As a creative entrepreneur, I often wrestle with how to manage my time, get things done, and nurture my creative zeal.

I experiment with how to find the balance between creative flow and structure. As a writer, should I follow the discipline advocated by some writers to put my butt in the chair everyday regardless of whether I have anything to say? Or should I listen to those who say that trying to force a piece of writing when it’s not flowing is just pointless?

If you’re like me, you know that during the day your energy ebbs and flows. Sometimes you’re good for a creative burst of thought or work on a project, other times you’ll be best polishing your existing work, responding to problems, doing email or grooming the cat.  And there may even be times that are good for meetings. (I hope this is true, given how meetings consume so much of organizational life.)

Managing the balance between flow and structure, while finding the best way to work with your own rhythms is key to productively accomplishing creative work (or really any work). I tend to err on the side of flow. I used to tell my leadership classes that my programs would be more like a sailing expedition than a motor boat ride. We’d reach our destination (the course objectives), but we’d be tacking a lot (responding to the needs and knowledge of participants), rather than driving straight ahead like a planned-by-the-minute training session. This helped some of my structure-loving engineers to relax a little. Sometimes.

Knowing that personal organization has never been my strong suit, in my first corporate job I convinced the purchasing officer to let me buy an expensive personal organizing system. Beautiful leather binder. Yummy designed pages. I was so hoping it could miraculously organize me.  If I had been the kind of person who loved making lists, using them, and was already anal about organization, it would have been perfect.

Mostly I ended up affectionately stroking its binder.

My need to be organized and structured without stopping the creative flow has made me very curious about time management systems and structures that creative artists and business leaders use to stay productive.

Although I yearn for big unstructured blocks of time to do creative thought-work, without a way of deliberately organizing myself, I can end up in the eddies, feeling brain-dead about what I intended to do.

After all, a flow of water down a river needs the riverbank to guide and contain it.

How to Flow with Structure: 7 Ideas to Try

  1. Know your chrono-type. We all follow slightly different clocks. If you’re curious about yours, read The Power of When by Michael Breus. Then, explore how you can adapt your days to fit your rhythm. Some people are most clear headed in the early morning; others are foggy until noon. Give your teammates a break and tailor your work to your own internal clock. (Who needs more glazed eyes or bodies keeled over in meetings!)
  2. See your work in big patterns or clumps. Different types of work take different types of energy—and require bigger or smaller chunks of time. Some projects like my writing take large concentrated blocks of time; reading email can be fit in when I’m half asleep. I want to map my high-value creative tasks against my high-value creative energy.
  3. Experiment. Most of us have failed repeatedly at optimizing our time. Maybe this is a game we’ll never really win, but it’s still worth playing around with whatever helps us feel satisfied as well as productive.
  4. Leave time for deeper work. In his provocative book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport rants that our attention-sucking environments risk robbing us of the time and capacity to do our most thoughtful, important work, the work where we could really make a difference, whether it’s designing a strategy or writing a novel. We need to vigilantly protect spaces for deep time.
  5. Make it visual. I love my computer tools — but there’s something totally cool about white boards that keep my important priorities right in my face.
  6. Remember breaks, retreats, vacations and the fact that things will never, ever go as planned.
  7. Celebrate small successes. A darn good idea that many of us neglect.

Back to you. What keeps you at your own energized, creative best? Do you have a system to manage yourself and honor your own rhythms and life, work and creative priorities? Tell me— I’d love to pass on more ideas here.

In the meantime, I’m off to a day that’s mine to create, adding a little structure to keep my mind focused and at the same time being curious where the muse will take me.

Because she often has her own agenda!