One of my greatest struggles working in a communications role for a church is finding the balance between executing existing plans or ideas and finding space for creativity and exploring new possibilities. Church communicators function within a certain tension of straightforward (relatively speaking) administrative tasks and an ever-changing communications landscape that requires awareness, innovation, and a certain amount of “let’s try this and see how it goes!” (See this post on agile failing for a little encouragement.) There are things that simply need to be done, but we can find ourselves so stuck in the maintenance of things that we forget to explore new possibilities.
So how do we best balance productive mode and creative mode? Let’s take a look at the following:
- Learning to recognize the most advantageous timing for each type of work
- Taking steps to limit distractions
- Having a landing place to quickly file off-topic ideas
- Scheduling time for creative work and exploring new ideas
The Best Times for Different Types of Work
How do we know how to best spend our time and what to do when? A couple months ago, we explored the planning rhythms that occur in the church as we make our way through the year. It turns out there are also some predictable patterns that impact how we work throughout the day. Rather than a haphazardly scheduled work day, there may be a time of day better suited for our recurring tasks, and another for creative thinking, and another yet for focused project work.
According to author Daniel Pink, the “when” of doing these different tasks matters a great deal. In his aptly named book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink outlines three sections of the day, recommending differing types of work for each: peak, trough, and recovery.
Tasks you really need to zero in on, the ones requiring full concentration, Pink calls analytic tasks, and his research shows that they are best tackled during the “peak” time of day. For most, these are the morning hours when we’re less vulnerable to distractions and more willing to keep our focus on something in particular. Need to write a blog post or create copy for social media posts? This may be the time to do so.
Then comes the “trough,” or as I like to call it, the “I need more coffee” hours in the early afternoon. It’s likely we’ve all encountered a less-than-productive slump following lunch and thought, “I just can’t seem to focus right now.” Well, Pink says our mood often dips at this point in the day and our ability to concentrate also becomes less than stellar. He recommends using this time for more routine or administrative tasks. I’ve found this is when I can knock out Facebook event posting and scheduling (using content created during earlier hours), respond to emails, and work on other things that don’t require a great deal of focus, because, according to Pink, our full attention simply isn’t available during this part of the day.
Finally, we have the “recovery” portion, an ideal time for creative thinking and problem solving. At this time, our mood improves, and though we’re not as focused as we were earlier in the day, this time is helpful for exploring and processing ideas we may have pushed away or ignored when our concentration levels were higher.
Naturally, there are weeks or seasons that require a higher intensity of analytic tasks, administrative tasks, and creative tasks. Yet knowing this “science of timing” can help us to prioritize when we dig into a particular project, based on when we are typically at our best for each kind of work.
In spite of knowing Pink’s research and attempting to apply it to my own working habits, I still find myself jumbling what’s best done when throughout the day or having a tough time adapting when my rhythm is thrown off for one reason or another. And to be honest, a lack of focus, even in the peak hours of my day, can be an issue in accomplishing things. Looming to-do lists, email and phone distractions, any number of electronic interruptions, and many other things can tempt me away from the task at hand (analytic, administrative, or creative).
In his book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Jon Acuff discusses what he calls “airplane productivity,” deconstructing why many feel flights are one of their most productive working times. He outlines five factors that can be applied to or recreated in our own work environments to help with focus:
- Have only one task open or active at a time. (You can’t bring your entire office on a flight!)
- Find a white noise that will drown out other auditory distractions (like the jet engines do on a plane).
- Turn off distractions like email and text notifications, and even the Wi-Fi. (Airplane mode works on land.)
- Set and hold to strict time restrictions. (Flights have set time parameters, i.e. built-in deadlines.)
- Find a place to work where you don’t know anyone, like a coffee shop, library, or co-working space. (You’re relatively anonymous on a plane and most fellow passengers keep to themselves.)
Record Your Creative Ideas
I find it helpful to have a landing place for ideas that don’t pertain to the task at hand. Maybe Pinterest is your jam, or an idea log (a notebook or Google Doc) might be more up your alley. If you see something you’d like to file away for later, snap a picture of it on your smart phone and add it to an “ideas and inspiration” album.
Schedule Time for Creative Work
Finally, schedule time for creativity and exploring (best placed in the “recovery” time of your day). Listen to a podcast, comb through your blog subscriptions, work on a new project, or do any number of other activities to get you thinking outside of day-to-day “normal” activities and responsibilities.
So go forth and focus! And be creative! And enjoy the diverse work that comes along with this wonderful role. What a gift to love and serve the people in our congregations through many and varied communication efforts!
Hear more from Katy about balancing productive mode and creative mode.
Live on Facebook Thursday, October 18 at 11:30 a.m. (CDT)