Great work must happen before everything else

In my last post, I described what I learned in an offsite with myself on Memorial Day weekend after reading the wonderful book “Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus and Sharpen Your Creative Mind,” a compilation of essays designed to help us find a centered space for creativity by getting out of the reactionary workflow we battle each day. I’ve been following four pieces of advice I outlined in that post and wanted to report on progress and insights.

Great work must happen before everything else. I blocked my calendar from 8:30-11:30 AM to focus on my most strategic work and was able to utilize that block as intended about 80% of the time. Colleagues respected that my calendar looked blocked and didn’t try to schedule meetings during these times, and I experienced real breakthroughs and higher productivity. I completed a press and analyst presentation and briefing book five days before the deadline (a key executive stakeholder thanked me profusely for my efficiency and quality of work); I compiled all the information I needed to complete a thought-leadership blog post series; I prioritized the messaging projects I need to finalize before the end of the month; and I was fully prepared for the meetings I had to lead each day and for a business trip I took the second week.

There were a couple of meetings I couldn’t decline during this blocked morning period: I have a global role, and two conference calls with Europe were scheduled during my blocked time. Those were easy to accommodate because the time difference really doesn’t allow much flexibility. I also had a customer call that was scheduled, and customers always come first.

This is the hardest of the four practices to implement because there are so many excuses to avoid it, but I proved to myself it can be done and am on a path to make it routine. The concept of blocking the morning to do the most important work led me to discover another book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

Benjamin Franklin's ideal daily routine, from his autobiography (credit: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey
Benjamin Franklin’s ideal daily routine, from his autobiography (credit: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey)

It examines the daily routines of almost 200 artists – from Beethoven, to Picasso, to Agatha Christie, to Charles Darwin, to Woody Allen – to uncover whether a routine fosters sustained creative work. Most of the artists profiled were committed to getting their daily work done but employed different routines and were never entirely confident about their progress.  Another aspect I found interesting is that “back in the olden days,” most of the artists received mail and visitors in the afternoon, so they would spend their mornings working and their afternoons replying to letters and receiving guests. It seems not much has changed – our “mail” is now electronic and our “visitors” are now meetings.

Which takes us to the next best practice: in order to focus in the morning, I had to silence my phone and turn off apps, email and other technology unrelated to the work I was doing. This was also easier than I thought it would be. I think the reason is that once you focus, you enter a state of flow and the time flies. The itch to check email was certainly there, but I found that two 90-minute periods of focus really curbed the desire. Afterwards, I would quickly scan email and make sure there was nothing urgent waiting for me. I would answer anything that couldn’t wait, and then I would take a break close to noon for lunch. Afternoons became devoted to meetings and email. So far so good.

The third piece of advice I decided to follow was breathe. This comes naturally to most people, but I do have a tendency to hold my breath while in front of a computer screen. I have been catching myself doing this multiple times a day, so I’m becoming more and more aware that I need to stop and breathe. Many of the artists profiled in Daily Rituals were also mindful of the need for breaks and exercise and set aside time to take long walks in the afternoon.

And, finally, the fourth best practice: practice (un)necessary creation. Because of my new routine, I found that I have more energy to work on my art of oil painting, and I made substantial progress on my study of Georges Rouault’s Head of Christ. Being back at the easel is a joy.

I am surprised at how easy it has been to implement these practices. There are many different practices advised in the book – these are just the top four I chose to try to implement faithfully. The first one – great work must happen before everything else – was critical to changing my mindset that I don’t have to react to everything all the time or constantly accommodate to my surroundings. It feels like if you can get over that hump, some powerful habits can begin to form. I’ll continue to update you on progress and please let me know if you’ve picked up the book or if you have any advice you want to share.

2 thoughts on “Great work must happen before everything else

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  1. Great post Teresa. I’m also finding the book Manage Your Day-to-Day very inspirational. Although I’ve only read half at this point, it’s already caused me to realize that I must focus my energy on what’s really important. Guess I should back to reading the rest.


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