How to Create the Systems/Structures in Which to Do Your Best Work: Part 3

Okay. To catch everyone up:

THE THESIS: Setting aside time in which to do your creative work will get you 90% of the way there — or 80%, if we want to make the Pareto Principle comparison. (Percentages are not meant to be, like, 100% accurate.) Creating a structure that helps you be ready to do your BEST WORK during your creative work timeslot is the other 10–20%.

THE PREVIOUS DISCUSSIONS: The importance of planning for the experience you want to have and the value of aligning your disparate goals so that they support each other.

In other words: if you want to bring your best self to your creative work timeslot so that you have the best chance of doing your BEST WORK, it helps if you figure out what needs to happen in the rest of your day to support that goal. Also, it is possible to align a few competing goals (do well at your job, spend time with family, complete a big creative project) within a structure that supports and balances all of them.

WHAT WE’RE DISCUSSING TODAY: How I do it.


I will begin by acknowledging that I stole this idea from Ben Franklin, who famously made a list of both the ways he wanted to behave and the emotions he wanted to feel and then tracked both his actions and his moods to see if he was living up to his goals.

I, in turn, created what I call my Daily Spreadsheet.

The Daily Spreadsheet lists what I want to have in my life on the day-to-day level. Some list items are binary; “reading,” for example, is either a yes or a no. (Technically, “reading” means “reading a book, not just the internet,” but that would take up too much space in the spreadsheet cell.)

Other list items are metric-based; for “sleep,” I include both the hours I slept and the percentage spent in deep sleep, according to my Fitbit.

Other list items are subjective, like “mood” and “energy,” and I use a lot of colorful and descriptive words to describe both. Interestingly, these are the items that are the most out of my control; as Ben Franklin must have discovered, you don’t actually get to choose what mood you wake up in or how energetic you feel.

I’m pretty sure he also discovered that working towards the rest of the items on his list helped increase the chance that he’d wake up in a good mood. (Or a contemplative mood, or a generative mood, or a joyful mood.

EDIT: I should note that the mood/action connection doesn’t always work, especially if there are other mental health or neurotransmitter issues present. If that’s you, go read about what Maggie Stiefvater did when her neurotransmitters got all bunged up and she realized that she couldn’t “do” her way to the work she wanted anymore. (Also yes, there is a Maggie Stiefvater blog post for just about every situation.)

I color-code my spreadsheet, every day; “reading” and “music” and “human connection” turns green if I did it and red if I didn’t. For metric-based stuff like “sleep,” I go green if I get more than 7-and-a-half hours, a pale red if I get between 7 and 7-and-a-half, and a darker red if I go below 7 hours.

Here’s the other important thing: there are no fully green days.

This isn’t completely true. Sunday, March 10 was my last fully green day. They do come up once or twice a month.

But most of the time, I have to make choices about what to prioritize, and that means one or two cells go red every day.

It’s when the same row starts showing a string of red that I know something in my life is out of balance — but usually I don’t let it get quite that far. However, I have made a few big changes in my life based on what I’ve learned from my Daily Spreadsheet, and so far those changes have all made my days better.

Will all of this help me create my BEST WORK? I’m not sure yet. My NEXT BOOK draft is only 21,404 words long, and some of those words are really rough.

But, four days out of five — there’s that Pareto again — I’m coming to my draft with good energy and a good mood and enough sleep, so I’m hoping that’ll count for something. ❤️

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