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The productivity trap, and how to make time for your own work

You pay yourself first. With time, as well as money

By Sheryl GarrattPublished 2 years ago 8 min read

Time. We all get the same 24 hours of it, every day.

Yet we all feel that we don’t have enough of it, that we’re wasting it, failing to make the most of it, that it’s slipping away. Most of all, we feel there’s never time to make the work we really want to make.

Many of us dream of some future point when we’ll finally be on top of everything. When we’ve quit our day job, the children are grown, the house is decluttered, the paid work all delivered. And we’ll suddenly have a magical stretch of free time to progress that big personal project we’ve been thinking about.

If this is you, you’re not alone. But if you’re ever going to find the time to start (and finish) your own creative projects, you need to face a brutal truth. There will never be a point when everything on your to-do list is done.

Not until you’re dead, anyway. When it will be too late to get those ideas out of your head and into the world.

Time is finite, for all of us.

Productivity hacks are fine, up to a point. You should have systems to support you, and make things run as smoothly as you can. But productivity can also be a trap.

We can get caught up in a whirl of shallow busywork, addicted to the adrenalin buzz of ticking stuff off the list without ever getting the the deeper work we really want to do. Life feels like we're running up the down escalator, going faster and faster just to keep up. Yet we rarely stop to consider whether the tasks we're zipping through are important – or even necessary.

And no matter how efficient we are, how much we cram into our days, we’ll never have enough time to do everything we could, should or even want to do. Especially not to the standard we expect.

This is both depressing, and liberating.

If you accept that you’ll never get everything done, then life slows down to something more manageable. It becomes far more about doing what you can, in the time you have. You prioritise better, choosing to neglect or miss some things for a while (or even permanently), in favour of what’s important to you.

You also start to make time for leisure and pleasure now, rather than putting them off to some future point when the work is all done. You don’t have to earn a rest. You don’t need to wait until you feel you deserve a holiday, a day off, a night out with friends. You just need to prioritise these things, and build them into your schedule.

As for your creative work, it’s rarely easy. But it does become easier when you do it consistently, rather than in big punishing spurts followed by guilt and self-loathing when you don’t pick it up again for weeks, months.. even years.

You are not behind.

This is important to understand, no matter how productive you have – or have not – been, up to now. You don’t need to ‘catch up’.

In fact the more you push, hustle and pressure yourself to keep to absurdly high standards in every area of your life, the more joyless that life becomes. Which makes it even less likely you’ll get the important things done, or be able to express your creativity fully.

You are where you are, in the here and now. Which is the only place any of us ever can be. So try to savour it, and pay attention to the present moment. To enjoy your wild and precious life. This is easy to say, much harder to do.

We all like to time-travel.

It's what humans do. We dwell on the past, reliving all the things that could have, should have, would have happened if only we or people around us had done something differently. Or we zoom off into the future, when we worry about things that haven’t yet happened – and maybe never will.

Perhaps it would have been better if you started on your book, your art, your script five, 10 years ago. But it’s also true that you would have done it differently when you were younger, when you had less life experience. And perhaps conditions will be better for you to launch that business idea five, 10 years into the future. But there’s no guarantee of that.

So the best time to start is always.. now.

But how do we find the time?

The idea of paying yourself first originated in the personal finance world. If you wait to the end of the month hoping there will be money left over for savings, you’re often disappointed. No matter how much you earn, your spending somehow seems to expand to fit your bank balance. (Or beyond.)

So instead, you pay yourself first. You take out a fixed amount as soon as you get paid, and invest it immediately. Providing you’re earning enough to get by, you don’t tend to miss this. If you set it all up to happen automatically, it’s easy to forget that money ever existed, and you don’t need discipline or lots of decision-making about your daily spending to quietly build up a nest-egg, a gift to your future self.

Time can be like money.

Despite our best intentions, we spend it carelessly. Or we focus on working harder, faster, more efficiently in the hope that eventually all the to-dos will all be done, we’ll attain in-box zero and then we can finally get on with that creative project we’ve been thinking about.

