Author’s Note: The following is an article I originally wrote for the site Frame.io titled “6 Ways to Be More Productive and Creative with your Filmmaking” republished in its entirety below.
As editors, we are hired for our creative opinions and our ability to consistently make thousands of good micro-decisions on a daily basis. While the expectation is that we should be creativity machines who are extensions of our workstations who can produce like artists…on a day-to-day basis, we are treated like accountants.
We are interrupted constantly all day long by phone calls, meetings, emails, text messages, Slack notifications, and knocks on the door so producers can “see how things are going.”
(Side note: If you’re a producer reading this, here are The Ten Commandments of Working With Editors)
The Brutal Reality of How We Work Today
- On average we touch our phones 2,617 times per day1 (power users average over 5,400 touches per day!)
- We spend 28% of our workweek just managing email2 and we send/receive 620 emails every week3
- We spend over 54% of our workday in some form of electronic communication4
With all of these distractions and interruptions, how on earth are we supposed to get any real work done!?
There is no doubt that constantly putting out fires, being hyper-responsive to incoming emails and texts, and bouncing back and forth from room-to-room will make you appear “busy”—but wouldn’t you rather choose to be “productive” instead?
I’ll choose creating valuable and meaningful content any day over regularly achieving ‘Inbox Zero.’
Now you have a similar choice.
Option #1: Take the blue pill and skim this article for the next few minutes simply to distract yourself from the more important creative work you really should be doing right now (and your empty timeline) and then move this article to the 57th browser tab you’ve opened in Chrome today because you’ll definitely want to read all about how to be more productive and creative “someday.”
Option #2: Take the red pill and make the deliberate choice to:
- Put your phone in airplane mode (or better yet, in a drawer and out of sight)
- Close all unnecessary browser windows and tabs
- Hide (or quit) all currently unused applications
- Silence any remaining notifications
- Say “no” to anything that makes you “busy”
…and learn about a completely different way of approaching your work that will allow you to access deeper levels of creativity, level up the quality of your cuts, and get more done (in less time) so you can actually go home at a decent time for the first day in months.
Want to take the red pill? Ok. Let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Why Building the Habit of “Deep Work” Is Important
If you’re not familiar with the concept of Deep Work as coined by bestselling author Cal Newport, he defines Deep Work as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits. These efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate.”
Whether we like and accept it or not, every single one of us is replaceable.
We didn’t choose the “gig economy,” but we have to survive in it. And if our entire livelihoods depend on our abilities to generate creative ideas at the snap of a finger, solve complex problems, sift through a ridiculous amount of raw footage and produce amazing creative work…all on deadline…do you think the most effective use of your time is spent answering emails? Or responding to Facebook comments? Or even reading this article right now?
That’s where deep work comes in. Rather than juggling all of the various urgent needs of others and desperately multitasking your way to the end of the day, deep work is not just another app, or even a productivity method; it’s a philosophy of how to better spend your time, energy, and attention so you can focus on the most important creative work you must get done…without burning yourself out and losing your mind.
Here’s the first piece of good news: It doesn’t matter how distracted you are right now, even if you’re thinking, “You don’t get it, I’m so ADD!”
Focus is not a character trait, it is a skill that anyone can master. (tweet that!)
Here’s the second piece of good news: With as distracted as everyone is today (seriously…humans now have an attention span shorter than goldfish5), you don’t have to become a productivity Zen master. You just have to become more focused than “Bob down the hall” if you want to be the first choice for the next director or producer looking to hire a collaborative, creative editor like you who can manage their time and hit their deadlines.
Your “Cognitive Fitness Training Plan”
Now that you understand WHAT deep work is and WHY it’s an important philosophy to adopt, I am going to show you HOW to build this practice so it becomes a regular habit. Because focus is a skill that can be practiced, we’re going to approach this no different than if you just decided to run your first marathon.
Below I have provided six simple steps to build your own “Cognitive Fitness Training Plan” and develop your own deep work practice using the GO FAR framework.
Step 1: Determine your “Cognitive Fitness” Baseline
If you just signed up for a marathon and knew you had to run 26.2 miles in the near future, your first step would be seeing how far you can run comfortably today…even if it’s just around the block. Doing so gives you a place to start.
While the term “cognitive fitness” might sound complicated, it’s pretty simple and only requires you to become aware of and measure one thing:
How long can you work undistracted on a single creative task (editing a scene, for example) without seeking any distractions?
I realize you might belong to the category of people who think they can work for hours uninterrupted, so much so that you forget to take breaks, drink water, eat, or even go to the bathroom. (On a side note, please stop doing that.) But are you truly working undistracted in a state of deep work? Or are you periodically checking emails, texts, Slack, etc., every few minutes?
