Posted by: Mark McGuinness
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Mark McGuinness

Time Management for Creative People

Manage the mundane – create the extraordinary
By Mark McGuinness

  1. Why you need to be organised to be creative
  2. Prioritise work that is ‘important but not urgent’
  3. Ring-fence your most creative time
  4. Avoid the ‘Sisyphus effect’ of endless to-do lists
  5. Get things done by putting them off till tomorrow
  6. Get things off your mind
  7. Review your commitments
  8. Resources to help you get things done

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert

So you start the day full of enthusiasm. You’re excited about a new piece of creative work and itching to put your ideas into action. Firing up your computer, the familiar stream of e-mails pours into your inbox, burying the ones you didn’t get round to replying to yesterday. Scanning through the list, your heart sinks – two of them look as though they require urgent action. You hit ‘reply’ and start typing a response to one of them… 20 minutes later you ‘come round’ and realise you’ve got sucked into the e-mail zone and have been sidetracked by interesting links sent by friends, as well as writing replies about issues that aren’t a priority for you. You minimize the e-mail window and get back to your project…

After 15 minutes you’re really enjoying yourself, getting into your creative flow – when the phone rings. Somebody wants something from you. Something to do with a meeting last week. You rummage through the papers on your desk, searching for your notes. You can’t find them. Suddenly your heart leaps as you lift up a folder and find an important letter you’d forgotten about – it needed an urgent response, several days ago. ‘Hang on, I’ll get back to you’ you tell the person on the phone, ‘I’ll ring you back when I’ve found it’. You put the phone down and pick up the letter – this needs sorting immediately, but you remember why you put it off – it involves several phone calls and hunting through your files for documents you’re not sure you even kept. By now, you’ve only got half an hour before your first meeting and you’ve promised to ring that person back. Your design stares at you reproachfully. The e-mail inbox is pinging away as it fills up – already there are more messages than before you started answering them. Your enthusiasm has nosedived and the day has hardly begun. Creative work seems like a distant dream.

Is this a familiar scenario for you? Swap the design software for a wordprocessor and I’ve been there a hundred times. In an ideal world we’d be putting all our time and energy into creative work, but the realities of modern work often seem to be conspiring against us. And in lots of ways the scenario is getting worse. The wonderful thing about modern technology is the amount of communication and information-sharing it facilitates. And the awful thing about modern technology is the amount of communication and information-sharing it facilitates. We are deluged with new information and connections, via telephones, webcams, instant messengers, e-mail, websites, blogs, newsletters, wikis, and social networking technology. The list gets longer every year. And with Blackberry and the mobile internet you can have data and demands coming at you 24/7. No wonder people are starting to run workshops on ‘digital stress’.

All of which is bad enough whatever your line of work. But if you’re a professional artist or creative, it’s even more damaging. Concentration is essential for creative work - certain stages of the creative process require single-minded focus on the task in hand. When we’re really in the zone, we experience ‘creative flow’ – the ‘almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness’ that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified as characteristic of high-level creative performance. Interruptions, multi-tasking and the anxiety that comes from trying to juggle multiple commitments – these are in danger of eroding the focused concentration that is vital for your creativity.

If you’re worried about the effect of all those interruptions, frustrations and distractions on your creative work, this series is for you. Over the next seven posts I will offer you some principles and practical methods for maintaining your creative focus under pressure, and for managing the stream of information and demands so that it informs and stimulates your creativity instead of drowning it out.

And that means being organised.

