Category Archives: Reading List

Want to be more creative? Focus on doing “First Things First.”

CORE PRINCIPLE: FIRST THINGS FIRST

If you want to accomplish important things focus on your internal compass of what matters most now, rather than a clock, a to do list, or trying to stuff everything into a jamb packed calendar.

This idea comes from my favorite book by productivity/meaning of life expert, Stephen Covey. It’s called First Things First.

He divides all of life’s activities into four quadrants, and I have found it very helpful, in avoiding other people ‘junk’ in both my work and personal life.

Are you immortal? If so, just add everything to a list, knowing that eventually you will get to each item.

But time is precious, so consider Covey’s Quadrants.

I used to feel like I had all the time in the world. No more. This is a simple model. The left column is filled with things that are URGENT, the right is NOT urgent.

Zoning out with TV, drugs, overuse of social media, etc. is quadrant 4. If you park there, the best you can hope for is to be entertained but idle.

Quadrants 1 & 3 are relative, in the sense that what’s urgent to one of my design clients, may not be urgent to me. I’m thinking of the time someone called my at 11pm on Saturday night do to a “Sofa Emergency.”

There are no Sofa Emergencies.

The interesting quadrant is #2, the realm of Planning & Prevention, both things I avoided until I was about 40. Planning a career move, rather than rashly quitting, getting to a skin doctor for an 5 minute annual check, instead of having your life destroyed by an easily treated disease. And, even if your life is hectic spending time on Quad 2, which will do more make your life better months or years in the future. If a brushfire is spreading toward your home, of course, switch into Quad 1, drop everything else, and evacuate.

But when we let our important stuff, #1 & #2 get shoved aside by other people’s priorities, we become victims of False Urgency. It rules many people work lives, and if you don’t make a change, you will wake up one day with regrets for all the deep accomplishments you missed.

When this compass guides your time and energy, you will not let the deep things in your life get extinguished by other people’s confusion. That old aphorism / shop sign, “Your poor planning is not my emergency,” is a good example.

We can’t LIVE DEEP every day, but there is always some room for planning and self-care.

If you entirely stop expressing yourself creatively because your kids need you, you have an 18 year + hiatus in store.

A well know truth is that our kids learn more from our deeds, than for our words. You art, craft, adventurous travel, writing, etc., matter. The can’t wait. As Eric Maisel, another favorite guide for me says, “It’s a fantasy to wait for that clear calm time. It’s a form of self delusion. What you have to do is learn to be creative in the midst of the things you must do.

That doesn’t mean daubing painting on a canvas with a brush in your mouth while you do the ironing. It means, sometimes it’s good to have wrinkled clothes for a few days, and savor the feeling of making something beautiful.

FIRST THINGS FIRST is really, really important.

The image of that chart with four quadrants got embedded in my head 15 years ago.

I still fall victim to urgency often, or shut down and watch reruns of my favorite sitcom, when it’s too stressful to work on the book I’m writing.

Once you have that image in your mind in a way similar to warning lights on your cars dashboard, you can realized that another person pseudo crisis, and instead listen to music that inspires you. You can spend 20 minutes, even in the most hectic day, stretching or exercising, turn off the TV after enjoying a good show for an hour, and then move to a quiet space and read a book like Deep Work, which can hone your skill at avoiding hooks of frantic/busy people.

I’ve been meeting lots of new people. It’s a time in my life where growing connection matters deeply. When I meet someone who’s 3rd sentence, is, “I’m so super busy,” I quickly excuse myself to chat with someone else, who might actually have time to share something interesting. Busy people are mostly just busy in my opinion. Like work-a-holics, they tend to not actually be that productive.

Why go out to a mixes, and talk about how nuts your life is, or focus on the things that aren’t working well.

Imperfect as I am, I can say making Quad 2 a priority every day guides me to put my energy into the big stuff. Growing older, I hope to spend more time in that realm.

Deep work; the story of the blacksmith…

So, “Deep Work” by Cal Newport is the most influential book for me this month. I was hiking along the beach, and the chapter I was listening to, was about a person who had a career in a tech industry, burned out, eventually honed the skill to be an artisanal blacksmith. He had delved into historical techniques for purifying & forming metal.

There was a vivid description of his forging  a sword blade from a small ingot of metal and rendered, and it captured the intensity of working with metal, and having the risk that if you hammer just a bit too hard and your work is cast asunder.

That resonated with something I read once about craft: “Craft, is the predictable manipulation of material to create an object, and the deeper aspect, is when, regardless of your experience level, you’re on the edge of feeling that it is all about to blow apart. (I’m putting my own words to concepts I read in David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship,” a book that clarified the essence of what it means to craft.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Newport draws a clear distinction between two types of work: deep work and shallow work.

Deep work is defined as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate (page 3).

Shallow work is:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate (page 6).

Go where you would’t go.

Today I had a lot of mundane tasks, some interesting, some not, but I opened a book* by Eric Maisel, my creativity guru, and trusting the right page would fall open, I saw this exercise under the heading, “Anxious Situations.”

Invent a character to go where you wouldn’t go.

Think for a minute about the sorts of places that, because of your personality, principles, or upbringing you would never venture into.

*A Life in the Arts, p.77, in a chapter titled, “Of Moods and Madness.”

Here is the entire instruction: “Think for a minute about the sorts of places that, because of your personality, principles, or upbringing you would never venture into. Invent a character with the sort of personality traits, principles, or upbringing that would allow him or her to venture into one of those places. Follow that character there. Describe the setting in some detail and indicate why the character is successful or comfortable in that setting and why, by by contrast, you are not.

My bold, alternate self flew to Germany to storm the Olafur studio, and politely, firmly insist he become part of the (dream) team. After being rebuffed a few times, he was invited to join them for a meal, and was shown around the office, where he saw some amazing new projects in development.

A Mobius inspired staircase by Olafur Eliasson Studio.
A Mobius inspired staircase by Olafur Eliasson Studio.

What if you produce almost as much in 20 hours, as in 90?

Part of succeeding with creativity is not putting your “Art” last on the list. I’ve been thinking about this because of a fascinating book by a young other who is obsessed with productivity. Chris Bailey funded his own research and writing instead of accepting either of two job offers he received after graduating from college.

He brainstormed a big list of experiments that might improve his productivity. Then, with great discipline he tried them all. The Productivity Project is the book resulting from his empirical research.

Does limiting you smart phone usage to 1 hour a day improve productivity? How much more productive are you working 90 hour weeks vs 20 hour weeks? How could wearing blue blocker sunglasses at night improve your efficiency?

I mistakenly thought being more productive wasn’t an issue for me. Then it dawned on me that as an entrepreneur I needed all the productivity I could get.

Action painter Franz Kline
Action painter Franz Kline

Artist Robert Irwin, spoke of how the previous generation of artists, would mentally prepare for days, in order to be prepared for the existential struggle of applying the paint. I thought of this because the message I get from Chris Bailey is that with sufficient focus on do everything necessary to hit an energy peak big things can be accomplished in small amounts of time.

Assume this 20 hour work week is productive as a 50 or 60 hour week…What would you do with this time? Shouldn’t you be paid as much for the accomplishments, no matter how efficiently you create them. Some of the gain time needs to go towards meditation, eating well, and other things that enhance your energy levels, but what to do with the rest?