Tools and techniques for managing creativity and following through on your big ideas.
My friend Rob and I got into a conversation over lunch about the concept of creative literacy. We’re not really taught — even in liberal arts and creative arts academic programs — how to manage and follow through on great ideas.
Everyone can experience a brainstorm — but most creative brainwaves end without follow through.
And what a lot of people don’t talk about is the overwhelm that comes from a high creative state. There is an anxiety that accompanies having a ton of ideas flowing all at once.
We talk a lot about how to get to those creative flow states, but when you’re in the middle of one it's kind of the worse time to have to wonder what your process should be. Or to worry that you don’t have one.
Everyone can experience a brainstorm — but do you have a system of rain barrels and cisterns and wells in place to make the most of that when it does happen?
As Rob pointed out, most creative brainwaves end without follow through.
And what a lot of people don’t talk about is the overwhelm that comes with a creative state. There is an anxiety that accompanies having a ton of ideas flowing all at once.
We talk a lot about how to get to those creative flow states, how to get into them, but when you’re in the middle of one it's kind of the worse time to have to wonder what your process should be. Or to worry that you don’t have a process.
I’m experiencing a high creative flow state right now. A lot of people I talk to are also feeling that. And it’s great. Energy has been stagnant for months, for me anyway. For a few years for some of us, also me.
Everything is kind of in Aries in right now and there’s a lot of creative energy and a desire to take action and it's all sort of pouring in now. So Rob was kind of asking me, what are some of the tools that I use to manage that, or is there a way that I can break that down and actually share part of that process.
I think I can do a pretty good job of grounding it a little bit in some systems and tools, especially to help with this idea of overwhelm. So I'm not so much concerned with 'I don't have any creative inspiration'. This is specifically about, what do you do when the fire hydrant is on and it is all running into the street and there's a sense of panic about that.
My favourite go-to magic wand is a list. Lists are magical. They have an ability to change the perception of things. The perceived size of items or problems or concerns, your perceived scope of the To Do cloud that's around your head versus the actual list that ends up on paper in front of you.
There's this anxiety about forgetting things, more than anything, right? So you kind of keep all these balls in the air mentally. You're spending a lot of mental energy just launching balloon after balloon after balloon after balloon, and they're all tied to you and all floating around you in this little cloud.
And one of the things that lists do is they allow you to put those items somewhere so you don't have to worry about forgetting them anymore and that sort of frees up the bandwidth. You can take the balloons down and there's not so much of a cloud around you.
I'm going to talk about checklists in just a bit, which is also another specific way to free up bandwidth.
But there's this high that goes along with taking action, taking risks. It feels sort of good. It's profound! And you can really feel on fire when you're in that state. But the dark side of that energy is what happens when it runs its course or burns out. There's a crash. That caffeine, that sugar high, that drug is going to crash at some point.
And then you're going to realize that you expended a lot of energy starting things without following through on them. And you won't necessarily have the energy left over to follow through, if you spin it in the wrong way. You know what I mean?
Another tool that actually presented itself to me in a really obvious way when I was travelling with Rob last fall was this idea that we should focus on manifesting people, not things. Not the stuff, not the To Do list items, not the resources. Focus on manifesting people who have those things.
You look at that list you made, and maybe there's 25 things on it. When you manifest the right person, they may come with 10 or 12 of those items already taken care of. Or they may have the resources to tick those boxes for you, without you having to do anything other than asking them.
Collaborate. That's what I mean by manifesting other people. That can be an instantaneous thing. It can be a stranger on the street that you stop and ask for directions. In that moment, you're manifesting a person that can tell you how to get to where you're going. It's collaboration, whether it lasts 30 seconds or a couple of years and it's a more formal relationship.
Reach out to experts. Instead of telling them about your great new idea, ask them questions. What do they actually want in the area of your big idea? So you can kind of gear the questions that you ask them towards the area that you're interested in, rather than you telling them what you're making and getting their feedback on it, ask them what they want in the area in which you're proposing a solution or an idea or a venture.
They'll tell you what to make. They will literally tell you exactly what's missing, what they wish existed, and sometimes they'll even help you make it.
