I step on to the lawn at the back of the house. The dew at my feet is cold. My toes are wet. But the morning sun smiles on my back, hinting at the warmth of the day to come.
Each morning I’m up early, generally between 5 am and 6 am. These hours are quiet. Hardly anyone is awake. Emails are a no go. My computer is only opened so I can write. The rest of the time is spent breathing, stretching, sitting and observing. Time doing nothing.
I walk across the lawn. There is a lake at the bottom of the garden and I set up a small bench just beside the water’s edge. Here I kneel and look out.
When you try to do nothing you discover that doing nothing is an impossibility. Especially if you spend most of your day trying to do something. The minute you slow down, thoughts fill the empty space. At the start of most meditation sessions, my mind goes into overdrive. Sometimes I wonder if I’m any good at this whole mindfulness thing. But it’s not about being good or bad, I remind myself, it’s about being. Observing what is and what isn’t. That’s it. As I sit at the side of the lake, surrounded by the sound of birds, cows, insects and sheep waking, I settle into just being.
Quietness will arrive. Hold onto it too tightly and it will never come. You can’t force it. It happens when you relax into the whole exercise. The most important thing is letting go of the ambition to ‘do nothing’ in the first place. As you move from the intention to do nothing, to plain nothingness your mind goes through this calm transitional phase. This phase is not totally devoid of thought, but it’s less populated than before. The thoughts that appear during this period are less ‘default’ mode and more creative. They tend to have insights that seem genuinely useful rather than just anxious or reactionary.
I look out across the lake and breathe deeply. Today, meditation was not calm. Maybe tomorrow.
The President Is Productive
The President of America doesn’t use a to-do app. He has a calendar instead. If something is in there, it gets done. If it isn’t, he won’t do it. He’s one of the busiest people on earth so it would make sense to think about why this works as a productivity method. When your attention is pulled in lots of directions, you need to be clear about how you use each moment. A meeting with a non-negotiable deadline demands that decisions be made. Things happen because you force them to. I call this kind of approach to work, hyper-productivity.
There is a time management app called Rescuetime. When you download it onto your computer it starts to log all the time you spend on that device. Each activity is categorised and assigned a score. Time spent on email is communication (productive). Time spent watching Youtube is entertainment (unproductive). Time spent writing code is software development (productive). Time spent on social media is simply social media (and yes, that’s unproductive). You can adjust the categories as you see fit. You also set goals, such as being productive for X amount of hours per day. Or spending less than X amount of time on social media. Each week you get an email that summarises your productivity and how you’ve spent your time. The company claims to help you to ‘Do More Meaningful Work’. This is questionable. People use the application to track their computer usage and, in theory, self-optimise. Theory is a wonderful thing. But quantified time is not inherently meaningful.
Commercial design agencies require their employees to log all the billable hours they spend throughout the day. This means they can justify the dollars they charge on any client projects. Practically, this makes a lot of sense. When you need to justify why something costs what it does, you can dig through the time-sheets and point to the minutes and hours that have been translated to dollar bills. But the logic of this practice only goes so far and begins to break down when you ask too many questions. Why did it take that long to design a webpage? Why did a logo take longer? Explain to me why creating concepts needed one day? Would it have changed the project if you only spent half a day on it? Why? Why not? Like a child that sticks to a never-ending line of enquiry (But why? Why? Why?) you’ll rarely end up at a satisfying answer.
Substituting Science For English
Mr Friedeberg gave science lessons. During high school, I was never interested in chemistry or physics classes. It was too close to maths and I didn’t consider myself good at that. Despite this, he was one of my favourite teachers. The science he taught doesn’t stick with me. What’s remained is Mr Friedeberg’s love of the English language. He would periodically introduce us to wild and wonderful words that would either send the class into a fit of laughter or have us begging him to explain more.
On the other hand, English was something I was far more interested in. I also semi-competent in the subject and got above average grades. But I found that while my brain was in ‘english-learning’ mode, I struggled to get fired up. Cut to my Physics lesson and Friedeberg would impart discerning vocabulary between the content we were there to learn. When I wasn’t awaiting lessons in grammar and composition, it seemed easier to be inspired.
Try telling a teenage boy he is a troglodyte. Or ask the kid chewing gum at the back of the class to stop masticating. You can also accuse a student of looking perpetually discombobulated by failing to complete their homework. These are all words I recommend looking up if you don’t already know their meaning. Despite not learning much about physics, I still use these silly words. Mr Friedeberg gave me a strong sense of when an archaic and slightly flamboyant word is required. More than that, he also taught me to investigate language. That there is a word awaiting each moment if you’re vocabulary is broad enough. He encouraged me to use language wisely. None of this was on the required syllabus but it was the best lesson I ever had.
