Dan Blank talks about finding focus to create more

The following is a share from my inbox today from Dan Blank:

Happy Friday!

If you are a writer or creative professional who works on your craft at home, I want to share my best advice on how to do so. I want to help you find more focus amidst the many distractions you face every single day.

This is everything I have learned through:

  • Working from home full-time for the past 6 years, while running my company WeGrowMedia, and raising a family.
  • Working from home both full and part time when I had a corporate job in the 3 years prior to that.
  • Working with thousands of writers and creative professionals, who themselves work from home, or split their time between a traditional office setting and nontraditional settings of home, cafe, etc.
  • Studying how successful people manage to get stuff done while at home.

Okay, let’s dig in:

Calendar everything.

My life runs on time blocking. This means I open up my calendar application (I use Apple’s Calendar) and block out each hour of the day for tasks.

Sounds crazy, right?

It’s not. It allows me to have clarity about what I need to do throughout the day, reducing decision-fatigue. What’s that? It’s having to think a million times “Um, what is on fire right now?” and rely on my emotions to tell me.

Instead, I have clarity in my day, and I’m allowed to work on some immediate tasks, but also work on projects that won’t have a pay off for months or years down the road. When you run every moment of your schedule based on emotions, you are going to spend all day reacting. It’s hard to build something meaningful over time when you are too busy reacting all the time.

I use three different color codes in my calendar: green for meetings, purple for focused creative work, and blue for non-work stuff. Yes, I schedule that too. Today I have scheduled what I’m eating for lunch and when I take my nap. Oh, I take a nap every day too. (More on that here.)

For important tasks, I schedule twice as much time as I think I need. Why? Because I have found that I will try to “squeeze in” an important task, when it truly requires more space. I want to be honest with myself about how long craft takes. This applies to so much of what I do, including writing. This morning I spent an hour editing 2 pages of a book I am writing, and that was with notes to guide me. That hour felt like 100 decisions to find clarity, to craft prose, to move things around, and to ensure it fit within the larger context of that chapter.

Schedule everything that requires your focus, including when you will get to email. Too often, someone will schedule meetings on their calendar, and just assume that email will be managed in the cracks in between meetings. It won’t. Instead what happens is that person’s day is spent constantly “trying to catch up,” and can’t effectively communicate with others because of it.

Does time blocking sound too rigid for your tastes? I keep it flexible by constantly moving blocks of time around on my calendar. Why? Because life happens. My schedule needs to honor the important work that needs to get done, but also that we are human beings living in a complex ecosystem where things change all the time. We are all managing family, relationships, physical and mental health, and our responsibilities to work, home, and our communities.

But maybe time blocking won’t work for you. If that is the case, I encourage you to take the same strategy, but apply it to different tactics. Perhaps instead you wake up every day to a hand-written to-do list that you made out the night before. Or you wake up to an intention that you wrote out the night before — a single thing that you need to ensure gets done each day.

My point is this: have a system.

If you feel that you are drowning every day, and can never find the time for your creative work, I strongly encourage you to consider new ways to manage your daily calendar.

Have a door. That locks.

If you work from home, even if just for what you feel is a “hobby” of writing, find a space that can be truly private. And this is the important part: the door should have a lock on it.

Since I run a little company, I have an office at home that is 100% dedicated to work. When we bought the house, this was the first space I defined when divvying up the bedrooms because it needed to have a sense of privacy in terms of the layout of the house. I also installed a lock on the door — a signal to myself and to my family that there are times when work is more important than whatever the interruption is.

Perhaps you can only find a tiny desk in a spare bedroom for you to use for your work. Or a section of the basement. Whatever it is, take the time to go to Home Depot, buy one of those cheap locks with keys, and install it on the door.

That key is a symbol that your creative work matters.

Learn to create in sprints, not marathons

I know, there are some full-time writers or artists who can devote 12 hours a day to becoming lost in their work. I think that is truly awesome.

But for the rest of us, we can’t.

Our days are spent juggling 1,000 things: the litter box has to be changed, you have two kids about to come home from school, you work part time at the post office, and as a crossing guard for extra cash, and the dishes are piled up in the sink. Oh, and you want to write today.

I would encourage you to develop the skill to create even in small increments of time: 10 or 20 minutes.

You may tell me that it takes you longer than that to “get into” writing, and that once you are in the zone, you lose track of time. That’s fine, but if it the result is that you can never find that kind of time to write, then I encourage you to work on the skill of smaller sprints of creative work.

Buy a timer. One of those kitchen timers, or a cheap timer on Amazon. Set if for 20 minutes to give yourself little bouts of work in between moments of your otherwise busy day. For many of you, you will never have a spare 2 hours where you can write. BUT… you may have 20 minutes. Set the timer so that you can feel freedom to write for those 20 minutes.

Connect a task to a place

Sometimes “working from home” really means not working in the home. I spend the first 4 hours of the day working from my local Starbucks.

That means I never schedule meetings first thing in the day, because that time is dedicated to writing and to doing client work. When I come home, that is when I catch up on other tasks and take calls. Starbucks is a place dedicated to doing focused work.

You can create this for yourself in a variety of ways; perhaps you go to the library where you will only work on your novel; then you will go to a cafe where you will only do business planning; and then at home, you will only do admin, email, and take calls.

Each place has their own mood — experiment and find what works for a given task. I have found that I focus really well when working amidst the chaos of morning rush hour at Starbucks.

Develop tiny habits

Everything I have shared above comes down to creating small habits. The bottom line is that I understand that you are likely struggling to make ends meet financially; that you are taking care of a family; that you may be going through a health crisis; that the time to focus on your creative work never seems to be “right now,” because important things come up.

My final pieces of advice:

  • Forgive yourself. Let go of the guilt you feel in feeling that you can’t do it all.
  • Find joy in the process. I listen to music while I work, and that helps me stay focused and inspired.
  • Reward yourself for the tasks you do accomplish each week, even if you feel you dropped a few balls. The reward can be simple, such as food or a beverage.

What helps you get your creative work done?

Thanks.
-Dan

Well, I definitely felt that this email was written directly to me today.  It’s been 22 days since my last blog post.  22!  There’s no excuse for that, even though I’ve thought of several during those 22 days.  I’m definitely feeling that my creative work needs to become a priority instead of the first thing shoved to the back burner when something else (anything else) comes up.  Dan’s words could not have come at a better time for me.

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