The number of times that I've been given resources just because I reached out to someone as an entrepreneur in this phase of my life, let's say in the last 15 years, there are so many times that I have reached out to a coder, a developer, a software engineering expert, a publishing industry person, whatever it might be, and come at them in the right way, with a really curious and respectful desire to participate, people can pick up on that authenticity.
Now if someone is closed to helping other people, that's their issue. You're not going to manifest them anyway. Cross them off your list if you accidentally catch them in your net. Focus on manifesting someone who is open to participating with you.
Just to give you an example of what I'm talking about, more recently with the audiobook production part of my business that I'm moving into, which is one of my big creative new states right now. And when I say I was in a high creative state, a lot of it is around audiobook production. That's one of the new irons in the fire.
I was looking for some resources online, looking for some books on Amazon. I found one in particular that looked really techy. Because I have more questions about some technical stuff, to do with software and file types and less about getting in the spirit of You-Can-Do-It. I'm not looking for that kind of pep talk.
I was looking for something a little bit more specific, and I ran across this author's book and he was a Dutch person. It was still a book written in English but he was Dutch. I looked him up on Facebook and saw that he did live in Holland.
I noticed something in his book that felt kind of like a sign to me. There were examples that he was using about different kinds of studio space that exists, that you can access, as an independent producer of an audiobook. And he linked to a story about my home city, Chattanooga, Tennessee, where our public library built a really state of the art sound facility and they use it for learning purposes and school programs.
But I know a couple of people who do their podcast there. It is something the public has access to. He mentioned it as being a cool resource that our city had. Because of the timing of my reaching out to the Universe, looking for that magic carpet ride of links on the internet that take you to all the things that you were looking for and it all feels perfectly aligned and stuff.
So I was having one of those moments with his book.
So I just decided to send him a friend request on Facebook and then I followed it up with a message explaining why I'd sent him the friend request. And I told him the story, the connection with Chattanooga and I asked him a really technical question that I had, threw some jargon at him, so he would know that I could kind of speak his language and that I was looking to get a more geeky answer from someone.
He was so excited by the interaction that within just a few messages back and forth, he told me about this course that he built and that was available on Teachable and it was an expensive class! It was like, $1500 or something to take this course, and it was really techy looking.
And he offered me a coupon code to access the course for free if I would give him some feedback about it and let him know if that was what I was looking for. There were things about it that needed to be changed to make it more accessible for other kinds of authors.
I mean, that's just an example of something that happened. So when I say 'Manifest the people', that's what I mean.
Take the opportunity. Someone crosses your path and you think, I'm going to Facebook message this stranger. Just do it! I mean, what's the worse that can happen. They can decline your friend request or not answer your message. Or if they seem rude or not open, fine. Keep on moving.
But I can't tell you the number of times that I have reached out to someone who is an expert and they were very generous with their time, their information, and sometimes with their resources.
When I was bootstrapping my business, trying to build something online, I got a lot of help from a lot of people that way, and it's one of the reasons I was able to do it at all.
People like to share their wisdom. They like to be acknowledged for having it. It's often hard earned. They like to have sort of heirs receive their information. People who care, because no matter who you are, you are what filled your work in. Your family doesn't care about your work, and your friends don't want to hear you talk about your work.
Your peers want to hear you talk about your work, and who really values what you do, are the people who are driving down the same road behind you. That's who you want to talk to. Because that's your opportunity to make a difference for someone else, and I think it's motivated by an impulse to sort of go back in time and save yourself, you know?
So when someone approaches me wanting to know about how to do a podcast or something, I already have a list of resources ready to go. So I'm just gonna copy and paste and email it. I'm so excited to think that all the research that I did and spent maybe weeks or months on, can now be reduced to a single email for someone who really wants that information and is gonna go do something with it.
That's really exciting to me. It brings me joy. So don't underestimate the fact that everyone else likes to do that too. We like to be on the end where somebody's asking us to share, and when we're on the end where we're asking for the information, we often feel like we're bothering people.
Now I do think you need to keep your emails succinct. Don't tell people long drawn out stories about your life. Keep it brief. Really really respect their time and think about the fact that you may be one of 50 people who's sending them emails like that, right?
It's really easy to answer something that's short and specific and a lot of people who have taken time to build resources or expertise in a certain area, do have things like checklists that they can send you, or a favourite resource or website that they can point you to.
