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Staying Creative and Staying Productive

A few days ago, I was lucky to host a panel discussion with four talented and successful (and in some cases, legendary) comics and graphic novel artists. One of the questions I asked was: how do you stay creative when you're up against a client's deadline, and how do you stay productive when there's no client and the work is entirely your own?" These questions have become particularly applicable to me in recent months, as I've picked up several screenwriting assignments while the kids were stuck at home (due to COVID-related school closures followed by school vacation). In other words: lots to do, very little time!

Arnon's Messy Desk
This is what it looks like when I'm trying to get multiple screenplays out of my head and onto a page!

One of the panelists who responded to my question suggested that routine is key. in the context of both productivity and creativity. I was reminded of the writing routine that Roald Dahl implemented: Every day, at the same time, he'd go out to his little garden cabin in the back yard, sit at his desk, and stay there for two hours. If he wrote ten pages or two words, it didn't matter, as long as he was there, and either writing or thinking about what to write. At the end of two hours, the creative energies were spent, and he'd go on with his day. Woody Allen, too, has a writing routine. Similarly, it involves creating a dedicated thinking space. In Allen's case, it's the white-noise solitude of the shower, where he can spend several hours per day, telling and re-telling his stories to himself, tweaking them and improving them with each repetition. For me, a writing routine developed several years ago, when I was working on "Hanna Foster and the Guardians of Eden". At the time, I had several work commitments during the day (I can't remember what they were! I might have been producing something...). To make sure I got my writing done, I set an alarm for 5am, and set to writing every day between 5 and 6 (when the kids would wake up). Although it was just an hour, I often managed to churn out 2-3 pages of new stuff! I found that the routine helped my productivity, but there was an additional benefit that I hadn't expected. The early start every day helped my creativity, too. There's something remarkable that happens when you start your creative work before the world can barrage you with worries and distractions. The mind is clearer, the focus is sharper. I could do more in that hour than in two hours in the middle of the day (especially if I had other work to tackle first). Over the years (and several screenplays), I've refined the system. I've learned that I'm more productive if I set myself benchmark goals. When I'm drafting a screenplay, I aim to write 3-5 pages per weekday. Knowing there's a page-count goal helps drive my early-morning writing. (for the record, I rarely wrote 5 pages in an hour! But knocking 2 pages off my goal certainly helped me hit my targets later in the day!) Working off a timeline or treatment helps, too, as I can chart my progress along the story arc.

And when it comes to creativity, I've managed to 'hack' the system, too. When I hit creative obstacles, I try to think about them as I'm going to sleep. More often than not, solutions seem to present themselves when I return to my desk in the very early morning (but they dissipate if I wait and let the day's stresses clutter my mind). We forget how busy the mind gets while we're sleeping!

My desk in the early hours of the morning.
Working Before Dawn

But getting up at 5am is hard (as anyone with a "regular" job knows, I'm sure!) The tool I've added to my arsenal to help with this actually has nothing to do with screenwriting. It's a smartwatch! (in my case, a Fitbit Charge 4). Some smartwatches have a feature that uses subtle heartbeat variations to track what stage of sleep you're in. You can then set a variable alarm that will wake you up when your sleep is shallowest and it's easiest to roll out of bed! For the last few months, I've been setting an alarm for 5am, and waking up at some point between 4:30 and 5, but waking up refreshed and ready to work, rather than groggy and foggy-brained. It's made that early-morning hour (or hour-and-a-half) that much more effective and productive.

Of course, everyone has a different approach to getting things done and to keeping the ideas flowing. What are your favorite ways to stay creative and productive?

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