The Creative March

My new challenge to log at least 1,000 hours of creativity every year.

9 min. read

My last few weeks have been marked by creativity. I love that feeling. I want to make it happen more.

Bill Gates is frequently quoted for saying, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

I feel this contrast more intensely on a smaller scale: we overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what we can do in a year.

It’s so easy for me to think of myself as a creative person — a writer, a doodler, a designer, a coder — even when I don’t create anything in a given day.

But I’m not really a writer when I’m not writing. I’m a reader of political news, or a dog walker, or a cook, or a compulsively rechecking my email because it triggers a dopamine response-er.

I’ve been “working on a book for three years” now, but I haven’t truly been working on that book for three years. I’ve barely worked on it at all. A few minutes here, an hour there.

Creativity is an act, and one that is so easily sidelined by other actions — anything that feels safer, simpler, easier, or fulfills a shortsighted desire.

How many people do you know who are “working” on things that never get any creative time dedicated to them?

How many projects are you “working” on that you haven’t sat down in front of for over a week? A month? A year? Ever?

Last week, I finished and published a book. The week before I co-created and published a massive Train-the-Trainer Retreat Guide. The week before that I wrote a new comedy show. And in between all of that I’ve made major strides in starting two new (secret, for now) projects. And I’ve only checked my email two thousand times (a made up number down from what I assume is my normal two million times per month).

But in the weeks before that, I was mostly just slogging through administrative stuff. Checking in on old things, closing out 2018. Not really making progress on anything, with only a few essays and one edugraphic to show for it.

All of that got me reflecting on the ebbs and flows of my own creativity, and wanting to come up with some personal challenge or strategy to get a better grasp on that part of my life.

I don’t want to spend most of my time on tasks that amount to nothing, but feel good in the moment (or at least don’t feel terrifying, like creativity often does).

I want to spend most of my time creating things that I share with the world, that are durable, that might exist when I’m gone.

As luck would have it, listening to a podcast interview today with Jim Collins gave me an exciting challenge that I’m going to start tonight.

Counting 1,000 Creative Hours Per Year

In the interview, Jim talks about a standard that he’s been holding to himself for years. In any given “365 day cycle” (e.g., from Jan 1 to Jan 1, or September 18 to September 18), he needs to be spending at least 1,000 on creative work.

He cites this as a creative equivalent to his concept of the corporate “20 Mile March.” It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea of walking across the country. But you might be able to, with intention and determination, march 20 miles. Do that enough times in a row, day-by-day, keeping the pace, and you’ll find yourself on the other coast.

The connection being that it’s as hard grasp the idea of your “lifetime of creativity” on any given day as it is to imagine walking from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic.

A lot of the creative accomplishments that people aspire to (e.g., publishing a book, an art installation in a certain gallery, a column in a magazine) are multi-year endeavors, the culmination of a long march of creativity. If you can keep marching at a pace of 1,000 hours per year, there aren’t many creative goals that are out of reach.

The way he keeps track? A simple spreadsheet with three columns:

  1. A quick review of the day’s events (keywords, things that happened)
  2. The number hours spent on creativity
  3. How he felt, overall/emotionally, about the day on a scale of +2, +1, 0, -1, -2 (with +2 being an amazing day, -2 being a terrible day, and 0 being just an average/fine day)

Every night, before bed (or after he’s finished his work), he recounts the day’s activities, creative hours, and his mood in the spreadsheet.

The point? To be able to know, on any given day, whether he’s keeping to that 1,000 hours / year standard. By viewing the aggregates of the past 365 days, past six months (x2), or past three months (x4), he can quickly get a sense of his creative pace.

In the interview, he said he keeps these running totals displayed in his office for daily motivation and accountability.

This idea hit me like a lightning bolt, and I immediately decided I would give it a shot for at least the next 3 months.

How I’ll Be Attempting the Challenge

Every day, for the next 90, I will be logging a brief account of the day, the number of hours I spent on creative work, and my overall mood. While this might sound simple (and might be simple for a lot of you), I anticipate it being anything but.

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of “quantified self” type behaviors, and am all around terrible at daily, regimented tasks (I don’t even eat some days). Jim emphasized the importance of this being a real-time, night-by-night assessment (not a hindsight reflection), and I don’t doubt his wisdom there.

So, if I’m going to stick to this, I need it to be easy-peasy.

And I believe this challenge is worth the friction.

Completing this daily log for the next 3 months will give me a solid sense of how much time I’m giving myself to create, what factors contribute to (or correlate with) creative days, and how my overall mood is affected by creative output. All of those are things that, right now, I’m either (a) oblivious about, or (b) harboring intuitions that are likely flat wrong.

1. I created a Google Form.

Spreadsheets are already more common in my life than I like. I’d rather not have one be the last thing I look at before I go to sleep every night.

Instead, I created a mega simple Google Form (you can click this link to make a copy of it to your own Google Drive) that I’ll be able to quickly fill out every night.

2. I added the form to my phone’s home screen.

On Safari, you can create an app-like button to any website really easily (sorry Android / other OS people — you’re on your own to search for this). Here’s how:

Tap the “share” icon (the box with the arrow shooting out), tap “add to home screen” (or, if you don’t see it, swipe until you see “more” and tap that), then name it.

I take my phone’s home screen very seriously, and value a minimalist welcome every time I greet it. So this will be a little reminder every time I pick up my phone. Perfect!

3. I’ll fill it out every night before bed.

Having this form and the home screen link will make it easy for me to spend 1 – 2 minutes every night (max!) filling it out.

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As a bonus, I already have a night time ceremony for my phone (I charge it in a different room from my bedroom) that I can easily co-opt for this task.

For my Description of the Day I’ll be doing short phrases and keywords including:

  • meetings / phone calls I had (because my hunch is that these are creativity killers);
  • where I worked (from home, coffee shop, airplane, etc.);
  • what I was working on;
  • a snapshot of the flow (all at once, 2 or 3 big chunks, sporadically throughout the day, etc.);
  • diet stuff that sticks out (because I’m always experimenting with what I eat/don’t); and
  • anything else that I feel like including that day (a long walk with Chewie, a beer with a friend, quality time with bae, etc.)

For my Total Creative Hours, I’ll be counting:

  • Time spent on creating new things (writing, doodling, designing, coding, etc.);
  • Plus the necessary set-up and break-down time (researching, installing software, cleaning paint brushes, etc.);
  • Rounded to the nearest hour (up or down — billing my creativity like a fancy lawyer).

More importantly, I won’t be counting: time spent in email, on checking numbers or analytics of things, on social media, doing spontaneous FreshBooks accounting, or all the other things I do to procrastinate the real stuff.

Finally, for my Overall Mood, I’ll be using a similar metric as Jim, with a +2 being reserved for those amazing days that really stick out, -2 being reserved for dumpster fires, and most days landing somewhere in between.

It Begins Tonight (I’ll keep you posted)

Like with some of my other challenges, I’ll update this post or write a follow-up if I hit roadblocks, take a detour, or stumble upon something that I find really beneficial.

If you’re marching along with me, let me know! I’d love to hear about any tips you’ve found useful for the trip.

Update 1: I’m two weeks in, and have a few tips (for those of you who are Creative Marching with me):

  • Enter 0-hour days so that you have one entry in the spreadsheet for every day in the year (with or without a description and mood — your call, I’m doing it).
  • View your 7-day pace to get a snapshot of how the past week contributes to your year of creativity. Paste this function in your spreadsheet in cell E15, then you can copy/paste it to the right of whatever day you want to measure (If you’re not using my spreadsheet template, you’ll need to customize the range): excel =SUM(C8:C15)*52.143