So make it easier for them to do it quickly. I think you're more likely to get a favourable response.
TIME is the one thing that is limited. It’s the one thing that you can’t make more of. And this is one of my tools, actually. This is one of my subheads in this episode, is this idea about time. You can find more resources. You can manifest more people. You can make more money. But you can't make more time.
So that's one of the big things that you have to deal with when it comes to creative overwhelm, creative productivity, getting shit done. If you can work the time part out, then you can graft a plan onto that. So time is the one thing you can be really strict about. If you're religious and disciplined about the time, then you can be creative and you can flow within that structure. And you can play. You can be a little bit more loose and happy.
This is where I use 3x3 strategy. But you can’t use 3x3 unless you can identify 3 blocks of time each week.
My mentor in writing and publishing and productivity is Tim Grahl. You hear me talking about him when I talk about marketing a lot. Steven Pressfield, who I also talk about, is partnered with Shawn Coynes in a publishing company called Black Irish Books. You've heard me mention many times Steven Pressfield's War of Art as one of my big creative bibles. And Shawn Coynes Story Grid is that type of work specifically for fiction authors and screenplay writers.
Tim's latest book was published by these guys. He's friends with them. He works with them. So Black Irish Books published his latest book called Running Down a Dream. It's a really personal story about Tim trying to start his own business. A lot of failures and anxiety and psychological stuff really that he dealt with. It's super vulnerable and very confessional and just really cool. It represents a lot of why I like him and admire him so much.
In addition to being willing to share how much he sucks at certain things, he's also really, really great about identifying systems and sharing them in this way that I talk about. That mentors have this really genuine authentic impulse to put out their recipes for others.
So in Running Down a Dream, which I'll link to, on this issue of time and creative project management, he talks about a few steps that address this in particular. And one of them was to first identify what the shortest path is. Meaning, find the thing that's going to get you there the quickest. The minimum viable product, or maybe it's the aspect of a particular platform that's the easiest to execute.
Sometimes there are things that we can do within a month and then other things that have a much longer timeline. So find the shortest path to get you in the game.
And then stop doing everything.
I don't really remember from this note if I meant, stop doing all the stuff, or if he literally meant, you just kind of stop working on stuff. And you make your focus just listing everything you do in a day. Again. Some list making. But you write down literally everything that you do. And you circle the essential items.
And for five days, Monday through Friday, you do an experiment where you only do the essential things. Only those things that you circled that you absolutely have to do, like feed your children, go to work. His advice is, you do that for Monday through Friday, and then you kind of evaluate it over the weekend. You journal and you take a look at really how your time is getting spent.
He say he does this once a year. He goes into a great detail about this in the book. I'm just giving you the bullet points, the highlights.
His advice is, you create systems for those essential things. And we talk about systems at the level of things like, 'keep your keys in a bowl by the door' because finding your keys every morning is an essential thing that needs to happen and it can take a ridiculous amount of time or it can take one second. Part of the reason how you can ensure that these essential things get done efficiently is to create a system for them.
A system for finding your keys in the morning can be: put your keys in the same damn place all the time.
Another thing he talks about is creating checklists for everything you do for multiple reasons. Because at some point, you may want to delegate some of your activities and it makes it much less personal when you have this really nitpicky well thought out, well groomed, list of steps as opposed to trying to train someone in the moment and maybe yelling at them for not doing it in a certain kind of way.
It's less personal if there's a checklist that exists so part of one of the things he's talking about throughout his advice is this idea of preparing your systems in such a way now so that they have time to evolve and sort of be trimmed down to their essential selves. And then be shared with other people more easily, because the idea is that if put these systems in place now while it's just you working, at some point there will be other people working with you. Because you're going to manifest the people to help you. And you can pass these lists off to them.
When you create checklists, you can also identify which items can be outsourced in some way, either to a computer app or to some kind of online service, or to an actual person.
But all these things, even the 'keeping your keys in a bowl by the door', frees up bandwidth. It frees up mental bandwidth, which anxiety loves to hog, your mental bandwidth. Running around with your hair on fire, looking for your keys every morning, is anxiety.
