Creating on Cue

My father sent me an article a few weeks back discussing the differences between the Maker’s Schedule, and the Manager’s Schedule. The two are, admittedly, very different in concept. The Manager’s Schedule, the article asserts, is best formatted into tight scheduling blocks, typically around one hour apiece. Tasks tend to shift each hour for the manager to adjust to ever-changing needs for their position. The Maker’s Schedule, however, is basically diametrically opposed to the Manager’s Schedule, requiring that tasks essentially be blocked in whole day or half day increments. This presumes that a creative thinker needs time to get rolling, time to process and time to stay within their creative space for a sustained period to get things done.

I live trapped between these two worlds. My day-to-day schedule is exactly the Manager’s Schedule presented in the article. Each Monday, I start my day by blocking out my entire week at work in hour-long chunks. I have few meetings to attend to at this point in my manager’s life, so my calendar doubles as my to-do list. I have around five projects at a given time that I am focusing on and I will break up my daily schedule to deal with at least three of those at various points. I also must include time to answer e-mails and respond to technical issues, as well as time for my various freelance sort of pursuits.

Those freelance pursuits are where things get tricky. Some of them can be very much “non-creative”. I’m either monitoring a schedule, or just catching up on the overall to-dos, or replying to queries via e-mail. Sometimes, though, I need to work in creative content. I need to develop a storyline for a game, or help puzzle out how to resolve an awkward plot that another writer has crafted, or I need to write this blog. I don’t have the luxury of being able to say “This afternoon, I’m spending four hours writing my blog.” I have work to do. I need to crank this out. I could go home and perform that work on that timeline… but what would that mean for my personal life? For my marriage? I’ve only got about six hours between the time I get home and the time I go to bed. I don’t intend to have 50% of that time be strictly devoted to my creative pursuits. (Maybe that’s my failing point as an artiste… but that’s probably a whole topic in and of itself) I need to be able to create on a schedule, or I can’t really create at all.

One of the most common statements about writing you can read (and a point I’m sure I’ve made a few times now on this blog) is that your creative instinct is a muscle. The more you flex it, the stronger it gets. Ideas will beget ideas and all that good stuff. But your body and your mind will get accustomed to certain methods of exercise. By working in short bursts on creative activities, you’ll learn to be able to crank out creative projects on a tight schedule. But you need to be aware of the limitations that your schedule will bring to a generally open-ended sort of work.

Make sure that you’re set to be working during that period. You can’t just wait for the clock to turn and kick off your creative work. You’ll want to schedule at least a little bit of time to get a rolling start. Make sure that when it comes time to jump into your creative endeavor that your materials are ready and waiting for you. If you’re going allot yourself an hour of time, you can’t have 10 minutes of it involve prep work. Try and schedule a task beforehand that you know won’t take an hour, but block out that much time anyway. When you finish that task, use that bonus time to get a head start on your creative work.

Part of that head start, for me, is getting distractions out of the way. For as much as I like to berate the standards in attention span among “those kids today”, I am a child of the MTV and Nintendo generation and sometimes when I go to buckle down on a task my brain wants to do nothing but wander. Get that wandering done early. Part of getting ready to tap into your imagination and call upon those reserves is ensuring that your mind is clear. Take a few minutes and play a web game, stare off into space, read a few pages in your book. Burn off some of your desire to goof off, then you’ll be that much more likely to be able to dig in hard.

Some of the most critical prep work for tackling a creative task in burst mode like this comes at the end of your allotted time. Let’s say your ultimate goal is to finish a novel. In your one-hour of work, you manage to crank out an entire chapter, tying it off in a neat bow when you’re complete. It might not seem like it, but you’re doing yourself a bit of a disservice completing things so cleanly. It can be difficult to start from a zero point when you’re jumping back into a larger project. Next time you sit down to write that next chapter, you’ve got to think about things from start to finish. You have to warm yourself back up to the content and characters and world. What you should be doing is making sure that when you’re ending, you’re leaving things in a place where you can pick up easily and then continue into your groove. Leave characters in the middle of a conversation or a scene that you know the method they would use to resolve. Heck, end something mid-sentence if it helps. I wrote this blog in two parts today.

At 10am, my wife left for dance practice. At 10:50am, I needed to leave to meet with friends for a regular Sunday session of gaming we have. I had a couple chores I wanted to finish, but I wanted to work on this blog post for 30 minutes to make sure I planted the seed of this idea to make finishing it later in the day easier. So I wrote right up to “The more you flex it, the stronger it gets…” in the fourth paragraph. I knew what else I wanted to say there. I wasn’t 100% on the entire end of the post, but I knew how I wanted to finish the rest of that thought. So, I left it hanging. Then, after 5 hours with friends, dinner, some DVR, catching up on my comic book reading and some Bejeweled on Facebook (why is it so addicting?!) I was able to sit back down, look at what I had written, and use that unfinished thought as an instant jumping off point. I didn’t have to try and rev up and get into a groove, I’d left a groove sitting there that I was able to settle right into. 20 minutes later, and here we are at the end.

Creative work in short bursts is not my preference. I would love to be able to spend my day working on projects like writing in longer blocks. Four hours… five hours… eight hours long. But that’s not the reality of the work environment for those attempting to break into a creative environment while they hold down their dayjobs. Learning to work on your passions quickly and to treat them like any other non-creative endeavor can be a critical part of bringing a project to fruition without needing to take time off or discount other aspects of your life.

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