About a year ago, I discovered Charlie Gilkey’s concept of a productivity heat map.
His idea is to map how productive you are throughout the day to identify your personal productivity hot spots and low points, so you can plan your tasks around those times.
When you see swaths of red, highly-productive times (Gilkey calls these “novas”), you know you’ll get more done if you schedule highly creative tasks then.
I already had a vague idea of when I worked best, but I had never been so scientific about figuring out exactly when I hit my creative peaks.
With the heat map model, I learned I have three chunks of time best suited for creative work: Midmorning, early afternoon, and after dinner.
Turns out, I’m fairly useless around lunchtime, and I get incredibly antsy in the late afternoon. That’s the best time for me to run errands or do physical work.
I also learned — and this really surprised me — my blocks of creative time aren’t created equally.
I do my best in the mornings on things that need intense concentration, like revisions and line editing. The afternoon is much better spent working on nonfiction and client work. And my time after dinner often nets me some of my most creative prose as my tuckered-out mind drops its self-censoring guard.
(Gilkey provides a free heat map template if you want to find your own nova time.)
When you know when you work best, you can take better advantage of your creative time — rather than just spinning your wheels.
Taking advantage of creative hot spots
Finding your creative hot spots is one thing. It’s quite another to find the time in your day to take advantage of them.
Your creative hot spots likely won’t come at convenient times, especially if you’re working a day job, raising a family, or, you know, living life.
Sure, it’d be convenient to write on your lunch break, but if you’re like me, that’s when your brain completely melts down. Or maybe you keep trying to get up at 5 a.m. and work then, but every word you write before 10 a.m. is complete gibberish.
When I worked full time as a copywriter at a catalog company, my work day fell smack in the middle of what I knew was my best writing time. Worse, my brain was too fried at the end of the day to get much done if I tried to write then.
It’s a huge reason why I decided to start work as a freelancer. It was a big risk, especially at first, but now that I’m established it’s allowed me to prioritize my creative writing during the hours I do it best.
Obviously, it’s not a solution for everybody. But as you examine your own life, are there smaller changes you can make?
Can you creatively consolidate more menial tasks to your lower-energy periods to open up space for creative work during your nova periods?
Have you figured out when that time is? Good.
Now block it off in your planner in permanent marker.
We’re getting to the hard part.
Protect your creative time with your life
Knowing when you do your best work and scheduling yourself to do it is only half the battle.
The other half is fighting like hell to protect that creative time.
At its foundation, practicing your creative art is a fundamentally impractical thing, isn’t it?
It’s the tip of the pyramid when it comes to our hierarchy of needs. It’s not food, or clothing, or companionship (though it can be a gateway to those), and so it’s easy for our brains to shunt it to the back of the queue.
Only after we have everything we need for survival and comfort should art take mental space, right?
Don’t fall into the trap.
Don’t fall into believing that making your art is less important than your other needs.
Instead, tell the hunter-gatherer part of your brain to protect this precious thing with all the ferocity you would protect your home, food source, or family.
How do you protect your creative time?
First, you have to protect your creative time from yourself.
Stop saying yes to coffee dates in the middle of your creative streaks.
Stop pretending mindlessly clicking through Wikipedia is research.
Put your headphones on, crank the music, and write.
You have to respect your own time before you can expect others to respect it. Others will make demands on your time: Bosses, family, partners…It’s only natural. It’s up to you to train them that you’re not available during certain times.
I protect one day each week where I only work on fiction. I never let a client give me a deadline for Wednesday. If they suggest it, I’ll negotiate a different day.
I refuse to take phone calls, meetings, and lunch dates on Wednesdays. I don’t tell clients why. I just tell them I’m unavailable. I’ll still check my email throughout the day to make sure there are no fires that need to be put out, but Wednesdays belong solely to my fiction business.
It’s harder to make those ultimatums when it comes to family, but that’s another place where taking yourself seriously first is crucial. If you treat your blocks of creative time as unimportant, then it becomes easy for those around you to do the same.
But if you’re truly dedicated to making your creative time count? Your dedication will eventually become infectious.
Have you ever mapped your creative peaks and valleys? I’d love to hear how you protect your creative time in the comments!