As I grew up, grew old, got married, and had children, my schedule became increasingly tight, and with more and more people involved, my obligations became increasingly difficult to manage. People introduce chaos into life, and that chaos can only be tamed to an extent with careful scheduling and time management. What I discovered and then communicated in my book The Keys to Prolific Creativity is that getting many different things done is much more about assigning priorities and learning how to focus than it is about tight time management.
To that, I want to add another concept that crosses over many disciplines, which is friction.
In this metaphorical usage, friction is anything that increases the resistance or difficulty of moving a thing or initiating or completing an action. In physics, friction is the rubbing of one object against another (or a medium, like water or air), resisting acceleration and dissipating inertia. In our habits, it’s the resistance to doing one thing and the psychological ease of doing another.
Consider exercise. There is a certain amount of friction to engaging in training for most people. You have to change clothes, fill up a water bottle, find a towel, and drive to the gym before you can begin the task. All of these take time, but more importantly, they are other tasks that have to be completed before you can begin what you want to do. Then when you get there, you may find more friction, such as crowds that force you to use different equipment, or you may find your favorite machine broken. Before you begin, you may remember that you’ll have to shower afterward, which might discourage you from bothering with the whole affair. This friction works against the will.
I think of willpower, to the extent that it exists, more like a muscle, a thing that is exercised and strengthened rather than a thing that you “have,” but even with this conceptualization of it, it is of a limited quantity. A hungry man can resist a free cake for only so long. A tired man can force himself to do a repetitive task only so many times.
Friction increases the difficulty of performing tasks that we wish to perform, thus lowering the likelihood of us performing them. If we reduce the friction associated with certain tasks, we increase the likelihood of successfully completing them. Going back to exercise, imagine that you wear gym clothes all day and that you have a gym in your garage or office, and nobody cares if you are sweaty. It becomes much easier to hop in and do the work since you don’t have to waste your willpower on menial prerequisites or waste your time in preparation and transition to the next task. It’s easier to work out when you only have 20 minutes if you know you don’t have to spend any time or effort getting to the workout and starting the task.
Friction goes the other way, too. If you want to do something less often or decrease the likelihood you will successfully do a thing, you can attempt to increase the friction associated with the task. Want to eat less junk food? Make it more difficult. Put junk food in the cabinet and put fruit on the counter (reduce the friction to the thing you should eat instead). Put a combo lock on the fridge. It seems silly, but the process of unlocking the fridge can add enough friction that you will reduce your fridge grazing since you will have to stop and think about what you are doing prior to eating. Someone who wants to drink beer less often can simply take the beer out of the fridge when he feels like he drinks too much, and it will reduce his chances to drink since he’ll have to either drink the beer warm or else wait for it to get cold again.
These lessons can be applied to your creative process as well. If you want to get more writing done, make it easier to begin writing, easier to continue, and harder to stop. Put your laptop on your kitchen table, so during moments of downtime, you might be inclined to open it up and at least look at your current document (you can always move to a more isolated space during your dedicated work time). Put on headphones when you write so that you hear fewer things that will distract you. Play music that doesn’t deeply affect you but instead fades into the background.
Set small goals each time you write so that you won’t quit before you get a certain amount of work done. This increases the friction of quitting. Tell yourself you won’t get up to use the bathroom till you finish the current paragraph. Mini-goals that are quantifiable also have the benefit of exercising your willpower and increasing your task focus in a small, incremental way.
Need to practice guitar more? Find ways to reduce the friction associated with practice. Put your guitar on the wall so you look at it often. Put an amp near your favorite spot to sit on the couch, so you are inclined to plug in and practice in those many moments during the evening that might otherwise be spent on social media or looking at your phone. Get a headphone amp so you don’t have to worry as much about noise bothering others and can hear yourself with full gain wherever you might be. Increase the friction of quitting by deciding on a small goal when you pick up this guitar, like nailing a particular measure or musical passage or coming up with a single solid compositional idea and recording it.
The concept of task friction is useful not just for those with children and other domestic obligations but also for people who have difficulties focusing on tasks for long periods, or those who are easily distracted. Some people work much better by doing six short practice sessions in a day rather than sitting down and working for two hours straight. Even those with a high ability to focus will find it easier to practice for five separate hours throughout the day than to sit down for five hours straight with their instrument. Reducing the friction associated with beginning a creative task increases the likelihood that a person will actually start it, and they will also do it successfully more often than if the task seems large and monumental (and thus intimidating to begin).