There, I’ve said it. Organisation, structure, discipline and habit – these often seen as threats to creativity. Not to mention corporate-sounding phrases such as ‘time management’ or ‘workflow’. We like to think of creativity as a space for untrammelled imagination, free from all constraints. Yet while freedom, rule-breaking and inspiration are undoubtedly essential to the creative process, the popular image of creativity overlooks another aspect: examine the life of any great artist and you will find evidence of hard work, discipline and a hard-won knowledge of the rules and conventions of their medium. Choreographer Twyla Tharp, who directed the opera and dance scenes for the film Amadeus, has this to say about the film’s portrait of Mozart:

The film Amadeus dramatizes and romanticizes the divine origins of creative genius. Antonio Salieri, representing the talented hack, is cursed to live in the time of Mozart, the gifted and undisciplined genius who writes as though touched by the hand of God… Of course this is hogwash. There are no ‘natural’ geniuses… No-one worked harder than Mozart. By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose… As Mozart himself wrote to a friend, “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

This passage is taken from Tharp’s excellent book The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, in which she argues that ‘routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more’. It’s an inspiring, challenging and very practical book that deserves a space on the shelf of anyone who takes their creative work seriously.

I’m not suggesting that all artists and creatives need to be ‘organised’ in a way that would satisfy a corporate boss. You might get up at noon and work at home in your dressing gown, in a pigsty of a living room. You might check into a different hotel room every day and work on the bed. Your creative process and working habits might look like total chaos to an outsider, but if they work for you, that’s all that matters. And there will be some method in the madness – patterns in your daily activities that are vital to your creativity. These are the things you need to do to keep your imagination alive – whether it’s sitting at a desk by 6am, using the same pen, notebook or make of computer, hitch-hiking across America, putting rotten apples in your desk so that the scent wafts into your nostrils as you work, or sitting in your favourite café with a glass of absinthe.

In this series, I will offer some suggestions for keeping the tide of external demands at bay and helping you to develop a truly creative routine and rhythm to your working day. I won’t offer you a rigid system or any ‘best practice’ nonsense – just some principles and suggestions for you to try out and adapt as you see fit. As well as drawing on my own experience and study of the creative process, I’ll refer to some well-known time- management systems and suggest what I think they have to offer creative professionals.

The next seven posts will look at specific elements of personal organisation and time management, while the final post will be a list of further resources.

Questions

  • What is your attitude to organising your creative work? Do you see organisation as soulless, uncreative routine or as a necessary, helpful part of your creative process?
  • What effect does feeling muddled and disorganised have on your creativity?
  • Which areas of your work would you like to be more organised about?
  • What do you like about chaos? Where in your work do you want to give chaos and randomness free rein?

Mark McGuinness | Coaching Creative Professionals

Time Management for Creative People is one of the ways business coach Mark McGuinness helps creative professionals and creative agencies succeed.

For more practical tips and inspiration visit his Wishful Thinking blog. Subscribe to the feed to have the latest posts delivered to you via RSS or e-mail.

Edit: You can now watch a time management training video in which Mark explains some of the key ideas from this series.

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Comments to this post:

Pingback: Wishful Thinking » Blog Archive » Time Management for Creative People - Manage the Mundane, Create the Extraordinary says

[…] One of the projects I’ve been working on behind the scenes is a guest series on Time Management for Creative People for Business of Design Online. […]

12th October 2007 Quote

Comment: Catherine says

Mark, this is an excellent series. A sure winner for our readers! I’ll be using it starting Tuesday (just as soon as I get over my holiday).

13th October 2007 Quote

Comment: Mark McGuinness says

Thanks Cat, I look forward to hearing how you get on…

14th October 2007 Quote

Pingback: .: Designers who Blog: Design, Illustration, Photography, Web, Advertising, Branding … says

[…] Starting last week, Creative Coach Mark McGuinness (from Wishful Thinking) posted the first of a series on Time Management for Creatives. A series running for eight weeks at BoDo: Business of Design online, going live each Friday. […]

14th October 2007 Quote

Comment: Catherine says

Well, I’ve done it. I’m now publicly committed to the full 8 week course.

Wish me luck :-)

15th October 2007 Quote

Comment: Mark McGuinness says

Good luck! Public commitment is a great way to motivate yourself. One reason I posted my New Year’s resolutions on my blog last January.

