There are a lot of articles out there that focus on improving creativity, productivity and generally the capacity to do good work and get results. While these articles are often very useful however, it's not always clear precisely what they are aiming to achieve. Improving creativity and productivity are undoubtedly noble aims but are we talking about increasing the peak of our potential? Are we talking about increasing our average creativity? Or are we talking about the ability to tap into that creativity and productivity at will?
What's important to remember here, is that your ability to do your best work is something that is always going to peek and wane over time. Sometimes you will find that you are able to maintain concentration, that you can come up with great ideas and that you churn out large quantities of work in no time at all. Then at other times you'll find that you can't focus, that no breakthroughs are forthcoming and that you spend entire days sitting in front of your monitor/desk staring blankly and getting nothing done.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to improve the quality of your work then and the experience of completing said work, would be to focus on controlling when you get those bursts of creative inspiration so that they coincide with the times you need to do the work. Rather than killing yourself trying to rewire your brain and develop more power, perhaps you could just better apply it to make use of the abilities you already have.
You Can't Force Productivity
This is something that a lot of performance coaches will focus on when helping businessmen and women to get the most out of their brains. It is typical of the average 'type A' personality to want to continuously drive forward, and when they hit a roadblock with their productivity their solution is often thus to simply try and force themselves to overcome it and to succeed.
Actually though this will usually have the precise opposite effect of tiring them out, creating more resistance and leading to frustration and an ultimate lack of productivity. This is a particularly big problem too with entrepreneurs who are prone to pushing themselves even after their nine-to-five is over. If work isn't forthcoming they will often see the solution as being simply to keep trying until they can get that work done… even if it means effectively squeezing blood out of a stone. In an office environment the equivalent is clocking off at 10pm, which is becoming an increasingly unhealthy aspect of the culture surrounding office jobs.
Again this tends to just make matters worse. While you might manage to get some work done at 2am that day, you'll then be going to bed wired, late and stressed. You'll wake up with insufficient sleep and your brain will be almost incapable of completing any meaningful work until you've rested. Which you won't let it… And even if you manage to continue this cycle of grinding yourself down every day, you'll find that the quality of the work just isn't there and that you don't have the same spark of enthusiasm that equates to the best output.
Understanding Your Ebbs and Flows
The better solution then is to acknowledge that your creativity and productivity are going to naturally ebb and flow, and to focus on getting that cycle to line up with the times when you want the most work. Think of this as a similar process to your body clock – the times you eat, the times you sleep and the external cues you get coming in all combine to create a body clock that dictates when you'll feel awake and when you'll feel tired. Your brain works in the same way, in that it can only work optimally for a set period of time and thus needs periods of rest in between if you are going to get the very most from it.
So scheduling in rest from the stress of everyday life is important, but just as important is the ability to make sure that that rest is high quality and that it will actually mean a break from work-related thoughts and other kinds of thoughts that might tire you out.
The Most Important Rule…
The most important rule to this end, is that you need to switch off mentally after a certain time. Make the decision that come 5pm, 6pm or 7pm, to turn off the computer and to turn your brain off from stressful and work-related thoughts as well.
The problem is that once we go home, many of us end up living in a kind of limbo where we're 'half' working and half resting. We're not doing any productive, so we may as well be resting, but instead we're staying on alert in case we decide to work later, or just because we can't stop our minds from churning over the day's events.
Even if you suspect you are going to work again later, learn to switch off completely and to stop worrying for a few hours when you get in. If you struggle to do that, then try setting an alarm to go off in an hour or two and tell yourself that until you hear that alarm there's really no point in stressing.
Helping Yourself to Switch Off
If that isn't enough to help you truly switch off, then you might need to learn better mental discipline. You can do this by trying meditation which revolves around the ability to direct your thoughts as you wish and to quiet your internal monolog and chatter. The more you practice the better you'll get at being 'on' when necessary and being 'off' the rest of the time.
And if meditation isn't your thing, then what can work almost as well is to find something that you really enjoy and find relaxing and to focus on that instead. For me it's playing Sonic the Hedgehog, for you it might be knitting or reading a good book. As you focus you'll find these have an almost meditative effect in just the same way.
Ending and Starting Your Day
How you end and start your working day are also two very important factors to this end. A common mistake is to start the day by answering e-mails, which immediately puts you in a stressed and reactive state of mind rather than letting you capitalise on the rest and relaxation you've from gotten from sleeping. The first thing you should do when you get to work or boot up in the morning is to continue with a job you were working on yesterday – now with the added benefit of a fresh mind and a cup of coffee.
Likewise you should think carefully about how you end your day. End your day by answering stressful e-mails and you will be cementing that feeling of stress and inability as you sleep. Conversely, if you can end your day on a 'high' that will then carry over into evening.
Many prolific writers, entrepreneurs and other creative types will recommend ending your days with something 'half complete'. While this might seem counterintuitive, this can actually have many benefits – encouraging you to start work right away the next day, and at the same time letting your unconscious mind work on solutions while you rest and sleep. This is an ideal way to take literally the concept of 'sleeping on it'.
These tips should help you to better control your flow of productivity and creativity and to harness your full potential. To an extent though you are going to find that you have natural tendencies in these areas and that this is all much easier if you try to create a workflow that works with your natural rhythms. Identify at which points you work best during the day and then move tasks around so that those moments coincide with the most important and challenging jobs.
The most important thing of all is really just that you acknowledge your need to rest and rejuvenate your creativity, and that you make the effort to start experimenting with how you work and how you can get the most from yourself. Often just 'pushing harder' is the least beneficial thing you can do.