Nancy: Can Creativity Be Scheduled?

Week 1 of My 12-Week Year Creativity Schedule. I might have gotten a little carried away…Note that I did not schedule transition time between major activities. Or  lunch time.

There many, many schools of thought regarding creativity, grasshopper. Looking specifically at writing, there are pantsers and plotters, planners and wingers, outline enthusiasts, outline eschewers, thumbnail sketch makers, muse-seeking free spirits, spreadsheet weirdos (raises hand). It seems creativity refuses to be contained. You can’t put creativity in a corner!

But can you put creativity in a time block on a calendar?

Ever willing to be a cautionary tale, I threw myself on the sword of research with an intense productivity system, called the 12-Week Year, so I can report my findings. For more information about this system and how to implement it, there are books, courses, and seminars. Boiling it down for you, the idea is based on data that suggest companies (and individual employees), when aligning to their annual plans, see a burst of productivity and forward progress during the last three months of their fiscal years. Why? The theory is that with the deadline now looming in the foreseeable future, roughly 12 weeks, people get motivated. Or realize they just cannot procrastinate any longer.

Because my days are no longer centered around a high-stress day job or young children, my time is, for the most part, mine to schedule. Also, I like structure. I like deadlines. I don’t mind coloring outside the lines sometimes, but I do want to see where the lines are. So armed with Brian Moran’s book on the plan, I identified my most important goals – the book recommends no more than 3-5 – and broke them down into executable steps with metrics attached, then started applying those steps to calendars for 12 weeks. I scheduled my Most Important Thing for the day into the first time block (this is based on all sorts of productivity training given in corporate America). And just to be sure I didn’t short-shrift anything, I let each major goal have at least one day a week when it was the MIT.

Learning from My Mistakes Over-Enthusiasm

Anyone familiar with the blog will probably not be surprised to hear how this went. I over-scheduled. Got caught up in the excitement of color-coded schedules and long days full of heady productivity. I did okay in the first week, thrived in the second week, fell behind in the third week. By the fourth week, I was reworking the schedule to pencil in naps.

I’m still limping along with some weeks left and my progress hasn’t been horrible. But I have changed the way my schedule works because I have learned stuff. With enough pain and suffering, I can be taught!

Lesson 1) I cannot do more than two REALLY BIG THINGS in a day. Back against the wall, knife to my throat, finish it or miss an editor’s deadline kind of situation, I’d find a way to make it work. But transitioning more than once, or some days even once from one project to another exhausts me and drains my creativity in really short order. Because I’m working on multiple projects at the moment (two revisions, one first draft, and my website/newsletter/marketing plan), I have a lot of ground to cover each week, and it’s tempting to touch every project every day. But my brain does not agree.

The takeaway: Listen to what your brain and mood and energy levels are telling you. Occasionally being tired, overwhelmed, or drained is normal. Sliding into complete overload and exhaustion is not.

Lesson 2) The best-laid plans sometimes go astray. There were times, despite all my planning and color coding and knowing what I should be doing at a particular moment in time, when my thoughts slid sideways into something else. At these times, it’s often wise to capture these thoughts lest you lose them, which happened to me a few times.

Because I worked many years in a profession that required similar skills to writing – analysis/planning, creativity/producing, rote tasks/record-keeping – I already knew the times of day I’d function best in each of these areas. So when I was writing new words in the morning, I shouldn’t have been surprised that sometimes thoughts about how I was going to fix that problem with the goal in my revision project interrupted. In the morning, my brain loves to analyze. In the first week of my 12-week year, when I was so diligently adhering to my crazy schedule, I put off those interrupting thoughts until that project’s time block showed up on my schedule. And then spent way too much time trying to reconstruct something that had been so crystal clear to me just hours earlier.

The takeaway: Write down stray but pertinent thoughts before you lose them. Be open to capturing those thoughts on paper, or maybe even spending 15 minutes on the task your brain is pushing to the forefront.

Lesson 3) When the schedule fails me, I need to rework the schedule. I knew after week 1 that I was doing too much, switching gears too often, and losing focus too frequently. Still, I persisted. Often this is a good thing. In this case, it was not. This led to the crash and burn of week 4. I didn’t actually while away my time napping, but I desperately wanted to do so. And my productivity took a nosedive.

The takeaway: The schedule will only work if it is workable. In the 12-week year, as in many productivity programs, there’s a built-in time for reviewing metrics and analyzing progress. Those reviews should not just be about numbers – did I make word count or revise as many chapters as I’d planned. They should also include an honest analysis of how sustainable the schedule is over the remaining weeks.

Learning from Long-Time Professionals

Nora Roberts has said she finishes her pages for the day before she does anything else, no matter how long or short that makes her writing block of time. Chuck Wendig achieves amazing levels of prolific creation by writing every day (in a writing shed, no less!).  Maria V. Snyder has written more than 15 books in the past decade by sequestering herself in her writing study in the dead of night, 5 or more nights a week.

Jennifer Crusie, however, is not in the daily writing camp. If you follow Jenny’s blog, you’ll see that she leaves the writing field fallow for long swaths of time, then writes (and collages and Curios) in a white-hot heat of productivity with an almost daily output. And hella amazing craft.