15th October 2007 Quote

Pingback: .: Designers who Blog: Design, Illustration, Photography, Web, Advertising, Branding … says

[…] As mentioned in my intro post, Getting My Creative Butt Organised, every Monday I will answer Mark’s questions from his Time Management series on Business of Design online. […]

15th October 2007 Quote

Pingback: Wishful Thinking » Blog Archive » How One Reader Is Using My Time Management Series says

[…] Cat Morley who commissioned my series on Time Management for Creative People, has started blogging about her experience of putting the ideas into action. Her first post is Why We Need to Be Organised to Be Creative. […]

16th October 2007 Quote

Pingback: .: Designers who Blog: Design, Illustration, Photography, Web, Advertising, Branding … says

[…] In Mark’s first post on his Time Management series at Business of Design online, he asked a question that I found difficult to answer at the time - “What do you like about chaos? Where in your work do you want to give chaos and randomness free rein?” […]

22nd October 2007 Quote

Pingback: Wishful Thinking » Blog Archive » Time Management - Are Cities Bad for Your Creativity? says

[…] Cat Morley has written another honest and interesting post about her experience of putting my Time Management for Creative People series into action. […]

24th October 2007 Quote

Pingback: 2007-10-28 Sunday Links Folder : Freelance Folder says

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28th October 2007 Quote

Pingback: Wishful Thinking » Blog Archive » Time Management for Creative People 3 - Ring-Fence Your Most Creative Time says

[…] Time management with a dash of hypnosis - Ring-Fence Your Most Creative Time is the next post in my guest series on Time Management for Creative People at Business of Design Online. This one incorporates some of the principles and techniques I learned from my original professional training, as a hypnotherapist. […]

29th October 2007 Quote

Pingback: Wishful Thinking » Blog Archive » Time Management: Distractions, Distractions says

[…] Another entertaining post from Cat Morley about putting my Time Management for Creative People series into action. This time she’s talking about the dangers of distraction: For instance, I get thirsty. […]

31st October 2007 Quote

Pingback: Exposed: The Pros and Cons of Freelancing : Instigator Blog says

[…] You have to manage yourself. Some might consider this a pro, but freelancers will often talk about the need for a ton of self-discipline. More than that, freelancers have a huge amount of responsibility resting on their shoulders. The buck stops with you. There’s nowhere to hide. You can’t blame office politics, bad bosses or co-workers, or anything else. It’s much more difficult to have a bad day or even take time off (ask freelancers if it’s harder to go on vacation…) because of the responsibility to keep things chugging along. […]

31st October 2007 Quote

Pingback: Great Find: Time Management for Creative People - Liz Strauss at Successful Blog - Thinking, writing, business ideas . . . You\’re only a stranger once. says

[…] Great Find: Time Managment for Creative People series . . . Time Management #1: Why You Need to be Organised to be Permalink: http://www.businessofdesignonline.com/time-management-why-you-need-to-be-organised-to-be-creative/ Target Audience: Anyone creative who has to get work done Content: Mark McGuinness, who wrote the wonderful enneagram series here, is over at Business of Design Online (BODO) doing a series called Time Management for Creative People. The taghline tells both the focus of the series and its promise: Manage the mundane – create the extraordinary. […]

9th November 2007 Quote

Comment: marphis says

Ive been in the business for 40 years and I know this- if you are organized you are probably not very creative. Ive never seen an organized creative person !!!

10th November 2007 Quote

Pingback: Design top DIGG news » Why You Need to be Organised to be Creative says

[…] read more | digg story […]

10th November 2007 Quote

Comment: Terrapin says

LIES!!! ALL LIES!! Organisation and routine destroy creativity. It destroys mine, and I become very lathargic and depressed when I sink into a routine, or structure things. Creative people dont need to be organised. This is all rubbish!

10th November 2007 Quote

Comment: David says

If this post is about time management guide for lazy people, this will not work. how do i know that?

