Hackernoon logoWhat to do when you feel caught between spending time on creative pursuits versus managing projects by@poornima

What to do when you feel caught between spending time on creative pursuits versus managing projects

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Poornima Vijayashanker Hacker Noon profile picture

@poornimaPoornima Vijayashanker

Founder

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Charbel Semaan to be interviewed for his podcast Made in Public.

Before we started the interview, Charbel asked his tweeps if they had any questions for me. One question we didn’t have time to cover during the interview was: How do you split your time between “creative” and “manager” time?

This is a great question for a number of reasons.

First, regardless of whether we are leaders or managers, we all struggle with allocating time for our own creative pursuits and for others.

Second, even when we have carved out time for others, it’s not enough. We miss estimating how much time they need from us and can’t anticipate all the issues we’ll need to tackle in the time we have allocated.

Finally, when we do carve out time for ourselves, there is a tendency to squander it, because we’re just tapped out of energy, having spent it dealing with the needs of others.

I’ll admit I don’t have a perfect system.

I’ve had my fair share of burning out, but I do bounce back and pride myself on #GSD.

In this post I’ll share what worked until it didn’t, and how I often found myself reworking my system.

Why Context Switching Works Until It Doesn’t

Back in my Mint.com days, as an engineer, I’d work long hours during the week, which left me with very little time for creative pursuits.

Being only a few years into my career, I knew that staying heads down wouldn’t be enough, and my work wouldn’t speak for itself. I needed to build a professional presence. So I started blogging on Femgineer.com, but I was really inconsistent. I’d blog when I had time on the weekends.

Doing something inconsistently was better than doing nothing.

When I transitioned from being an engineer to a founder, a person on my marketing team sat me down, and told me that the more often I blogged, the more traffic and exposure I’d get.

Sure that seemed like common sense, but as a founder, I had a million things going on, so the reminder was helpful.

I decided to breakup my day into thirds: I’d spend 2 hours in the early morning coding, then a few hours during the day with my team, and then I’d spend some time in the afternoon on creative tasks like blogging.

Context switching worked really well until I had to start adding more stuff like fundraising, dealing with customers issues, onboarding employees, etc.

My brain just couldn’t handle it anymore.

Something had to give, and my creative pursuits were the first to go.

Handling The Unavoidable Interruptions

One way to tackle context switching is to work asynchronously.

It is a beautiful thing until you have bouts of miscommunication. And let’s face it, even on the most confident, self-sufficient teams, there are bound to points of time someone misinterprets what was written, wants further clarification, or needs to bring up an issue that wasn’t addressed.

So meetings are necessary because you need a way to resolve issues.

Meetings also give you the opportunity to connect and get to know people more deeply. It’s hard to assume behaviors and intent, when you are there meeting in real time.

Meetings get a bad rap because people don’t set clear agendas, use it to convey or ask for superficial information, and invite people that may not need to be there. As a result, they are seen as a time sink.

The true culprit isn’t meetings, it’s spontaneous meetings. People who want a minute of your time here and there to the point where you can’t start of finish anything because you’re being constantly interrupted.

I love this quote by Steli Efti, because he says how many of us feel when we’re enjoying what we’re doing and someone tries to politely interrupt us:

“Can I interrupt you…? Well motherfu*ck3r you already have!”

But when someone has a question or concern and you don’t have a meeting scheduled, how are they supposed to get an answer?

Politely ask if they can interrupt you…

To defend against these daily interruptions, I have learned to give everyone I work with directly at least 30 minutes of my time once a week. I do my best to not reschedule these, make sure there is an agenda driving the conversation, and if there is nothing to discuss: cancel the one for that week. It’s OK to recoup and repurpose the time as you like.

Setting aside this time consistently helps me troubleshoot issues and avoid major firefighting later on.

When You’ve Got Too Many Priorities And Fires To Fight

It’s OK to de-prioritize creative time when it competes with other projects or you have other pressing needs. What you have to be careful of is how often do you de-prioritize it.

If you are constantly fighting fires and never have creative time, then it’s worth investigating into why these fires are constantly coming up. Could it be that you are working under someone else’s aggressive timeline? You have given into accepting endless amounts of grunt work? You haven’t considered setting time aside? You don’t consider creative time to be growth work? Or is there something else going on?

Some People Need More Of Your Time — Just Give It To Them

Every other week for the past year, I have taken my grandma to her favorite market to shop.

In the beginning, I thought we’d be in and out in an hour, leaving me plenty of time to do other things. But soon I discovered that depending on the day of the week we went or the hour of the day we went, I could get caught in traffic, or a really long line at the checkout.

My grandma moves slowly, and wants to explore everything. Even sections that she knows she won’t buy anything but solely because she may need to tell someone else about it.

I can’t rush her because she’s 80 years old!

All I can do is know that it’s going to take a while, and I shouldn’t schedule anything else important before or after.

Grandma gets my time because she is a priority. I wouldn’t necessarily give more of my time to someone that was capable of getting things done on their own.

