"Why does this shit have to be so difficult to accomplish?", I wondered. As with many things (all the things) in life, the right answer usually comes with the right question and being able to actually raise that question from the depths of a hustling mind, frankly, is not an easy thing to do, sometimes.
This time the question for me was “why is it so difficult to concentrate on things I thought were important for me?” I guess you've been in a situation where your day started out perfect with your favorite breakfast and a cuppa, and a plan to conquer the world of creativity with a cherry on top. But then, few hours later you found yourself down in the rabbit hole of Instagram all agitated, uninspired, and unable to proceed with a single task from your to-do list? Something went wrong.
Before I jump to the tools that I've found working to combat this foolishness I'd like to mention this: you can read all the books on productivity you want, map out crazy plan for a year with goals and numbers, but it will not work until one thing is in line - that is your sense of purpose (tightly bound with the confidence that world NEEDS what you do). I can't emphasize enough how important this is. This is where real productivity starts, at the point where you know WHY you do what you do.
Our brain is a powerful tool but it can sabotage the working process big time if it isn't "trained". By “trained”, I mean creating systems, habits and "rituals" that help your brain recognize the pattern and get in the "zone" or "flow", whatever you call it. You see, without a certain system, it is virtually impossible to become efficient. The whole life works this way, to get to certain somewhere you need to do certain something. When every method I'm going to talk about below is a topic for a discussion on its own, I tried to extract the main idea, so, hopefully, this post is as helpful as I meant to be.
HOW TO EFFECTIVELY PLAN WORK?
Getting Things Done is a system introduced by David Allen that I encourage you to get acquainted with. In brief, it teaches you to write down every single task that ever crosses your mind in so-called "inbox" folder and then offers an effective system to manage all these tasks by dividing them by type, importance and urgency.
I recently discovered this method and find it fun to work with because it offers flexibility. Can be beneficial for those whose circumstances are fluctuating or for the days when things shift unplanned. Or for those who just don't like hour by hour plan (me). The idea is somewhat similar to bullet journal planning and lies in writing everything you have to do for a week in a list, then make a table with days of the week next to it. Once the task gets done, the square for the respective day of the week gets crossed out. All the tasks left undone get an "arrow" meaning they are being transferred to the next day. Works the same for monthly planning, but with bigger tasks that you then break up to execute weekly.
I also noticed that having one main priority for each month helps to progress more than putting ten of them in one month. You need to be realistic about how much time things take and not to rush what can’t be rushed. These are for now my main planning methods and I find them effective, but I’m happy to hear about yours (always collecting productivity tools).
HOW TO GET IN THE FLOW?
Let’s first talk about what the flow/zone is. Some mistaken flow with inspiration but it has little to do with it. There is no particular way to attract the muse, no one knows when it comes and waiting around for it can be a life long adventure. Who's got that much time, anyway? In fact, flow is something that can help when inspiration is nowhere in sight. It is a state of a complete focus, clearness, and involvement when you’re tuned into your work 100% and enjoying it, but it takes some effort to get in. I compare it to a big transparent capsule where in it the time is slower than the outside of it. You can notice life but it’s blurred and all that matters is inside that capsule.
Doing the same routines that are followed by a working session helps your brain to build a connection between the two and with time it'll be easier to concentrate on your task. It can be as simple as making yourself a cup of tea every time you start working or listening to a certain playlist, or an opposite, quieting the environment by blocking sounds or plugging your ears. Put your make up on, invent a ritual dance or mantra, or pitch some affirmations to your own reflection in the mirror that is inevitably followed by work. Whatever works, dude!
Know when you’re at your best for the type of activity that needs to get done. At the end this is really all about motivation and time of the day does not matter, but the only two creatures motivated all the time that I know of are unicorns and Gary Vaynerchuk. Since you and I are neither of them, it’s helpful to execute work by the help of observation and determination. Watch how productive you are during the day and then use those productive hours strategically. When you get little advanced in noticing how you feel and how much work you’re capable doing of in a given state of mind, you can get more flexible, but for now, stick to set productive hours, this will help to harness getting in the flow.
For example, my work consists of two types: physical and mental. I’m better at creating by hand in the morning and very late at night. Well, I used to be, now that I’m older and learned the word “routine”, I kind of fall asleep before it’s even 11 pm on the clock at best. Anyways, I’m creatively productive during the morning and late night hours. Managing and communication go anywhere in between. Meaning if I woke up and stuck my nose into the social media world, I wasted a chance of getting in the flow unless I’m mindful enough just to peek in for urgent stuff and not proceed on acting on it. There are different days and I’m a fluctuating type, so as you may have figured, this is not a recipe, but you get the idea. You need to KNOW yourself well to build the effective workflow
Fiction writer Haruki Murakami used to get up before dawn to write and then he ran for an hour, he did this every morning. Maybe still does but I didn’t verify so I used the info from his book “What I talk about when I talk about running” that I’m currently reading.
Physical exercise is a great way to balance sedentary work and boost your energy, plus if you're like me, doing workout first thing is doing the hardest thing first thing (pardon the tautology).
And is something that sets me in the zone (flow) right away.
HOW TO STAY FOCUSED?
Have you heard of Pomodoro timer? The idea is to set the timer for brief chunks of time (25 minutes usually), then get a quick break. The creator of this technique used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer as a student hence the name. It is believed that brain capacity to focus runs out quickly, and it is also easier to do the work when you know you only have to do it for 25 minutes and then you get a break. However, this may not work for everyone. I found myself an analogy for this timer, the app called Forest. Every time you set it and let it run out without interrupting you "grow" a tree and the app collects it in a "forest". I find this app cool because it not only allows you to set a timer, but it also doesn't let you use the phone and if you do, you "kill" a tree.
Do not use your break time to browse Insta or internet. There was a study done that discovered interesting fact: by going on social media in between work we don’t really give the brain a break, it still “works”. Go for a walk instead, pat a cat, watch your coffee brewing, people-watch from a park bench or doodle something, in other words, notice moments in between moments. That’s when the brain gets a chance to shuffle and re-order stuff for you to feel refreshed and ready to do another piece of work.
This is pretty obvious, right? But I'll say it: turn your phone notifications off, or better switch the thing off or put it in another room (a hard one for me). Same for any other notifications. Book your time for the work you need to get done.
Stephen King in his memoir "On writing" suggests isolation as a way of creating productive momentum for mental work. I understand this may not be applicable to everyone due to family circumstances and/or nature of work, but the idea is to eliminate distractions or bring them to a minimum.
If you're like me and tend to fall out of routines by simply forgetting or getting excited about some other stuff, you still can do this. And if you didn’t today, you will tomorrow, just stay determined, find a reason why and, most important, stay true to yourself. These all are just tools, not an algorithm or a recipe, perceive them as possibilities to explore, try and create your own. We are not machines that can do same thing over and over again, otherwise, no one would need to write a post on creative workflow! :)