Ruska is the Finish word for the turning of the leaves in the fall. "Ruska occurs," writes designer and pamphleteer Dan Hill, "when birch, larch and rowan trees explode into russet tones of richly saturated purples, reds, yellows and oranges, before shivering off their leaves for winter. It's an extraordinary vivid and life-affirming cycle." Ruska is an apt metaphor for replenishment and renewal, of both organizations and the individual. And while there is so much talk these days about leading others, leading change or changing the world, I'd like to address something more close to home, changing oneself.
How do you lead the creative self? How do you create the physical, cognitive and social conditions for creative work? I'm not talking about the designing itself (of which there is much to say) but rather enabling the everyday conditions to make creative breakthroughs as we've done and you’ll continue to do in the studio.
I want to share with you some of the simple techniques I've used to stay creative, sane and productive. To be clear, I don't mean to be didactic. It's not as if I've figured it all out. I've barely figured anything out. This said, most everything I have learned about leading myself has been by modeling other people I respect. So I offer these thoughts as models and patterns, for you to consider, prototype, or tweak in your own everyday. I’ll do this under three broad headings: your week, your energy and your habits.
(1) YOUR WEEK: 4321
Many people doing creative work feel they are not in control of their workday, they feel stuff just "happens" to them. The way many organizations use tools like email reinforces this feeling, with the daily tsunami of mail in the inbox every day. Here's a framework - "4321" - for making your week more proactive rather than reactive. It's a tweak of a model 925design developed as part of a project they did to redesign the workweek.
4 GOOD HOURS A DAY
Do four hours of good work a day. Good work is work on those things that are meaningful to you and give you satisfaction. This doesn't mean that you only work four hours a day, but that you make sure you have four good hours in a day. How do you do this? You decide to do it, and commit to it. One very practical way to ensure this is to schedule yourself several hours of “good time” every day that you then simply dedicate to your most meaningful activities.
3 GOALS A WEEK
Give yourself three big, meaningful goals every week. For me, two are work-related and one is related to me, my home or family. The work goals are typically about design (e.g. a key product or portfolio decision), people (e.g. closing a key hire to the team) or working on enabling conditions for design (e.g. intervening to improve the way we work with engineering, sourcing, portfolio planning).
The home-related one could be e.g. “hang the painting in the living room” (finally, it's been four months after all!) Of course there are running lists of smaller things that need attention (see the next point), but these goals give a filter on how to use your four good hours every day. I also keep a rolling forward list of the goals for upcoming weeks. And I share these lists with a few close colleagues, so they know what I'm focused on and understand why I’m saying “no” to other things.
2 STEPS TO CLEAR THE MIND
To be creative you need to clear the mind. Many of us have hundreds of things a day that demand our attention and potentially our action. Clear your mind in two steps.
Step 1: Get the things out of your head. Step 2: Make gaps in your day to review the things. Step 1 is about getting the things you need to remember to act on out of your short-term memory - where it drains energy, glucose etc. - into a system that you trust and will review. Step 2 is about having time to review the system continuously.
I personally use Getting Things Done (or as a colleague affectionately once called it “GTD...for men”) with a small paper pad (with single sheets) and Omnifocus, Evernote, etc. for keeping things for reference. I was introduced to GTD several years ago by author and technologist Ben Hammersley. But the exact method doesn't matter as long as you do Step 1 and Step 2.
One key thing I've done in the last year is shorten my many meetings to 20 minutes maximum and leave 10-20 minute gaps always in between. These gaps are critical for me to review the things I need to act on, but to also just clear the mind and maintain presence and focus. And this leaves more time for the most important recurring, organic conversations we need to have around product and strategy.
1 QUESTION A DAY
Give yourself permission to think of one big, ambitious creative question a day. Only one a day. You can have the same question tomorrow again if you’d like, but you can’t have more than one question a day. You don’t need to actively think about the question, just give yourself permission to focus on it whenever, as you’re taking a walk, on your morning swim, during your commute to work, as you’re making dinner, really whenever. Surprisingly you may make progress. This is a technique I hadn’t tried before hearing about it in 925design’s work. And I’ve found it remarkably productive.
(2) YOUR ENERGY: MOVING AND SLEEPING
As much as there is talk about “time management” I think “energy management” is much more important. How do you maintain a consistent, optimal level of energy for focus, presence and performance? In my experience, this is one of the most difficult things to do on a daily basis.
For the last year, I’ve been fortunate to have worked personally with Dr. Aki Hintsa, who coaches many of the starting drivers in Formula 1 on consistent, high performance. Over years working with world champion athletes and professionals at his clinic, he’s created a framework for dealing with energy and attaining consistent high performance. The framework is incredibly simple, which is really no surprise as it’s dealing with big human fundamentals. Here, I’ll only highlight two themes that have been most important for me from my work with Aki and maintaining consistent energy levels: moving (aka physical activity) and sleeping (aka recovery).
Moving: To keep my mind clear and energy levels consistent during the day, I need to keep moving. Baseline physical activity of around 8,000 - 10,000 steps a day has been the most important change for me. This means four 20 minute walks a day. To achieve this daily, two of these 20 minute walks need to happen during my workday so I typically have two walking meetings a day. It became a standing joke (in a good way) at Nokia house, that you need to wear walking shoes when you meet with me. And the habit has spread.
