How many Pure Work Hours do you really have?

Being a big fan of the products and philosophies of Jason Fried of 37 Signals, I harken back to this TED talk he gave a while ago about truly productive work. The question is simple: How many of you have a moment in your day where absolutely nothing interrupts your workflow? Pure focus. The zone. Feelin’ the flow. You know the exalted state I’m talking about.

Think about it. How often do you encounter a person coming up to you to ask you a question, a phone call, a buddy suddenly IM’ing you, etc. I’m also including interruption by choice like looking at your phone, checking your email, watching a YouTube video, whatever. Quite often, probably, right? And when we have these interruptions, the brain takes a little while to get back on track – a friend of mine told me 15 minutes is what’s required to get back in that frame of mind. 15 minutes. Think about how many lost minutes and then lost hours that equates to.

How many PURE work hours do you really have?

In this context, the answer may be zero. Or 1-2 hours if we’re lucky.

The point isn’t that doing these other things is bad. The point is that we can get smarter about how we balance it.

For creative people working on another insane deadline, there’s never been a more important time to shut out the world. That’s not easy in an agency when you’re sitting in your cube trying to bang out some brilliant headline or website design and people are flying by talking at loud volume about the upcoming client meeting or brainstorm. Which is why agencies need to invest more into spaces that allow their people to get away and just think in peace on the idea they have to come up with. If your agency doesn’t have that or all the good spaces are taken, take it upon yourself to at least invest in some really, really good noise canceling headphones.

For entrepreneurs like myself that operate from a home office and use a virtual office from time to time, we may not have as much danger of office interruptions but we still can run into bad habits that disrupt our flow, like the e-mail/phone checking mentioned above. Besides that, here’s another yours truly was guilty of: For many days, I’d have a schedule that consisted of writing, email checking, conference calls, taking a networking meeting, writing some more, sharing a video, sharing an infographic, taking another meeting, writing, checking email for the 30th time, reading an article on last night’s Bulls game, you get the idea. Not that unusual from most people’s days…except breaking things up with too many variances was undoubtedly having an effect on my pure work hours.

In other words, you could have a seemingly “balanced” day that is, in reality, doing bad things to how clear-headed you can be. It’s not just about being efficient. It’s about clearing more time for ideation to happen – which makes us better Copywriters, better Designers, better Web Programmers, better Brand Strategists. Better in many other professions too.

So I’m trying something a little different – rather than jumbling the mix in what seems like balance but is actually more disruptive, is it possible to push more pure work into whole days devoted to that and more new business development and client meetings into other days devoted to those activities? It’s an interesting experiment and I’m sure there will be times that it won’t work absolutely perfectly but it’s an effort worth making. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the interim, think about this concept of pure work hours without any interruption. Rather than beat yourself up for being too in touch with the world, I wonder if you have any ideas for how you find that special zone that nobody else can get into for a designated period of time. Feel free to share your tips and tricks for how you tap into it. For while it may not deliver creativity and strategic thinking on demand, I have a feeling this approach gets us a whole lot closer.

You’ll Never Have Enough Time. Thank Goodness.

This blog post would be better if only I had more time to write it. But the window I have to write it is now. And I like that. Because it mirrors the nature of a crazy, fun and manic business we chose to be a part of. The “Hurry Up and Wait” state of advertising agencies and marketing firms is something I’ve had to deal with in every culture I’ve been a part of, including my own.

Agency people like to imagine a perfect scenario like so:

Agency creates product. Client approves product. Product goes out into the world. Everything is on time. On to the next project.

Gosh, that was a fun daydream. Now let’s see what happens in the real world.

Rounds and rounds and rounds of tweeking and honing the creative product in the eyes of the Creative Directors, Account Executives, Executive Creative Director, Head Account person, etc.

The creative product gets beaten up more than Rocky Balboa before it even goes out the door.

Then it goes to the client. Client has to take it to their boss. Product sits on boss’ desk for a while. It’s a priority, but there are even bigger priorities to attend to. Agency waits and gets antsy – “Why haven’t we heard from them?”

Hours pass. Days pass. Then…BOOM! Client gets feedback back from their boss and tells agency to change A, B and C before the end of the day.

It’s here that the measure of a creative person is taken. They’ll complain right off the bat with a “What? Now? Before what time? You’ve got to be #$@*ing kidding me with this.”

But then, they’ll settle down, realize that the impossible is actually possible, come together and come back with, lo and behold, a better product than last time.

I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again. It does no good to complain about the pattern or try to wish for a more efficient production path. Instead, we have to embrace the beast, not fight it. And realize that yes, things don’t hit our desks exactly when we’d like them to, but it also gives us an opportunity to shine in the eyes of our client once more. Many of them do realize that the time they have to give us what’s required can be somewhere between tight and insane. They’re not clueless. But they’re also looking for partners who can make them look good in the eyes of their bosses, their peers, their board. The last thing they need is a group of whiners who lecture them by saying, “We could that better if only we had more time.”

We all wish we had more time in business and in life to do the things we want to do on our terms. But the funny thing is, when we are given more boundaries, we find ways to excel within those boundaries.

I truly empathize with any creative person who has to be suddenly brilliant on the spot. It’s not ideal and there’s a great deal of pressure involved with that. I suppose that’s why I’ve always favored teams brainstorming concepts rather than forcing one person or one partnership into their corners and telling them to bring me their deliverables like I’m the king of the throne. When we can be fighting the clock together instead of individuals, we can beat the clock, create a smart solution and go with the flow as our clients need us to be.

There will never be enough time. But we have to accept that fact and consequently set the table for an environment where one writer or one designer can have the reinforcements they need to take on Father Time. This kind of efficiency is good for the individual, it’s good for the agency from a business perspective (hello, we do have to bill sometime!) and it’s good for the client.

When it comes to prioritizing what to do, my friend and colleague Rob Jager from Hedgehog Consulting looks at it this way – “There are 6 things that can be done in a day. List them out in advance and put the least important thing 6th. That way, you don’t feel so bad if you have to kick it to the next day, but make that thing #1 the following day.”

Time’s up. Gotta run.