This week's post is brought to you by Shawn Blanc, a full-time blogger and internet guy who has been creating consistent, fantastic content while building a loyal and devoted audience. He was kind enough to agree to share some of his experience with us as a guest post relating to growing your blog and your audience.
Last week, the folks here at IFB asked you about your biggest challenges when it comes focusing on your creative work. They shared the feedback with me and asked if I could give some input and advice to address some of the most common challenges.
Briefly, about me, I live in Kansas City and have 3 boys. Back in 2011 I quit my job as a marketing and creative director and began working for myself as an indie writer. I currently write and blog for a living, running 3 websites with the help of a small team.
Question: When it comes to focusing on your creative work, what’s your biggest challenge or frustration?
After combing through the feedback from the IFB 90-Second Focus Survey, we noticed that the biggest challenges and frustrations fell into a couple of main categories…
- Trying to gain traction. From those who struggling to take their ideas to the next level, to those who can’t get ahead of the admin and busywork, to those who have so many ideas they’re not sure which will bring the best response.
- Overcoming distractions and staying focused. From those with multiple spinning plates, to those struggling to stay motivated, or those who have a hard time focusing on doing the work.
- Not feeling creative or inspired. From those unsure about what will be interesting to their readers, to those trying to keep up with a consistent publishing schedule, to those who lack ideas and inspiration for what to share.
Today, we’re going to dive into the first two challenges of gaining traction and overcoming distractions. Next week, we’ll dive into how to stay inspired. (And maybe one day down the road, we’ll get into monetization — such as how grow your audience and make some money from your website and projects.)
If you’re struggling to take your ideas to the next level, then today’s article is for you.
How to Get Time for Your Creative Work and Take It to the Next Level
Last week I let 13 domain names expire. Those domains represented a half-dozen ideas I’ve had over the years that just never got built (some of them I bought nearly a decade ago). Letting those domain names expire was actually quite liberating. It was a moment of honesty with myself; I’ve got plenty of other ideas to work on, and these old domain names are just taking up space.
Which just goes to show that between ideas, time, and focus, which do you have the most of?
We all have more ideas than time. Myself included. I have often found myself wrestling with the tension of having more ideas than time. There are many great things I want to do and build and ship and start, but I just don’t have the time to do them all.
I always feel the tension of having more ideas than time because ideas are, and should be, a commodity.
Here’s the thing: it’s not about the balance between time and ideas. The trouble comes when we have a lack of focus, or, when we have more time than focus.
Having more focus than time means you’re proactive and intentional about how you spend your minutes. It means thinking ahead and establishing some awesome default behaviors to fall back on when your focus and energy run out during the day.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.”
Ultimately, managing your time is unto something. And that “something” is the living of life. How we spend our time is, quite literally, how we are living our life.
How then, can you make time (and follow through) in order to work on important projects and areas of responsibility when life is already so full?
The good news is that diligence and focus are not personality types; they are skills you can learn.
In just a moment I'm going to share some ideas, perspectives, and practical suggestions that can help. But if there is one thing to take away, it's this:
You have more control over your time than you think.
If you're not happy with where things are at right now regarding your time and attention, then make a change. There are some mindset changes you need (which I’ll get to in just a minute). And there are some practical things you can do in order to improve your likelihood of success. And whereby “success” I mean “spending your time and energy the way you want to”.
Let's dive in…
1. Start With Your Bias Toward Action
So many of us are good at following through with the commitments we make to others. But we are not so good at following through with the commitments we make to ourselves.
Without a bias toward action, it will always be difficult for you to make changes in your life. In order to develop your own bias toward action, start small with something simple… such as putting your shoes away in the same spot every day when you come home. Make that the first thing you do when you arrive home, no matter what shoes you are wearing or what the weather was like outside, etc.
Do that every single day for a month, and you’ll be following through with a commitment and proving to yourself that you can see a task through to the end.
With this development of your personal bias toward action, you’ll be able to move on to bigger challenges. Such as regularly focusing and doing the work on your creative projects, website, etc.
2. You Have to MAKE Time
You don’t find time. You make it.
I know it’s semantics. But it’s also a huge mindset change and it’s one worth musing on for a moment. Many of us act as if we are trying to find the time. We are looking around, hoping there may be an hour or two just lying there not being spent.
You make time by saying no to other things. Such as other interests, hobbies, time-sucks, etc. You also need boundaries for yourself so that you know when to say no to other people and opportunities. Your creative ideas and the side projects you’re working on are valuable — it’s okay to make time for them.
