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I couldn’t even tell you what grade I was in. Just that I was happily skipping along through the list of classroom tasks when I grabbed our daily coloring sheet and saw a map of the United States.
“Oh, cool!” I thought. “I know exactly what I’ll do with this!” And I set about coloring a coordinated, lovely, patriotic red white and blue pattern across our nation’s outline. I didn’t half-bake the job either, no sir, I even went and got a white crayon to cover the already-white parts in white. Because doing a job means getting it done, dang it.
Only then did I glance up at the board and see the written instructions. And suddenly, my peers’ identical blue, green, and brown patterns made sense….I was supposed to be coloring designated colors by region. Not inventing my own firework-inspired display.
Sheepishly, I went up to the teacher and requested a new sheet. She glared at me and told me I needed to follow the directions. I bit my tongue and refrained, for once, from pointing out that I hadn’t seen the directions, and why the heck should there be coloring directions anyway – it’s coloring.
Instead, I picked up my clean page and obediently colored blue, green, and brown, aligning my design exactly to that of my 26 peers.
After that, I got really good at following directions, reading the mind of the teacher, and playing the school game.
So good that by high school, I could ace exams without much studying simply because I knew how teachers wrote exams. I became too good at following directions. There was something intoxicating about knowing exactly what the teacher wanted, overdelivering, and having the awards and success come in waves.
But the day came that I left school, and my “follow instructions to succeed” rug was pulled out from under me. Because other than cooking and filing taxes, few things in “real life” come with instruction manuals.
There is no teacher to impress, and no clear list of tasks to follow.
Some days, I don’t know where that little girl went who jumped to color her own design in a spectacular, creative fashion.
Now, even though I love my creative work, there are days when I pine for the worksheet.
A finite set of questions with neat little blanks that I could fill in, turn in, and get a stickered star on for doing well. Instructions on the blackboard, clarity about what we’re “supposed to do.”
So you know what? I made up my own daily “worksheet” for this winter. Yep. If worksheets and instruction manuals appeal to you, then you’re absolutely allowed to invent your own if it helps you get your work done.
Here’s my own personal Daily Guide To A Productive Winter. I plan to use it every workday to get through the short, chilly days ahead. Feel free to steal it for your own use. I know that there are some school-loving, worksheet-wish-for-ing people like me out there, so here’s our plan of attack:
1. How are you feeling today?
2. What are the 2-3 most important “work” things that need to happen today?
3. What sounds FUN today?
Can be something from #1-3, or something completely non-work-related. Bubble baths, Thai food with friends, blowing $5 on iTunes, shopping for sock monkey slippers – they all count.
4. Go back to #2 (the “work” things above) and circle the item that you capital-D Dread the most.
5. Does the circled, Dreaded item require any creativity? Choose one: Yes No
If you chose “No,” skip to question #6.
If you chose “Yes” just now, then do #3, the Fun thing, FIRST, before the Dreaded item.
Did you just roll your eyes and say “I don’t have time – it’ll be faster just to get it done”?
That’s where you are wrong, my friend.
Why? Well, brace yourself, I’m about to go all Scientific American on you (emphasis added):
“Even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working.
Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day.
Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to…achieve our highest levels of performance….and some studies have demonstrated that the mind obliquely solves tough problems while daydreaming.”
Taking time to do fun things helps us connect ideas, solve problems, think up new ideas, and be more creative.
In fact, I did not think of this post by sitting at my computer for thirty minutes, waiting for inspiration to rain from the ceiling. I thought of it by reading a library copy of The Book Thief and eating guacamole with flaxseed chips for about ten minutes (My answer to #3. Don’t judge. It’s a good book. Also, this guacamole is awesome.)
Discipline is important, forcing yourself to “do the work” is vital – but creative work flows more freely when you’ve done something that makes you feel happy (and you’re more likely to feel satisfied with your job, too).
6. Does the Dreaded item consist less of “creativity” and more of “abject drudgery”? Choose one: Yes No
If you chose “Yes” just now, then do the Fun thing at the end of your workday. Begin the Dreaded item FIRST, but designate a halfway point.
Designated halfway point (might be “when the formatting is done for my marketing flyer” or “when I get through September on my receipt-checking”):
Link to the YouTube video I get to watch when I reach the halfway point:
Why start with the Dreaded Drudgery, in this case?
If you postpone Dreaded Drudgery until after fun, you won’t enjoy the fun as much. You’ll feel the impending weight of the dull task bending down upon the fun. Especially if it’s Drudgery you’ve been procrastinating.
The anticipation of something good is often more powerful than the good thing itself, so use that anticipation as your motivator.
Why designate a halfway point?
Well, sometimes even a fun thing isn’t motivation enough power through a dull task quickly. Setting a short-term goal (“I just have to make it to _____”), with a short-term reward for partial completion (“then I can re-read the Fish Story from Hyperbole and a Half“) keeps you from putting off starting.
Because if you’re anything like me, you might say “Okay, I’ll go watch that movie when I’m done with this” but then waste a couple hours poking around the Internet because you don’t want to get started. And then in the end, you neither get the task done, NOR have time to watch the movie, so it’s a day wasted without productivity OR fun.
Designate halfway points (or quarter-way points, or sixteenth-of-the-way points) with rewards to keep moving.
7. What are your designated work hours today for doing your three items?
___:______ until __:_____
Optional, if you can’t work in one unbroken chunk:
___:______ until __:_____
___:______ until __:_____
___:______ until __:_____
If I don’t finish everything today, I will resume tomorrow at ___:______.
Why designate work hours?
If you’ve only got an hour to edit the rest of that session, you better get the heck off Facebook, huh? But if you have all day, there’s no incentive to start, to be efficient, or to finish. There’s always, you know, later.
Winter is the season when photographers allege they’re going to “get (that thing I keep meaning to do) done.”
This year, get it done.
Be realistic about what you’re going to do – you can’t finish a year’s worth of tasks in one month – especially not when you’re Christmas shopping, shoveling snow, dealing with cold and flu season, and taking care of the business that does come up.
And take the time off that you need – we don’t exist to work.
But during your #7-designated work hours, get it done.