How I Get Things Done: A Creative Perspective

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.
–Walt Disney

Creative people struggle to get things done. They just do. But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

Get Things Done
Photo credit: Newtown Graffiti

What is it about being creative that tends to create conflicts with being productive? Is what stymies artists the same things that are their greatest strengths? That is, nonlinear thinking, imagination, and introspection.

Creative people tend to get bogged down by endless brainstorms (because they love ideas), perfectionist tendencies (because they care about quality), and endless distractions (because they can’t turn their brain off).

Is there a way to work around these struggles to move your work beyond the conception phase and actually get it done? I think there is.

If you want to get things done without compromising your creativity or productivity, you need to be intentional. You need a productivity system. And it needs to work.

Here’s what I do.

1. Keep short, disposable to-do lists

Creatives identify what is tangible. As archaic as it sounds, having a notebook or physical means of writing down your tasks is important. Whatever it is, you need to be able to see it and touch it. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.

This means of capturing ideas allows you to get abstractions out of your head, onto paper, and then thrown in the trash (when completed).

Per the guys at 37 Signals, I keep short to-do lists. Long task lists never get done. If you have 100 things to do, break it down into 10 lists with 10 items on each. My personal habit is to write out a list of 10 items, get them all done, then start a new list.

2. Limit inbound communication

For many of us, this means email, which you should not be checking every few minutes. Have a few specific times to check it and try getting your email down to zero every day. I like using the Michael Hyatt system of doing, delegating, or deleting whatever is in my inbox.

Limit how often you check email, screen phone calls, and close your office door. These distractions will keep you busy, but will prevent you from truly creative work.

3. Have one project management system

A friend once told me he uses Basecamp, a Facebook group, Google calendar, Skype, and IM to communicate with coworkers and manage his workload. I told him I felt sorry for him and all the lost time he spends checking each one. If you can relate to this, please stop now.

Having a bunch of different systems is not efficient. Just pick a system and stick with it. Whatever it may be, it needs to work for you. Don’t use a clunky piece of software just because everyone else is. Use what works for you (and your team, if you have one). If it’s fairly sophisticated, make sure that it’s someone job to ensure everyone is using it properly.

4. Show up

This sounds ridiculously simple. But many artists struggle with this. The typical eight-hour work day feels rote. And it is. But that doesn’t excuse you from putting in the hours.

The fact is that some breakthroughs only happen when you show up to to do your job. There’s nothing glamorous about it, but it has to be done.

Make a decision to show up for work every day. Do your part and leave the rest to the Muse.

5. Commit to shipping

This is an important lesson for a creative to learn. If it’s your vocation to make a difference in the world through creativity, then you need to develop a bias towards action.

Send the email. Launch the website. Do it now. Stop procrastinating and start sending stuff out the door.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for refinement in this process, but most creatives hesitate too much. They’re scared of rejection. It’s time to get over that and share your gift with the world.

Here’s the bottom line

You need a process to capture ideas and harness creativity. The alternative is a bunch of possibilities without making any real change. I’m not okay with that. Are you?

What’s your experience with the above? Have you used these tips to get things done? Share in the comments section.

40 thoughts on “How I Get Things Done: A Creative Perspective

  1. Jeff, what project management system do you use? I started using Action Method last year from the Behance team. So far I like it, but I’m always open to something new.

          1. paid version. but it’s the idea behind the system that matters. you can practice the action method with a notebook, email, whatever. the tools are secondary to the system, in my opinion. that’s why i prefer AM to something like basecamp, because there is an ideology behind it. my recommendation is to read the book Making Ideas Happen.

            1. I might have to look into that. I’ve used Basecamp for some projects and it’s okay, but I’m not sure I LOVE it. I haven’t taken the time to look for something better yet – I need to. I’ll check out Action Method

  2. As I’m sure you know by now, I really struggle with this. I’m not a “schedule” type person. I wake up in the middle of the night, do a three hour pumped up work chunk and get more done than I usually do all week when I try to force myself.

    I LOVE Basecamp for working with my employees. It’s all that keeps my sane but it doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried time blocking, I’ve tried scheduling in deadlines in Basecamp’s milestones. I tried The Deadline. Mindmapping sort of sometimes works for me, where I can at least collapse legs my ADD doesn’t need to see currently. I’m still struggling to figure out what actually works for me.

    On a good note, I refuse to use FB chat, messages and G-Chat. I can’t stand people being able to contact me outside my normal “inboxes” I check like email and Twitter.

    1. I’m really bad at most of the things I blog about – that’s why I can blog about them. I’m sharing about what not to do and how to work thru these struggles in a human way. We all need to figure out a routine that works for us. I like working in short bursts and finding the Muse when she’s waiting for me (even if it’s late at night). However, in between those times, I find that having some consistency just brings balance to my life. In other words, I can relate. Thanks for sharing, Erica. It’s good to know that I’m not alone.

