Do Less = Do More. The Art of Being Creative + Productive

I’m a huge fan of the concept of “strategic renewal.” Chasing shiny opportunities, working in a reactive state and dealing with each new email that pops up on your phone is not only exhausting – it’s a way to ensure you get nothing done – and it’s simply not sustainable. “Busy” isn’t success. It’s a lack of priority. I’ve been paying attention to those who have command of their time…systems that bring sanity and purpose to a hectic travel and work schedule. I fly about 150,000 miles a year, at minimum, so keeping myself healthy and productive in the midst of constant movement is essential to being an effective creator. For the first 25 years of my life I resisted “systems” and plans with every fiber in my body because I thought it meant the man was keeping me down. But now, FLEXIBLE routines for exercise, meditation, renewal, creative expression ARE key essential parts to my success. My writer friend Ben has been developing his own system of strategic renewal for years – which is very much in line with my own – and I asked him to share it for our benefit today. Take it away Ben. -Chase

Thanks Chase. I work from home like many of the creatives reading this piece, so right away, we’re in cahoots. While the home office / studio environment is filled with distractions — dirty dishes, laundry, an un-made bed, the un-vacuumed carpet and myriad other 10-minute chores that call out like a siren each and every minute of the telecommuter’s working day, I’d rather create a plan that kept me away from those pesky distractions than be trapped in a soul sucking job, under the soul-sucking glow of fluorescents, surrounded by employees who worked by an unwritten company rule that more is more. Arrive early, leave late. Rinse, wash, repeat. Scratch that. Despite being chained to a chair for 12 hours a day — our peers in those role are NOT more productive than we are. Here’s why.

Chase and I have both recently read an article by Tony Schwarz in the New York Times about a what researches are calling “strategic renewal” and its impact on productivity. According to Schwarz, strategic renewal is vital to staying productive. The concept includes activities like:

daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations…boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

The theory boils down to the fact that we can’t increase the hours in the day, but we can increase the energy with which we make the most of those hours. Taking short, scheduled breaks throughout the day rejuvenates and restores us physically and mentally, helping us plow through those assignments and to-do lists in a third of the time.

The coolest take away from the article concerns what I now call “work blocks.” In short, after that 90 minutes of work, our bodies and minds need a break. But our 9-5 (or 7-7) work culture demands focus for much, much longer blocks of time, so many of us fight that urge to break by filling up the mug with more coffee, rubbing our eyes and refocusing on the screen.

No more.

Inspired by Schwarz and the studies he cited, I created a Daily Schedule that broke up my day into 90-minute Work Blocks, separated by 30 minute Breaks and, in the middle of my day, a 2-hour lunch. I know some of you just spit your coffee out. But you read that right. I take a 2 hour lunch to get a long run or workout in, eat and read from a book or write a few lines in my journal.

During the 30 minute breaks I read, clean, walk to the post office and complete those little, once distracting tasks that now actually kill two birds with one stone. Sometimes, if I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, I’ll even knock off for a cat nap.

Here’s a snapshot of my day, which I have printed out and laminated so I can use a dry-erase marker for daily tasks and to-dos:

[Download the Daily Schedule PDF.]

I schedule a total of four 90-minute work blocks in my day. Since implementing my Daily Schedule, I find that my productivity is nearly 4x what it was before, especially when I stay disciplined and, most importantly, when I get a full night’s sleep. [Which, for me, is at least 7 1/2 hours.] When you step back from it, I’m essentially “in the office” for 9 hours a day, from 7:30 – 4:30 (I’ll usually keep plugging until 5, out of respect), but by the time I punch out, I’m no wearier that I was when I punched in and I step away from my desk with a the clear conscience of one who has knocked out some serious work. Even better, I find myself going to bed at night genuinely looking forward to work the next day.

Sure, it’s no Timothy Ferriss 4-hour Workweek, but it’s working towards it. And it’s respecting my body’s physiological need for regular breaks, a full-night’s sleep and daily physical activity.

So that’s it in a nutshell. I’d write more, but the dryer buzzer just went off.

[I lied. A final word about the two hour lunch, because it sometimes does feel indulgent. As justification, I leave you with the daily schedule of one of America's most productive men, Benjamin Franklin:]

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58 Responses to Do Less = Do More. The Art of Being Creative + Productive

  1. Chris Renton March 27, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    I do try to schedule in breaks and exercise but often end up sitting in front of the computer for hours, and invariably end up time-wasting due to lack of energy. I was thinking of going on some bike rides at lunchtime – definitely will do after reading this! Good article.

  2. Matt Timmons March 27, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    I see that ol’ Ben Franklin get 4 to 5 hours of sleep per night. Superhuman.

    • John March 27, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

      It’s almost astounding. I’m a zombie on anything less than 7.

    • Brent March 27, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

      But, but… the schedule shows 7 hours?

    • sienna April 3, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

      it’s seven, i think the lines make it confusing upon first glance.

      • Asim March 26, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

        We see what we want to see ;)

  3. David Spinks March 27, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    Awesome post man. Super helpful. What about making time for other people? Do you allocate work blocks to meetings/calls?

  4. Trent March 27, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

    Great idea, but this is obviously from people who do not have children.

    • Kevin Foster March 29, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

      Schedule them in!

      • Asim March 26, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

        When you have children, you are on THEIR schedule. You don’t have a schedule of your own.

