Life or death situations are truly urgent.
In these cases, the neurochemicals in our bodies can provide a helpful jolt pulling us into immediate mechanical action and out of a dangerous situation. Artificial urgency is a reoccurring phenomenon that plagues even the most mindful people. The same process that we use to react to a driver carelessly veering into our lane, to track a suspicious figure following us down a dark street, or to jump into a pool to save an infant can be commandeered and repurposed with less productive and even damaging results. We’ve all been subject to the full body takeover by cortisol and norepinephrine even without the presence of imminent danger or threat to our lives.
It happens quickly and much like a forest fire, it escalates without much effort.
Here is a quick peek into a recent personal episode:
I woke up late.
My to-do list required superpowers and the manipulation of time and physics.
I was late to the gym (again).
I completely forgot about a meeting with someone that I had spent months booking.
I lost my keys that evening, which included the key to the gym where I was coaching the early morning classes the next day.
I was feeling like I was outside myself watching this trainwreck build with intensity. As the chaos unfolded, I noticed that my car was full of a season’s worth of youth sports debris, clothes, bags, papers and receipts. My locker (yes, we have old school lockers at my house) was in equally disappointing condition. Keenly aware of the inner voice of frustration rising within me, I stopped everything and shut it down. I turned my phone off, I stopped racing frantically looking for my keys, and I took a breath. I needed to try and exert a small influence on this seemingly uncontrollable situation. Oddly enough, the only aspect that was in my control was my reaction, which was the catalyst of the impending chaos.
It was time for a hard reset.
I needed a quick win.
Something tangible, simple and uncomplicated.
I cleaned my car.
I cleaned my locker.
My heart rate fell back to the normal range, and my anger and frustration seemed to subside a bit. I still hadn’t found my keys, but my mind was more at ease. I felt like myself again. As I walked inside, I had a random thought that provided a clue to the location of my keys. Tucked behind a stack of books on the kitchen counter, they held a firm position unlikely to be discovered without the silencing of the pangs of artificial urgency.
Cleaning my car and my locker helped to restore balance and spark my creativity. I was pulled from a scattered sense of disoriented existence to a calm, grounded sense of accomplishment. We can’t perform our best while under the duress of artificial urgency. Fortunately, in this case, I was able to find my way back home, but how could I prevent future entanglements with this destructive force? How much of the urgency in our lives is artificial?
This experience got me thinking about time in general.
According to Alan Burdick’s book Why Time Flies, time is rooted in our biology.
We are filled with clocks, trillions upon trillions of them … the conductor is the suprachiasmatic nucleus. It keeps the primary beat and conveys it, through hormones and neurochemicals, to the peripheral clocks, keeping them in step with one another.
Burdick’s research shows that our cells are clocks maintained by a central mechanism. Biological time is internal to us. What about external time? Where do those numbers come from?
According to Burdick …
Wherever you are, if you are checking the clock on your cell phone, it’s probably receiving its time from the Global Positioning System, an array of navigation satellites synchronized to the U.S. Naval Observatory, near Washington, D.C., which realizes its seconds with an ensemble of seventy-odd cesium clocks. Many other clocks – wall clocks, desk clocks, wrist watches, travel alarms, car-dashboard clocks – contain a tiny radio receiver that, in the United States, is permanently tuned to pick up a signal from N.I.S.T. Radio Station WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado, which broadcasts the correct time as a code.
Okay, but where does time actually start?
Burdick presents that time starts with letters and numbers on a piece of paper, and it is debated by a committee after it actually happens.
The world’s best time – Coordinated Universal Time – is produced by committee. The committee relies on advanced computers and algorithms and the input of atomic clocks, but the metacalculations, the slight favoring of one clock’s input over another’s, is ultimately filtered through the conversations of thoughtful scientists.
A report, called Circular T, is used to double check Universal Coordinated Time, which isn’t ultimately validated until 5-7 days after it actually happens. The machine to fix potential errors has not been invented yet. Stay tuned for updates.
So, time is a conversation that is managed in arrears?
Either way, if we are lucky, we receive a precious gift of 1,440 minutes each day.
The Coordinated World
We live in a coordinated world of interactivity all connected by a gradual accrual of numbers through rhythmic clicks that form seconds, minutes, hours, days and years. Creative work is the character in this performance that pushes back on the system, trying to suspend the click track and move in a more unrestricted exploration of the world. How does creativity survive in the coordinated world? How do we create involuntary moments rather than relying completely on voluntary moments? Involuntary moments are not forced and occur naturally. One correlation is the general operation of our bodies. Breathing. Your heartbeat. Your cells communicating with the external environment responding with signals that reform proteins and release hormones. These involuntary moments are the source of life, and they are not beholden to the strict algorithms and scientific debate of Universal Coordinated Time. What if we followed the example of our own physiology to create more involuntary moments?
Deadlines are a common reality and are usually the intermediary between promise and delivery. These hard-coded entities are an absolute necessity in certain situations like merging writing activity with publishing schedules, participating in outdoor activities that require daylight, or preparing pitches for quarterly board meetings. Acknowledging the value and importance of coordinated time in business relationships, are there cases where we create the unnecessary or self-imposed urgency that is counter-productive? Are these anxiety-producing mechanisms detrimental to creativity? When does something need a deadline, and when should it flow naturally on its own?
