4 obstacles to creative work

To achieve excellence, we must first understand the reality of the everyday, with all its demands and potential frustrations.

Mihaley Csikszentmihalyi

1. Disorder

Disorder will not induce creativity.

If your work space (cubicle, home office, desk squished into a corner, your car, big desk in big office with nice view, studio, coworking space) is crammed with clutter or not equipped with the basic supplies you need to do your work, you’ll find yourself with plenty of excuses not to do the work.

Orderliness doesn’t mean everything has to be alphabetized and color-coordinated.

It does mean you can find a paintbrush or a pen or a piece of paper when you need one.

Another element of disorder is lack of routine or schedule. If your basic plan for the day is to “wing it,” well, good luck on getting anything done.

People without a plan are like honey to the flies, flies being chatty coworkers, meaningless phone calls, bored children, hungry spouses, dramatic friends, endless meetings.

Have a plan, even if it’s basic, for how you will spend the time in your day. Take your plan (and thus, yourself and your work) seriously enough to say No to things/people who try to pull you from it.

2. Distraction

The first step in dealing with distraction is to get the disorder out of your space and time management, as above.

If you have a basic plan for your day and a clear work space, however small, with the supplies you need at hand, you are infinitely closer to getting work done.

But distraction will creep in. Though people provide plenty of distractions, most are self-induced. You’ll remember that phone call you didn’t make yesterday, the bill that has to be paid, the hangnail that might be infected…

Suddenly you have to deal with it now. Shift the attention. Pause the work.

Deal with distractions from others by simple, firmly, and politely saying “No, Not Now.” Over and over. As often as necessary.

If you can’t say No, try saying Yes like this: “Sure, I’ll be happy to help you when I finish this _____.”

Most people aren’t very patient. If you aren’t available to solve a crisis until later, they might find a way to do it themselves. It’s perfectly wonderful to deal with distractions from others by making people wait on you, instead of making your work wait on other people.

Deal with distractions from yourself in the same way: tell yourself, “No, Not Now.”

Jot down all those momentous, important tasks that come to mind as you sit down to work in your notebook or reminder app.

Almost any “important task” you think of can wait a little while without much harm done. If you think of something that absolutely, positively, must be done now [you have to call the bank and transfer that money before they close in 10 minutes] then set a timer for five minutes, do the task, and return immediately to your work.

3. Indecision

Everyday life is full of [these conflicts of interest]: rarely do we feel the serenity that comes when heart, will, and mind are on the same page. Conflicting desires, intentions, and thoughts jostle each other in consciousness, and we are helpless to keep them in line.
Mihaley Csikszentmihalyi

Deciding what to do next can keep you from doing anything.

Almost always you know what should be done, but you have options: perhaps there is one most important thing, but there are four or five or fifty items of secondary importance.

Which one to tackle? Every moment you spend in indecision is an open invitation to distraction.

Deal with indecision quickly and, well, decisively.
Grab a piece of paper. Write down five things weighing on your mind right now. Start working on the first one. Put in at least 20 minutes on it; then decide (according to the scope of the project, what is needed to complete it, and the time you have left for work) if you will continue working on that project or move down the list. Don’t stop to contemplate other options.
Remember that it’s less important, really, what work you’re doing than that you are actually doing something instead of letting disorder, distraction, indecision, uncertainty, details, or delay keep you from your work.

4. Uncertainty

Uncertainty is different than indecision in this: indecision keeps you from knowing what to do. Uncertainty strikes right after you make a decision.

You’re decide going to work on Project X. You open the file, pull up the information, ready the tools. Uncertainty floods in.

You doubt your decision. You question your approach. You need to rethink the whole thing. Uncertainty in the details of doing the work. Uncertainty will keep you repeating the first 2-3 steps of a project infinitely.

Remember that you’ll never really know the value of the work until you do the work. Trust your past self. Trust your decisions. Give yourself some credit.

Put uncertainty on pause. When the thoughts rush in, acknowledge them and then ask them to wait: “I’ll think about these issues when I’ve spent 45 minutes working on this task.”

Most of the time, after 5 – 10 minutes working, the uncertainty drains away. It’s a resistance to starting, that’s all. If you can just ignore it for a little bit, you’ll find your clarity again.