What I'm calling a To-Do Itinerary

The Difficulties of Starting A Creativity Engine

When you have a job that commute to, or classes that you are taking, with a boss, teachers, deadlines and people around it's pretty easy to stay on task and be very productive.

However one my aspiration of being an artist is to make art and grow my own projects into self-sustaining endeavors. I'm not sure if this is completely misguided, but I have in my head the idea that productive artists create something of a creativity engine that is a combination of producing work, learning new techniques, improving skills,  experiencing art and life, building a reputation, and being critiqued.  All of those pieces create a loop that progressively improves and revs up and result in more work, possibilities and success.

But that creative career engine needs to get running, and I just keep cranking it, trying to get it going, but it is taking a long time to rev up.  In art school it felt quite easy to get it moving, the goals were very clear, the timing was strict and I always knew what to do.  But then school finishes and the structure has evaporated and new priorities like making a living are hanging overhead and clouding what used to be a very clear path forward.

When I lack an external productivity structure that I'm accustomed to from school and standard jobs, it's hard to get the creativity engine running.

For the past few years I have been working on the creative engine, trying to improve my habits and abilities. When I have time for my personal creative work, it is very easy for that time to rapidly get whittled away to almost nothing simply due to other aspects of my life and work taking priority.  It's been an ongoing process of self discovery, analysis, trial and error to find some sort of structure that will help get the engine going and keep it going in the long term.

In the past I've tried a bunch of things.  They all taught me lessons but weren't a full solution.

For a while I tried a web service call Rescue-Time that tracked all of my computer and device usage and let me know what I was spending my time doing.  It didn't get me to do things, but it sure to teach me how quickly time gets eaten up by other things.

I tried apps that helped motivate me to do things every single day.  That lasted for about 60 days. This system helps bootstrap change, but it isn't sustainable and flexible enough to adapt to life and goals very well.  It did get me to floss every single day at least.  I might use this method again but with a set amount of time, like for the next 30 days I will do "such and such" every day.  When there is no endpoint, there is only the looming fact that you will likely fail to attain an impossible and misguided goal.

But all of this productivity experimentation has lead to a new system that has worked quite well for the last month. I'm sure that this new technique isn't going to be the ultimate solution, but it is likely close to the right solution for myself.

I'm going to dub this technique the To-Do Itinerary, because order, timing, planning and archiving are important aspects of it.

Guide to the To-Do Itinerary

1. Make a list of things to do.  Don't put full projects on this list, only put manageable portions of projects on it, maybe 60 minutes maxium.

2. Estimate the time of those tasks in minutes.  If your pretty sure you won't be able to finish in one work period, just put down the amount of time you want to work on it.

3. Create an order for the task. This order should be based on priority but I also like to sprinkle the easy and fun things between the harder things.  I like to start with some "warm-up" tasks that are simple, mindless or fun.

4. Start the task at the top of the list, start a timer with the estimated amount of time.

5. If the timer goes off before i'm done, you have some options

a. add more time to the timer and keep working.
b. finish the task for now, but re-add in a new task to your to-do list with a new time estimate.

6. When finished the task, record the time taken to the to-do list and check it off.

7. Take a few minutes between tasks to take care of yourself and reduce possible distractions during your next task.

8. Move on down the list and repeat.

Here is a screenshot of a recent To-Do list.

Everyday I copy the last day's list and make it into the new list.  I delete the things that I finished and re-evalute the things that didn't get done.  I make sure to date each list as I bet some day I will want to analyse them.

I also have a long-term to do list.  I put bigger full projects and objectives on it, though I also like to break some of those bigger projects into more manageable tasks.  I use this longer term to-do list to feed into the daily lists.

I have found two main tools that make my system work nicely on an Android phone:

Google Keep for the to-do lists.  It has some really nice to-do list features and it is available on my computer and phone. It allows for easy ordering of task. It also easily archives all of my old to do list so I can refer back to them.

I've very recently start using a service call WorkFlowy. It allows you to make an infinitely deep hierarchical list.  It's free up to 250 items per month, and 24 per year for infinite usage.  I've only been using it a day, but it is now going to be my go-to planning, todo, and all around information/ idea/ brainstorming tool.  It does everything google keep did, but has some features that make it much more powerful.  I'm pretty well enthralled by it.  The user interface isn't exactly as clean, but it is such a powerful structure that I can't help but use it.  Here is a screenshot of the desktop app (it work in mobile and online too).

Beautiful Timer android app.  This is the only timer that I've found that also starts a stopwatch when you start a timer. It also allows you to easily add more time to a timer that is already running, while keeping a tally of all the time that has past since the timer has begun.

**Update 2**
I've created a google spreadsheet called the ETC Time Totaler (estimated time to completion).  I take my workflowy to-do list, complete with numbers that represent the time I expect each task to take, and copy that into the left hand column of the spreadsheet.  It automatically extracts just the numbers from the text, sums them together, and estimates the end time of all those tasks if you were to start working on them at the present moment.  Still only used it a few days, but it is an interesting addition to my arsenal.

What's the Point?

There are a bunch of goals that this To-Do Itinerary is supposed to help produce.

It is meant to help get you working and keep you on task by creating limits to things that were previously unlimited.

It is meant to help you learn to plan better by learning to predict how longs things will take.  By archiving your old notes your can start to look back through your history and improve your planning abilities. It gives you a sense of progress by reminding you of all the things you checked off each day.

It is meant to let you offload the mental workload of task management by delegating it to the list and the timer. All you have to do is work, not think about what you should be working on.

A Few Personal Discoveries

In the month that I've been doing this, I've discovered that in general, I can get about 4 and a half hours of really productive work done in a workday.  I shall see if that number can, or should be increased.  Self-control is a limited resource, and knowing your limits is important to not burning out.  If you think you can really sit down and do a creative project for 8 hours, you might find that that it is not a sustainable.

In understanding that self-control and willpower is a resource, you need to learn how to maximize it. Giving myself the weekends off and making sure that my sleep and stress are taken care are some of the ways that I've found to drastically increase my ability to stay on track.  Attaining a goal won't just happen, you have to make a plan for it to happen.

I will be sure to write another post in the future outlining the results of this system.  Hopefully it won't need a full overhaul.


P.S. Sometimes I don't think that I'm that analytic of a person, and then I go and read things I've written on my blog and I surprise myself with how robotic I must appear to other people sometimes.   I'm pretty it is more a result of how I attempt to organize my thoughts to convey them to other people, that makes me seem robotic. The ideas in my head always feel very organic.

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