Creative vs. Reactive – How to quit being busy and get sh** done
If you take a look at the words “creative” and “reactive”, you’ll notice they both have the same letters. But, in “creative”, the C is moved to the front. Similarly, in our lives, we all have mostly the same ingredients. 10 fingers, toes, 24 hours in a day, and yet, like the words “creative” and “reactive”, our lives turn out very differently from one another. Why? One reason is this: some people move the C to the front. They put the important stuff first, every day.
If you want to see your most audacious dreams come true and actualize the potential beating within you right now, get creative first. Whether you consider yourself a creative person or not, start putting your most important work first and soon enough you’ll be cracking a bottle and jumping for joy as you look back at how far you’ve come and all that’s been accomplished.
How the Internet is Changing Your Brain
The thing is, the internet is literally changing the way your brain is wired. The more we’re online and using social media, the more our minds will tend to be like drunk little monkeys, swinging from thought to thought to distracted thought.
The hallmark of a happy, flourishing human being is the ability to put your attention where you want when you want for how long you want. If you can’t focus your mind and you find yourself constantly jumping between screens throughout the day, STOP!! You might just be running headlong down a slippery slope toward anxiety and depression.
It’s time to take back our brains, get out of busy, reactive mode, and do the work we feel our souls begging us to do in our quiet moments. If you want to see your dreams come to fruition, it’s time to get out of the shallows.
Get Out of The Shallows
Due in large part to the advent of network tools like the internet, we are spending increasing amounts of time, busy and distracted, moving quickly from one thing to another all day long. Rarely ever stopping for more than a few minutes on a single thing.
In his best-selling book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”, Nicholas Carr refers to this fractured, non-linear way of thinking as “the shallows”. As you might have guessed, the shallows are not a good place to hang out.
The telephone, the railroad, the airplane, and the internet itself were created by the linear, focused mind. They were created by people who were single-mindedly focused and concentrating deeply for long stretches every day. They were not, on the other hand, created by people who were puttering around on Facebook, checking email obsessively, and looking at their phone 100 times a day. Let’s drain the shallows and tread out into the deep-end shall we?
In his great book “Deep Work”, Cal Newport tells us that while more and more people are spending their time in “the shallows”, it’s also becoming increasingly rare and more valuable to be a person who spends any time at all deeply focused on a single pursuit.
The issue is, deep work is tough! Usually, the fame and fortune we dream about are on the other side of a huge mountain of difficult work. And sitting down to do that work can make you feel like Homer Simpson flying over that canyon in Springfield on Bart’s skateboard, doomed to fall short right at the last moment. So why put yourself through all of that?
If you can be the one person in the crowd who’s deeply focused on a singular pursuit, the one person diligently, patiently, and persistently doing real work, you will be in-demand and writing your own ticket before you know it. Here’s how Newport sums it up at the beginning of “Deep Work”:
“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
So, how can we start adding a little more focus and productivity into our lives today without feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of it all?
Start your day creative, not reactive.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning? If you’re like the vast majority of people, the answer is email. In fact, it seems odd and vaguely anti-social to be the only weirdo who doesn’t check their email first thing in the morning right? I mean, how are you going to know what’s going on and what needs to get done?
The issue with this is that the vast majority of people who are checking their email or, doing other reactive work to start their day, are quietly killing their ability to get real work done before it even has a chance to get out of the gate.
After checking email, your previously fresh and ready mind has now been invaded by a deluge of requests, questions, and unfinished tasks that will leave a residue of quick-changing thoughts that creep through your brain like little gremlins, sabotaging any plans you might have had to focus and get anything important done.
E-mail is a tool, not a task
In her great book, “Unsubscribe”, Jocelyn Glei explains that our relationship with email is very much broken.
“The true source of our love-hate relationships with email is that we treat it like a task when it’s actually a tool. We cede control of our workday—and our to-do lists—to the dictates of others in pursuit of a mirage called ‘inbox zero.’ Rather than focusing mindfully on what’s outgoing, we strive to futilely keep up with what’s incoming.
“Have our ambitions shrunk so small that this is actually a worthy goal? A goal for which we will thrust aside meaningful work along with the chance to do something good in this world? That may sound melodramatic, but can you deny that email distracts you from your creative ambitions on a daily basis?”
Glei goes on to explain that email is a “random reward” system which makes it super addictive. Short story: scientific research has found that if you give rats a reward for pulling a lever a random number of times, they’re intensely motivated to pull that lever a lot! On the other hand, if you give the rat a reward at set intervals consistently, all of a sudden he’s not so interested.
Guess what? We’re a lot like rats. And, according to behavioral economist Dan Ariely (who studies irrational behavior), “email is a near-perfect random rewards system.” The fact is, email can often be more like an addictive game than a tool for getting meaningful work done. So how can we begin to take back control?
Rather than checking email first thing, try this. Before shutting down for work each day, write down your number one most important task for tomorrow. In the morning give at least 5 to 10 minutes to that important task before you check your email.
You might be surprised at the feeling of accomplishment that even 5 minutes spent making a dent in meaningful work can bring. And you get to carry that feeling with you all day long. Or, you can check your email and put jumper cables on your brain.
Don’t put jumper cables on your brain
In his great book, “On Writing”, Steven King describes trying to sit down and write after teaching all day. “It was like having jumper cables on my brain.”, he said. After spending all day teaching, answering questions, and interacting with students, he found it impossible to sit down at the end of the day to write.
We are just the same. If you start your day in email or other reactive tasks, when you do sit down to do your real work, you’re going to have those same jumper cables pumping your brain full of distracted thoughts about stuff that’s often, really not that important. Not the best way to approach your most important work eh?
Let’s keep those jumper cables and email packed away for later and show up focused, clear minded and ready to crush it, deep-work style.
The final question here is when should you do this so called “deep work”? Some of us have kids and families and pets and we can’t just leave it all and move into a cave while we toil in obscurity on this so called “deep work”. So how can we show up consistently without feeling like we’re slowly, miserably grinding our life away?
Match your energy to the task
As Scott Adams, author of the famed Dilbert comic series says, “Match your energy to the task.” If you want to quit being busy and get things done, you need to match your most important tasks to the time of day when you have your best energy.
If you’re like Scott Adams, your energy is best between 5am and 9am. So, Scott has a non-negotiable daily routine of sitting down and doing his most important, deep work during that time. No email allowed!
Whether it’s 5am to 9am for you, or 9pm to midnight, if you can make a habit of doing your most important work while you’re at your best energy level, you can eject yourself from the busy, distracted, rat-racing horde and start flourishing.
Let’s do this!
As you can see, spending more time on reactive tasks is a huge liability that will toss you right into the ordinary, broke-ass, rat-racer group. Conversely, spending more time deeply focused on important work is a huge opportunity to become rare and valuable. A chance to reach heights of accomplishment and satisfaction you’ve never dreamed were possible.
Here’s to going from reactive to creative as we ditch online shiny distractions, do our most important work at the optimal time, and cultivate focus, on our way to escaping the rat-racing masses, joining the focused few, and living the deep life.
PS. If you want to learn more about these ideas and how you can apply them to your life today, I highly recommend “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, “The Shallows”, by Nicholas Carr, “Unsubscribe” by Jocelyn Glei, and Brian Johnson’s Optimal Living program.
“I have a plan for the rest of my life. I’ll choose my targets with care – writing a book or making a stew, visiting a friend or looking out a window – then give them my rapt attention. In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”