Your Creative and Productive Genius

On this week’s CBS Money Watch blog, I wrote about one of my favorite topics: finding when your creative and productive geniuses are at the best during the workday. This blog was inspired by a program Ivory Madison and I did recently on how to write a bestseller.

The purpose of this blog post is to get a little more detail on how to keep your genius log and how to make sense of it.

There are two pitfalls to avoid. First, avoid the temptation to ignore the instructions in the CBS Money Watch blog post and decide you’ll just look back at the end of the day and use your memory. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his famous studies on flow, gave beepers to people that would go off at random times, at which they would make records about their activities and feelings. Csikszentmihalyi notes that during “flow”—which can happen during both creative and productive tasks—distorts how time feels. In other words, your memory about how much time a task took, especially if it was synced to your genius cycle, will be way off.

Second, don’t set your timer with any strategy in mind, such as making it not go off during a meeting, or a long work stretch. Don’t be weird about your genius log, but also don’t try to hide it. People usually find it fun to learn that you’re doing a genius log. If a timer goes off and other people are around, tell them what you’re doing after you record the time, the task, the creative-productive percentage, and your effortless number. The perception of effortlessness is fleeting, so record it right away.

Here’s one day when I kept a genius log about a month ago:


Time Task Creative-Productivity Effortlessness
6:30am Working on book chapter 100%C 7
7:50am Reading business journals 80%P 3
9:10am Phone meeting with student 70%C 6
10:35am Answering zombie emails 95%P 5
12:15pm Answering tough emails 60%C 4
2:05pm Strategy meeting 60%C 3
3:20pm Returning phone calls 90%P 6
4:45pm Working on book chapter 100%C 1

Download a pdf of the genius log here.

On this day, I worked from home, on a combination of writing, keeping up on reading in my field, and getting through emails. I had one meeting, from 2-3pm. After repeating this exercise for three days, my genius pattern was revealed: creativity is the morning, until about 9am, best time for meetings is 12-1:30, afternoon best for productivity.

A major finding here is that when I need to write, as I am now, I have to get up early and take advantage of my creative window. When I need to get it done, it’s best to for me to get up at 5am, read the paper (WSJ and NYT) by 5:30, and then write from 5:30am until about 9. Ideally, hit the gym at 9, and then start what most people would consider a late day around 10:30.

There are three questions that come up when I explain a genius cycle to people. The first is: does a genius cycle change over the weeks, months and years. I know of no scientific data here, but what I’ve noticed is that creative tasks are easier for me when the days are shorter. And yes, it does change to reflect what you’re working on, family commitments (tough to be creative when a baby is crying), deadlines, and your interests. An obvious action step that results from this answer is that it’s a good idea to repeat your genius log every year or so.

The second question is: how much should I push back on a boss, or a system, that doesn’t allow me to flex my time. The answer is, don’t be stupid about it, but do what you can within the reasonable constraints. If you’re late on your taxes because the IRS deadline didn’t conform to your productive cycle, don’t expect a waiver of the penalty.

The third question is: how seriously should I take this idea? Take it as seriously as you are committed to doing great work. For me, that meant leaving my job as associate dean at USC so that I could write. The result was Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. Learning that I was creative in the morning—exactly when I needed to do calls, drive to work, and have meetings, didn’t allow me to write a decent paragraph in four years (except for weekends).

It all starts with mapping your genius cycle. As my guru on productivity (David Allen) once asked me: “what have you got to lose, besides the most incredible things you’re capable of doing?”

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