Getting creative things done: how to fit hard thinking into a busy schedule

It started a few weeks ago. I had to write an academic research statement: a high stakes, ambiguous, beast of a creative project. For the first week, I kept telling myself, “this is my most important priority,” and hacked away at the project whenever I got a chance. I continuously felt guilty about not spending enough time writing. One night, toward the end of the week, I holed up in my office until 9 pm, desperate to get things done.
The result was near useless. I had 15 pages of rambling text (a research statement should be 3-5 pages, at most), and still had more to cover. The message was confused and drowning in adjectives.

This situation is common for to-do list creatives – workers who have the juggle creative work – like writing or devising strategy – with logistical work – like prompt email replies and meetings. I’m a to-do list creative: as a theoretical computer scientist, I must switch between solving mathematical proofs

– one of the most purely creative endeavors – and the logistics of reviewing papers and meeting with grant managers. To keep things interesting, I also sometimes write.

Here’s our quandary: To-do list creatives advance in their careers based on the quality of their creative output. Our logistical responsibilities, however, fight against this goal. Most to-do list creatives cannot drop everything to spend days lost in monk-like focus. But the result of instead squeezing creative work into distracted bursts, driven by deadline pressure, is mediocrity. (Exhibit A: the first draft of my research statement).

Fortunately, however, there is hope…

Driven by the demands of academia, which requires the regular publication of high-quality creative work to maintain your job, I developed a system. As an homage to David Allen, I call it “Getting Creative Things Done” (or, GCTD), and it has helped me publish academic papers at a fast rate while also writing three books and managing a popular blog, all the while dispatching the never-ending, non-creative tasks required by my position.

Most to-do list creatives cannot drop everything to spend days lost in monk-like focus.

Excited about starting the faculty job search process, for example, I had ignored my system when I first dived into writing my research statement. After the debacle of that first week, however, I stepped back, took a deep breath, and let GCTD work its magic. Three days later, I had a beautiful draft complete.

In this article, I want to explain this system. I’ll start by summarizing what’s required to produce high-quality creative work, then describe how the GCTD system integrates these demands into a normal schedule.

What Is Needed for Good Creative Work?

In his oft-cited essay, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” Paul Graham highlights the unique demands of creative work (the type of work produced by a “maker,” in Graham’s lexicon).

The maker’s schedule, he explains, is defined by long, open stretches of uninterrupted work. For a maker, “a single meeting can blow a whole afternoon.” Graham describes his own schedule, from his time working in a software start-up, as starting after dinner and lasting until 3am, explaining: “At night no one could interrupt me.”

In Graham’s construction, I identified two justifications for the importance of long stretches of uninterrupted work:
Shifting Mental Modes: When the mind knows it has no interruptions looming, it can shift into the flow state required to produce high-quality output.

Getting creative things done: how to fit hard thinking into a busy schedule