Planning Creative Time = Greater Efficiency

Thinking about how you’re going to spend your creative time before you start working has felt so obvious to me for such a long time that I never even thought to write about it.  That all changed when I was emailing with a programmer friend of mine who’s got a lot on his plate life-wise, and he wanted to share a new method he’s been trying to make better use of his time:

I’m thinking it might be better to work in 30 minute chunks on code projects because that might be all I can handle right now. It doesn’t seem like enough time to really do anything but it works a lot better if I spend time thinking about how I’ll spend that 30 min so when I sit down I know what I’m doing.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.  There’s basically two principles at work here:

  • Dividing your creative time into smaller (30-minute) chunks to keep a constant momentum.
  • Spending the time between work sessions planning your next creative move.

I like the 30 minute idea a lot because on all but the most insanely hectic weeks, 30 minutes of distraction-free time a few days a week is an incredibly manageable amount.  Since most of us have a million things going on, taking on a smaller, more reasonable work goal helps you get at least some work done and stops you from beating yourself up for not spending 30 hours a week on your project, like I talked about in my entry on finding the best schedule for your creative work time.

The second aspect of my friend’s advice is doubly important because if you’re only setting aside a few 30-minute sessions a week, it’s damned important that every minute of those sessions be worthwhile, rather than riddled with distractions or wasted time staring at a blank screen/canvas/piece of paper/whatever, since that reduces your confidence and makes it harder to sit down for your next session.

(Think about it—after a bad session of creative work, it’s easy to start the next day frustrated, or to just skip the creative workday and watch Netflix instead.  The same’s true if you swear you’re going to work on creative stuff every day and then miss a day or two—it’s easy to get discouraged and then stop trying altogether).

Thinking about your projects on your off time is something all of us can do—especially in those free moments we all have while driving, preparing dinner, or taking a shower, where our minds can mull over the problems we’re facing in our creative work and plan how best to tackle them.  This is an especially powerful way to work because our unconscious minds are real powerhouses when it comes to solving problems, and it’s amazing how much clearer things seem after some time away.

In my case, with my novel, during my non-writing time I’ll try to think about what needs to happen in the next few pages, how I’ll start the next scene, what the characters are going to talk about, how to describe the setting, and other issues of medium importance.  Most of these are problems that come up during the writing process rather than overarching plot issues (which I tend to think through beforehand when I make an outline), and solving some of these problems during my off time leaves my writing time freer for other things—namely, the writing itself.

This process has helped me through a lot of rough patches, especially when it comes to cutting out that intimidating challenge of actually sitting down to write.  I find that if I know what my first paragraph, or even my first sentence is going to look like, it’s about a million times easier to start working and make real progress.

I especially like working more consistently in shorter bursts (though mine tend to be 2-3 hours when I can manage it!) because when I’m really engaged in a project it feels like I’m constantly involved with it, since I’m always thinking about the problems involved and getting more excited about the project itself.  It also helps ward off boredom or frustration caused by Day Job problems or long commutes, because during these otherwise barren spans of time I can think about my projects instead.

Finally, I also like this system because it doesn’t require a lot of life changes or complicated scheduling—odds are, you’re probably thinking about your creative work at least a little during your off time already.  Becoming more aware of how powerful this thinking time is helps you use it more effectively, which then leads to more fulfilling and productive work sessions.

After all, isn’t that the real goal?