Yes, it might seem innocent to “just check” every so often during your endless stretches of creativity, but in reality you are only “in the zone” and accessing your true creative potential if you are focused on a single creative task for a minimum of 23-25 minutes6 in a single uninterrupted stretch. Anything less than 25 minutes and your brain is still bouncing around thinking about random tasks and requests. 25 minutes is the magic number where your brain first reaches the ideal “Alpha” brainwave state where your creativity thrives.
Most likely after testing your current level of cognitive fitness it’s pretty bad. Like less than 10 minutes bad. And that’s okay, you have to start somewhere. Marathon runners aren’t built in a day, and neither will your focus be.
Now that you know your current level of cognitive fitness, let’s move onto…
Step 2: Set your hourly/daily GOAL for “Deep Work”
Just because you can only run around the block today doesn’t mean you can’t run a marathon if you consistently train properly and build a plan that’s realistic. But if your goal is running the marathon in a month, you’ve set an unrealistic goal that sets you up for failure (and a world of pain).
Your ability to harness creative focus is no different. If your “cognitive fitness” baseline is 10 minutes, don’t set a goal of wanting to work for 90 minutes without distractions by Friday. Not gonna happen.
The idea here is progression, not perfection.
Take your current baseline and incrementally add 5 minutes to your focused time block once you find it simple enough to work for that duration of time (e.g. once you find it easy to work for 10 minutes straight, make it 15 minutes until that becomes easy).
Here are some key numbers to shoot for. These are your “26.2 miles” benchmarks, so to speak.
- The formula for perfect creativity, productivity, and working efficiently over time (without burning out) is 52 minutes of focus time and 17-minute breaks.7
Yes, this is according to one single study, so take it with a grain of salt. Remember, progression not perfection. I generally shoot for time blocks of around 55-60 minutes with breaks of 15 minutes in between. If you’re a beginner, 25-30 minutes is a great goal to shoot for.
- Ideally, you should set a goal of no more than four hours of deep work per day and never exceed six. Any more will overload the brain’s capacity to be creative…and you’ll burn out.
No doubt you’ve probably had days where you were in fact in a deep state of creative flow for more than six hours. It can be done. But how did that work out for you the next day? Or for the next week? Exactly. Remember, we’re training for a marathon, and you ain’t gonna sprint for 26.2 miles and reach the finish line.
Step #3: Identify your OBSTACLES
If you were training for a marathon, this is the point where you’d have to acknowledge you’re probably a bit overweight, you have weak knees, chronic lower back issues, and your cardio could use a lot of work.
When it comes to focus, it seems simple in theory, but it’s far from easy. Sure it would be a dream to work in 4-6 uninterrupted blocks of time per day for 52 minutes each with 17-minute breaks in between. But there are a million reasons this isn’t going to happen consistently for you right now. Rather than simply throwing up your hands and saying, “This is too complicated,” or “Focus is too hard for me,” if you find yourself struggling to build this practice instead take inventory of the obstacles standing in your way.
Here are the five most common obstacles I help my clients manage when they are working to build their own deep work practice:
- Checking your phone too often (even if it’s in DND or Airplane Mode)
- Having your laptop open next to your main workstation
- Too many browser tabs open (and easy access to the Internet)
- The urge to check ‘Breaking News’ and fear of missing out (FOMO) on current events
- Interruptions from colleagues
Compile your own list of obstacles stopping you from building the habit of deep work. Then for each one use the IF-THEN framework to identify potential solutions.
“IF having my laptop open next to my main workstation is a distraction, THEN whenever I work in a focused time block I will close it and put it on the shelf across the room from me.”
Once you’ve identified all the potential obstacles standing between you and your goal of being more focused, you’re ready for the next step.
Step #4: Prime Your Brain to FOCUS On Demand
If you were training for your marathon, this is the point in the process where you’d walk out the door and start running, right? Not so fast. First, you’d want to make sure you had the right gear, you picked the right time of day, you knew your route for this specific workout, and most importantly, that you were properly warmed up.
Before you dive right into your time block to focus on a single creative task, there’s some prep work to be done. (Don’t worry, you don’t need a reflective jumpsuit and $200 New Balance sneakers to do deep work.)
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I eliminated all potential distractions?
- Have I designed the optimal soundscape around me?
- Have I set myself up properly for my next creative task?
- Most importantly: Is my brain primed and ready to be creative?
The distractions we’ve already discussed – your phone, email, social media, open browser tabs, etc – are the most obvious; but what about the soundscape around you? Does sound bleed through your wall? Is your door open and can you hear chatter outside? Or even worse, do you work in a shared space? If so, I highly recommend using noise-canceling headphones to minimize outside aural distractions.
Now that all distractions and sounds are out of the way, I strongly suggest using what I call the “Back to One Technique” to set up your workspace in advance of your focused time block. If you have to spend the next hour editing a complex scene you know will be a challenge, which do you think will be easier?
