5 Time Management Best Practices for Creative Teams
We have a little inside joke within our marketing team. Whenever someone complains about not having enough time for their work, we fire back with the phrase, "Creativity. Isn't it about time?" We laugh at this phrase because it can be interpreted so many different ways; isn't it about time that we did something creative? Or, isn't creativity all about time?
Anyone who works in a marketing or agency environment knows that you can't produce quality creative work without sufficient time. In fact, lack of time is our number one complaint. All creatives recognize this, which is why most of us say our greatest work-related stress is "the pressure to deliver creative ideas and content faster than ever." The problem is, the average team spends most of their normal work hours attending partially relevant meetings, tending to fire drills, rummaging through emails, tracking time, and deciphering cuneiform on random sticky note requests, which means they have to finish projects outside of the typical 8-5 work day. So we come in early and stay late and work weekends to find the time and energy we need to produce acceptable work.
This approach may by a quick fix, but it can't last. It creates a burnout vortex where, one by one, we get overwhelmed with too much on our plates, even if the overload is fueled by our own desires to do our best work.
Real Work vs. Fake Work
The struggle to find more time is real. But what if we're thinking about time in the wrong way? I believe that instead of trying to find more time, we should be trying to reclaim the time we already have. If you think about it, we have 40 hours a week that we've committed to our jobs in our contracts. But what percentage of your week are you spending on top priority work and what percentage are you spending managing your perma-full email inbox or attending unproductive meetings?
According to our 2014 State of Work Survey, the average worker spends less than half of their time working on their primary job duties. That means less than 20 of our 40 hours a week is spent working on creative work or top-priority projects. So, what if we learned how to "reclaim" or "get back" some of those 20 hours we're spending on other stuff?
One way to think about a creative's workload is by distinguishing between what we like to call "real work" versus "fake work." Real work is the work that creatives love to do, the work they were hired to do—it's creating videos and designing webpages; it's inventing and creating something that people value and appreciate and stare at and say, "This is awesome."
Fake work is all the other work creatives have to do—lengthy status meetings, lengthy planning meetings, lengthy kick-off calls, logging time, hunting down assets in old email threads, navigating email back-and-forths with clients; it's all the administrative, project management-y stuff that surrounds the creative process.
As much as we creatives don't want to admit it, without some fake work, we wouldn't have real work. There has to be coordination and planning and performance tracking in order to deliver quality work on time and on budget. But ideally, fake work would take up five percent of our time and we'd have 95 percent of our time for real work. Sadly, the percentages are more like 45 percent real work and 55 percent fake work.
To free up creative time and energy you'll have to find a more ideal ratio of real work to fake work—the sweet spot between creative work and process. What you want to shoot for is "just enough" process—a scenario where your fake work isn't suffocating your real work, but is giving it more room to breathe.
Here are five steps to ensuring your process isn't robbing you or your creatives of precious time and/or energy:
1. Make them ask nicely
It sounds like something you would tell a five year-old, right? But really, make sure you establish some rules with your internal and external clients for making requests. Don't accept illegible sticky notes, verbal requests in the hallway, or half-baked emails. Put the burden of information back onto the requestor. Do this by:
- Establishing one place or method by which all requestors should submit their requests. Whether it's via an online request management tool, a Google Form that auto-populates into a spreadsheet, or simply an email alias for requests that goes to your traffic manager (or designated gate keeper), make sure that all requests are submitted in the same way, to the right person.
- Filling out a design or creative brief. After a request is submitted via your team or department's policy, either sit down with the requestor and go through the creative brief together, or have them fill it out on their own and send it back to you. Planning and production cannot and should not begin until the brief is submitted, complete, and agreed upon. This will save you hours of back-and-forth with the client and will help you establish firm requirements as well as determine any additional expectations before you begin. The result? Less rework, fewer revision rounds, faster delivery, and much more sanity.
No brief? No service.
Make sure your brief includes all the necessary information your team will need to know to do their best work: desired project goals and objectives, intended audience, tone, message, visuals, dates, etc. Don't overdo your request process, though. Only ask for what you absolutely need. Creative briefs are called "briefs" for a reason. If you make it too complicated and robust, your clients will do everything they can to get around it. You'll let a couple email requests get through, and the next thing you know you'll be right back where you started.