Of course looking at models and prototypes while walking isn’t really possible but for most conversations, walking simply makes them better.
In addition to walking as part of my baseline I do a short 20minute tweaked “bloke yoga” + pilates routine every morning and swim 1km a day. And I’m working on adding 2-3 muscle and aerobic sessions during the week. But more important than these heavy workouts for consistent energy is the baseline activity.
Sleeping: For the vast majority of people 7.5 - 8.5 hours of sleep a day is what you need to function creatively and with full energy. Consistency of sleep is a big challenge for me and my circadian rhythm is very much that of an evening person. I’ve worked deliberately towards a more regular and slightly earlier sleeping pattern.
One key change I’ve made is to have 30 minutes of screen-free time before going to bed. It turns out that back-lit screens impact the sympathetic nervous system in the same way that bright light lamps do: they excite us. They trigger our fight-or-flight response and reduce the quality of our first cycles of recovery sleep. E-Ink displays (like old Kindles or other older ebook readers) are ok, but tablets, computers and flat screen TVs are not. And this is not something you can train yourself against either: it’s basic physiology and neurology. Lower lights before falling asleep improves the quality of recovery during sleep.
And in case you’re wondering about alcohol, more than two glasses of wine closer than two hours before going to sleep effectively destroys the recovery, the growth hormone generating cycles of sleep, that night. You may fall asleep easier, but the sleep is not real recovery sleep.
(3) YOUR HABITS: BRUTAL FEEDBACK AND FOLLOW-UP
We all have habits that we’d like to change. Even more importantly we all have habits that we may be unaware of that are annoying our colleagues and holding us back from creating greater things together. How do we become aware of these habits? And how do we change them?
I was very lucky to hear Marshall Goldsmith speak several years ago and immediately found his approach to self-improvement disarming in it’s simplicity and focus. He had a very vocational school take on personal change which resonated with me. I took two techniques from that day, both simple and powerful: brutal 360-feedback and daily follow-up.
Get confidential, brutal “360-feedback” from your colleagues. I asked a neutral third party (in this case it was an external coach) to interview, in confidence, my immediate colleagues. I asked her to speak to as many people as possible, up, down and sideways in the organization - to get a broad view of my strengths and weaknesses and to identify habits that I might not be aware of that are holding me back. I then had this third party confront me with what everybody really thinks. I tried to listen as best I can without prejudice (this isn’t always easy). Together with my coach I identified some habits to improve, and then advertised to my colleagues what areas I was seeking to change, and - as importantly - thanked them for the feedback. Period. No “Thanks, but...” just “Thank you.”
The other technique has to do with follow-up. I agreed with a person I respect (not a family member or immediate colleague) to call each other every weekday. Both of us had identified several issues in our own life that we weren’t happy with and wanted to improve. Both of us made a list of a dozen or so small daily tasks that we personally needed to do to improve in our chosen area.
And then when we called each other once a day - for about 5 minutes - we’d simply ask each other our questions. He’d ask me my questions, I’d ask him his questions. For example, at the time I was working on my baseline physical activity he’d ask me: Did you do your morning practice? Did you swim 1km? Did you walk 8,000 - 10,000 steps? And we wouldn’t pass judgement on the answers, simply listen to them. As odd as this may sound, this method significantly increases the likelihood of positive change. Not immediately, but over time. (If you can’t arrange a peer-coaching call like this I’d still recommend doing a check at the end of your day with yourself. How did I do today? This will already increase the likelihood of change.)
The daily techniques above are some examples of what each of us can do to change ourselves, to become a better version of ourselves by our own lights. I offer them to you as examples for you to sample, prototype, tweak, and/or improve.
Yet nearly all creative breakthroughs are group things, collaborations. Fundamentally I believe that similar techniques of self-reflection, thinking about our own thinking and ways of interacting with others, of habit change, can also be applied to groups, to the studio, to the system of designers, engineers and marketeers creating breakthroughs together.
So the larger questions are: How do we together create a creative culture that leads to breakthroughs beyond what we individually could imagine? To use philosopher Esa Saarinen’s term, how do we create a creative culture of elevation?
The spirit of elevation is beautifully captured in a remarkable scene from the movie Invictus, where Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa (played by Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar, the captain of that nation’s rugby team (played by Matt Damon) meet in Mandela’s office over a cup of tea. The micro interactions between Mandela and Pienaar, how Mandela welcomes him and engages him, are in themselves an example to study and follow.
And then we get to the heart of the matter. “What is your philosophy on leadership?” Mandela asks Pienaar. “How do you inspire your team to do their best?”
“By example,” the captain responds, “I’ve always thought to lead by example, sir.”
“Well, that is right. That is exactly right,” Mandela says. “But how do we get them to be better than they think they can be? That is very difficult, I find.” (pause) “Inspiration, perhaps. How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us?”
Indeed. It’s up to you. Make it great.
Ben Hammersley on GTD in The Guardian: “Meet the man who can bring order to your universe”
Esa Saarinen and his paper published by the The Good Work Project at Harvard “The Paphos Seminar. Elevated Reflections on Life as Good Work” (pdf)