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. ❤️

How to Create the Systems/Structure in Which to Do Your Best Work: Part 1 (of Many)

Last week, I wrote a short post about how we know when we’re doing our best work.

Over the next week (or so), I want to write several posts about how to create the systems and/or structure in which we can do our best work — because although I absolutely agree with the whole “putting your butt in the seat is 90 percent of doing THE WORK” thing, it’s that other 10 percent that can transform THE WORK into your BEST WORK.

(Yes, I know that not all creative work involves a butt in a seat, don’t @ me.)

I’m going to kick this discussion off with something I heard on a recent episode of the Rope Drop Radio podcast, since I currently have Walt Disney World on the brain.

Also, it’s super-relevant.

In Episode 148, Bad Disney Advice, Derek Sasman and Doug McKnight explain why the whole “don’t get your FastPasses 60 days in advance because you don’t know what mood you’ll be in when you visit the parks” thing is terrible advice:

DOUG: I’ll tell you what mood you’re going to be in, in each park, 60 days out. You’re going to be in the Pandora mood, you’re going to be in the Slinky Dog mood, you’re going to be in the Space Mountain mood, what other mood am I missing? Test Track, Soarin’ mood? Come on, folks. Maybe a Frozen mood? I don’t even know you, and I know what mood you’re in when you’re going to walk around the park. But then you’re going to be miserable —

DEREK: Because you’re going to be waiting in line for two hours [without a FastPass].

DOUG: Have fun with that.

I agree with the gist of this — like, most people who visit WDW are going to want to ride one of the big headliner rides, and getting a FastPass in advance will help with that — but I want to look more closely at the word mood.

Because, as anyone who’s ever done a family vacation (or any kind of vacation) knows, you can spend six months thinking about how much fun it’ll be to ride Space Mountain and then, on the day of, you’ll be in the tired mood or the hungover mood or the my feet hurt mood or the if my dear loved one complains or whines one more time I’m going to scream mood.

So what you actually have to plan for, in addition to the FastPass, is how to be in a Space Mountain mood on the day you’re going to ride Space Mountain.*

I’d say “what does this have to do with creating your BEST WORK,” but I’m pretty sure you’ve already put it together. Planning to work on your project at a certain time, getting your butt in that seat, is only half of it.

The other half is doing your best to come to that seat in the right mood.

This is why you see many creative types say things like “I don’t check the news or social media until I’ve completed my work session, because I don’t want to see something that might turn my thoughts away from THE WORK.”

Why Tara K. Shepersky’s writing ritual included an early-morning walk before she sat down at her QWERTY.

Why I don’t do email until 10 a.m.

Those are just some of the systems and structures people put into place to help them do their BEST WORK — but, as this post title suggests, they aren’t the only ones.

We’ll discuss more tomorrow. ❤️

*Take this advice from someone who had Blue Bayou reservations and then ate this nasty Galactic Grill** meal that made her feel so gross that, two hours later, she wasn’t in a Blue Bayou mood. HUGE REGRETS. 

**Do not make the mistake of walking up to the Galactic Grill and thinking “yay, a place with no line!”