Regardless of the frequency of their writing, one common thread I’ve noticed with these long-time professional authors is they follow their own rhythms. Can’t write first thing in the morning like so much creativity advice insists you should? Don’t. Can’t keep your eyes open to write past 8PM? No problem. You do you, no matter what the productivity professionals say. Tell them Nora and Chuck and Maria and Jenny said you could. Or point them to this article on Lifehacker that offers some research-backed advice.

How You Can Do This at Home Without Getting Hurt

1) Figure out your own creativity schedule. If you’re going to write at the right time of day for you, you’ll need to figure out just what that is.

Now is the time for some honesty you might not like, but you know is true. If your time is beholden to others – your children, other family members, a company that employs you for the day job that pays your bills – you might have to get creative here in a different way. You very well might be otherwise engaged during your most productive writing time. Someday this might change. In the meantime, look at the bits of time that are not yet spoken for. When you can, be a bit ruthless with your time. Say no sometimes. Don’t always put yourself and your writing dead last.

Whether you’re pecking around the edges of a few hours here and there, or fortunate enough to have large blocks of time to devote to writing, take your time out for a test drive. Focus on the different aspects of writing – planning, reviewing/rewriting, problem-solving, getting words on the page – at various times. Over the course of a few weeks, you’ll probably see some patterns emerge, times when your brain is more interested in running free in a field of words and other times when it seems hell-bent on puzzling through why John broke up with Mary in chapter 2 and how that will affect the rest of the story. Keep a journal. WRITE IT DOWN. And build your schedule accordingly.

2) Allow yourself some flexibility. Now that you have a handy-dandy schedule, be prepared to ignore it. No, don’t actually ignore it. But don’t be so tied to the idea that you must be creating new words from 1-3 PM that you won’t listen when your brain tells you it solved that plot problem you needed to resolve to update your outline. If the interruptions become too frequent, consider that you might have misread your creative rhythms and try reworking the schedule.

3) Worry more about the habit of writing than the details of a schedule. Whether you’ve decided you’re going to write 7 days a week, every weekday, twice a week, or every other Saturday, get it on your calendar. Set reminders. Put your butt in the chair. And then be patient. Some days the words won’t come, or the ones that do show up will be crap. Or you’ll find yourself doodling and daydreaming about the project instead of wracking up word count. Remember that flexibility we just discussed? This is where that comes into your creative schedule. Be kind to your creative self.

There you go, easy-peasy. (Yes, that is sarcasm. The writing life might be a calling, a joy, and a rewarding path, but it is rarely easy.) But whether you follow a strict, structured schedule or set a reminder to get butt in chair at the same time every day or every few days or once a week, if you follow your own creativity cycles of highs and lows, yes, Virginia, you can and probably should schedule creativity.

Do you schedule your creative time, or just take it when it comes, like manna dropping from heaven? Have you blocked out your writing time on your calendar for the week? Are you willing to give it a try?

5 thoughts on “Nancy: Can Creativity Be Scheduled?

  1. This is great to see how you work through this, and the timing is excellent. We’ve got about a week left of May, and then we start a new traditional quarter. Why not make June-July-August count for something? So many writing goal programs are centered on a yearly basis (which makes sense for a novel-from-scratch), but quarterly has suddenly caught my imagination. By the time lovely September rolls around, I’d like to have my story finished. At least the first draft.

    • There is something, too, to accomplishing a project or reaching certain in the span of a season, I think. The fall is probably the most productive time for me, but since this will be the first summer post-day job hell, I think I’ll set my sights on making serious progress over those months. However, I will be scheduling lunchtime, and the occasional midday nap, maybe lolling in a hammock. Now I just need to get a hammock and find some trees in our little forest not surrounded by poison ivy.

  2. Nancy, I appreciate your willingness to be a cautionary tale on this 🙂

    I’m definitely familiar (via the Dreaded Day Job) of that Q4 productivity jump. On a smaller scale, there is the productivity rush I always seem to get those last few hours before heading off on a vacation or travel day at work. It’s not so much scheduling in that instance but more a case of “stop thinking about doing it and just do it.”

    During NaNo month I definitely schedule productivity. Last time around, it was that quiet hour after everyone was asleep that was my key productive time. Hard to sustain that over the long term though, as it made getting up for work each morning a real challenge.

    I have a creativity scheduling journal here at home (blank of course). I think I’ll set up a 4-week trial schedule for June and see how that goes. Unlike your schedule, however, there will definitely be some nap-time penciled in.

    Off now to gather up the colored markers and to figure out what my Really Big Things are.

    • I bought myself a lovely journal around February, and even got colorful doo-dads and stickers to use in it. Alas, it remains empty. It was fun picking out all the items with the idea of making it work, but the scheduling part of my brain doesn’t seem all that anxious to use it. Maybe the summer quarter Micki mentioned in her comment is the time to give it a try, though!

      Good luck with your Really Big Things and planning, and even more importantly, on accomplishing them!

  3. Pingback: Jilly: The Joy of Podcasts – Eight Ladies Writing

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