The same goes for when I am on-boarding new employees as a manager. The first few weeks I will be available as they need me. As time goes on, I expect that they will figure things out, and be more independent.

Call Out The People Who Are Wasting Your Time

While I do like to give my time freely, I am also very guarded with it. So yes I give my family, my startup, and people I mentor my time, but I make sure there is time left to do things that I like to do like speak and write.

This means I have to be on guard for those who are looking to waste my time. Frankly, I don’t let them.

How do I know someone is wasting my time?

  • They talk in circles, repeating the same thing over and over again.
  • They appear helpless, and want me to do their work for them, even though they are fully capable and have demonstrated so before.
  • They are looking to pick a fight because they feel the need for drama in their life.
  • They are indecisive, even when they have enough information to make a decision.
  • They don’t value their time, so they don’t realize they are wasting others.

All these are energy zappers. I do my best to no fall prey to them. I don’t call them out on it, I just kindly excuse myself.

Sure people may get annoyed that you aren’t giving into them. I’ve learned to develop thick skin. I also noticed how others seem to be really calm and cool about saying no to things and excusing themselves when they have other more pressing issues to take care of.

It’s easy to fall prey to time wasters and feel like the victim or let them consume you, but we have more power than we think. One of my favorite quotes is from Bikram Choudhury. It’s about peace but I think it also applies to time:

“If someone can steal your peace, you are the loser.”

The first time someone steals your time, you get a hall pass. The second and third time, you know better!

Set the creative time aside and let everyone know it’s off limits including yourself!

The time you set aside needs to coincide to when you have the most energy. If that is 11pm on a Friday, so be it. Experiment until you discover when and for how long works for you.

When I was writing each of my books, the best time to write was 5am-8am Monday through Wednesday. I found that writing early in the mornings and early in the week was when I was freshest and wouldn’t be interrupted. By Thursday and Friday I’d be too exhausted to be creative.

To have that consistent time I had to be disciplined and plan around it. I’d be in bed by 9pm Sunday through Tuesday.

Then I’d act as my own gatekeeper. It’s an easy job because no one really wants to interrupt you at 5am. But it can be really tempting to hop on email, Twitter, or any number of other distractions.

Of course, there were days that I could barely string a set of words together to form a sentence…

When You Can’t Find Flow And Are Waiting For Inspiration To Strike

Even when you carve out time for yourself it doesn’t mean the creative work will get done. There are times you’ll feel stuck, lack energy, or other problems will distract your focus.

One way I’ve learned to combat this is to include what I like to call “free time” as part of my creative time. It could be taking a walk, taking a nap, watching Netflix, making a snack or whatever it is that my mind wants to do instead of creative work.

Too many people try to push through this, but I’ve learned to just give in.

I do try to timebox it, but other times I can’t. If my brain needs an hour nap instead of a 20-minute nap, so be it!

Another thing to be aware of is diving into the creative work expecting for inspiration to strike when you want it to. In her book The Writer’s Process, Anne Janzer talks about the Scribe versus the Muse.

The Scribe summons our verbal skills to find the right words, assemble them in grammatically correct sentences, and creates sensible structures. The Scribe manages deadlines and gets the work done.

But writers also access intuition, creativity, and empathy. These processes are the domain of the Muse.

When the Muse and the Scribe collaborate, the work becomes fast, fluid, and fun.

But when they are at odds nothing gets done. The reason they are at odds is because they operate on different types of attention: focused attention when you concentrate on a particular task and open attention where you let your mind wander.

Janzer writes:

Switch between the Scribe and the Muse by shifting from focused attention to open attention.

To do this Janzer suggests that we:

  • Build open attention into the schedule.
  • Find the right environment for focus.
  • When you get stuck, take a break for the Muse.
  • Invite the mind to wander.
  • Cultivate slices of solitude.

So how do we get our Muse and Scribe to work in harmony?

Janzer goes on to share a five-step process of creativity that she learned from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi author of the national bestseller Flow.

Csikszentmihalyi interviewed a number of prolific authors like my personal favorite Madeleine L’Engle to understand how they made their creative breakthroughs and contributions. Upon analyzing his interviewees he noticed that each had the following common creative process:

1. Preparation — immersing oneself in the field and its issues

2. Incubation — time in which ideas churn “below the threshold of consciousness”

3. Insight — the “aha” moment when inspiration strikes

4. Evaluation — the process of determining whether the insight is worth pursuing

5. Elaboration — working with the insight.

Ultimately, know that creative time and manager time aren’t at odds with each other. You can allocate both into your schedule. To do so effectively, you need to start by taking the time to introspect and experiment with what does and doesn’t work for you, set boundaries, make sure others are onboard, and then do the work!

Easier said than done but that’s the challenge of creative pursuits ;)

Now I want to know, what your process is for managing creative time versus manager time? Let me know in the comments below!

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And check out my these other posts on creativity, time management, and productivity:

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