Be your own muse: one secret to being more productive in your creative work

In my MFA program, there was one phrase that came up over and over: “Go with whatever is most taking your attention right now.” This was usually said in a serious Obi Wan Kenobe-voice to us just before we began an in-class writing assignment or when being coached through an impromptu verbal narrative in front of the class.

At first, it’s strange to be told this let alone think this way. But the up side to this creative directive was that it helped me generate lots of story starts and ideas. My brain never shuts up so there is ALWAYS something taking my attention.

The challenge became, how do I tune out the other distractions and focus on the one, most pressing scene or moment that was most strongly taking my attention right NOW? This directive helped me train my brain to focus with laser precision on the moment or scene that I needed to tell right now.

While having many story starts and ideas is great, the down side was that I rarely finished any of my story starts because something else is ALWAYS taking my attention. How to finish a piece of writing…that’s the bane of my existence when it comes to my own personal creative work and another blog post for another day.

As a writer and someone who always has multiple projects going on at once both at home and at work, I’ve found that going with what takes my attention helps me instinctively, intuitively juggle my priorities better. It’s an exercise in active listening. I ask myself (either in my journal or literally), what is taking my attention right now? And then I listen to what my mind says, what it pushes forth. It requires patience. It requires quiet. It requires honesty.

The payoff is that the priority or project I need to focus on first or that I am most enthusiastic about at that moment bubbles up, drowning out everything else. I am much more productive this way. As a professional writer, my ability to juggle many different projects hinges upon my ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between clients, dipping in and out of different brands, voices and subject matters. I work faster when I focus on the project that I am most excited about at the moment–the one most strongly taking my attention.

This helps me get down to business quickly and manage my time so much more efficiently. But this doesn’t just pertain to writing. It pertains to life.

Don’t wait for the muse to find you. Try it now.
Ask yourself, what is taking my attention right now? Then listen to what your intuition says. At first, this may be uncomfortable. Your brain might get snarky and say stuff like, “Piles of laundry! Bills! The bathtub grout is moldy!” Let the snark come out, then push it aside. Listen again.

In the beginning, this may feel like listening for a pin to drop in a crowded football stadium. Wait for it. Eventually you will push everything else aside and focus your mind’s eye on one thing, the important thing, that you need to get to right now. You will hear the pin drop. You will see it. Write it. Paint it. Design it. You will work despite the laundry, the bills, the grout.

Be your own muse. Go with what’s taking your attention right now.

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The day the webmaster died: 9 crazy deadline personalities

I’ve seen a lot of crazy in my 20+ years in the marketing biz as a creative professional. But when a conversation begins, “Hello, our webmaster died,” you know you’re looking at a whole different level of crazy. Here’s how it went down, according to my design friend Susan:

“True story 1:30pm yesterday, a client I haven’t heard from in months calls up out of the blue and says, ‘Our webmaster died last year. How much would it cost to take down our site, create a new one and add e-commerce before our event in 10 days?’ I ask, what’s your budget? The client replies, ‘We don’t have one but we need to spend as little as possible.’ “

No matter how much you love your work, we could all do without the deadline nightmares. While there  are those tough people are very good at saying no to unreasonable requests, many of us are afraid to say no lest we be labeled “uncooperative.” Frankly, nowadays it feels a little nuts to say no, no matter how crazy the deadline.

I have compiled this list of the worst deadline personalities because, as much as we may like our clients or colleagues, they drive us insane by the insanity of their deadlines. Whether you freelance or work full-time, you’ll recognize them–hopefully they are not you.

The Five O’Clock Shadow. This client or colleague waits until 4:58 sharp, right as you’re packing up to leave, to call or stop by and “give you a heads up” on a new project or the revisions you’ve been waiting for all day long.

The Bait and Switch. This project starts out small, quick or easy and before you know it, it evolves into a full-blown campaign with multiple components, themes, versions, viral videos, t-shirts and billboards. which means you would have approached it completely differently from the start. And it’s all still due tomorrow. This can also happen when the two-week due date flies out the window when you get the call, “We need it tomorrow.”

The Bargain Hunter. Budgets are tight these days, but these folks have come to think of creative work as “Let’s Make a Deal.” Your estimate is merely a starting point in the negotiation. Others think you are trying to rip them off. No matter what you charge, it’s always too much.

The UnderEstimator. To these folks, your job doesn’t require time, effort or expertise–perhaps you could be replaced by an intern or a monkey. Or they don’t quite understand what is entailed to execute a particular creative project. So they see nothing wrong with asking you to complete a six-week project in six days. When you explain exactly what is entailed in the scope, they are genuinely shocked–then they blink and say, “So, tomorrow then?”

The DIY. The do-it-yourselfer is convinced that they don’t need to pay someone to do something they can do themselves. These folks have not come to appreciate that while yes, everyone can use photoshop, not everyone is a graphic designer. Or that just because you can write doesn’t mean you can write a compelling sales pitch.

The Fiddler. They can’t leave well enough alone. They fiddle with the colors. Question the shape of the text box. Pick and fuss at the logo until it looks like a cat ate it and coughed it up as a hairball. They are endless “tweakers” of copy, changing words and phrases here and there, and there, and here, then making wholesale paragraph changes, or worse, rewriting everything on the final review, until suddenly you realize you are on Round 18 of revisions and you only budgeted for three.

The Spontaneous Genius. These are the creative sparks that pop up the day before an event or meeting that was humming along UNTIL…someone has an absolutely brilliant idea that, in normal people time, would require a team, equipment and a class or two. Instead, all you get is a “go for it!”, a mad search of how-to videos on YouTube and one all-nighter. When the clock is ticking and you hear things like, “Hey, I know!” or “Here’s an idea!”, RUN. You’re about to be hit with spontaneous genius.

The Mystery Meat Special. The conversation goes something like this: “We need something designed, we don’t have the details yet, but how fast can you get it done and how much will it cost?” Huh???

Brain Freeze. Whether you’ve had the project for 5 days or 5 minutes, sometimes your brain just…dies. Every idea you manage to come up with sucks and you start to wonder if it’s time to consider a career change. Ditch digger and Walmart Greeter comes to mind. This can happen because of any of the crazy deadline personalities above, but sometimes it just happens for no damn good reason. That’s when you call a trusted cohort and vent until you are laughing again and then the idea comes and you are relieved because you still have “it.” Until the next brain freeze.

Go ahead. Vent. What’s your worst deadline horror story?