At some point, you’ve probably come across the phrase “begin with the end in mind.” (It’s the title of a chapter from Steven Covey’s mega-book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.) The general idea is that we should undertake our efforts with a clear understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish.
But the challenge for creatives is that we often don’t know what that end should be. We are working our way toward the end as we go about our work each day, iterating, collaborating, and pressing toward our (often vague) objectives. If we endeavor to prematurely determine the solution to our creative struggle, we will likely wind up (a) blocked, (b) under-performing, or (c) burned out. We must honor the role of process, no matter how far it leads us into uncertainty.
However, there is a way to stay focused and engaged throughout a long-arc project, and to be less prone to the assassins of creativity. In short, we need to flip this beginning/ending advice on its head, and end with the beginning in mind.
Many of us work until we run out of ideas, or until the clock says it’s time to quit, and then close down and leave for the day. In doing so, we are neglecting a simple two-minute exercise that could set the entire course for the next day.
Here’s a two-minute strategy for lessening procrastination and creative block by ending with the beginning in mind:
1. Before you close out your work for the day, capture any open questions that you are currently working on. If you were to continue working right now, what would be the very next thing you would do?
2. Write those questions and the next thing you would do on a post-it, or a sheet of paper, and leave it where you’ll see it the next day.
3. Determine right then what you’ll do first when you next sit down at your workstation. Establish a starting point for your work. This will give you immediate traction. Having something to do prevents the paralysis that accompanies needing to decide what to do.
Ernest Hemingway offered similar advice:
“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”
By giving yourself a starting point and a vector for your work, you’re putting yourself in the best possible position to gain traction quickly. The only way to do your best work is to actually be working.
Question: Are there other methods you’ve used to overcome procrastination and creative block?