    2. I feel like I have no excuse for my inability to stay productive sometimes, since I’ve freelanced on and off for more than 20 years. Last year, I did discover that making myself go to the city/university library and sit in a study corral just like the students actually puts me on task like nothing else. So that’s me, the 50+ lady trudging with her laptop in a backpack to the library. One bonus – no wifi due to budget cuts. I have to connect to the web via a broadband modem and I have a limited # of GBs to use.

      Also, thanks for mentioning chat and IM. I have always hated them and it’s nice to have that validated.

      1. I love that, Claire. Place definitely matters. For some reason I can be creative in ways at my kitchen table that I can’t be on my couch.

      2. Claire,
        That’s great. I’m still working on my degree so I go to the University Library and sit in the very back corner sometimes too. I can’t sit out close to the front or I just watch people. I also turn off the wireless on my laptop. Too much pretty stuff going on on the internet. Have you tried working with headphones at the library?
        I worked in a call center for several years and I really hate talking on the phone and being interrupted by IMs. I think they both have their time, place and usefulness but shouldn’t be “answered” 24/7.

        1. I definitely use the headphones. To get me started on a challenging writing project, I listen to party music with fast beats. (current favorite: Pink, “Raise Your Glass”)

  3. Love, love, love this post. I actually read an article the other day about short to-do lists. Maybe it was on Behance? Anyway, it recommended writing your daily task list on a post-it note to limit the items you can put on it. Now, I’m using my big notebook to capture the big picture and ALL of the things I need to do. The post-it is great for focusing on what I need to do TODAY. It’s working well so far.

    I also use Michael Hyatt’s email system, though I certainly don’t have it mastered. It’s a little bit harder to use that approach in Google apps/Gmail. But, I think focusing on email in chunks is important. It helps you churn through the emails quicker when you’re focused on just doing that.

    Great tips. Although I’m fairly organized, I’m always looking for ideas to be more productive!

  4. Hey Jeff this is a really helpful post. I’ve used a bunch of different systems based on GTD. Really like your ideas in #1 to make shorter lists. I’m gonna check out Action Method, had not heard of that. Thanks, I like your writing.

  5. This blog makes so much sense to me. Now I don’t feel so weird about the way I do things. As creative people we so often busy our lives with making whatever we work on look good, artsy and so forth, yet our planning and surroundings may be chaotic.  I feel so unorganized in my homelife that it can be overwhelming any suggestions or tips?

  6. I’m convinced the Post-It will save me.  2 or 3 tasks will fit on one, I stick them all over and they mess up the aesthetic of my office, which I hate, and which is the perfect catalyst for me to get rid of them quickly. I love throwing those things away!

    I have yet to master my email . . . but I’m working on it.

    I’m also better at getting stuff done in small bursts of time.  20 minutes to complete the next 2 tasks.  Then I get up and do something else.  Usually the “something else” is dropping into someone’s office to ask them a question directly rather than sending an email.  It allows me to a) accomplish something I need to accomplish, and b) keeps me connected to the people I work with.

  7. Thanks Jeff,

    I’ve been struggling with my productivity methods and I’m currently having a reboot, but this time I’m properly researching what went wrong last time, what I need out of a productivity system and how I can achieve my requirements. There’s some good tips up there and I may well be adopting the short to-do lists!

    I’d already decided that I wanted to limit my project management systems, but its hard work finding something that can be ubiquitous for both work and play (particularly when your computer is locked down so tightly at work).

    Anyway, I’ve bookmarked this post for future reference. Thanks again.

  8. This post is for me. Thank you Jeff! I do have a notebook with me all the time and it helps a lot. I know that I should not check my email too much. But, well …

    I also get distracted very easy. I open an email, read a post, go to another blog from there, tweet, read my tweets, check some more links from there, … You get the picture!

    Interestingly, this concerns only my own writing. Dead lines for clients I keep 😉

  9. I struggle with this stuff very day! So happy to follow you and gain insight and inspiration. Thank you!

  10. Thank you for this post. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with focusing and keeping a structure. I use my notebooks a lot and bring them with me, but today I forgot to bring a notebook with me, and what happened? Ideas flied to me like birds, but I had no paper (cages) But my phone almost caught them. Anyway, I also use todo-lists, but I need to make a better system and prioritize…I’ll work on that.

  11. I’ve struggled with to do lists as my workload has grown exponentially this year. I had a notebook, then went electronic, then back to a notebook, and now use post it’s becUse my priorities keep changing at the whim and fncy of my boss. At least I can shift post it’s up and down the list. I’d love to try the email doing, delegating, deleting, option but with 700 messages and me away from my desk a lot, an empty inbox is just a fantasy though one I wish was a reality.

  12. i need paper. I know we live in a paperless world- but I still need post it notes and a paper planner. I am overcome with guilt on a daily basis that I struggle with evernote, scrivner and my digital calendar. Perhaps at the end of time I will get it… glad to hear Jeff, you like paper notebooks and a few lists too.

  13. I will definitely start working on this 10 at a time list and will report in time 😀 I always have problems of having too many things to do and feel like there aren’t enough time to do any of them well enough … let’s see how this methods will work 🙂 love your posts by the way

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