Why You’re Not Doing Creative Work

And how to start again even if you don't have time

Bruno Figueiredo / Unsplash

Most people believe that they’re not doing creative work because they don’t have enough time. But that’s like saying you need a hammer to build a house. Sure, a hammer is a useful thing when building houses. Time is useful when doing creative work. But both are tools. You could build a house without hammers if you had to, and there are many kinds of things that could become hammers if you don’t have an actual hammer handy.

The same is true for time. Time is a useful and necessary tool for creative work. But if you know what the tool is doing for you, you can decide when you might need it and what other things might work to give you what you want if time is in short supply. 

The most important thing to realize is that, when it comes to creative work, not all time is created equal. If you pay attention you’ll notice that there are short expanses of time where you can get a lot done and long expanses of time where you get almost nothing done. 

My friend Sam Koppelman wrote a bestselling book, Impeach, in about two weeks. Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote Your Song in 20 minutes. 

In an ideal world you could blurt out a best-selling book between meetings, or compose a hit song while waiting at daycare pickup. Theoretically, you have just as much time as Elton John did.

Why does that feel so hard?

In creative work there are two phases: exploration and execution. In the exploration phase, you don’t know what the thing is going to be, you don’t have all of the information or ideas you want to have, you don’t even know if what you’re thinking about is important, and any little breeze in the wrong direction might blow you off course. In the execution phase, you are inspired, you know what the thing is, you know how to make it, it feels urgent; all you need to do is sit down and do the thing.

Execution is Elton John writing Your Song in 20 minutes. Exploration is everything that happened before that.

In reality, you go back and forth between these phases often during a project—especially for a big project. But the really interesting thing is that the relationship between time and work output is different for each.

In the execution phase there is a linear relationship between time and work output. The more time you put in, generally, the more work you’ll be able to get done. In the execution phase it’s also easier to put in the time. You’re inspired: time feels like it’s going by more quickly, and the work takes less effort. Outside work and personal influences fall away, and it can even be easier to sneak time in on a project in between other tasks you might have to do. Your whole being is focused on the thing even when you’re not actually in front of your desk, and you’re raring to let ‘er rip, baby.

In the exploration phase, everything is different. There’s a non-linear relationship between time and work output.

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