So if you're going to carry all this creative stuff coming in, you need as much bandwidth to focus on that stuff with as possible. You don't need to be worrying about little stuff that can be taken care of by simply having some systems in place.
Another thing that he talks about is deciding on your goal. What's the goal? The immediate goal. Not the five-year plan necessarily, but again, the shortest path. Let's get from A to Z. In my case, it's like what can I execute in the next three months? What phase of this project can be executed.
And then you need to get clear about what is driving you in the first place. He has this theory that he shares called the 3 F's - Fortune, Fame or Freedom? The idea is that you can have some of all of those things. You can have a little fortune, you can have a little fame, and you can have freedom too. Sometimes they all go together.
But there is one of those things that is motivating you more than any other. And if you're clear about what is motivating you, sometimes it changes the way in which you choose to work. It changes the things you choose to work on yourself versus the things that you delegate to other people.
So there's a little bit of a character analysis happening there where not only are you getting clear about your project and your goal, but you kind of need to know what it is that's fueling you in the first place. Because you may need to go get more fuel some time. And knowing what part of you is going to light up...
It's important. It'll come back up, especially when you run out of steam, or when you're in a low point in the process. What is it that's going to keep you going?
After talking about those principles, he gets to this whole thing with scheduling creative time. His advice around that is very similar to the Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. This concept of having artist's dates. My version of that is the 3x3 strategy.
I have a major new project that I need to find a whole new string of 3x3 slots for. Two years ago I did the 3x3 to start this podcast. I spent three months, and then I launched it, and you know what? A lot of those time slots remained in place. Monday, Wednesday, Friday. In the mornings I work on podcasting stuff.
Sometimes that's interviewing people. Sometimes that's recording a segment like this. Sometimes it's tinkering with the... putting the stuff on my blog so that you can play it from my website. You know, whatever it might be. But I'm always doing something in these designated time periods.
Now, yes I was able to shrink some of that and reclaim it after I got it going and got some flow and some ritual around it. I was able to create some checklists and some systems. But here I am now and I'm like, ooo, I have a new project. I can't stop the ones that are going on, so I actually have to find time.
I don't know where I'm going to find it. That's the point. Now I have to find more, and it's a limited resource. And I'm looking for three actions per week for three months. That's the 3x3. So where am I gonna find another time slot?
You have to be really honest and brutal with yourself, but you can find it. I hear these horror stories of people who get up at 4:00 in the morning and do it. Write their novels before anyone wakes up and their day gets started. I hear even worse horror stories about the people who stay up at night after their kids are asleep and work into the wee hours of the morning.
I am not into night time working at all, so it has to be morning for me. I know that.
Okay, so being really brutally honest with myself, and making a list of everything that I actually do in a day, the first thing on that list would be a little cluster of activities that take place in the first hour I'm up, that include waking up, feeding my pets, drinking water, making coffee, turning on the news.
Depending on how I'm feeling, sitting down and drinking that coffee with the news on in the background. Checking my email, looking at Facebook and seeing if I have instant messages. All that kind of stuff. Probably a lot of us reach for that in the morning.
I do that for an hour, honestly, so I can steal that from myself for something important. I can man up, I can take that hour of leisurely morning stuff and I can use it for work. At least for three months, right?
Let's do it for three months and see what happens, because that's the point. I'm gonna execute, I'm gonna get this thing out there, then maybe it won't take so much time. Or I may find some other strategies working in it. Or it could be the case that with a lot of projects, once there's a launch, or once there's an end to one phase going into another, sometimes the time demands change.
But right now, I'm thinking if I can steal that hour, that early morning hour and just be a grown up, I can get a lot done with that. Because this podcast takes about five hours a week to produce. And if I have to do another comparable audio type project, that's five more hours that I can rescue. So that's really useful.
And here's a little secret tweak to my 3x3 that I don't usually mention because it's not elegant. It doesn't go along with the 3 so well. I do 4 or I do 5. Because if I'm going to find that hour, three times a week in the morning, I might as well do it every day in the morning four or five times.
That also allows for disruption. Something happens one morning. Okay, fine. I've got 4 other to work with. My goal here is just to do it 3, so I'm building in some padding. And, you know, if you can do it 3 mornings, you can do it 4, right?
