Nick Pagan is new to blogging, but he is experienced about wonders of the mind and their influence on our daily life, as his ebook “How to operate your brain perfectly” can attest. I asked him three questions relating to creative work because I knew that his answers would be of interest for my readers. To learn more about productivity, procrastination or motivation, go to his blog or grab his RSS feed.

You extended the concept of the to-do list to a how-to-do list, can you explain it and show how it applies to creative workers?
In my extensive personal research into the causes of procrastination I came to the conclusion that most of the problem lies in our moment-to-moment decision making. We might start off with good intentions but they are usually not enough to keep us going once we hit a difficulty. Those difficulties are generally a choice over which is the easiest option to take in the moment. Our minds are easily distracted because we react to emotions that are created in the moment. Those emotions are generated by whether we fulfill, or can fulfill, a desire in the moment. Because we don’t like to feel emotional pain we will tend to do things that are easy to fulfill in order to get instant gratification and pleasure. Unfortunately this causes long-term problems if we only ever seek instant gratification and never get on with the things that deliver better long-term results.

By understanding this mechanism I came to realize that when I created an ordinary to-do list I was actually designing causes of procrastination into my activities. Everything on the to-do list became a desire to fulfill but if it was a big desire, e.g. ‘Write a Report,’ then in the moment of choosing whether to do that or not I would find myself thinking, “That’s hard” or “That’s impossible to do right now” and I would look for something easier, i.e. instantly possible, to do instead. Ordinarily, if I didn’t modify that item on the list it would go undone until some personal or external pressure forced me to confront it and get on with it, normally after wasting a lot of time, after feeling ill-at-ease and usually resulting in a shoddy job just to ‘get the damn thing done.’

As a long-term strategy I realized that I had to break the tasks down so that when I faced my moments of decision about what to do, I would find it easier to do important things instead of bunking off and wasting time. The way to do that for any task is simply to keep asking the question, “How do I do that?” The answers to this question start to build up a process of how to go from nothing to the end result. I also pay special attention to the things that will cause me the most difficulty as these are the things that will cause continuous procrastination until I apply proper thought into solving those problems. By thinking of those things before starting I can do some of the problem solving in advance and prepare the way so that when I arrive at that point it’s no longer a difficulty and so I can move forward with ease. It takes more effort in thought and preparation up front but the benefits are tremendous because things get done so easily!

At times I might have to do things that I don’t enjoy or that challenge me in ways that I don’t like and so I include a section to think about the benefits that I’ll get from carrying out this work and the penalties that I’ll incur for not doing it. This provides some clear thinking about the pros and cons that can give a boost to getting on with things in the first place rather than going straight into procrastination mode.

This method can benefit everyone, including creative workers because it compensates for the way the mind works and how easily distracted it is. A block to creativity comes from “not knowing what to do” or “not knowing what’s right to do” and these are the difficulties that need to be focused upon upfront. By accepting these difficulties a creative worker can think through potential blocks and spend more time creating the desired result in the mind first rather than just turning up at the blank page/canvas/screen or whatever and just hoping for the best. Once the creative concept is imagined then the process of creating that result in reality can flow much easier (assuming that the creative worker has the skills to turn an idea into reality – if they don’t then that’s a whole other issue!)

You can find out more in this post: The How To Do List

A common problem people try to solve is avoid procrastinating and start to work directly. However there is a problem that is typical to designers: not being able to stop the work. What advice would you give to the perfectionnists out there to know when they need to stop working?
Humiliation and embarrassment caused by making mistakes in public are some of the worst emotions that we will ever feel and perfectionism is aimed to protect us from that. Unfortunately it easily becomes just another procrastination tactic and things remain perpetually unfinished. Dealing with perfectionism means that we have to accept that we, or our work, is not as great or as good as we would like it be. It then becomes an issue of whether we have the competence to actually do what we want to do or not. I deal with perfectionism by accepting my limitations and by deciding what level of output or standard of product I can produce with consistency and with high-levels of competency and that is what I offer to the public. In private I keep developing my abilities, my skills, my resources and all of the things that can eventually lead to improved quality of output. My advice is to aim to give a product or performance in public that is 80% to 90% within the full scope of your abilities. By leaving a margin of ability you can perform with confidence. In this way you don’t give yourself a ‘make or break’ challenge with a high probability of failure, which I think is part of the fear that lies behind perfectionism.

I came to these conclusions about perfectionism the hard way and you can read my embarrassing story here: Antidote to Perfectionism

The best time for designers is when they are in “the zone”, working smoothly, getting things done and feeling like not doing any effort. Any advice on how to make it to “the zone”?

There are four stages related to competence and skill building:

  1. unconscious incompetence – no awareness whatsoever of a lack of ability.
  2. conscious incompetence – a knowledge of a lack of ability but no actual ability.
  3. conscious competence – the ability to do something but in a consciously controlled manner.
  4. unconscious competence – the ability to do something without having to consciously think it through. This final stage occurs when we have great competence and we can carry out skills automatically. When we are in the zone we are making use of our highest levels of unconscious competence.

I think that two things block getting into the zone or else interrupt it. One is having to make difficult decisions along the way and the second is having to switch between alternate processes.

In order to prevent making difficult decisions along the way it is important to prepare for the work in advance, as can happen when we use the how-to-do-list. Sometimes difficult decisions occur due a lack of experience or a lack of skill. It is useful to think in advance about personal limitations of experience and skill and to accept them and to work around them in personally acceptable ways. This is indicated in my response to dealing with perfectionism. It’s not very nice to accept that we can’t have, be and do all that we want but at the end of the day we have to live with practical limitations so accept today’s result and learn from it so that the next result is better.

The second problem about switching between alternate processes is simply that it breaks concentration. Not all tasks require the same functions of the mind. Real creativity occurs first in the imagination and then is rendered into reality by certain skills. Attempting to create and render at the same time requires different functions. Imagination tends to occur consciously whereas skills can be developed to such an extent that we become unconscious of carrying them out – this is when you are truly in the zone. It is best to avoid mixing them as far as possible. Do as much creative imagining and problem solving in advance because having to make difficult conscious decisions whilst in the zone will always break you out of it.

In addition make sure that the other preparations that you need to sustain being in the zone are carried out carefully. If you begin painting and then run out of paint and have to go out and buy some then you destroy the zone. As with most things in life, the more effort you put into preparing to do your best, the more often you create the conditions that allow you to do your best and so the quality of your work and the level of productivity rise accordingly.

For more on this you can read this article on batch processing.

As a final note, I’d like to thank you, Mirko, for giving me the opportunity to talk about some of the common problems that stop people from getting things done. Your readers are welcome to post specific questions on these subjects through comments to related articles on my blog where I will answer them.

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