I knew this to be the case when I was a graduate student. I would practice in the morning before work, teach a class, practice for another hour, teach again, get lunch, and spend a bit more time with my guitar, then teach another class. I would have at least three hours of dedicated work before I even left for my second job. When I taught lessons, there were many holes that would appear in my schedule due to cancellations or students adding and dropping. Since I was alone, in a room, with my guitar, it was very easy to fill all those free moments with more practice. I didn’t get burned out, either, because my practice was so spread out over the course of the day. I had many opportunities to disengage and do something else.
This approach also gave me flexibility. I could drop practice to do a more pressing task (often paperwork) or add practice in when things opened up unexpectedly. Since I always had a guitar with me, it was easy to pack the day with play time. If I had followed conventional time management advice and stuck to a rigid schedule, I would have accomplished much less than I did. This feeds back to my ideas about priorities. My priority was playing guitar; it wasn’t other concerns like maintaining my house, which I was seldom at anyway.
Reducing time-wasting activities is often about friction, and reducing those open up your schedule for the more productive things you would prefer to have done after you realize you have wasted your time. Adding friction to time sinks reduces friction for productive tasks. Do you look at your phone too often? Plug it in when you get home, thus making you physically move your body to engage with the device. Take the social media apps off of your phone and make it so that you must be at a PC to use social media. Get a gaming console instead of a gaming PC. You’ll have to physically enter a different space to access the distraction rather than just minimizing your work and opening up a game. I can attest to the effectiveness of this approach, as I used it between 2014 and 2018 when I put my consoles with my TV, which was not only in a different room but on a different floor of my house.
I didn’t give up video games or even try. What I did was add the appropriate amount of friction to the activity so that it was hard to waste time that I would regret. I had to be intentional about playing a game.
After adding friction to what you want less of, decrease friction with what you want more of. Put books on the coffee table, where you’ll be included to pick them up and read them when you feel bored and want some sort of distraction. Put blank paper and a clipboard there for sketching or a notebook for writing ideas. Make the things you wish you did more of more accessible, and you’ll find that you do them more often.
Even now, I seek to find ways to maximize this phenomenon. If every time I got bored and checked my email or did some other pointless task, I was instead able to easily pick up a guitar, I expect I could effectively double my creative output in the Zul project. As it is right now, I only really practice or generate ideas sitting at my computer, alone, in the middle of the night, and that space has a lot of competition with my books.
This article was written on a laptop I keep at a table in my library and homeschool room. When my children were on task, and I had nothing to do, I wrote.
All those little things add up, by the way. Even squeezing in 500 extra words a day means you could complete your book weeks earlier, giving you even more time for other pursuits.
The last thing I will say about friction is that you can intentionally do the opposite of everything I said! Taking the gym as an example, if you set up an exercise session that is intentionally difficult to get to, you can ensure that you take that session extra seriously. If it takes thirty minutes to get to the gym and get suited up, you will also make sure you have the right pre-workout, mid-workout meal and are really doing everything you can before you leave.
I would recommend this only for people who have a lot of extra time and have their priorities squared away. I had this approach to working out around age 30 in Las Vegas. I was in incredible shape by the end, but I also had a glut of free time, so spending two hours a day at the gym was not only doable but easy. However, as my life became more complex, that approach became detrimental. I would end up not going at all because I couldn’t take the session seriously or stay long enough to justify the up-front time investment. Injuries only increased that friction, eventually making my gym membership a waste, and my body suffered for a time. I found it was much better to move as much of my workout close to home, starting with cardio and then more weights as I could afford.
Again, flipping this to the creative side, I used to wear a full suit every day I went to the university to practice. I wanted to adopt a mindset that what I was doing was serious and that I was at a job, being a professional. Even though I was very busy, my life was fairly simple – everything was music, so there was no friction from anything else. I could afford to take the time to wear a suit just to show up to a practice room. I could afford to be uncomfortable and inefficient with my focus. It was a good way to think for a time, but I ended up growing a lot more when I just started filling up the gaps rather than trying to block out four hours to be really serious about my instrument.
I am an independent writer and musician. You can read or listen via audible to my creative productivity book, Keys to Prolific Creativity, on Amazon, which is also the best place to find all my fiction. My music can be found at zulonline.bandcamp.com.