And maybe you still have that one morning that you take it easy and you do your coffee and your news or your journalling, whatever. I think that's kinda healthy. Maybe you just reward yourself on Fridays. I do the lazy thing that I always like to do.
The other tool or insight for me is how important quarters are, in terms of managing time and projects and running a business and all that kind of stuff. We're talking about the seasons. 3 month periods.
The hardest thing to cope with for me in this entrepreneurial world is the roller coaster. There's a roller coaster of money. It's either feast or famine. There's a roller coaster of work coming in. It's either flowing and everybody's wanting a piece of you or it's like a dead zone. The sales are flat. You're not moving at all. Or it's an emotional roller coaster. It's like up and down, highs and lows. It's like, yay! I'm awesome. I'm brilliant. And then the lows are, omg, I suck. Who am I to think I can do this? All that stuff.
What I found is that quarters are a more realistic time span for analyzing things, like financials or productivity. Quarters sort of smooth out the roller coaster into more of a trend line. Not so much a jagged up and down but more of a smooth flowing line.
Many projects or project phases will fit really nicely in a quarter. 90 days is a really good rough draft period, first draft period for a longer book project. And a quarter is really good for a re-write/edit period. And then another quarter is really good for a launch in marketing period. You see what I'm saying?
There are some projects that you can entirely finish in one quarter, like launching a podcast. I did it.
Planning a whole year is too much. You know what? Reality changes too much. So quarters are the right amount of time to execute something and then to evaluate if anything's changed before planning a whole other set of stuff.
Quarters' also enough time to execute an emergency contingency plan if you needed to. If you really needed to shift gears for some reason, or you needed to make up for lost income. Or let's say you're like, "Oh man, I really mismanaged this whole thing. I need to go get a job for some cash flow, maybe just temporarily."
But 3 months might be a decent amount of time for you to go and find a job if you need to go back to work. Or 3 months is a reasonable amount of time to work through some kind of rough patch, you know what I mean?
But the time to sit down and plan all this is now, while you're fired up. There is a tendency to want to go be in the center of the hurricane and just feel the magic and the flow coming through your body and straight to the canvas …
But when you come down from that high, you're usually spent. You don’t have the motivation to continue at that same speed. And you didn’t save enough motivation to put a more realistic system into place either. And the last thing you feel like doing is, "Oh, I'm going to create a system!" right when you crash from your caffeine sugar creativity high.
So… If you’re in creative overwhelm, or even just really in the zone with wanting to make a project happen… take a few hours. Whether you're feeling really on top of it or you're feeling like you're drowning. Take a couple of hours. Go have some tea or some coffee. Do an artist’s date at a cafe. Take your laptop, your tablet, your sketchbook. Go have a meeting with yourself and make a big ass list.
Just make a big list.
Then identify the three blocks of time. Pull them out of your ass, out of thin air, they are there if you really want it badly enough. Steal them from some other lazy, unproductive part of your life.
And then, start sorting those items on your list into quarters. What goes in the first month? What goes in the second month? What goes in the third month? Divide it up in 3s.
If you find you have a whole lot of leftover stuff that doesn't go somewhere and needs more time, call that Phase 2 and do that in the next quarter.
Once you start to see this on paper, your own Miss Busy will take over and start putting it all together. Psychologically what it does is, it just takes a lot of feelings that you have about what's coming in, and it takes a lot of anxiety that you have, that you're going to somehow lose one brilliant piece of this puzzle and puts it somewhere safe and makes it manageable and changes your perception about how big and terrible and awful and scary it is.
Now, once you're at that point, go manifest the people who are going to be involved.
This could be some kind of incubator program. It could be a small business workshop. It could be a meeting with a CPA. It could be sending emails to your heroes or sending Facebook friend requests to the big fish in your genre. Sometimes a class that you might sign up for can be part of your 3x3
AND you know what? If you want to make ME one of those people, I’ll walk you through the 3x3.
One of my most recent client wants to launch a podcast … and this is really cool. Because I’ve done this. And I did a 3x3 to do it. I already have some lists to work with. So I'm like, Yes, I can walk you through that plan. Let’s do it. I know for sure how to get from A to Z.
This is actually my favorite kind of job in the whole world. Like, that kind of mentoring. And you get all the bonus of my fabulous psychic ability.
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