…stepping up to your computer, opening up your first clip, and editing it right into the timeline without a single distraction?
…or stepping up to your computer, closing seven different browser tabs first, closing your email window, putting your phone in DND mode…Squirrel!
In order to avoid this scenario, set up your workstation and your desktop workspace before you take your break. Close everything unrelated to your next task and set up the proper windows so all you have to do is step up and cut. To take this to the next level, do the first couple of edits before your break, that way you’ve already begun the next train of thought and can mull over your next move during your break (a process known as “Productive Meditation”).
The most important step if you want to optimize any deep work session is “priming your brain” for creativity.
Here’s an example of how to prime your brain:
Fifteen minutes before writing this article I threw in a load of laundry, put away the dishes, and then did just enough physical activity to break a sweat. Given that mere minutes before I was staring at an empty page (just like you might be reading this article to avoid your “empty timeline”), this may have looked a lot like procrastination to the untrained eye.
But I promise it was anything but.
Every single menial activity was carefully planned on my calendar as what I call a “priming break.” If you want to summon creativity on demand, the secret is to allow yourself to be bored, a lost art in today’s 24/7 “always connected” society.
By allowing myself to be bored I activated the “Default Network”8 in my brain which turns most of my regular thoughts on autopilot and puts me in “incubation mode”—i.e. my brain is continuously bouncing random ideas around so they can get to know each other better until they decide to form new and better ideas…a process otherwise known as creativity.
Here are 5 simple examples of “priming activities”:
- Taking a quick walk (without being on the phone or listening to anything)
- A quick burst of activity for 60-90 seconds (jumping jacks, push-ups, etc)
- Doing menial repetitive tasks (folding laundry, washing dishes, etc)
- Staring at the wall (or out a window)
- A quick meditation session
With your brain warmed up, primed, and ready to go deep, and with your environment optimized for creativity, you’ll be ready to tackle…
Step 5: Take the right ACTION during your time block
Finally, you’re fully warmed up and it’s time to start running!
As I’ve mentioned multiple times throughout this article, the most effective way to build the habit of deep work on a regular basis is to work in time blocks, also known as “The Pomodoro Method.” I talk extensively about the process of building a time block in this article, but here’s a quick primer on setting up your next time block and taking action:
- Make sure you have a clear intention for your next block of time. “Editing” is not clear. “Edit V1 of scene 35” is clear.
- Budget the right amount of time for the task. If “edit scene 35” is going to take 4 hours, you’re going to need more than one block. Budget your time during each block accordingly so you don’t get trapped in “analysis paralysis” and dink around with a temp phone graphic for the first three hours when you should probably be cutting story instead.
- Choose the best time of day on your calendar for the task at hand. Don’t procrastinate and force yourself to cut a complicated montage right after a big lunch, for example. Be strategic with not only your time but also your energy.
- Make sure you have installed a timer to remind you when to take your break. My favorite app for this is BreakTime. Best $5 you’ll ever spend.
- Establish a reward in advance. This is the carrot to your proverbial stick. When you’re done with your time block, check Facebook or Instagram. Take a bathroom break. Talk to colleagues for a few minutes. You’re human.
Now that you’ve completed your first of (hopefully) many time blocks, it’s time for…
Step #6: Prioritize time to REVIEW your workflow
Just because you’re training for a marathon and totally botched your first 3-mile session, doesn’t mean your goal of running a marathon was a failure. You simply need to assess what worked and what didn’t and iterate until you find the sweet spot. Progression…not perfection.
After experimenting with your first few time blocks, prioritize the time to think about what worked and what didn’t.
- Were you too easily distracted? Maybe you need to think about the deeper reasons why you seek out distractions.
- Did too many people knock on your door? Maybe it’s time to come up with a signal to alert your co-workers that you are in “Do not disturb” mode.
- Were you exhausted and couldn’t focus even though you had no outside distractions? Maybe your time block was too long. Or conversely, maybe you need to reassess your lifestyle choices (e.g. not sleeping enough, poor dietary choices, etc).
Take Your Creativity to the Next Level
You are not going to run a marathon in a few weeks if you can barely walk around the block, and you are not going to become a focus machine overnight if working for 15 minutes undistracted is a challenge today.
This process will take time.
While I can’t guarantee the process will be easy, what I can guarantee is that learning to reduce the amount of distractions during your workday and build the habit of deep work will exponentially increase your value as a creative professional, it will reduce your level of anxiety, and help you enjoy your day more, and it can even increase your overall level of fulfillment with your work.
After all, being creative and making cool stuff is why you got into this industry in the first place, isn’t it?
If you’re interested in taking an even deeper dive into this topic and making focus a regular part of your workflow, I invite you to join my Masterclass on “How to Build the Habit of Deep Work” which contains over an hour of FREE video training and also includes a handy Quickstart Guide PDF to help you master this practice.