Creative work between emails = mission impossible

Wendy Clark, former SVP of Global Marketing for The Coca-Cola Co., current CEO for DDB Worldwide said in an article that:

The №1 thing that anyone wants from me, at work or home, is my attention […].

Despite the fact that we have long known that multitasking is toxic, we continue to promote it in our organizational cultures. Even if we talk about subtle ways by which we ask our colleagues to conform.

Multitasking refers to the situation when we try to do two things simultaneously or in a very fast succession. Like talking on the phone while driving or checking our email repeatedly while we work. […]

Cognitive Psychology studies say that when we try to do two tasks that are difficult at the same time, we will not be able to do them neither simultaneously nor well.

It may take up to 1 minute to go back to what we were doing before checking if we have any new emails, and it may take up to 25 minutes to resume a task we did before responding to an email. – Andrei Miu (RO), professor of cognitive neuroscience and behavioral genetics

Just by looking at the numbers, we can see how costly this behavior is. Why do we keep promoting it?

Regardless of how much we keep lying, if we constantly switch between important, complex tasks and responding to what priorities others set for us, it will take significantly longer to accomplish what we promised, to the quality we want to deliver.

There’s nothing wrong with having Inbox 0 at the end of the day after responding as quickly as possible to all requests if that’s your role in the organization.

The challenge arrives when your responsibilities include producing quality work that requires effort and attention (article, presentation, report, video etc.) while you’re asked to be available.

Add to the equation that we live in a world that’s connected non-stop, which does not understand that just because you own a phone, you’re not bound to answer it all the time. Include the fact that when we want something from others we forget that they too have many, many other to-dos, besides our own agenda. And take into consideration that some expect others to respond instantly to any task thrown in the mix.

Now, how is one supposed to do it all at once? Respond to everyone at the same time while getting all the main projects done simultaneously and deliver it on time, which usually is yesterday or now.

Paul Graham – co-founder of Y Combinator – published a short essay in 2009 (!) on the distinction between these two types of work. He called them “manager’s schedule” – meetings, calls, emails, and “maker’s schedule” – creative work, where we can include the work of a developer or even an artist.

The artist certainly doesn’t produce work like an employee in charge of the executive part of a business. He cannot include time for creation here and there. The artist or the man who has to outline a strategy, to solve a problem needs to reach a certain level of understanding of what he’s doing. It doesn’t happen on the spot. It takes time.

When we ask people to solve complex problems or create quality products while being reachable at all times, we actually ask for the impossible.

Each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet. Since most powerful people work on the manager’s schedule, they are in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people who work for them need long chunks of time to work in.

One of the issues we encounter is that many managers do not know what the process behind the final products they see actually entails. Hence, they don’t know how the right conditions for creators look like. Worse is when they understand the needs for space and time, but still ask people to do both – make and manage between the same hours everyone else is working.

Reality shows us a very different scenario. First, not everyone works best between those “normal” working hours. Second, in a down to earth manner, humans can’t operate at maximum capacity 8 hours every day, 5 days every week, specially when doing intellectual work.

What can we do

  1. Listen. Consider the type of work others do and respect it.
  2. Set common sense expectations. At the beginning and every time.
  3. Understand that the nature of work is changing. Like it or not, adaptation is key.

If your colleagues understand the need for space and time, you can try:

  • either to allocate certain days for creative work and others for administrative work
  • either part of the day for managing work with others and another for bigger issues
  • and don’t forget: multitasking does more harm than good 😉

Good luck and let me know how it goes or what’s your experience with juggling the maker schedule with the manager schedule.

cover image source.

Andra Magda

I write about why we do what we do, how we work, failure, personal experiments, creative industries. Get the highlights: the best content I write, read, watch or listen. Monthly.

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Andra Magda

Content Writer with a degree in Psychology, living in the heart of Transylvania.

I write about why we do what we do, how we work, failure, personal experiments, creative industries and send a monthly newsletter.