The problem is that every item you tick off your list spawns several more. Your in-box quickly fills with more emails (much of it replying to your speedy replies). That magical stretch of free time never quite appears – or if it does, we’re too exhausted to do anything except lie comatose in front of a screen.

The solution? Pay yourself first.

With time, that means blocking out a regular slot on your calendar to work on your book, business, film, music, art, or whatever else it is you want to create. Then you protect it fiercely, treating it like any other urgent or important task or meeting. And you show up, even when you’re uninspired, tired, or you’re just not feeling it.

For me, this means writing from 8-9am every weekday morning, before breakfast. (But not before coffee – that would be madness.) This is when I write my blog posts, my newsletters to subscribers, my books and courses. Sometimes I’ll write more, later on. But even if I don't, the rest of the day goes better because I’ve already done what’s important to me, the thing that makes me more.. me.

For you, the optimal time might not be first thing. It might not even be every day. If you have a day job, it might only be an hour or two at the weekend. But whatever time you carve out, here’s how you make it work.

Make it regular

Take the decision-making out of it. You no longer have to choose when to work, or feel guilty that you haven’t started or done it yet. Procrastination isn’t an option. You just show up. On time, every time. Even when you don’t feel like it.

Once you establish this routine, you’ll find that you get into flow faster. Not every session will be brilliant. There will be times when you produce very little, or just stare into space. But that’s OK, because your subconscious will keep working on it behind the scenes.

Once your mind knows that this is now something you do, that the hard work of creating can’t be avoided with distractions and busywork, you'll find that solutions will come as if by magic, while you go about your day. You'll get ideas in the shower, on a walk, while cooking dinner. 

Make it joyful

Creative work is hard. And we tend to resist or avoid hard things. So do everything you can to make it joyful. Link your creative time with things you enjoy. I love coffee in the morning, for instance. So I savour my first coffee of the day at my desk, as I get to work. After my writing hour I make breakfast, then take a few minutes to really enjoy my second (and sadly final) cup of the day.

Make it easy

If you do need work clothes or tools, lay them out ready. Do everything you can to reduce the friction, and make it easier to do the work you want to do.

I’m a writer, so I don’t need a lot of equipment, or preparation. But I still decide what I want to work on the night before, and even open the relevant file on my computer so it’s there, ready to begin when I sit down the following morning.

Respect your rhythms

My peak creative time is now in the morning, but this is a fairly recent development. In by twenties, I used to write best late at night, in the hours before going out clubbing. Later on, I still preferred those still, peaceful hours after my son went to bed.

Then, I’d make sure I’d already done everything possible to make mornings go smoothly: clothes were laid out, packed lunched made. All I had to do was roll out of bed in time to get my son to school, then myself to work.

Now, I never open my email or touch my phone before my morning writing. But if your peak creative time is in the afternoon, maybe you want to get all the admin, email and other tasks done before then, so you can work undistracted. 

Make it sustainable

You're in this for the long haul, so pace yourself rather than going all-in and exhausting yourself before you've really begun. If you have a day-job, for instance, two hours every Saturday morning is so much better than working every weekend for a month then abandoning the whole project because you're exhausted, your partner is feeling neglected and your friends are starting to forget you even exist.

Plenty of people have steadily written their first novels or scripts in that kind of time, written songs and recorded them, or gradually transitioned from full-time work to part-time while building their creative business into something that can support them completely.

You can do it too. But it starts with slowing down, deciding what's important to you. And paying yourself first. 


Sheryl Garratt is a writer, and a coach helping experienced creatives of all kinds get the success they want, making work they truly love. If you’re ready to grow your creative business, I have a FREE 10-day course giving you 10 steps to success — with less stress. Sign up for it here.


About the Creator

Sheryl Garratt

Sheryl Garratt is a former editor of The Face and Observer magazines, and has written professionally for more than 30 years. She is also a coach working with creatives of all kinds. Find her at

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    Sheryl GarrattWritten by Sheryl Garratt

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