After spending last week in Asia, I returned to my office with piles of work needing to be done.
There was unopened mail, e-mails to return, meetings with key managers and personnel, quotes to be completed, samples to be sent, and a variety of other managerial type tasks.
I suspect that it’ll take several days to clear my desk and calendar before I can even begin to think about performing any “real” work”.
Most work, I believe, can be divided into two distinct categories: Maintenance and Creative.
Both types of work are important and neither can be complete void of the other.
Maintenance work comprises of most of the daily activities.
This might include reading, filing (or deleting), and responding to basic correspondence…mostly in the form of e-mail these days…
It includes things like making travel arrangements, completing expense reports, making phone calls to set up meetings, providing customers with standard price and delivery quotations, most receiving, warehousing, and shipping functions, and the majority of most accounting tasks.
These are the duties most essential to sustaining any business operation.
Much of maintenance type work is reactive. Something happens (like a truck showing up with a few pallets of parts) that causes us to stop what we are currently doing and respond to the new situation before us (in this case, unloading the truck and putting the pallets into our warehouse).
Our days are filled with such interruptions…
We start one task…then we are interrupted with an “urgent” request (although the “urgent” moniker is rarely a matter of life-or-death).
We handle the interruption…then try to go back with what we were previously doing…well…not right away…it frequently takes a few minutes (or more) for our brains to refocus on the task at hand…then we complete some more of the task…only to be interrupted yet again…and again…and again…
Someone stops by our desk and asks us a question.
The phone rings.
We need to jump online to get some information and we are quickly sidetracked by something else that caught our attentions.
Additionally, another significant element of maintenance is communication or the sharing of ideas.
This can be done passively through e-mail or collaboration tools like Slack or Trello. However most of corporate America is still obsessed with the face-to-face “meeting”.
A meeting, whether in person or remotely (perhaps using a tool like Zoom or Google Hangout), requires that meeting participants be present in real-time.
There are only three real reasons to have a meeting:
- To convey or share known information – This type of meeting could include status updates for a project, department meetings, sales meetings, and/or training.
- To solicit ideas and input, especially where a decision is expected to be made.
- To create a dialogue between people for purposes of feedback and discussion. This might include things like brain-storming, strategic planning or problem solving.
Any time two or more people talk and/or listen in real-time, by chance or by arrangement, a meeting occurs.
All meetings are typically listed under the heading of maintenance…although meetings in the last category might also be incredibly creative.
Whereas maintenance is generally reactive to some type of stimulus, creativity is just the opposite.
Creativity occurs when there is nothing present…except for possibly an idea ruminating in one’s head.
To create something new, the creator must be completely focused on the task at hand in one stream of consciousness.
When an artist looks at a blank canvass, they see something there that doesn’t currently exist. The same could easily be said for the songwriter, inventor or entrepreneur.
Their creations may begin only as a germ of an idea, but the creator allows that idea to expand and take on a new form by experimenting and playing with it.
Seldom does a writer sit down and pen a novel on the fly…writing it down as soon as a new thought appears in her head.
Creating anything takes focus, concentration, and one’s complete attention.
A few years ago, I found myself boarding an airplane one morning when I spied an acquaintance of mine, Simon Sinek, best-selling author of books like Start with the Why and Leaders Eat Last. He was wearing some ear buds and appeared to be busy doing some work, so I didn’t want to disturb him.
Later in the flight, I stopped by Simon’s seat to say hello. He was startled when I nudged him but took his ear buds out when he saw me.
After a few pleasantries, I asked him where he was headed to and he replied, “I’m not really sure…I think Atlanta”.
He saw the puzzlement in my eyes with his response. Simon quickly explained that when he is writing a new book, he just goes to the airport and buys the least expensive last-minute ticket he can find to somewhere far away.
As he explained, on an airplane, there are very few distractions, so he just ignores his seatmates (ear buds help in this manner) and focuses completely on his writing. Once he gets to his destination, he goes to the ticket counter to buy another ticket to someplace else.
I soon left Simon to his thoughts and his uninterrupted time…but I regularly think of the exchange…
If it works for him, why not?
Simon has found a unique way of separating his maintenance functions from his creative ones.
The problem for most people (including myself), is that we are unable to escape from the demands of the urgent allowing us to set aside that block of time to do our most important work.
It’s not as though we don’t have the ability…it’s primarily due because we don’t have the discipline.
Staying focused takes an incredible amount of discipline and frankly most of us would rather spend our time dealing with the non-thinking maintenance chores than to actually sit down and do the hard work of creating something from nothing.
In the coming years, automation will surely continue to replace maintenance in the workplace. Our only hope to remain valuable to any enterprise is to increase our ability to stay focused and produce pioneering ideas and innovative work.
Each of us have exactly 168 hours of time allotted to us each week. It is probably best that we employ just a few of them to create something great…