  5. runbei March 27, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    You-all have probably heard of the study where instead of sleeping in one long block, they schedule subjects to take naps at regular intervals throughout the day and night. Results were amazing – they were able to work many more hours and stay creative.

    OK, that’s anecdotal, but the point is that regular breaks DO refresh (heart and brain). To get through the day after a night of too-little sleep, or to work all day while feeling semi-ill in the a.m., nothing helps as much as a nap. (And nothing aids recovery after exercise more than a nap, given adequate refueling; which is why the elites take naps.)

    My spiritual teacher urges writers to get up and walk around when productivity starts to fall. It works.

  6. harry March 28, 2013 at 12:24 am #

    Although deadlines pop up a lot my aim is to be more productive over my life time. When I’m 70 I want to have a nimble mind, a back that still works, be married to the same girl and taking pictures that matter. I watch many people who burn themselves out and many who think they are being productive when the are obviously not.

    • Kate March 29, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      A totally beautiful, intelligent sentiment. Your grandkids are going to think you’re fantastic, too.

  7. Girish March 28, 2013 at 2:10 am #

    Excellent. I can agree with you regarding the endless chores that pop up & not to mention family. I try & try to stick on and work but there are disturbances.

    I do follow a schedule, but yours definitely gets more work done & rest as well. Time to urgrade.

    I also add-in time for social media & surfing :)

  8. faisal March 28, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    Thanks a ton for the task PDF, makes it easier to manage.

    • Pedro March 28, 2013 at 6:47 am #

      the PDF link is taking me to another page that doesn’t contain the schedule. I tried using Firefox as well as safari. Thanks guys for facilitating such a great advise!

      • Pedro March 28, 2013 at 6:54 am #

        I just managed to download it. Thanks guys!

  9. Cole March 28, 2013 at 6:47 am #

    Nice. Any weapon in the war against the overwhelming day-to-day is welcomed by me…ans w/ prints out too. (Tonight, you’ll have an answer for Ben’s evening question!).

  10. Claire March 28, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Thanks very much for sharing your schedule! I’ve been trying to adopt the 90 minute work chunks, but I think my breaks have not been long enough between them. I look forward to giving your schedule a shot (albeit shifted later in the day ;) ).

  11. Jens March 29, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Good schedule and great idea to print it out and laminate it to be able to use a dry-erase marker.

  12. Destination360 March 29, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    I follow the variety is the spice of life approach. Wake up when the light wakes you up “or dog”. Yes no kids…Work, break, work, break. No determined amount but enough. Take off early some days and work late some days. I’m never bored, tired, and still like what I do.

    Cheers,
    D360

  13. ryan March 30, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    I would love the discipline to do this sort of thing better. When I’ve tried to make a block schedule, it’s worked well for my productivity, but sticking with it is the hard part.

  14. Chris Snowden March 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    Amazing article. Spent 9 years of my life under fluorescents, my soul being pounded day after day.The monotonous, repetitive daily grind destroying my confidence and enthusiasm week after week then one day I came across a nikon d90 review video on youtube by some guy called Chase Jarvis. I want a piece of that life. 3 years later and im now a professional photographer. So, yeah, thanks to you im living the dream . Thanks Chase for changing my life.

  15. Bernard March 31, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

    Interesting, I do agree that often when I work and hit the 2 hour continuous mark, I’m pretty tired and get distracted, the dreaded 3:30itis some call it.
    The schedule looks like it’s something to try out! Thanks Chase & Ben.

  16. Darren Miller April 1, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Thanks Chase and Ben! This is great, simple and inspiring. I appreciate it!

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  18. Kim B. April 16, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

    I needed this! Thank you!

  19. Aaron smith May 4, 2013 at 2:35 am #

    One of the nicest post I have seen, Thank you for this amazing post. Keep up the wonderful work!

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  23. Natasha June 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    I love that Morning Pages was included in the Daily Schedule. I am also a reader of The Artists Way and have found that starting off my mornings with a meditation and the Morning Pages sets the tone for the rest of my day. Whenever I skip this, I feel invariably less motivated, or tend to get into a chain of self-defeating thoughts which pretty much kills any productivity that day. Thanks for posting the schedule – this is brilliant.

  24. chad jaeckel August 2, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Fantastic and workable. Very interesting. I have been using DA’s Getting Things Done techniques to good effect for the last 3 years. I will now work some of this into the routine as well. Great post!

  25. Robert Sail September 1, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Sometimes if I am editing wedding photos all day, I take small naps in the day time to keep me fresh. Going for a walk also helps, nice to get away from the computer.

    Regards

    Rob

  26. Anna September 6, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Thank you for sharing. I truly believe that the breaks between the work blocks are helpful and make us more productive. It took me a while to overcome the feeling of associating them with time wasting but I managed to do it and saw the results.

  27. peter January 6, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    Great article – if you’re 20 something and single.

    Funny (and not ha ha funny) how the schedule completely ignores family and the demands of kids.

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  33. Anna March 26, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    I’ve heard about working in blocks and find it could work but you have to be really disciplined. I’d find any pretext there is not to go by it such as a sleepless night, an appointment, etc. For me the most challenging thing about working from home is consistency. I have days when I work 16 hours with short breaks for meals and the days when I can’t focus at all…

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    Thanks – definitely going to give this a go for a few weeks – see if I can break the habit of my creative brain starting work at 8pm.

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