Editor’s Note: today’s feature is the latest in columnist Mindy Holahan’s series Becoming an Accidental Creative. Don’t miss her last installment, Building Relationships.

“Each choice you make to do something is a choice not to do something else. I’m often reminded of something my father-in-law used to tell my wife when she was a child: “You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.” That’s opportunity cost in a nutshell. — The Accidental Creative, page 97

“Are you coming out to Center City Sips?”

Every Wednesday during the heat of the summer, just around 4 o’clock, my coworkers ask me this question. If only brilliant ideas were this predictable.

Center City Sips is Philadelphia’s city-wide happy hour. All the restaurants have attractive menu specials, so that even if you’re not a big drinker, there’s always an appealing reason to stay in the city and indulge. At large, the whole Center City District comes alive with festive spirits. It’s a lot of fun.

I like fun.

When I agree to join in, my answer is always the same: “Okay, but I have to leave by 6:10 to catch my train. I’ve got a lot of writing to do tonight.”

You know where this story is going. I never make that 6:20 train. 6 o’clock comes and goes a quick as a heartbeat. I’m enveloped by the festivity, bonding with my coworkers. I persuade myself to stay out a little longer. “I’ll catch the 7 o’clock train,” I convince myself. “That will get me home by 8. That’s still plenty of time to write.”

But 7 o’clock comes and goes without notice. The night beats on, and I don’t arrive home until well after 10. Then it hits me. I’m exhausted. Worse, I’m angry with myself for squandering the day’s writing time.

How could I have let this happen, again?

The Consequences of Making Decisions

As I mentioned in my article on Focus, I picked up The Accidental Creative with the assumption that I had an energy management problem. By and large, I was right, but in reading through the book I was able to put a finer point on it.

I had a decision-making problem. Poor decisions quickly led to low energy levels, and low energy levels led to a negative attitude. Not the best fertilizer for creative growth.

In-the-moment decisions were my weakness. When faced with the choice between doing work and doing something fun, I jumped at the fun option every time like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Procrastination researchers call it “giving in to feel good.” Fun could mean anything; going out with coworkers, zoning out on the couch to four hours of Twin Peaks episodes. It didn’t matter what the knee-jerk decision was, the consequence was always the same: an evening of creative opportunity vaporized by a foolish use of my energy.

If I viewed each decision individually – as I did – it seemed like an insignificant choice. I just wanted to have fun; I could always write more tomorrow. But make a poor choice a couple of times a week, and my weekly word count took a major hit. My wells of energy were already low from constant task-switching I discussed in the section on Focus. When viewed holistically, the cumulative impact of my poor choices was a near-total depletion of my energy by the end of the day. And I write at night.

Enter the Weekly Checkpoints

For my personal energy crisis, the weekly checkpoints have been a real saving grace.

Previously, I took a haphazard approach to planning: looking only a day or two in advance. Meetings and due dates — creative projects that drew heavily from my bank of creative energy — would pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. I failed to account for regular events, like Center City Sips or my weekly face-to-face with my boss. My near-sighted approach cared more about the individual details of any one project than it did about how they all fit into my life as a whole.

Thankfully, those days have gone by.

Now, I plan out every week in advance: looking at each obligation in terms of Creative Rhythm (Focus, Relationships, Energy, Stimuli, and Hours) laid out in Todd’s book.

This advance deliberation has added much-needed clarity to my in-the-moment decision making. I have fewer of those decisions to make, and when I do, I view them through a new lens. The question is no longer “Do I want to go out with my friends?” Rather, it is “Can I live with the choice not to write tonight?”

The answer to the first question is usually yes. The answer to the second question is a resounding no.

Last week, I missed out on the festivities of summer’s final Center City Sips. And I didn’t trade that energy-drain for watching Twin Peaks episodes. I did, however, hit my weekly writing goal. And how sweet it was!

I can have anything I want, but I can’t have everything I want. I choose writing. What do you choose?


Image credit: Mark Magnusson