Monday, October 06, 2014

Think Like an Artist, Work Like an Accountant

Feeling overwhelmed by the day to day? Not feeling very creative? Maybe what you need is a little more order and discipline in your life, not a fancy offsite retreat or an innovation workshop from a productivity guru.

Say what?

As columnist David Brooks recently observed in a New York Times op-ed piece, “People who lead routine, anal-retentive lives have a bad reputation in our culture. But life is paradoxical. In situation after situation, this pattern recurs: order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.”

Quirks of great visionaries

Novelist John Cheever supposedly got up every day, put on his only suit, rode the elevator in his apartment building down to a storage room in the basement where he’d take off his suit, sit in his boxers and write until noon.
Poet Maya Angelou rose at 5:30am, had coffee and by 6:30 was off to a modest hotel room she kept with nothing but a bed, desk, Bible, dictionary, deck of cards and bottle of sherry. She’d write diligently until 12:30 p.m. or 2 o’clock and then call it a day.

According to Brooks, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope would arrive at his writing table at 5:30 each morning. His servant would bring him the same cup of coffee at the same time. He would write 250 words every 15 minutes for two and a half hours every day. If he finished a novel without writing his daily 2,500 words, he would immediately start a new novel to complete his word allotment.
According to Mason Currey, author of “Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration And Get To Workrenowned carouser/novelist Ernest Hemingway was always up at 5.30 am, even if he'd been drinking the night before. Beethoven, personally counted out the 60 beans that his morning cup of joe required. Benjamin Franklin swore by "air baths", which was his term for sitting around naked in the morning, whatever the weather, Currey recounts.

I can relate. My dad was a vascular surgeon during his prime working years—that meant long hours, late night emergencies and a LOT of coffee. But he always loved art. To relax after a long day, he’d come home around 9 pm, eat a quick dinner and take a nap on the couch. Then he’d rise around 11. But instead of going to bed, he’d put on a fresh pot of coffee, work on his oil paintings to relax until about 2am, before finally calling it a night. Must have worked. He’s in his 80s now and sharp as a tack. Still stays up late at night, drinking lots of coffee and is now painting professionally and exhibiting work all over the Philadelphia/South Jersey area where he lives.

While visionaries’ eccentricities make for great stories, it’s the routine and sense of discipline that makes these folks so productive, so consistently for so long. My dad was a chemical engineer for Procter & Gamble before turning to medicine and then art. Doesn’t sound very creative except he spent most of his time visiting P&G’s various manufacturing plants trying to find a better way to make household products “that we knew nothing about.” History shows many visionaries had unusual starts to their “creative” breakthrough careers. 
As columnist Brooks observed, “creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines. They think like artists but work like accountants.”

One of our clients, Gary Klaben of Coyle Financial Advisors in Chicago, has everyone in his firm schedule their toughest tasks of the day first thing in the morning—that’s right, put ‘em right there on your calendar for you and everyone else in the firm to see.

Others may need to ease into tough task mastering a little, but if you have a disciplined process for warming up your brain (the way athletes warm up for a game or musicians warm up for a performance) you'll have a leg up on most of your peers.

We’ll share some of our daily mental warmup exercises with you in an upcoming post.

As a former marathoner and triathlete, I did years and years of “interval training.” I’m too hyper to sit at my desk all day long. I found I’m most productive if I break up the day into three or four shorter “hard work” sessions punctuated by generous breaks to walk around the block, hit the gym, socialize with colleagues or run quick errands. You can call it slacking or goofing off, but I come back to my desk three times more energized than when I left. Whatever problem I was stuck on before leaving seems to get solved pretty easily and clearly within the first hour of my return.


If you’re in the corporate world, “interval training” may not go over well with “facetime” obsessed bosses, co-workers and HR wonks. Fortunately most of you are in positions to set your own hours, if not your own firm’s policies. As my college track coach liked to say, it’s not how many miles you put in, it’s what you put into those miles. Substitute the word “hours” for “miles” and you’ll get the same result.

Just make sure you “run” your brain hard a little bit every day without overdoing it or taking too much time off without using it.

Our blog has more, as does the FREE Resources page of our website.


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