3. Find Your Pockets
Something I do with folks in my online Focus Course, is take a week and have them track the time they are spending. Literally we try to map out every minute of their day for a whole week and then see what their schedule actually looks like. It brings clarity about how we are truly spending our time. And most folks (myself included) always discover there are pockets of time here and there that we didn’t realize were there.
It’s not as if these open pockets of time are just moments when you’re doing nothing at all. Rather, they’re are spots where you realize you could spend less no time on a particular task in order to free up more time for something else.
4. Optimize for the Starting Line
Oftentimes, the real challenge is not in the making of time… But rather getting started in the moment.
I have had so many conversations with folks who tell me how they don’t have time in their day. But when they come home from work, they watch TV for a few hours before going to bed. The trouble is that it’s not always easy to turn those pockets of down time into pockets of productive creativity.
Thus, the more you can do to help yourself just get started, the better.
Yes, you can change your schedule around. Yes, you can make some time. You can wake up earlier. You can skip your lunch break. Etc. But when you finally have those precious minutes to do your creative work, the truth is that you just don’t want to. You’re tired, your distracted, you’re not sure where to start.
Getting started is the hardest part.
Take heart: It’s that way for everyone. You’re not the only one.
Thus, what is something you can do today that will help you make things easier to get started on your creative work tomorrow? Focus not on doing the work itself, but rather on just getting started.
5. Start with 20 minutes.
If you know how you want to spend your time, but the struggle is to make the time, start with 20 minutes. For sure you have 20 minutes somewhere in your day.
Break it down like this:
- Set a timer for 15 minutes (yes, 15). Spend those first 15 minutes working on your project.
- Then, spend the remaining 5 minutes leaving a breadcrumb trail for yourself so that tomorrow you know exactly where to pick up where you left off.
6. Change your schedule for just a short season
My friend, Sean McCabe, took the month of July to write a book. It was a sprint, and then he returned to his regular schedule.
If you have a specific idea or project you’re trying to get traction on, consider doing something a bit drastic for a short period of time. Such as rent a hotel room for the weekend and leave your spouse at home with the kids so you can get 2 full days of uninterrupted time. Or unplug your TV for a month and dedicate one hour every evening to completing a particular project. Etc.
7. Buy back your time
Are there things you can delegate or automate to someone else? Such as mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathrooms? I pay someone to mow my lawn because it gives me back a few hours every Saturday to spend with my boys. It’s worth every penny to me.
If you can spend a few dollars to give yourself a few hours, and then use that time doing something you love, that’s a bargain!
If the idea seem preposterous to you, try saving up to pay for a service for just one month. And then commit to yourself that by the end of the month you will have created something you can sell — an asset for your business.
8. Think Outside the Box
What about your commute? Could you negotiate with your boss to work from home one day a week, and then use the time you save on your commute that day as time to work on your side project?
9. Accountability & Social Support
By far and away, one of the best ways to help yourself show up every day is to be accountable to that task. If you have a small measure of accountability in place, where you’ve got to report back to someone about your progress, you are far more likely to complete it. Social support is your single greatest asset when it comes to success in nearly every single area of your life.
Give Yourself Some Grace
I’ve been writing about creative focus and time management for years. It’s one of my favorite subjects. And I’ve been doing this as my full-time job since 2011.
And, to be candid, it has always been a challenge to make the time to write while also making the time to build my business. It has always been a challenge to show up and do the work, and I know that it will continue to be so.
The challenge never goes away. We just get better at overcoming the obstacles, staying focused, and being diligent.
Now we’re going to talk about how to overcome that feeling of when you creativity or inspiration. This is for those who are unsure about what to write that will be interesting to their readers, or those trying to keep up with a consistent publishing schedule, and especially those who lack ideas and inspiration for what to share.
It was June and I was driving a 15-passenger van up into the Rocky Mountains. In the van were a dozen guys. We had just met up at the Denver airport and were now on our way to Breckenridge for a mastermind retreat.
Scott Young was sitting in the seat behind me, and I overheard him say something related to doing creative work online. He said…
“The single most important thing you need in your business is compelling content. And thus, the worst thing you can be is bored and boring.”
I’ll repeat part of that: ”The worst thing you can be is bored.”
This is actually quite liberating, I think.
Sure, I’ve felt uninspired before. I’ve felt overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, unsure of myself. I’ve been tired. I’ve been distracted. But rarely have I been flat-out bored at the work I’m doing.
If you’re bored, you’ll be boring. And if you’re boring, you’re dead in the water when it comes to creating anything that is compelling, moving, or exciting.
Back in 2011 I quit my job to begin my full-time career as an indie writer for my eponymous blog. And, frankly, I was terrified that I would run out of things to write about. I remember feeling so anxious that I wouldn’t be able to write regularly enough or passionate enough.
