a standard workup, and get some crucial statistics about the problem like the equipment involved, time, software versions, and captures of log files. It would be as easy creating a form for yourself to fill out. This standard format for reporting your findings is good if you work as part of a team, but even if you don't this can give you a head start on the problem and let you save your creative thinking for the hard part.

Or you wish you were a writer of some sort—be it books, blog posts or documentation. You could just sit down and write what catches your fancy when you feel like it. You might be pretty successful. Or you might never find yourself writing; especially if writing is your second, third, fourth or tenth job. You could decide it's important enough to schedule 30 minutes every day to move it forward a little bit. You could formalize it further and create a rough outline of your writing process, developing a progression that starts at finding an idea and maps next steps to the end result. Then you can really use short bursts of work daily, because you have a framework to let you jump right into the actual work. For example, after not writing for years it was only by giving myself permission to write for a short block of time every day that I created this site.

You may rebel against this idea by thinking that working to a checklist is dooming yourself to boring bureaucratic work. Or maybe you see this as selling out and turning yourself from a creative person into a drone of a factory worker. If you don't give yourself a checklist to follow, then you are choosing to waste your creative energy on a solved problem—a problem that you solved already. If you've come up with a way to write an article, why throw that away and start fresh with the next article? Why not start with that scaffolding in place next time to let your creativity soar in new ways you didn't have room or energy for last time, because you were busy inventing the scaffolding? You are going to do the work in some way. Why not be serious and deliberately choose the way you are going to do it?

And the most important advantage to this type of approach is you can build on your framework. You can build gradual improvement into the way you do everything. If the next time you do some work you take a minute at the end and think about how you can do it better next time, you will be giving the future you a head-start. If you don't do this, you are choosing to put a limit on your best by not recognizing and embracing the fact that you have a limit on your best that you can do in one sitting.

The only thing you need in order to take advantage of this idea immediately is a notebook that you know you'll look at again. And the next time you finish a task, open that notebook, set a timer for 5 minutes and answer one question in full sentences, "how can I make this better next time?"

AuthorKevin McAllister