Today’s guest contributor is my friend Todd Henry. Todd is the founder of Accidental Creative, a company that helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas. He is also the author of a fantastic new book The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant At a Moment’s Notice.
When life gets overwhelming, it’s tempting to divide it into manageable buckets.
We talk about things like our work life and our home life as though we can somehow slip out of our skin and assume another identity when transitioning between them. However, trying to compartmentalize the various parts of life can take a significant toll on our effectiveness across the board.
Every area of our life is hardwired to every other area. It is impossible to perform a task in one sphere and not have it affect another. Energy we put toward a work task is energy we can put toward a personal project.
Similarly, every personal commitment we make, even if it’s just a commitment to think about something, requires energy that will not be available when it’s time to focus on our work.
How does this affect our ability to generate ideas?
When we are in a very busy time at work, one in which we’re required to generate a lot of ideas in a short amount of time, we need tremendous amounts of energy and focus. But many of us make commitments and expend energy on other, less critical projects thoughtlessly during these times without considering the consequences.
We don’t realize that each commitment we make affects every other. We fail to plan ahead and take into account the creative energy that will be required by our work during a specific week and continue to make commitments, plan meetings, or allocate time to work on unrelated projects.
It’s easy to assume that as long as time is available, we can continue filling it up. This is how we have been trained to think about productivity‚ it’s all about efficiency.
Mindlessly stacking unrelated activities and projects into a week where we expect creative breakthroughs on important projects only drains our energy and fractures our focus.
This goes for personal commitments, too.
We will miss critical insights that could lead to conceptual breakthroughs simply because we are operating at less than optimum capacity. However, if we take into account the season we are in at work and at home, along with all the associated demands, we will be able to make commitments wisely rather than by instinct.
I’ve met and worked with many people who blow right past this principle at great cost. In fact, I used to be one of them.
During one five-month period of my life, I was growing a creative team from five members to twenty-five, continuing to manage the daily demands of my very challenging fifty-to- sixty-hour-a-week job, dealing with the needs of our newborn second child (and his older brother), working on the adoption of our little girl from Guatemala, launching a nonprofit to fund international adoption and planning an associated benefit concert, working on a book with a colleague, working on the early stages of what has become Accidental Creative, performing with a band and writing music with my songwriter friends, and attempting to maintain some type of interpersonal health with my wife and close friends.
At the time, I remember feeling like I was being quite productive. I was accomplishing more than I ever had, seeing success across every area of my life, and feeling pretty good physically. Until I hit bottom. Hard. Because I technically had the time I needed to focus on each of these projects, I didn’t think there was any problem with pursuing them with full guns blazing. I would stack hour after hour with project activity and creative demands, but unknowingly my creative engine was burning oil.
One day, I realized that, though I was technically working on all of these projects, I was gradually becoming less effective in each of them. I stopped having ideas for the book I was working on, and I was straining my relationship with my coauthor. Team and organizational leadership priorities became fuzzy, and my team was suffering badly. Ideas weren’t flowing for our most important initiatives. My interpersonal relationships, including with my wife, were strained.
Most surprising of all, everything that I was once quite excited about felt like an obligation rather than an opportunity.
I was spent. I was a shell of myself. I wasn’t able to bring the best part of myself, my creative insights and leadership, to anything that mattered to me. I had to take time off from work just to reground myself in what I was really trying to do. I had to trim several initiatives out of my life at the expense of the personal relationships involved just in order to get my head above water.
The worst part was that my family had been feeling the effects of my overextension for a very long time, and I’d not even noticed. My wife and I had to have some frank discussions about setting boundaries in my work, including the amount of hours I could put in.
The principle that I’d blown right past in my pursuit of creative invincibility was that each commitment I made, and each project I decided to take on, required something more of me than just my time. Each required my energy. And because I was not being strategic and purposeful about the number and nature of simultaneous commitments I was making, I soon found myself in energy debt. I was creatively inverted and no longer had enough energy to generate the ideas I needed just to keep my head above water.
When you are planning your life, you need to account for every commitment you make in every area.
This means that when you are in a busy season at work, you need to be disciplined enough to trim back the number of personal commitments you make. Similarly, when you are entering a busy season in your personal life, you need to be purposeful about the extra commitments you take on for work. While you can’t always choose what you work on, you can be careful and strategic about where you focus your energy outside of those core commitments.
To effectively focus on the most important work, we need to treat our life more like a portfolio and less like a set of mutually exclusive drawers.
Doing so will make sure we have the time, attention and energy we need to do brilliant work.
Todd Henry is the founder of Accidental Creative, a company that helps creative people and teams generate brilliant ideas. He is also the author of the new book The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant At a Moment’s Notice.
[FTC Disclosure – You should always assume that pretty much every link on this blog is an affiliate link and that if you click it, find something you like and buy it, I’m gonna make some serious money. Now, understand this, I’m not talking chump change, I’m talking huge windfall in commissions, bling up the wazoo and all sorts of other free stuff. I may even be given a mansion and a yacht, though honestly I’d settle most of the time for some organic dark chocolate and clean socks. Oh, and if I mention a book or some other product, just assume I got a review copy of it gratis and that me getting it has completely biased everything I say. Because, books are like a drug to me, put one in my hand and you own my ass. Ethics be damned! K, you’ve been warned. Huggies and butterflies. ]
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