Set a Time Limit

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

In 2018, the average Instagram user on Android spent 53 minutes a day on Instagram. Over the course of the year, that’s 322 hours, the equivalent of over eight full 40-hour work weeks.

Imagine what you could create with 53 minutes a day! (Especially if you’re reclaiming that time from Instagram.) Even five minutes will move you further along your creative path than no minutes at all. You can begin to reclaim time for creative work by setting yourself a manageable limit.

You can use a technique called timeboxing, which means giving yourself a set amount of time to do one thing. One of my favorite devices is the kitchen timer. I’ve bought maybe a dozen of these in my life so far, and I plan to buy dozens more. I set the timer for a few minutes—for a short workout, for a sprint through really boring paperwork, or to get started on a big creative project—and then I press start. I give myself a window to work through. After that, I can choose to stop, and sometimes I do. But many other times, I keep going.

In the professional world, a popular productivity strategy is the Pomodoro method: set a timer for 25 minutes of uninterrupted time to complete a task, take a five-minute break, then start the timer again. After three of these 25 minute sessions, the person takes a longer 30-minute break.

A deadline is a variation of this time constraint. In her memoir Bossypants, producer and actor Tina Fey quotes Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” You can set a deadline and timed event to happen regularly: “Every day when I wake up, I’m going to take two minutes and write a note.” You might also challenge yourself to make something whenever you have idle time, like when you’re waiting for a bus or during commercial breaks. You won’t find inspiration by waiting for it; you’ll need to put the work in to uncover it. And you don’t only do creative work when you’re inspired, you do it because it’s on your schedule to do it.

Commit to a Size

The two most common dimensions we’re constrained by are space and time. If setting a time limit is timeboxing, then perhaps the space-analogous exercise can be called sizeboxing. You pick a limited size for your work and work within that.

If you’re recording music, scale down by committing to recording a song with only two instruments if you usually use more; or if you want to produce a lot of ideas, commit to writing thirty-second melodies for one week.

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