When Do You Enter the Creative Zone?


That was the number of new emails a sales executive I was working with had received during a day spent offline and off-site doing strategic planning work.

A dozen voice mails. “Add that to the list.” He shared, “I always have at least a dozen phone calls I need to return. There just isn’t enough time in the day.”

No there isn’t. Not at his pace. It isn’t sustainable. Just to put a dent into the 217 he’ll be online, after dinner with his family, until past midnight.

Earlier this month I was in Boston working with a group of small-business owners. Our research identified their biggest business challenge: Capacity. They simply run out of time. This situation isn’t isolated to entrepreneurs or big business sales executives. To the contrary, the way we are working, isn’t working, Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath argue:

“For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.

Demand for our time is increasingly exceeding our capacity — draining us of the energy we need to bring our skill and talent fully to life. Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession work force add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology is perhaps the biggest influence, exposing us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night.”

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, “More than half of employed adults said they check work messages at least once a day over the weekend.” Almost the same number also did so before or after work on weekdays and during sick days. A full 44% even do it while on vacation. The American Time Survey found that 34% of those employed work on an average of one weekend day every week, rising to 43% in the growing ranks of the self-employed.

So often, we simply aren’t set up to accomplish anything meaningful in the office.

This tension is a natural result of the inherent tension in the Manager vs. Maker schedule.

The idea is that a manager’s day, as a rule, is sliced up into a lot of slots, each with a specific purpose decided in advance. Many of those slots are used for meetings, calls or emails. Managers spend a lot of time “putting out fires” and doing reactive work. An important call or email comes in, so it gets answered. The idea is that managers don’t necessarily need the capacity for deep focus (although I might argue with that) — they primarily need the ability to make fast, smart decisions. In a three-minute meeting, they have the potential to generate (or destroy) enormous value through their decisions and expertise.

A maker’s schedule is different. It’s made up of long blocks of time reserved for focusing on particular tasks, or the entire day might be devoted to one activity. Breaking up a maker’s day into slots of a few minutes each would be the equivalent of doing nothing.

Some people are primarily one or the other — managers or makers. But more and more people, like me, have roles that are a little bit of both. It’s overwhelming to schedule time for those two different kinds of productivity: the flurry of activity and quick decisions, plus the intense, focused time for deep thinking and creative work.

I have struggled to protect my time, attention and mind space. As a business owner, I want to work on my business, not just in it.  I need long blocks of time to think and create. But it’s easy to get pushed through your day by meeting invites, urgent emails and unscheduled phone calls.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a number of ways to build a creative zone into my schedule. Here are a few of the strategies that are working well for me now.

Protect Your Time

I recently read an article about a company that builds two-hour blocks of creative time into every day. During these “creative zones,” no one is supposed to send emails, schedule meetings or interrupt their co-workers.

Some companies have a full day every week or month for deep work. I need more than that. For me it’s every day before 10 a.m. If I’m not speaking or traveling, my team knows that my mornings are sacred. I don’t open my email or schedule calls before 10. It’s when I think about my biggest business challenges, plan for the future and write. I get three to four hours of quality focus for deep work a few days each week during why I know is my absolute peak work time: early morning. The key is to get into the habit of protecting blocks of time. Time is simply the most important resource you’ve got.

Prepare Yourself for Deep Work

I don’t know about you, but it takes me a little while to get into the groove of creative work. If I’ve been on calls or digging out of my inbox for hours, I can’t jump straight into writing. I’ve learned how to set myself up for success by creating an environment that helps me tap into my creativity.

In the book “Deep Work,” Cal Newport talks about the cost of on-ramping and off-ramping. Basically, if you’re writing a blog post or designing a presentation but you stop to respond to a text message, you pay a major price in terms of focus and attention. When you get out of the creative flow state, it takes on average more than 20 minutes to refocus and get back into it.

That’s definitely true for me, so I create some physical separation from my distractions. I close my laptop, turn off notifications on my phone and switch gears. Sometimes I’ll listen to soft music, sometimes I’ll go outside, take a walk along the Mississippi River or stroll down the street to my favorite coffee shop. I’ve got to get into a relaxed state to get into that creative rhythm.

Giving myself the time and space to do that is the only way I’ll be able to contribute coherently and think through big, abstract, creative projects.

Align Your Energy to Your Priorities

I can hear your objections already. If you work full time in an office, or you manage an on-site team that needs your attention, you might be thinking “Sure, that works for you as an entrepreneur who can work at home or in coffee shops. But that won’t work for me.”

My advice for you: Map your time to your priorities. So if you’re an executive, for example, maybe your people are your priority. But if you say you have an open-door policy, and then we audit your calendar for the past three weeks and you didn’t really have any one-on-ones or committed to scheduled quality time with your people, I’d say the way you’re working isn’t in alignment with your highest priorities. It’s all about the calendar. What gets scheduled gets done.

Exercise Discipline

When I schedule blocks of time for creative work on my calendar, I still have to hold myself accountable for actually doing it. I look at exercise the same way. If I have a yoga class scheduled for this afternoon at 4:30, I treat that class like the CEO of an important prospective client is calling to talk about a contract. It’s that important, and unless there’s a massive emergency, I’m going to that class. My team knows it. That’s not getting messed with.

If you don’t set those priorities and have discipline around them, it’s too easy to make excuses, move something around and eventually lose touch with what you really want and how you want to spend your time. Those little moments of decision are cumulative. One small distraction and a few decisions later and by the end of the week you are totally off course.

I get it. Fighting back against the constant “urgent” demands for your time can feel like a battle you’ll never win. Maybe you’re never going to be able to start your workday at 10 a.m. But what if you schedule two two-hour blocks of time every week to think about the business, invest in you and problem-solve? Perhaps a better question: What is the opportunity cost to you and the business if you don’t?

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