If you’re anything like me, your to-do list just keeps getting bigger. Some days creative time – getting lost in ideas, executing something flawlessly, or amplifying conversations – can feel like a distant dream, sidelined by endless meetings, burn-em-down fire drills, and last-minute strategy changes.
Heck, sometimes creativity can feel like a luxury.
Hang on. We’re creative professionals, right?
You might think, “Ah, she’s talking about productivity hacking. I got this.” But the world doesn’t need another article on productivity hacking, at least not from me. Don’t get me wrong – there are some great ones here, here and here.
I am talking about making space for what really matters to you as a creative professional: how to keep your creative juices flowing when your organization seems to want to suck it out of you, like some cranky teenaged vampire.
First, let me tell you about my struggle with making creative space.
I always wanted to help people. I prided myself on being the person who could swing into action and get that interaction problem solved, save that research plan, dive into the messed-up team and help it get going again, and do whatever last-minute thing someone needed done and execute it flawlessly, and to a higher standard than they even expected. I was a Helper on Steroids.
This served me very well in my early career – until it didn’t.
Sidelining the important stuff
As my responsibilities increased, with new roles and leadership positions, I could never seem to get the next article on design facilitation written for the Adaptive Path blog. I could never find time to complete the Customer Experience strategy vision for Hot Studio or get the job descriptions written for the recruiting initiative or build that design facilitation library or plan a vacation or hit that conference on Collective Intelligence I’d heard so much about… or… or… or….
Around me, loads of smart people were in the same boat. Company websites took years to launch (at every firm I belonged to). Initiatives were half started then dropped mysteriously. Big ideas vaporized. Of course, I (and everyone around me) blamed it on [insert company name here]’s culture.
Here’s where it gets real. This whirlwind of half-finished initiatives got worse when I left the world of design firms and became an entrepreneur – way worse. I let whatever was coming in my inbox, whatever client needs arose, or whatever delivery man showed up at the door become the THING I needed to focus on. I told myself I was in service of others, that I was a Helper.
I never seemed to have time for product development or writing articles for the blog or getting out and finding awesome facilitators or growing my business. All I did was put out fires.
And guess what? There was no one else to blame! Just me. No “demanding” boss, no “disorganized” coworker, no “nonexistent” process – just me and my behavior.
This crisis – and it got to a crisis point – taught me all kinds of things.
Beware the Hero complex
Sometimes helping other people isn’t really about being generous. Sometimes I wanted to feel like and be seen as a Hero. When I helped someone out of a jam, I was popular. I was needed. I was secure in my job. I got something very powerful from helping other people out – almost like an addiction
Don’t get me wrong – being generous with your time and knowledge is a wonderful trait and one that fosters collective creativity. I just had to learn the difference between “saving the day” and supporting other people’s work in a meaningful, sustainable way.
If I was running around busy, I didn’t have to focus on the scary stuff
Writing an article, building a speaking career, developing and launching a new product – all are risky stuff that leaves you vulnerable. I would have to show people what I was really made of, what I was really thinking, what I was really capable of. And if I failed, everyone would know it. Doing other people’s stuff kept that anxiety at bay.
And finally, if I didn’t get this under control, I was doomed.
It turns out that busyness was an addiction, and a hard one to break. It’s a little like substance addiction – it gives you something seductive and powerful. It is so powerful you don’t notice things eroding around you until you look up and your entire life has burned down. Worse, I couldn’t really do what I was put here on the earth to do.
Overcoming Helper on Steroids
Today I have a successful business helping creative leaders develop thriving teams so they can create great products and services. I am launching The Radical Visionary, which I am very excited about, and I find time every day to write, plan, and dream. My business is 100% about service to others, yet I am no longer in Helper on Steroids mode. AND I am still getting through my to-do list!
How is that possible? Here’s what I do.
1. Commit to inspiration time
Creativity is like breathing – it has two parts, inhalation and exhalation. You have to have both or you will suffocate. For me, it’s being quiet, in a corner, pen or keyboard in hand, on a daily basis for 30 minutes, minimum. Email only gets opened after I’ve completed that.
Resource: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.
2. Say No to the Hero
I don’t need to save other people’s day everyday. In fact, sometimes it’s better for the other person to help themselves or for me to act as a collaborative partner. I make the Hero a special event, when someone really needs my help – and then I really give 100%. I make a conscious choice to say yes to them and no to my important tasks for the day.
Resource: 7 Simple Ways to Say ‘No.
3. Notice and Tame Anxiety
As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I can tell you that anxiety can be a creativity killer. But it can also be a creativity booster if you learn to tame it rather than letting it rule you. I pause when I feel myself going into busy mode and ask myself what I am trying to avoid. If the motivation for busyness is to avoid something difficult, then I sit myself back down and keep finishing the task at hand.
Resource: Mastering Creative Anxiety by Eric Maisel.
4. Focus on the Important/Not Urgent first, then the Important/Urgent. Delegate or forget the rest
I’m calling on the late Stephen Covey here and his Important/Urgent grid. In a nutshell, you want to spend most of your time and energy only on important things, and spend the rest on urgent and important things. Writing every morning? Important, not urgent. Finding a mentor? Important, not urgent. Completing your annual strategy? Important and urgent. The further up the leadership chain you go, the more critical this skill becomes. In fact, once you get quite high up, you should be spending most of your time on Important/Not Urgent and delegating everything else.
Resource: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.
5. Know Yourself and Dream BIG
The best way to know what to say yes to is to build a strong platform for yourself – one built on values, beliefs, and a BIG vision for yourself, for your team, and for your product. Let that, not your inbox, make your decisions.
As creative professionals, our lifeblood comes from our ability to manufacture inspiration and execute ideas. To do this, we have to have balance. We have to have a combination of inspiration and expiration.
How to cut your to-do list in half
At the top, I promised to tell you how to cut your to-do list in half. I might have been a little misleading – but with a purpose. It’s less about the length of your to-do list than it is about focusing your energy and attention. When you get good at saying no to mindless busyness and no to compulsive Hero behaviors, you get to say yes to the things that really matter to you. As a result, your list may not get shorter, but you will go further, faster – and will have more fun doing it.
All right, that’s it from me!