But well over six years later, it’s safe to say that I’ve not yet run out of ideas or inspiration for things to write about and things to work on. In fact, earlier this month I let 13 domain names expire. These were domains that represented about a half-dozen ideas I’ve had over the years that just never got built (some of them I bought nearly a decade ago). Letting those domain names expire was actually quite liberating. It was a moment of honesty with myself; I’ve got plenty of other ideas to work on, and these old domain names are just taking up space.
As I’ve been thinking on what it is that has helped me to stay inspired over the years, a few things came to mind.
I’d like to share them with you, saving what I think is the most important one for last.
I. Try to Avoid the Just Checks
The Just Checks are that thing when you’re standing in line at the store, or you’re waiting at a stoplight, or you’re just hitting a wall with the work you’re doing… and you pull out your iPhone to jus check Twitter / email / Facebook / Instagram / etc…
What this does is condition your brain resist boredom and to become addicted to the inbox.
In an article for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost wrote this:
Now we all check email (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or…) compulsively at the dinner table, or the traffic light. Now we all stow our devices on the nightstand before bed, and check them first thing in the morning. We all do. It’s not abnormal, and it’s not just for business. It’s just what people do. Like smoking in 1965, it’s just life.
II. Try to Celebrate Those Small, Daily Wins
There is nothing very sexy about writing 1,000 words. Or taking a photograph. Or drawing an illustration. But if you do that every day for a few years, you’ve got something quite substantial to say the least.
Thus, the secret is to not break the chain. To show up every day. For me, it helps tremendously to recognize and celebrate those small, daily wins of showing up, doing the work, and taking another step in the right direction. This helps me to keep the momentum going through the hard patches when inspiration seems to be running try. I remember to trust the process even when I’m not feeling it.
III. Make It Easy to Get Regular Input
Whenever I’m in the car, I’ve got a podcast going. Podcasts (and audio books) are great because they're so easy and passive. There is very little energy required to listen to a podcast — you just turn it on and you’re bound to get a great idea or other inspiration.
Something else that helps me is the Queue Playlist feature in Overcast. It’s a custom list of episodes that you create yourself. I just queue up the episodes I want to listen to, and then, when I get in the car, I just hit play on whatever’s next. This removes a lot of the friction for finding “just the right episode” when I am getting in the car. Which is so important because you’ve got to have regular input of new and other ideas.
IV. Get Thyself Around Fun and Interesting People
This can be hard to do. But it has such an impact. I try to meet up with people whenever I can. Even going out of my way to attend events, introduce myself, and build friendships. Friends, peers, and mentors all help me with doing my best work and getting fresh ideas or understanding a problem in a new way.
And that’s not even to mention the value I get when I intentionally help and serve others.
In the past year I've been to Chicago, San Diego, Atlanta, Breckenridge, Boise, Austin, Portland, and (in a few weeks) Nashville. Of course, you don’t have to travel to connect with interesting people. I also get on Skype or good-old-fashioned phone calls with folks often just to chat and connect.
V. Read a Book in the Evening Instead of the Internet
I buy books without overthinking it. And I don’t force myself to read them all the way through because otherwise I’d never start one. Make the barrier of entry for a book as low as possible.
Moreover, I make a habit of not checking my phone in my bedroom before bed. Instead I read a book or just stare at the ceiling (true story).
VI. Have a Good Tool to Capture and Then Work With Your Ideas and Inspiration
In his book, The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry writes that “what goes in must come out”. In order to do our best creative work, we need to have a steady stream of incoming stimuli and we need to be intentional about what all is in that stream.
Assuming you’ve mastered the previous 5 tricks, what then do you do with all those ideas and inspirations?
I think it’s crucial to have a trusted, go-to spot to capture your ideas and other tidbits of inspiration. Have a spark file or an app or a notebook whatever that you use to keep all that stuff, then it just makes things easier.
Having a known spot for my ideas helps to make capturing inspiration part of my day-to-day rhythm, because there is very little friction to it in the moment.
A trusted tool is important for more than the little ideas and tidbits of inspiration we get throughout the day — it’s also important for intentional study. The latter of which is critical if we really want to take our inspiration to the next level.
In his book, The Spark and the Grind, Erik Wahl writes about how we need both. Naturally. We need the spark (the dreams, the ideas, the excitement) and we also need the grind (doing the work, making our ideas happen).
When you have the grind without the spark, that is the road to burnout and boredom and frustration. Alas, many of us allow far too little time in our day to study, get inspired, and just be bored with our thoughts.
How about you? How do you stay inspired? I’d love to hear from you over on Twitter.