Everyone has one of those days at times—you reach the end and wonder where all your time went. Worse, you realize you haven’t done anything productive at all. And worse still, some of us can look back not just to days, but months or longer periods.
With increasing regularity I have heard the following message in a number of ways from a variety of sources: the key to producing is to… produce! In the context of research, the academic world has long used the phrase “publish or perish.” In the realm of design, my architecture studio instructor would tell me to crank out ten iterations of an idea by the next morning—quantity, not quality. Merlin Mann spoke about the distinction between doing and thinking about doing. Seth Godin, in a talk he gave at the NYC Jelly at the Brooklyn Treehouse, said that today we are not faced with a scarcity of ideas, production capability, marketing opportunities, or capital, but an an ability to “ship,” i.e. get work done and out the door. In the new book on the psychology of focus, Rapt, Gallagher argues that an increase in distractions has lead to a decrease in the ability to focus, and without steady focus we are unable to finish work.
So why has this become a recurring theme so recently? Perhaps it is an increased sensitivity to the message due to a period of declining output. Going back farther, I would pin it to the massive and sudden increase in the volume and availability of content, tools, and ideas on the internet. The same system that has catalyzed so much creative work and research in recent years has also sapped the ability of so many to create. I believe it works in several different ways.
First, it is easier than ever to simply waste inordinate amounts of time passively consuming content or talking to friends and acquaintances. We can still feel productive because we are learning, experiencing new things, and forming connections. Secondly, we waste more time than ever deciding what to do and how to do it. With so many new mediums, ideas, forms of expression, tools, platforms, and methods, it easier than ever to get distracted. Lastly, the quality and complexity of things being created today is greater than ever. Much of this is due to the availability of information, increased refinement of tools, and increased collaboration, bringing together the strength of disparate components in symphony. Viewed in the wrong way, as competition rather than inspiration, great work can be demoralizing.
How do you overcome the problem of production? Over the course of a long drive with long-time friend and software developer Jeff, we both agreed that setting deadlines and sticking to them is critical—the shorter the better. When you give yourself too much time to complete something, you will end up second-guessing yourself and spending far too much time thinking about process, rather than doing work. Time spent will expand to fill the time given. Try giving yourself one day to create something rather than one week, knowing in advance you will probably have to throw it away. You will learn more, gain momentum, and start to realize you’re better equipped than you thought. Additionally, try to schedule work with someone else in advance. This may mean working with a partner or “foolishly” committing to a project you don’t feel quite ready for. Either way, you’re helping your future self avoid weaseling out. Lastly, turn down the volume on distractions. Limit your exposure to media streams, social bookmarking sites, RSS feed readers, and the like to once a week or less to limit the factors of distraction and demoralization. Instead, turn to first inspirations—the world around you.