As a technology strategist and obsessive productivity hacker, I’m driven by a single goal: reduce stress. Stress is a huge drag on people’s productivity, and even more important, their happiness. People under stress, feeling anxious, can’t do their best work. Creativity gets locked up when the ancient, reptilian part of our brain is sending fight-or-flight signals.
One of the main things creating stress for creative and marketing folks is deadlines. Deadlines can be beautiful things; I don’t imagine we would get much done without them. But when too much work and too many deadlines pile up, we start to feel overwhelmed. We lose our ability to focus, and we start sweating more than creating.
So when 80% of creatives report feeling overloaded, that can’t be good for creativity.
The Usual Suspects
In my experience, there are a handful of things most commonly creating stress and killing creativity, not to mention fun. They’re pretty straightforward, and not that hard to fix.
- 80% of projects lack briefs. Most of the time, creatives are taking on projects without a document that articulates what the project is actually meant to achieve. We used to call these ‘bring me a rock’ projects. Hard to know which rock to bring back without some guidance about size, shape and color.
- 60% of creatives spend more than three hours a day on email. No judgement here, but generally speaking nothing good happens in email. When time is already too short, any time that can be saved is time that can be spent creating.
- Most creative projects are done without a documented process. Without a process, it’s not clear how work gets done. Often the work goes to the person who’s busiest because that’s the person who’s seen as getting stuff done. That creates a bottleneck, and it makes everything on that person’s plate both urgent and important.
- Just 15% of creatives work with project management tools meant for the creative process. Generic task management systems won’t cut it. That’s just a way for someone to put things on your to-do list without asking. The processes where most time is lost in creative development aren’t covered by generic project management projects. These include asset discovery, creative briefs, collaborative reviews and approval routing.
- More than 60% of companies share files through email and network servers. Projects typically kick off in frustration. You need to find a certain file, let’s say a product shot or the original version of the collateral you’re updating, but have no idea where it is.
Protect the Creative Process
There is this common belief that process and creativity somehow belong in different parts of the building. It’s easy to understand because process is about doing the same thing the same way over and over in the interest of efficiency. Creative, on the other hand, is about dreaming up something brand new every time.
But process isn’t the enemy of creativity. In fact process can save creativity. Process is how routine tasks can be completed as quickly and smoothly as possible so there is more time for creativity. More time means less stress and better work.
Here’s what you can do to give creative minds more time to be creative.
1. Use Creative Briefs
Creative briefs are so simple, but so powerful. It requires thought from the person requesting the work so the person doing the work isn’t stuck with “I’ll know it when I see it.” Instead, you get “This is exactly what I’m looking for.”
While simple, a brief is hard to write because brevity counts. It takes time and effort to distill exactly what’s needed. Like Mark Twain said, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” It’s essential to make the time for a brief. All it needs to tell you is:
- The objective – what is the creative expected to achieve?
- The audience – who are we talking to?
- The tone – what should it sound, look, or feel like?
- The key messages – what do we want the audience to think or do?
- The creative requirements – what exactly do you need to do to deliver?
2. Avoid Interruptions
I think we’ve all had the experience of walking away from our computer at the end of the day and wondering where the day went, and what exactly we have to show for it. Too much time gets sucked up by unintentional activity. Experts say it takes anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to get back into the zone after an interruption. That’s why it’s so critical to minimize them (here are some ideas). Technology both hurts and helps when it comes to interruptions – the constant notifications, alerts, etc. But it can also help protect us from interruptions.
You can schedule periods of focus on a shared calendar, set do-not-disturb messages and share your status in a visible way. As CEO of my company, I put a workflow management tool in place that everyone uses. That way, we all know where to go to check on the status of projects when it works for us, and then go back to what we were doing. It helps us avoid the perpetual interruptions and the big chunks of time wasted in finding our way back to the zone after each interruption.
3. Create Transparency
Uncertainty is one of the biggest causes of stress. Our thoughts get interrupted when we worry we might have forgotten something. When it comes to creative projects, it’s important to know who is doing what and when work is coming. Transparency is the cure.
Transparency is about being systematic. If you’re familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, that’s the source of a lot of the ideas I’m talking about. The premise is that you want to have stress-free productivity, and the way to do that is by getting the open loops out of your head and into a trusted system. That way there’s no waking up in the middle of the night thinking about what you forgot to do, or stopping in the middle of a project to write something down on a post-it note. When there’s a system in place, and everyone uses the system, then you trust the system and there’s transparency into what everyone is doing together. And that reduces stress.
4. Coordinate Feedback
I once reviewed version 21 of copy for an ad, and it wasn’t even a very long ad. I’d say that’s about seven times more versions than is appropriate. One of the biggest causes of delays and unnecessary rework is in the review and approval cycle. One of the reasons is dysfunctional review processes. Many organizations try to manage collaborative review and approval cycles through email. There’s no hierarchy behind the comments, it’s often impossible to know how to prioritize conflicting comments and it’s really hard to consolidate the input.
There are technology solutions to help give order to the approval process, but one of the simplest and most effective answers is to get old school. Get everybody in a room at the same time, real or virtual, to review and provide feedback and approvals.
5. Connect Assets
It’s common sense. Put files where they are accessible and easy to find. It’s amazing how many hours people spend just chasing down files they need. A bad situation gets worse when we start creating duplicate versions of things that already exist.
Even when files are stored on shared drives or in cloud storage options like Box or DropBox, you’re often at the mercy of someone else’s file-naming habits. You can chip away at this problem if you are disciplined and organized, but cloud storage was never meant to be a collaborative system. The model allows individuals to share things, but isn’t meant to allow other people to find things on their own.
Digital Asset Management systems were built specifically to make things easy to find. These days there are lots of options to choose from. Even smaller companies are likely to find an option that suits their budget and requirements.
Creativity comes easiest in a low stress environment. If you protect your process, you’ll reduce a lot of stress for you and everyone you work with. You’ll find yourself with more time to think and more creative spark.
If you want to learn more about how technology can help you achieve stress-free creative productivity, check out the webinar I co-hosted with Webdam.