Last week, I blogged about the way creative people seem to be good at shifting their energy into the things that require the most creativity. They make a sketch, a jig, an outline to keep make the finicky parts less labor intensive.

One of my favorite law school professors told me that when he practiced at a big law firm, he seldom even made a phone call without jotting the bullet points he needed to cover first. I was a little surprised that someone as smart as he was would feel any need to take the time to do that, but he said it helped him be more efficient. He was right.

Meta-work avoidance

It’s easy to find myself resisting this kind of meta-work, either avoiding it or feeling very ill at ease while doing it because some is very prudent but it very easily devolves into time-wasting. It’s easy to dither. It’s easy to multiply busywork.

The task seems harder as you unwittingly load yourself down with additional criteria. Eventually the definition of success is well beyond the scope of the need, you are hemorrhaging joy, energy, and time you could have spent making something good enough.

It’s tempting, especially once burned by this kind of slog, and even more when time is limited, to just roll up your sleeves and start without even knowing what success is. In this case, you can also burn through far too much joy, energy, and time, only to find your energies misdirected. Then, not only is the wrong thing built, but you now have to tear it down before you can restart with whatever you can salvage.

In either case it’s easy to feel like you deserve better results because you’re working hard when you’re acutally wasting time. I want to concentrate my energy on the important stuff, building a hoist instead of breaking my back. Drafting a short outline instead of writing a malformed document that changes objectives midway through and requires a lot more editing and rewriting.

Working smarter

The trick is to know when the work-saving work is saving work. (Heh.) Some kind of criteria are required for good work. This too can depelete some verve and create some psychological overhead. Too bad. Doesn’t seem to be much of a way around it, does there?

There are a few things that help though.

Experience. This seems to be one of the marks of a pro. She has some good outlines for common tasks, and an idea how long it will take to flesh them out just enough to get into the real work.

Great. What’s a newbie to do while gaining all this valuable judgement?

Have your pi. I have friend who told me that when he was in a Harvard physics lab they (at least somewhat jokingly) referred to the, “pi factor,” in estimating time: Whatever your estimate was multiply by about 3.14. Whatever the tool is, allow some extra time where you don’t yet have much experience.

Eschew perfectionism – especially about meta-work. Note the little turntable Howarth made in the making-of video from the last post. It is a clean, functional, unstained, unpainted, assembly designed to do the job well behind the scenes. Zero additional attention required.

Timers. Bar examinees practice dividing their time up to read and understand essay questions, write a good outline, and then cover the important stuff first so that when they need to write answers under pressure on exam day, they can do it fast.

As a law student, I adapted this idea applying the Merlin Mann’s idea of a “dash” to the meta-work by setting a timer when I wasn’t sure valuable my metawork was going to be. I’d make a quick estimate of the available time and the value of what I was doing, and then set a timer and work a hard as I could until it tolled.

When it did, I used what I had. If it didn’t turn out to be useful, I could abandon it without losing very much time, and give more energy and focus to the real work with one less doubt tugging at my attention.