The Pinnacle Of Productivity Methods
I’ve spent more time than necessary experimenting with different to-do applications. Over the years, I’ve had maybe a dozen different tools on my phone and laptop. The reason for this abundance of applications was always a search for the best working method, rather than the right software (even if it took half a dozen applications to figure that out myself). How you go about doing stuff is far from straightforward. Do it one way and you’ll be finished by lunch with a list of actionable next steps. Do it another way and you’ll be working on it at dinner time and scrambling to meet the deadline.
A calendar is the most efficient method for programming your time. Rather than listing the things that need to be done in a project (useful but not inherently effective), it gives you a set time frame in which to do them. That’s to say, it allots minutes and hours against achieving a predetermined outcome. If you need to get something done, put it in the calendar. Start at the scheduled time, finish at the scheduled time. If you want to be productive, act like the President of America.
Is there a limit to this method? Are there elements of meaningful work that can’t be effectively measured or timetabled? When you dig into the essence of any creative or worthwhile work it’s hard to justify why anything takes as long as it does. You can, for example, be consistent in your work by creating new designs each day. But it’s not possible to say that you’ll produce original, high-quality and interesting work within the same time-frame for each project. Some things happen outside of your bookable timetable.
Brilliance Can’t Be Scheduled
Every morning I wake up to write a minimum of 750 words. Stream of consciousness. I don’t come to it with an intention of creating anything in particular. It takes me between 15 and 20 minutes to complete the word count. So this usually takes place between 5:45 am and 6:00 am. Some days it’s a slog. Others it’s a breeze. The practice is based on a method from Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s Way’, it’s called Morning Pages. The aim is to drain your brain.
Like any good filtering system, when you clear out the sludge you’re left with clarity. One morning I might sit down and struggle to get anything worthwhile on the page for the first 10 minutes. My mind has to reach an inflection point before, as if from nowhere, the words start pouring out of me. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. I’ve written mundane and barely readable internal monologues. I’ve also written some of my most inspiring and original thoughts. My weekly articles often start as a thought from my Morning Pages. But I can go a whole week and not write a sentence worth revisiting.
Writers or creative people will often talk about the difficulties of their craft. How they have to bleed to get the words on the page. Suffer to get the paint on the canvas. Go through hell to discover the moves for a dance. The reality is less dramatic. Creating worthwhile work is tricky but not impossible. The hard part is maintaining the discipline that’s required to get there. Inspiration will always arrive. The question is whether you’ll be sat at your keyboard when she decides to stop by.
It took a while for me to see all this. I needed to reach a certain volume of writing before the lessons began to take shape. But one thing is now quite obvious – writing every day is the most important thing. My mind works in cycles that I’m often not aware of. If I want to synchronise with these cycles, and therefore increase my chances of creating interesting work, I need to be writing regularly. You can’t plan brilliance, but you can certainly prime yourself for it.
Creative Work Is A Dartboard
Creating meaningful work is like throwing darts at a dartboard. Most of the space on the board is taken up by relatively low scoring areas. These areas are easy to hit. But the spaces in between these large volumes are smaller and more valuable. A highly skilled darts player can hit them often. But a beginner only hits them by chance (which is increased by the number of times they ‘have a go’). This is how I see a creative life. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. Anyone can sit down and hammer out the hours by throwing darts at the board. They’ll hit the big spaces 9 times out of 10. But it takes a seasoned creator to regularly hit those spaces in between where the high scoring work comes from. Practice helps.
There is a difference between creating time and being creative. You can aim to do great work, but productivity does not produce meaningful work by default. Type productivity into Medium or Google and you’ll find articles detailing how to hit the low scoring areas on the dart board. I can give you a 5 point process for how to do that time after time. What you’ll find less of is guidance on what work is worth doing. How to go about hitting the small spaces. The best way to find a balance between the two.
The time between things is when unseen but essential creative work happens in our minds. The misty moments between sleep and consciousness, when the mind drifts wildly. After breakfast, before the commute and in the shower. This is when ideas ripen and drop. Or the smaller moments that we can’t classify as anything much – the downtime between ordering your coffee and it arriving. Or when you get lost reading an article you didn’t intend to start, but which drew you in nonetheless. We can’t plan these moments. They happen of their own accord. But in them, we find all sorts of useful things – boredom, happiness, curiosity, inspiration, ambition, and of course, the occasional masticating troglodyte.