How to Get Creative Work Done (My Four Stages)
Getting "stuff" done is very different than getting creative work done.
After a decade of creative work, I should know that, but... but I forgot recently.
I moved to Puerto Rico with my family a month and a half ago, and gave up my office, my routines, and a lifetime of Tennessee habits.
As it turns out, the gap between living the dream in paradise and living a nightmare in a strange land is... a very small gap
Since we got here, I've been forcing myself through a slog of deadlines. Here's what that looks like in my business:
- Daily: Original post on LinkedIn
- Weekly: Thrive School Newsletter, Seven Figure School Accelerator
- Monthly: Thrive School PRO Course
That's a huge amount of content to prepare and deliver, and I've been forcing myself through each deadline like a college Freshman during finals, only... these finals never end.
Thankfully, I kept up my reading habit and read Mind Management, Not Time Management: Productivity When Creativity Matters by David Kadavy.
Thanks to David, I realized that I had fallen into the trap of treating my creative work like task work—as if I was making cupcakes from scratch, but just one at a time.
So the last two weeks, I did the unthinkable... I did not publish my newsletter 😱
Instead, I chose to pause new content (beyond my commitment to paying customers) to reset my creative workflow. Here's what I'm doing now:
The 4 Stages of My Creative Workflow
In Mind Management, Not Time Management, David Kadavy makes a great case for his core thesis:
"Like planting a seed in nutrient-rich soil, and feeding it the water and sunlight it needs in order to grow, today’s productivity is about creating the conditions within your mind to have valuable thoughts."
David breaks creative work up into seven mental states, but I've found four stages that work well for me:
Stage 1: Plan
My creative work is not sporadic, it is strategic.
I create content to meet an objective (such as the 90-day curriculum within my Seven Figure School Accelerator), to promote products, and to answer questions.
Each month I teach a PRO Course inside Thrive School PRO which determines the main theme of my newsletter articles and thus also a good bit of my social media content. Therefore, I plan once per month.
Stage 2: Freewrite
I use a Freewrite Traveler to write without distractions.
When I do this, I can't get lost on a rabbit trail of internet "research" or obsess over formatting, because I can only make small edits as I write. That helps me get into flow state.
As David points out in Mind Management, Not Time Management,
"Coming up with ideas requires divergent thinking, but actually producing something with those ideas requires... convergent thinking.
When you thought divergently, you collected a lot of different inputs, and you came up with options. Now, you need to narrow those options down. You need to converge on a simple solution."
Stage 3: Edit
I like to wait at least a full day between when I Freewrite and when I edit content, but no longer than a week. The gap allows my subconscious mind to refine the content, but still keep it fresh on my mind as recent work.
Even when I Freewrite, I'm a linear thinker and don't make many spelling errors, so most of my Edit stage is spent organizing the content and adding source material to make sure it's complete.
Honestly, I think this is the stage that varies the most from creator to creator, depending on how you think and how you write from the start.
Stage 4: Polish.
This stage is the most invisible, and subtle, but I think it's also what separates amateur and professional creators.
The specifics depend on the platform, but if I'm going to publish an email newsletter I will move the content from Notion to Ghost and immediately hit preview to see the content as if it was live.
A quick scan will show me which paragraphs are too long, which sections need to be broken up for skimming, and if there are any major formatting issues.
I will add an image or two if it helps illustrate a key point in the article, and I like to bold key sentences for emphasis (which works like a hook, to catch the attention of someone just scanning, and pull them in).
I will also break paragraphs up to make sure there are no more than three lines in a paragraph when my article is delivered over email, too.
As I write this, I keep catching myself singing Meghan Trainer's new song Don't I Make it Look It Look Easy, Baby (Well I'm Fooling You) 😂
There is a lot of behind-the-scenes breakdown that goes into creating quality content consistently.
Breaking creative work into four phases makes it possible to show up to each work session with fresh energy—and the right mindset for the job at the specific phase needed next.
As I reinstate this system myself, I can't help but agree with David Kadavy that "more than anything, good systems create slack" or as James Clear shares in Atomic Habits:
"You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there.
This year, spend less time focusing on outcomes and more time focusing on the habits that precede the results.”