Imposing a deadline provides the unique challenge of blending art and execution. Does an artist make art or are they in a constant state of making art? With Walter Issacson’s book fresh on my brain, Leonardo da Vinci was famous for not finishing his projects. While some projects were abandoned, his massive appetite to learn about the world led him to a constant state of creative exploration. While not finishing the largest bronze horse in history may have caused the Duke of Milan some frustration, it certainly didn’t hinder Leonardo’s overall body of work. But how do you know when a moment of execution becomes a necessity for sustainability and longevity? New art is supported by the power and energy of old art. Through the thoughtful rearrangement of found elements, creativity is inspired by the potential interactions gently encouraged by the quiet adjacent spaces of the in between. Where is this space? Can we find a consistent path to reach it? There is a subconscious element to the creative process, cited by James Webb Young, where a project or idea must be left alone to collide in the mind with memories, imagination and the deepest potential that lies within the silence of unforced activity.
Artificial urgency masks all trail markers to this wonderful place.
Isn’t the act of scheduling something forcing a particular behavior, action or outcome to happen at a specific interval of time? Like deadlines, time commitments are another reality that will remain constant as long as conversations, promises, and deliveries remain waypoints between art and execution.
So how can we cultivate creativity in the middle of the coordinated world?
The personal journey through the coordinated world is guided by schedules. I’ll meet you for coffee at 2:30PM today. I’ll have a rough draft in front of you by 5PM on Friday. These databases of numbers, labels and time that build the means for navigating the world are on display everywhere from the train schedule at Grand Central Station to the terminal monitors at Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Our calendars are the roadmaps. Are we lost without coordinated time that directs us from getting out of bed to returning to it? What happens between these two points is often 100% coordinated and 150% committed. Even worse, it moves so quickly that we can’t even pause to acknowledge its nuanced textures and haunting melodies.
I’ve been on a mission to find my version of it.
For the last few years, I’ve been planning my days using two functional activity streams that I pulled from a blog post written by Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham, called Maker Schedule, Manager Schedule. I wanted to be able to mix the mechanical elements of optimization and efficiency with less structured pockets of learning, observation, inspiration, and creativity.
Activity Stream #1 – MAKER
The Maker activity stream, captured in my notebooks as MK, includes those activities that require complete focus and discipline. Author and researcher, Cal Newport refers to this as deep work.
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.
I’ve found MK activities need a block of dedicated time ranging from ninety minutes to three hours. This activity stream is ideal for writing, composing, research, editing, business planning, creating new services, developing pitches or preparing presentations. Just about anything that is created from scratch lives best in this world.
Harnessing flow is critical in the MK activity stream.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
At Tunewelders, we refer to this as the Three Hour Muse, which is the time we’ve found that it takes to create any meaningful musical sketch for one of our projects.
It looks something like this:
First 20-30 minutes
Set up your recording session, instruments, microphones, and workflow.
Next 20-30 minutes
Battling Resistance (Steven Pressfield) in the form of doubt and distractions.
Final 2 hours
With luck and focus, you uncover a clue in the form of a melody or a texture that leads you to something meaningful. The clue is your momentum and gateway into a flow state.
Triggers for flow states are the crown jewels of the creative process. Unfortunately, they cannot be scheduled on demand. They can be cultivated through commitment and dedication. Flow is such an elusive animal that can be easily scared off by a distracted mind. If you lose your focus during any stage in the process, you return back to the beginning. Once something gets scheduled in the MK category, it doesn’t guarantee successful output. A star baseball player only hits during three out of every ten at-bats, which means the best of the best fail 70% of the time. Does that keep them from returning to the batter’s box? Not the good ones. Just like the dedicated baseball player, in order to find flow, you need to commit to the fundamental work and trust the process, especially when it doesn’t deliver. The MK activity stream is detached from the coordinated world. These moments are reserved for attempts to deliver by committing undistracted and focused intent on a creative task. The key is to begin the process without any expectation.
Activity Stream #2 – MANAGER
Batch process administration, sales or operational tasks fall into an activity stream called Manager, which I refer to as MG in my notebooks. These tasks require short bursts of energy lasting between 5 – 20 minutes, sometimes longer but never longer than an hour. During these intervals, I try to turn up my mechanical intensity and not encourage my creative muscles. My goal here is to aim for optimization and efficiency for these administrative and operational tasks. Think of yourself as a computer. Meetings, phone calls, responding to email, checking in on social media, invoicing, project planning, project management all fall into the MG activity stream, which thrives on connectivity with the coordinated world.
One of my favorite applications of the MG activity stream is batching phone calls into an afternoon walk between 2PM – 4PM. While it allows me to connect with the coordinated world, it also subconsciously lets my mind explore and connect with the outdoors.
For me, artificial urgency can stem from poor planning, cluttered environments, and knee-jerk reactions. In our coordinated world, time is the connecting factor where makers collide with managers on a daily basis. I used to run late to meetings frustrated by my fragmented dedication to creative work while being lulled to satisfaction living as a constantly connected and easily accessible task crusher only tied to activities in the connected world. My balance was suffering. My recent tailspin initiated and briefly sustained by artificial urgency reminded me that two conflicting but equally important states can thrive in the connected world. As with most things, balance is the key.
Be a master of your 1,440 to create the flexibility for creativity.
Build windows to exit the coordinated world.
Be absolutely mechanical in administrative tasks.
Commit time every day to the act of creation without expectation.
When chaos ensues, bring it back to simplicity.
Be grateful for the gentle reminders that bring you back home.