You don't have to be busy to be prolific

6 December 2020
6 Dec 2020
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

I get a couple emails every week asking how I manage to “do it all” or “balance my schedule”, or how I find the time and motivation to work on so many projects, which makes me think people have a really weird picture of how I spend my 24 hours. My calendar is actually pretty empty most of the time, though I’m pretty protective of my free time. I like having free time because it lets me make sure I read and consume more than I create, which I think is critical to creativity.

I also leave space on my calendar because I don’t like feeling busy. “Busy” is what you are when you’re hopping from meeting to meeting, sprinting through a filled calendar or running up against a deadline. None of that is conducive to following spontaneous creative ideas or working on large interesting projects. When I feel at my productive best, what I feel is momentum. I like feeling like I’m on a roll, hopping from one interesting project or idea to the next, not wanting to put down the interest or inspiration. When I feel momentum, everything else – motivation, focus, efficient use of my time – comes naturally. Conversely, when I lose momentum, it takes me a few days of kicking against the ground to get back up to speed.

Having momentum is different than simply working a lot. Busy-ness, what some people think of as “productivity”, comes from volume of work. A day spent answering 100 emails and a day spent publishing one great blog post could feel equally productive. Momentum isn’t really about volume of work, but about rhythm of work. When I feel creative momentum, it means there’s something interesting or meaningful getting done every day, even if it’s something small. A day spent answering emails is monotonous. It has no rhythm. Even if I only work for two hours in a day, if those two hours produced something meaningful and kept the rhythm of my work going, I feel the momentum continue to the next day.

A busy schedule is like a cacophonous garage band. There’s a lot of volume, but it doesn’t really keep you in the music.

Working with momentum is more like Jazz. There is sound, but mostly in service of forward movement. There’s a groove you can ride, something that keeps you stepping forward. You don’t have to make yourself follow the beats, because it comes naturally. That rhythm and leisure also lets you improvise on top over the music.

Building creative momentum

How do you find a sense of momentum in your work?

  1. Try to get at least one meaningful or significant thing done every day, even if that’s the only thing you do. You want to wake up with a clear idea of what that task might be for that day, and go to sleep knowing that you haven’t fallen off your rhythm.

    When I have a day not hampered by school schedules or meetings I usually try to publish a blog post, solve a major problem for a side project, or create and share some small unit of work, whether that’s a piece of music or writing or something else. Occasionally, I’ll just spend a day catching up on email and errands, and that’ll be my “project” for the day, but I’m conscious of when I risk going too many days (4-6 days) without “shipping” anything, because that’s how I lose momentum, and it’s hard to regain that lost forward motion.

    This might be challenging when working as a solo founder or writer or maker, but especially when you work alone, I think it’s important to draw yourself clear boundaries and say it’s okay to respond late to things if it means you get to protect your creative momentum, because that forward inertia is the heartbeat that keeps you moving forward day after day.

  2. Leave something unfinished when you stop working, so when you come back you can pick up right where you left off and get in the same mental state again. When I’m deep in the middle of an interesting project, I’m usually dead focused on that task until I finish. I’ll take pauses to take care of myself, but I usually stay off email and messages, and any spare cycles I have goes towards that task. This means I lose less momentum and “working state” of my mind to context-switching.

    Authors sometimes talk about how they begin a writing session by reading the last 1000 words they wrote. When you must switch off of a task, leave some trail you can follow when you return to pick up right where your mind left off.

Neither of these habits are about working more or working any harder. Instead, they both try to help you stay in the rhythm of work that your mind can ride. They help you build momentum towards a consistent habit of forward motion, which is what really fuels prolific people. These pieces of advice are also about protecting your momentum as a priority. If you value the momentum behind your work, you should prioritize staying in the rhythm, and make few excuses to miss beats. A song that slips every other note falls apart quickly, but if you hit all the right beats, you rarely need strict discipline to stay in time.

You don’t have to be busy to be prolific. In fact, having a full calendar gets in the way, because it robs you of the free time and mental space you need to follow interesting ideas and help you replenish your creative taste. To create consistently, don’t work constantly. Instead, find a rhythm on which you can build a momentum that fuels you to keep going right where you left off every time you return to your creative zone. Building on momentum – staying in-rhythm – is the easiest, most enjoyable way to keep creating.

How to find focus

Honesty in craft

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