I started this morning out with some motivational thoughts. As President and CEO here at Gideon Taylor, it’s my job to be a builder – to build relationships, ideas, products, and processes. I imagined what I could accomplish if I delegated more details and put more personal focus on creative and constructive work. I felt charged up and ready to spend my day building. Then I looked at my schedule.
I have ten meetings on my schedule today between 8:30 am and 5:30 pm; four meetings with other GT executives, four with current clients and prospects, and two others. Only a few slivers of time remain here and there to work creatively in, and such slivers are usually eaten by the email monster.
So what’s a creative builder to do? Should I just cancel everything and freewheel in my office, or slouch through the stultifying string of scheduled scrums like an executive zombie, and hope to come up with something awesome this evening after the kids are in bed?
I decided that being scheduled doesn’t have to mean I can’t accomplish anything. Whether the day’s structure enables or hinders creative work depends on how I use that structure. The tweetable saying that emerged from my ruminations:
Routine is creativity’s platform, or its prison.
Ooo, deep. Here’s what I mean by that.
Routine as Creativity’s Prison
I tend to see a packed calendar as a barrier to creativity – especially when a lot of the calendar items are recurring meetings, part of my daily or weekly routine. They feel like a rut – like I’m doing the same thing again that I did last week, and the week before that. I find myself just enduring the meetings, and looking forward to the time between meetings to really build things.
That attitude, that meetings stifle creativity, is self-fulfilling. When I look at my schedule that way, I’m really imprisoning my own creativity. I’m locking up my own ability to build when I:
- Focus on a meeting’s typical pattern rather than its purpose.
- Think about the meeting itself as a to-do item.
- Try to multitask during the meeting.
- Become a passive participant and just let the meeting happen to me.
- Focus more on the agenda than the participants.
My attitude toward meetings can kill my creativity. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Structure and Process
I often buy into the myth that creativity happens best in unstructured time. The truth is that the most prolific creative minds are disciplined, and create within routines. Speculative fiction author Ray Bradbury, who for me practically embodies creativity, described his routine for writing short stories:
“On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York” (Zen in the Art of Writing).
Bradbury provided his creativity a framework to happen in. My college psychology professor and later neighbor and friend Allen Bergin talked about the interplay of structure and process. In the human body, the skeleton could be seen as the structure, while the flesh, organs, circulatory system, etc. is the process. Neither is worth much without the other. Structure gives stability and space for the process – the moving, flowing, living, doing – to happen around and through it. A building is structure; its occupants are process. The binding, pages, and type of a book are structure; the ideas in the words are process. A meeting schedule is structure; creative work is the process the schedule is intended to enable.
Routine as Creativity’s Platform
A scheduled meeting is like a cleared space with a foundation laid, and the attendees are a trained and equipped construction crew. It would be a shame to stand around and not build something!
A meeting provides a ready platform for constructive creative work when I:
- Think about the reason the meeting is scheduled.
- Engage fully in the meeting, setting aside distractions.
- Remember the infinite importance and unbounded capacity of each participant as a unique human being.
- Consider what (relationships, ideas, products, solutions, processes, visions of success) we can build together in the time we have, with the resources we collectively bring.
- Engage my fellow participants in creative thought. (This includes asking open, thought-provoking questions, and then listening.)
My ten-meeting day, which at this point in the writing process is now over, gave me lots of opportunities to apply these ideas. In some meetings I did better than in others. Disciplined, time-bounded creative focus is hard work! I thought a lot more about the people I was with, and why we were in the same room, and intentionally worked on deepening relationships. I cancelled one meeting that I realized wasn’t constructive by nature, but merely informative. And I saw that over the years I have let a lot of meetings go by, like water flowing past my creative mill, without getting my wheel deep in the stream and putting that power to work.
So I’m showing up at my next meeting with a hard hat instead of a lunch box. Let’s make something awesome!