Want to produce your best work? Protect your power cycle

Creativity is such an elusive thing. But if you have to “be creative” as a fundamental part of your every-day-of-the -week job, and you’re paying attention to the periods when you’re most productive (or completely unproductive), you’re sure to have noticed a few things about the way you work.

I found this out the hard way very early in my career as an advertising copywriter. Come mid- to late afternoon, I could wrestle with a problem for literally hours and never come to a satisfactory conclusion. But it never failed — the same vexing issue that eluded me the late afternoon before was solved dead in the first 30 minutes of the next day.

Why? A fresh brain and rested body? A subconscious mind that worked on the problem throughout the night? Just not so tired, hungry, and aggravated? Yes, to all of the above, but an even bigger yes to recognizing my personal power cycle. There was one insurmountable problem at that job, though. My boss’s power cycle started at around 7 p.m., and he was a “nobody leaves before I do “type.

Yeah, that didn’t last long.

Creative power cycles are personal, and not easily altered

I didn’t waste any time trying to adjust my naturally diurnal cycles to match my boss’s nocturnal ones. All that would have gotten me was a lot of physical and mental pain, and a portfolio of crappy work. I got out of that job, learned to recognize and defend my power cycle, and was not only a lot happier but more productive, too — in both quality and quantity.

As I realized this truth about myself, I started to see it in others, as well. My longtime art director confrere Wayne Koenig, now a standout UX lead at Raven Software, is notorious for killing it with amazing work created in the wee hours of the morning. He’s naturally nocturnal. I’m naturally diurnal. We managed to work together seamlessly for a close to a decade — primarily during the periods when our power cycles overlapped. Then we’d disengage, go about our individual roles as required, and reconvene when necessary, typically when our power cycles overlapped again.

Is that any way to run a creative department? Damn right it is, and we have the awards to prove it.

As a creative director, I made it a point to determine my team members’ individual power cycles as quickly as possible — and then schedule things appropriately. Late afternoon concept meetings? A complete waste of time. Early morning job starts for my late owl art director? Same thing. It’s not about pandering to the fragile artist and their oh-so-precious schedule preferences. It’s about getting what you really want — brilliant, creative work.

This is no excuse — it’s biology

The mental effort required to create — not modify, edit, kern, or optimize, etc. — is significant. A writer friend of mine once told me that he believed a focused, bent-on-perfection writer could only effectively write for two hours a day. And I agree.

There are outliers, of course. Isaac Asimov is said to have written at least eight hours a day, seven days a week. That worked for him (as one of the most prolific authors in history with over 500 significant published works). But seriously, he’s the exception. Even the wildly creative polymath Benjamin Franklin made sure to identify — and defend —his most powerful parts of the day from distraction.

Smart guy, Ben. Knew enough to identify — and defend — the most creative and productive hours of his day. From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, circa 1793.



Power cycle: You only get one a day

For the vast majority of people, there is a single three-to-four-hour period each day that enables the best, most creative, heavy-lift work to happen. I call them power cycles. But unlike a machine that once started can keep cranking out work as long as it’s given enough fuel, the creative engine is susceptible to just about every kind of distraction there is.

To be clear, a huge amount of your daily work will not be spent on heavy-lift creativity, and does not require power cycle-level energy. Things like billing, conference reports, email processing, appointment coordination, and all the standard TSCODB (time sucking cost of doing business) can and will burn kilowatts of creative energy. That’s why I assign such activity to hours outside my personal power cycle. There’s no need to waste your best mental energy on a “Sounds good. I’ll see you Tuesday” email response when you could use it to solve an intractable creative challenge.

An example that proves the point

Quality writing consists of three distinct phases:

I. Conception
II: Creation
III. Optimization

The hardest, heaviest lift? Conception. The lightest, “any time of day will do” activity: optimization. And right smack dab in the middle in terms of effort and energy is creation.

Without a concept — the “what am I actually going to write about” — nothing else can happen. But, for me at least, the second I know the concept, the challenge often shifts to a test of typing speed as the ideas are coming in during the creation phase. While it doesn’t require quite the same power level as conception, it’s still pretty energy intensive.

Optimization is the phase that finalizes the written product. Spell- and grammar-checking, character or word counting when necessary, editing for clarity and audience — all of these things can be done during those off-power cycle hours. It’s not that these tasks don’t require professional diligence, it’s that they don’t require concept or even creative energy levels to get the job done well.

What’s your species? Know it — and respect it

So, what are you, an up-with-the-sun songbird or an out-all-night owl? You must recognize and embrace that about yourself. Then try to get even more specific than that, all the way down to the specific hours in your “most productive” window. It’s critically important to know when you are naturally at your creative best and then to protect that peak period from distractions. During your power cycle, don’t just ignore email — turn it off. You can deal with all that stuff during off-peak hours, and if they really need you, they’ll find others ways to get ahold of you.

Power cycle scheduling in action

Let’s play out one common scenario: scheduling a meeting. The first step is to understand what the meeting is all about and its desired outcome or product. Only then can you appropriately schedule for your entire team based on the creative energy level required to achieve that desired outcome.

A weekly status meeting doesn’t require much, so schedule it whenever everybody’s outside his or her personal prime time. A big all-call brainstorm that requires the best from everyone? Schedule it for that elusive golden hour when your entire team is ready for prime time. If you’ve ever sat in a simple status meeting that happens to be scheduled during your power cycle, you really understand what pain is as you can actually feel your creative energy being wasted.

GTIGCO (Garbage time in, garbage creative out)

There are people, typically called managers, who may object to all of this. I can hear them screaming, “Yer gettin’ paid, so be creative right now, ’cause I said so.” If you’re stuck with someone like that, I feel for you. But if your title is creative director, you know that true creativity is a fickle beast. It doesn’t come just because you call. It arrives as a lightning bolt to the receptive, searching mind — and more often than not, during that mind’s power cycle.

I was once mocked loud and long by an account-side colleague for my “meeting scheduling modus operandi.” It stipulated that no significant meetings or presentations happen on Mondays or Fridays, or later than 3 p.m. daily. But guess what? That strategy worked wonders for the quality of work created, and client acceptance of the work presented, at those meetings. Why? Power cycle management. Everyone involved was biologically predestined to perform at his or her best — and so they did.

Did that mean such significant meetings couldn’t occur on Mondays or Fridays? Of course not. True professionals can be called upon to perform with excellence whenever necessary. But if you are setting the meeting and have the choice, schedule your power hitters when they naturally hit the most effectively. Why, oh why, would you ever schedule anything that mattered when everyone in the meeting is not inclined, by simple biology, to give a … their undivided attention.

As a capital C creative, the only reason people are going to seek your services is because (surprise) you are CREATIVE. Defend your creativity cubs like a diligent lioness — or watch them, and your work quality and quantity, die.

D.P. Knudten is chief collaborator for COLLABORATOR creative.

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