I (Todd Henry) am hopeful that you’ve taken my encouragement throughout this book that the main reason to establish practices is to increase your capacity for insight and brilliance, not simply to cram more things into your life or to hack your creative process in some way. Again, there is no formula for effective creating and there are no shortcuts to experiencing brilliance when you need it. You will see results only when you are willing to let go of anxiety around short-term outcomes and pour yourself into activity that increases your capacity to experience future insights.
Over time, many of the practices in this book will become second nature. They will simply become intertwined with your lifestyle and creative process. But like anything else worthwhile, your first efforts will require a tremendous amount of forethought and follow-through. Once you’ve persisted in these choices, however, you will likely begin to see some these results, effective creating begins the moment you decide to reclaim the natural rhythms of your creative process and structure your life around them. This will require intentionality, choice, and discipline.
Any of your practices can become more harmful than helpful if you don’t adjust or prune them from season to season. This is the primary reason for the Quarterly Checkpoint. It is a check-in to help you evaluate how things are going and to establish the practices you think you will need in the next quarter in order to meet the demands of your life. It’s like climbing a really tall tree to get your bearing and take a look at the upcoming terrain. It may seem like a temporary diversion, but this can make you much more effective as you continue your journey.
The Quarterly Checkpoint is the longest horizon planning you will do. While many productivity experts recommend annual retreats to examine goals and objectives, I (Todd Henry) find that these are often too long term to provide an accurate analysis of upcoming work. Ideally you will be able to take an entire day for this quarterly session, but, understandably, you may not be able to break away from your life in order to do so. If this is the case, the Quarterly Checkpoint can take place an hour at a time in the mornings or evenings over the course of a week.
The one constant in the life of a creative is change, which means that you must regularly ensure that the plans you’ve made and the practices you’ve established are still relevant. The Monthly Checkpoint is about reviewing how the past month went, and recommitting to, or changing rails, around practices for the upcoming month. It’s a way to gain a more clear perspective on your current priorities and workload.
The Monthly Checkpoint is an hour per month, preferably at the very end of a month (to plan for the upcoming one). The goal is to recognize trends in your work and to do some strategic thinking about which types of practices will help you most in the coming weeks.
The Weekly Checkpoint is where many tactical decisions will be made regarding the practices. As your schedule is shaping up for the upcoming week, you’ll have a much better sense of how and where the practices will fit most effectively into your life. I (Todd Henry) like to schedule my Weekly Checkpoint on Friday afternoon because it gives me a cliff-top perch from which to view my upcoming week and plot my course. Others I’ve worked with prefer to wait until first thing on Monday morning, or even to do this checkpoint over the weekend. If you have an organizational system that you’re already comfortable with, you can also find ways of working your weekly checkpoint into your existing systems. For example, I’ve used David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology for years, and I like to lump my weekly checkpoint in with the weekly review suggested by David’s system. Whatever works for you is fine, but be consistent.
During your Weekly Checkpoint you will think about how to implement the practices into your upcoming week. Here is a complete list of the practices we discussed in the book:
Remember that the objective of the methods described in this book is to establish a supporting infrastructure—a rhythm—that will provide stability and increased creative capacity. It will work only if you are diligent and consistent about incorporating the practices into your life. In order to do so effectively, you need to occasionally take a few steps back and think about your current needs.
To stay on course, this kind of rhythm analysis must be both long- and short-term. This is no different from what you probably already do in many areas of your life, though you may never have thought to apply this kind of strategic thinking to your creative process. A little bit of thought and planning time go a long way toward ensuring that you’re not falling into the efficiency trap but are instead focusing on effectiveness.
When we spend much of our time in on-demand creating, we can quickly lose touch with the passions that fuel our best work. We grow used to leveraging our abilities for the sole purpose of meeting others’ expectations, and much of it is driven by hitting our marks rather than by exploring new possibilities. The ironic part is that this personal creative passion is the most critical thing we bring to the work we do. Creating on demand often causes us to lose the edge that fuels our best work and sometimes causes us to shrink from risk because of the potential consequences of failure.
When we create unnecessarily, we are setting our own agenda. We have permission to try new things, develop new skills, and make things solely for ourselves. If we fail, it’s no big deal because we’re the client. We can take as much or as little time as we need to get it right. The main purpose is to put our ideas into fixed form and to attempt things that we might not get to try in our day job. We can stretch ourselves, explore fringe ideas that intimidate us, and make things that no one but us will ever see. Without this practice in our life, we can become creatively stuck. We may experience a backup of ideas and thoughts, and the weight of all that we’re not doing becomes a source of resentment and even guilt. We may feel like we’re subverting our own life and passions for the sake of everyone else.
While it’s true that we can generate ideas effectively in a team context, to think that this is the only context for effective idea generation is simply false. The fear of the unknown that prevents us from exploring creative problems on our own puts a cap on our creative output. While it’s uncomfortable to think about wasting an hour thinking about the creative problems in our life and work, spending our time in this way can be infinitely more productive than filling that hour with e-mails and minor tasks.
As the old saying goes, if you want to know what’s really important to you, take a look at your bank statement and your calendar. No matter what you say about your priorities, where you spend money and your time will prove them out. If you really believe that ideas are important to you, start putting your resources behind it. Begin by setting aside time for the sole purpose of generating ideas.
Time is the currency of productivity. At the end of the day, if we’ve spent it in the right place, we win. If we’ve spent it in the wrong place, we lose. Whenever we fail to do what’s needed, we accumulate a debt that will have to be repaid at some point. After all, our work isn’t going away, and someone has to do it. At the same time, we often obsess unnecessarily about our time because we grow paranoid that we’re constantly losing ground or that we’re somehow going to fall behind and never be able to dig out of work debt. For many creatives, this mind-set results from the fact that they are constantly reacting to the workload rather than giving themselves the space needed to get ahead of it.
This insecurity about time is one of the main things that causes us, even unknowingly, to cram work into every available crevice in our life. We are perpetually thinking, moving pieces around in our head, and problem solving. We feel the pressure to produce, and we know that we need to use our time wisely to do so. But as mentioned earlier in the book, this always-on mind-set unknowingly causes us to forfeit our best work.