Changing your request process like this may take a minute for both you and your clients to get used to, but it's key to reclaiming your time to be creative. Without strict intake processes, creative teams end up spending a lot of their time responding to drive-by requests, emergency fire drills, unnecessary rework, and lengthy approval processes.
2. Set and post your priorities
Is your team too busy to take on more work? Probably. But that doesn't matter if you can't prove it.
Create and keep a backlog of all your current work requests where you can manage project priorities in alignment with your firm's strategic goals. Go over your list each week with your team so you can get on the same page, and then make it visible to any relevant parties.
Whether you post your backlog on in a cloud-based work management solution, write it on a whiteboard, blow it up on a TV screen, or share it in a Google Doc, you'll start to see more respect from your requestors. Your backlog will become a tool for saying no, or at least not yet, while also being able to justify your answers.
Organize your backlog by: Request Name | Submission Date | Due Date | Requestor Name | Department | Priority Ranking
It may also be helpful to create a scorecard for requests to help determine their strategic importance and therefore where they should rank on your team's list of priorities. List any important elements relevant to your corporate goals and assign weighted points to each one. Requests that score the most points should rank higher on your to-do list.
Strategic prioritization is key to reclaiming your time. Without it, fake work will continue to eat up time you could be spending on creative work.
3. Consolidate context to maximize flow
Context is critical to doing successful work. It's all the ancillary stuff you need to be able to complete a project—a creative brief, digital and hardcopy assets, InDesign templates, outlines, drafts, etc. This can take hours to gather if you don't have it all in one place. Consider keeping it in a single, organized file or using marketing work management software that stores all relevant information, communication, and documents in one easily accessible project tab.
Once you have your context together you can get into a flow (the term used to describe a highly productive work state void of all interruptions). You've probably experienced it before: you don't have meetings planned for the rest of the day, all the right tabs are pulled up on your computer, you put your headphones on and you forget about everything else but the task at hand. That's flow, and the more hours of flow creatives have during the day, the more productive they are and the more impressive their work is. But if all the information they need to get started is scattered in five different places, time for flow will be significantly diminished.
4. Template what works
As creative teams we regularly deal with repeatable work—work we do all the time, like banner ads, print ads, eBooks, etc.—that follows the same workflow each time. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel and spend unnecessary time in planning mode each time you begin another one of these projects, create standardized templates.
Start by documenting a workflow skeleton, or the basic workflow needed to complete a repeatable project, starting with filling out the creative brief. Create a template of this workflow, either in a document or a work management solution that will allow you to edit the workflow as needed. Track the time the project and all its subtasks takes, the number of meetings the project requires, all necessary milestones, etc., and then hold a "job-topsy" or post mortem meeting where you discuss, as a team, what parts of the project to repeat in the future and what to never do again. Then, update your template so that the next time you do a similar project you're ready to dive right in to the work.
Before you know it, your team will be completing repeatable projects faster and more efficiently before, which will cut back on time spent planning and gathering and help you reclaim your time for focusing on the creative part of the project.
5. Collaborate consistently
When you think of "collaborating," what comes to mind? Meetings? Email? Instant messages? Unfortunately, this is the collaboration culture we have created for ourselves, and it can be wildly unproductive. Because of this, creative teams spend hours navigating long email chains to find information they need and even more time in meetings where discussions and/or decisions may or may not get documented. All of this constitutes fake work.
In order to avoid this, collaboration needs to happen in the context of the work being done. However, it also needs to happen in a social and natural way so that all communication remains connected to the work. When timelines, related documents, project discussions, and other important information are all connected to the work, feedback doesn't get forgotten and time isn't wasted searching for answers or insights. Instead, everyone stays on the same page, in one place.
This can take the form of a short, productive status meeting every Monday, a daily 10-minute Agile Scrum meeting, or via a cloud-based marketing work management solution with a built-in collaboration software. But whatever you choose, make it consistent. If it's possible, communicate, collaborate, and deliver all in one spot. That way no one wastes time juggling multiple forms of communication while missing out on precious creative time.
Reclaim Time for Real Work
The best way to improve your creative work is to give it more time and energy. But you'll never be able to create more time. The trick is to reclaim the time and energy you've lost to fake work, and make sure you have just enough process to help you maximize your time for real work.