A Formula for Success

It’s 5:30 A.M. and I am standing in the kitchen. I hold a small stainless steel kettle imported from Japan with both hands, drizzling water from an S-shaped neck into a paper cone. The cone that holds the freshly ground coffee has been wetted to insure that it sticks to the ceramic drip-cone resting atop my coffee mug. As the water lands upon the coffee grounds, I move the kettle in slow, clock-wise circles outward from the center of the cone, stopping just before I hit the edge of the cone and beginning to circle back in towards the centre. The circular pattern of pouring insures even saturation of the coffee grounds and a proper steeping time; equating to coffee tasting exactly as I want it to. The whole process from heating the water to drinking the coffee takes about 15 minutes and despite waking up early to get work done, you will find me dedicating the first 15 minutes of any day spent in the kitchen, making coffee.

There is a tendency in modern society towards time-saving devices, tricks and devices that will give you more time in your day to be productive and do what you want to do. The trouble with creative work is that hours spent doesn’t directly equate to the quality of the product. I recently sat down and read a book called Daily Rituals, which summarizes the daily habits of significant contributors throughout history, from writers and artists to statesmen and philosophers.

The tendency that struck me was that many of the creators worked surprisingly few hour per day on their craft. Many of the writers worked 3-4 hours a day on writing and then stopped, going off to another job, socializing, exercising, or consuming vast quantities of inebriants. We typically think of the act of creation as a gruelling process of hundreds and thousands of hours of effort, but rarely see it as a process spread out over long periods of time. With a few noted exceptions, most of the creators did not sit down and bang out their Magnum Opus works in a day or even a week. The majority created their best works through ritualized and regular effort over months and years.

As the book title implies, many of these creators are creatures of habit, organizing their days in a rhythmic fashion and falling apart if the rhythm is broken. As my coffee brewing habits can attest to, I too am bound by ritual; dedicating the first moments of every morning to coffee brewing and then going from there to creative works, whether it is writing for my blog, my book, or my board games. Though some would say that the 15 minutes I spend on coffee are wasteful and could be easily reduced via a Tassimo or Keurig, I would argue that the ritual itself hold intrinsic value. The ritual act of creating coffee signifies the start of the creative process and allows me to place my mind on a creative path. I would also say burn in hell Tassimo, you watered down, environmentally devastating excuse for coffee creation.

The formula for success is not a linear equation of: X hours spent = Y quality products created. To create quality work involves downtime and a spreading out of tasks. Writing for 16 hours in one day will not produce the same results as working 4 hours a day for 4 days. If five years of university study has taught me anything, it is that burnout sets in and quality plummets a few hours after starting (though in the case of university deadlines, quality takes a back seat to quantity more often than not).

There are of course exceptions to this rule. There are people that write entire books in three days or less. There are students that pound out graduate theses in under a week. By that line of thinking, there are people that run 50 marathons in 50 days or draw stills of animation 16 hours a day for years on end. An outlier is an outlier and unless you are one of those select few (who in all likelihood is practicing their craft and not reading my blog), you will benefit from spreading your creative work out.

Don’t be hard on yourself if the next time you have an entire day off and don’t spend it all writing or whatever creative task you want to do. Accept that you are not an outlier and that if you spent a full day on one task, you can realistically expect a few hours of quality and then many hours of trash. Better to spend the remaining hours exercising, socializing, other creative tasks or another alternative to pumping out sub-par creations. You aren’t doing the world any favours adding one more low quality product to the mix and you certainly aren’t pumping up your self-esteem. Put in the hours to produce quality and then stop when the quality does.

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