A) im lazy
B) too long

if this is not for lazy people sitting at home this will not work neither. How do i know that?
They probably already know the tips

10th November 2007 Quote

Pingback: links for 2007-11-11 at DeStructUred Blog says

[…] » Time Management #1: Why You Need to be Organised to be Creative BoDo: Business of Design online » Blog Archive (tags: Article Creative Creativity lifehacks) […]

10th November 2007 Quote

Comment: Dalia Berlin says

great post and great blog!
I have been a designer for 20 years in a highly successful interiors practice I find that the only time to do the really creative work of CADD drawings, 3D renderings and space planning, the type of creative work that requires my full attention is after I have put my kids to bed, kissed my hubby g’night and the house is totally quiet so between 11pm and 3ish AM

in the office the hours are spent putting out fires, dealing with the constant nagging phones and all the daily buzz, fun but no room for creativity

finding ones zone is the most important of being productive at being creative

10th November 2007 Quote

Comment: suresh says

HI Mark
Thanks for the post, Found it thru Digg. Have you considered doing a Podcast? Or do you have a podcast already?
Thank you keep up the good work
Suresh

11th November 2007 Quote

Comment: Mark McGuinness says

Marphis - I’ve also met lots of creative people. Some of them were obviously very organised, others looked totally disorganised - but there’s usually some method in the madness, even if an unconventional kind.

Terrapin - listening to your music, I can hear repetitive beats producing a dynamic rhythm, and well crafted songs played by talented musicians who have obviously been practising together for a long time to hone their skills. That’s all I mean by organisation - not ’sinking into a routine’ which I agree would be very uncreative.

David - this is a series about Time Management for Creative People, not Lazy people! I agree that really would be a challenge :-)

Dalia - “finding ones zone is the most important of being productive at being creative” - that’s it! Nail on head. You’ve summed up my reasons for writing this series. Glad to hear you’re managing to find your zone in the middle of all your other commitments.

Suresh - I hadn’t thought of a podcast, but maybe you’ve given me an idea… Look out for the free e-book of the whole series in a couple of weeks.

13th November 2007 Quote

Comment: Catherine says

Mark (and David)

There’s an incoming link I found quite apt (for me anyway), that’s also mentioned in Mark’s post.

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert

I like :-D

13th November 2007 Quote

Pingback: Rykerized: One Girl’s Opinion » Blog Archive » Creative Flow: Do you have it? Do you want it? Do you NEED it? says

[…] Post #1 - Why You Need to be Organised to be Creative […]

13th November 2007 Quote

Pingback: Sawse - Stir it Up! » Blog Archive » Sunday Sawse: Mixed Art News & Design Tips says

[…] Design Tips and Inspiration for the Week: It may seem counterintuitive, but you need to be organized to be creative! Here are 50 ways to become a better designer. And if you need some inspiration on top of these tips, be sure to check out these 10 excellent interactive website designs. No web designer should go another minute without bookmarking this collection of impressive and varied designs on Flickr. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

20th November 2007 Quote

Pingback: Cosas por hacer » Enlaces del.icio.us del 2007-12-02 says

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2nd December 2007 Quote

Pingback: » Time Management for Creative People e-book. Free. BoDo: Business of Design online » Blog Archive says

[…] If you’re a BoDo regular, you’ve been following Mark McGuinness’ excellent series on time management. If you haven’t, you can read it here. […]

3rd December 2007 Quote

Pingback: .: Designers who Blog: Design, Illustration, Photography, Web, Advertising, Branding … says

[…] Eight weeks ago, Mark McGuinness started a series on time management at Business of Design online. […]

3rd December 2007 Quote

Comment: Nicolas says

Hi,
this article brings it to the point. Getting organized will allow you to do the things you really want - regardless if it is creative staff, friends, family or business.
I subscribed to this blog and will come from time to time.

16th August 2008 Quote

Comment: Mark McGuinness says

Thanks Nicolas, yes it can be anything that’s personally important that’s in danger of being swamped by incoming demands.

18th August 2008 Quote

Comment: Propecia says

this is certainly true. i had a hard time writing creative papers when i had my notes floating all over my room.

4th September 2008 Quote