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9 mins

Structuring Creativity: How to Really Get Things Done

Between attempting to balance career and personal life, you may not have the luxury of waiting for the muses to find you in a hotbed of chaos
by Sarah Moriarty | Mar 6 2016

What you can do instead is set the stage by tidying up your creative habits. David Allen, productivity consultant and author of Getting Things Done and Ready for Anything, has plenty of advice on how to get organized on the job, but the same principles apply to creative work, too.

If you’ve been waiting around to find time for that big project you care about, or wondering how to figure out what your creative calling actually is, tune in. You’ll discover a new way of thinking about creativity and unearthing your own through the art and science of note-taking, time-keeping, and scheduling.

The power of writing it all down

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Whether it’s a screenplay, a photo project, or a symphony, starting a new creative project requires a lot of mental horsepower. Consider the work of a screenwriter: First, she’ll need to craft a compelling story and do her background research. Along the way, she’ll also have to invent effective visual metaphors for the characters’ emotional states. Apart from narrative concerns and symbols, she’ll also need to be sure the story doesn’t require too many different locations so that she can keep production on budget.

It’s a lot to think about, and our screenwriter needs to be able to add new information and recall older decisions at the drop of a dime. If she has a life outside of screenwriting, it’d be near impossible to manage. Here’s why.

All of the information that will be relevant in the short to mid-term is stored in what David Allen refers to as psychic RAM. Info stored there ranges from tabulating the tip you’re paying on dinner to the fact that you need to grab a bottle of wine on your way home.

And in addition to mundanities like your grocery list, creative thought also depends on this psychic RAM.

Therein lies the rub: our minds, just like our computers, have limited storage capacity. Try to cram in too much and your psychic RAM can’t process new ideas or recall older ones, which leads to creative frustration. Worst of all, because psychic RAM is limited, good ideas of a fine vintage may be deleted to make space for new ones. When you look at the consequences of overload – the best idea you’ve ever had could be nudged out of your RAM by a newer mundanity like “must buy toilet paper” – the need for a solution becomes obvious. David Allen’s solution is simple: get organized by writing your ideas down.

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Making mental space

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So you’ve got your treasure trove of ideas recorded somewhere, but your life is hectic and full. When could you possibly start putting those ideas to work?

Say a painter wanted to start something new in his crowded studio—bring in an 8-foot slab of marble out of which to carve a tribute to his childhood spaniel, for example. He’d see pretty quickly that that hunk of rock wouldn’t fit, and even if it did, he wouldn’t have space to move around and work. Instead, he’d be using a great deal of mental energy just to avoid stumbling over clutter or not be distracted by other artifacts. What he’d have to do before he started in on his masterpiece is clear away the clutter – and that’s precisely what you need to do with your mind.

Clutter and disorder sets off a flight response in our minds, so to get away from the bigger undertaking, whether that’s spaniel carving or novel-writing, you’ll tackle non-essentials and fritter away your time. But if you organize your work into a system that puts all your to-dos in one place where you can keep track of them, you won’t feel overwhelmed. Instead, you’ll be in control and with more time and psychic RAM to devote to being creative.

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Understanding your own priorities

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Picture this: an old professor of yours, an illustrious, prize-winning film theorist, contacts you out of the blue. He’s shooting a documentary and he wants your help on site for the next 3 months. You’re flattered, plus, it would look great on your resume to say you’ve worked together. But you’ve just started a new job as a Media Science Lecturer and have committed to going to your writing group twice a week so you’ll actually start penning that novel. You glance at your calendar: you could cram in a few hours a week, mostly late nights and early mornings. If you forego sleep on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and reschedule class on Wednesday, find someone to cat-sit on the weekends, you just might be able to make it all work…

Whoa there. Stop.

The siren song of a new opportunity can be compelling, but each new venture requires time – time of which, like psychic RAM, you have only so much. Typically, when we’re offered a new opportunity, the first thing we do is run to our calendars to see when we can fit it in. Whether or not you go for it, however, shouldn’t hang on the pronouncement of the mighty Gcal.

Instead of deciding whether or not to take an opportunity based on time constraints, assess with an eye to your role and goals. If that new opportunity arises at work, consider how important it is in relation to your job description: if your job is Media Science lecturer and the semester has just begun, then clearly, teaching will be closer to your task than will making that documentary.

But life isn’t just about work. It’s important that when considering new opportunities you align them with your aspirations. Is it your ultimate goal to become a filmmaker? If so, then maybe you should consider quitting teaching and taking the opportunity that’s in front of you, no matter what your date planner says.

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Leave room for surprises

You’re ready to respect your psychic RAM, you’ve got a list of ideas, and you know your goals and which commitments will get you closer. By now, maybe you’re sold on having a system that will help you get your creative project off the ground. But remember this: creativity still requires a certain amount of serendipity. Allow enough flexibility in your note-taking and task-mastering to let in a few happy coincidences. Chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the way an unexpected influence can add just the right touch to your creative endeavor.

If you could use more tips on how to get your work and creative life organized, check out Getting Things Done by David Allen, on Blinkist.

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