The Value of UNINTERRUPTED creative time

If you look at the first 1-2 hours of my day, there are no meetings scheduled. On my calendar, there’s a 2-hour block that’s marked as writing and creation time. It’s a period in which I make sure there are absolutely no interruptions: 

  • No mindless social media / webbrowsing
  • No e-mail checking
  • No phone calls
  • No news checking (which i do less and less anyways)
  • No responding to texts

The truth is, if you really want to create something in your life it can't be treated as a by product and always shifted to “later”. You HAVE to make it your first priority and because we all have obligations, jobs, children etc... to care for as well, that means i sometimes have to get up at 5 am. 

What Is Needed for Good Creative Work?

In his oft-cited essay, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” Paul Graham highlights the unique demands of creative work (the type of work produced by a “maker,” in Graham’s lexicon). The maker’s schedule, he explains, is defined by long, open stretches of uninterrupted work. For a maker, “a single meeting can blow a whole afternoon.” Graham describes his own schedule, from his time working in a software start-up, as starting after dinner and lasting until 3am, explaining: “At night no one could interrupt me.”

In Graham’s construction, I identified two justifications for the importance of long stretches of uninterrupted work:

  • Shifting Mental Modes: When the mind knows it has no interruptions looming, it can shift into the flow state required to produce high-quality output.

  • Providing Freedom to Explore: Real creative work is non-linear, often requiring long, unexpected detours to uncover the contours of the problem at hand. Long stretches of time provide the freedom needed to feel comfortable indulging in these detours.

If you’re going to do deep work and leverage a day, that time has to be completely uninterrupted. To truly understand the power of this, it helps to understand its opposite. 

The problem of perpetually interrupted Unfocused Creation Time

Phones buzz with notifications from apps, text messages from friends. Multiple tabs are open on a web browser. And people switch from one task to another spending no more than a minute or two on each one. This is the antithesis of deep work. Working like this is a bit like taking one step forward and one step back while wondering why you’re not actually making any progress. It’s insidious because it feels productive even it though it’s not.

A few days ago I interviewed a friend who has done a few successful businesses by the age of 35. He knows two essential ingredients for flow, focus, and attention.

He wakes up at 4am and writes until 8am. He plays the same music track on repeat, and his environment is setup such that there are absolutely no interruptions or distractions. And he uses a distraction free writing tool so that the only thing he can do is write. Distraction-free writing tools are probably one of the greatest productivity enhancers you can use. I even write my emails in a distraction-free writing software called Macjournal. This makes it difficult for your attention to keep shifting from one thing to another. 

Wondering why there is no progress?

Same thing is working for a friend who works as a salesperson. For the first several hours of the day, he doesn’t respond to texts, emails or slack messages. He’s focused on one thing, selling. The goal is to completely tune out the world around you, to lose yourself in the work and in the moment. Turn off your phone, put on some headphones, and eliminate every potential source of distraction. At first, this will be painful. You’ll struggle to stay focused and be tempted to do something else. But if you stick with it your attention muscle will build. The longer your uninterrupted creation time is, the more intense a state of flow you’ll find yourself in.

If you are getting stuck

When you get stuck, your natural temptation will be to seek out some source of distraction. Getting stuck actually creates space and time for you to think. If you give into some source of distraction you’ll drown out the sound of your own voice. Some of my greatest breakthroughs have happened when I’ve been completely stuck.

Just think of getting stuck as a moment when the gears in your head are doing their work. If you can be patient enough to persist through those moments when you feel stuck, you’ll experience big breakthroughs. Tell yourself “I’m not stuck. I’m just thinking.” When you don’t embrace being stuck, uninterrupted creation time turns into interrupted creation time and multi-tasking.

Uninterrupted creation time can help you accomplish seemingly impossible things like writing 3 books in 3 years or finishing a painting, starting a new business idea.. the list goes on. Set aside a few hours a week for uninterrupted creation time, and you’ll be happy you did at the end of the year.

Getting Creative Things Done: The System

The GCTD system works as follows:

  • At the beginning of each week, decide on the one (or, at most, two) big creative projects that will receive your attention over the next five days. Ignore the temptation to make a small amount of progress on a large amount of projects. Creative work is hard. If you want high-quality output, you have to focus your energy.

  • Block out time for these projects on your calendar. The increments should at least 1 hour long, and preferably 2 to 3. When you block these hours out depends on your schedule for the week. What’s important, however, is that you treat these blocks like you would any other important appointment: the time is inviolable, and you must work around these blocks when scheduling meetings or other work.
  • Set rules for your creative blocks. The rules should describe what is NOT allowed during creative work. For example, I have a strict ban on email during creative blocks.
  • Focus on process, not goals. The final piece is arguably the most important: don’t set goals for your creative blocks. Creative work is not a task to be checked off a next actions list. If you decide that you need to complete a particular project by the end of a block, for example, you’re likely to either be frustrated by your lack of progress or rush out something mediocre. Instead, focus on process. Decide how, exactly, you are going to approach the work. This focuses your energy. High-quality results will follow naturally from this focused work.

Inspired by: elephantjournal.com, medium.com