Focus vs. Doing Work

Here’s a question I’ve struggled with:

What is the better course of action; spending time to clarify my focus at the expense of actual productive work or using the creative process to refocus?

It’s a classic chicken-egg situation that I’ve yet to adequately answer. I think I’ve experienced both sides of this coin so it leaves me at a loss to decide which is the better path (and maybe that’s my answer right there)?

The first option, spending time to clarify my focus at the expense of actual productive work, is probably the avenue that I’ve had the most success with. Every time I’ve felt mired in an unproductive mindset I’ve managed to break free by refocusing. Most cases of procrastination are best answered at a “meta” level. Procrastination is not caused by a lack of tips, tricks, or lifehacks. Reading a list post about being more productive is like buying a chair about running, to quote one of my favorite writers.

Instead, rooting out the cause of procrastination is usually best done at the level of values and goals. Unclear reasons for doing something or pursuing a particular course of action will result in periods of procrastination that can be extremely difficult to exterminate. A new distraction-free writing environment or handy-dandy timershaped like a tomato might momentarily jar your routine enough to push your procrastination problem aside, but these superficialities will not cure it. Incongruities between your actions, your projects, and your values or habits are what cause the procrastination that most of us know so well.

Answering the deeper questions, or as I recently tweeted, “Answer the questions that you are most resisting. You don’t break the dam by poking the surface.” Pounding away at the dam keeping my creativity and productivity at bay by addressing the deep questions; Why am I working on this? How is it supporting my goals? Why does this matter? This has been the best way for me to realize my own potential.

On the other hand, I believe that those who seem to never procrastinate or be unproductive don’t appear that way because they don’t feel the urge to let up. The more I read about the creative process, whether through blogs like 43 Folders or books like The Creative Habit or The Artist's Way, I’ve learned that true creative professionals do not wait for inspiration to hit to be creative. They show up, day in and day out, and do work. Sometimes that work results in excellent products and creations but I would imagine that a large proportion of it never sees the light of day. But that’s ok, because when you show up everyday even a small portion of usable work is much more than what the weekend warrior creative worker will produce.

So what’s the answer? What should we do when we feel the pull of procrastination? Do we stop the production of actual work to take time analyzing our focus or do we keep plugging away with the acceptance that our muse will return?

Luckily, real life is not structured like this false either-or situation I’ve just laid out. I don’t see why the best situation can’t be a happy hybrid of the two. For example, let’s hypothesize that you are working on a significant project but have recently had trouble sitting down to work on it. You’re procrastinating and you know it.

Showing up every day and continuing to put the time and the work into the project is important, but I don’t think blindly hammering away at a problem is necessarily the most intelligent course of action either. Or, as Stephen Covey puts it, why spend all your time climbing the ladder only to realize it’s propped up against the wrong wall?

Take the time to step back and analyze your focus. Analyze your goals and find (or rediscover) your reason for working on a project. That may be time that you’re not actively creating, but the clarity of vision you’ll develop will pay dividends later on. The key component, and this would make Aristotle proud, is to find the golden mean. Find your focus but don’t spend all your time gazing at the stars. Work hard but don’t lose your nose to the grindstone. Utilize the best of both worlds to continue creating the best products you possibly can.