I had a really fascinating conversation with Francesca McCaffrey, the Director of Development for the Children's Lifesaving Foundation.
Francesca and I swapped some notes on when the best work happens -- in addition to her role at Children's Lifesaving, she's an avid writer and really immerses herself into the historical era she's writing about to truly flesh out the characters and the environment.
Like everyone else, Francesca looks at those periods of time when things are clicking incredibly well, and wonders how to make them happen more frequently. Here's some observations we came up with:
*The most common time that massively great work happens is when there's a Big Opportunity + A Hard External Deadline
*The Big Opportunity means there's Large Motivation.
*The other pace that people normally try to work at is something with a lot of fear and self-criticality mixed in, reviewing work as it's happening.
*During those times, the ratio of thinking about work to working goes down.
*The stakes don't seem as high when there's no deadline, or there isn't a Big Opportunity, which doesn't lead to as much motivation.
*When the stakes are high, it's easy to "get out of yourself in a really great way."
*You could call the mood where fantastic work happens "pure unselfconscious action without too much introspection or criticality."
*When you're totally absorbed in the moment and working at a fast pace, it leads to being "re-exhilerated" as it goes on. You get tangible rewards in terms of seeing a lot of fantastic work happen, which gives you immediate positive feedback and more energy.
Takeaways / Action:
*If you're not doing great work right now, look at: how big the opportunity feels to you, if there's an external deadline, if you're motivated to get it done, and how the stakes feel to you.
*Sometimes you can possibly create an external deadline by promising something that will become an input for someone else. It's hard to set deadlines internally and respect them as much as external deadlines (though, would be fantastic if mastered as an ability).
*The fear and self-criticism that comes with normal work isn't productive.
*Singleminded focus and no multitasking leads to immensely more getting done. When a hard deadline is coming up, you stop answering email, straightening up a small mess, and all those little things. You just do what's important until it's done.
*Keep the ratio of work to thinking about work firmly highly tilted to the "work" side once you've defined out basically what your objective is and how you're going to look to reach it.
*When you can get really absorbed in the work, you rapidly get a positive self-reinforcing loop of accomplishment and satisfaction, which gives you more energy to keep going. Oftentimes this doesn't come until you've been in and pushing for a while, so look to really get into that flow and have the time to do it for extended hours. When you're on a roll for 3-5 hours, often you end up totally jazzed up and excited about life at the end of it, as opposed to tired and feeling run-down when you multi-task and task-switch repeatedly and don't get as much done over the same time period.
It was great talking with Francesca. She reads the comments here, so please do respond if you've had similar experiences, if you've managed to make internal deadlines as respected as external deadlines, or if you've got any other questions or comments.
I am horrible at keeping internal deadlines, so for my latest project I came up with an idea called "crowdsourcing accountability." I created a deadline and wrote about it on my blog. I promised to PayPal a fraction of $1000 to everyone that commented on the post if I don't deliver in time. So far, it's been working pretty well to keep me motivated and pushing hard. Here's the article: Crowdsourcing Accountability
Fantastic, Austin! I love this idea! It makes an enormous difference, when you set your own schedule, to define how you will remain accountable to yourSELF. It's not always easy, and you have found a fun, incentive-ized, interactive way to do so...I have found, too, personally, that I am incredibly inspired whenever friends have posted blog journals about progress through a creative task or work that takes a lot of planning and self-motivation. You seem to have a way to combine the incentive for yourself and others, while bringing them along with your overall story....Good job!
Want to hear one of the strangest things I've found by time tracking?
Often, a really big and important task will only take 20 minutes of time to do when I sit down to get it done.
The thing is, it's not really 20 minutes. It's 20 minutes of action, after already spending three hours thinking about it over the course of a few days.
But it dawns on me - the hardest part of many hazy tasks is figuring out what to do. Almost any time we look at a hard task, our mind runs through the quick options and makes a decision.
A lot of times, we leave things alone if there's no great action to take. But, that means we're probably duplicating the thinking part of the effort many, many times.
I come from a world of project deadlines. Until two years ago, I swore by them.
When you're in business school, you're taught that every project needs a deadline to even have a chance of being successful.
But what I've learned in my time out here in the Valley is that the reality of the situation is much more nuanced than that. Deadlines often hinder the achievement of objectives much more than the help. I'm going to try to explain why.
In a nutshell, the issue revolves around the arbitrary nature of deadlines. None of us can predict the future, and so by setting a deadline out in the future, we've put an arbitrary stake an the ground indicating that a certain result has to be achieved by a specific date.