I’m not a lone wolf—far from it. I constantly lean on my team for the results we need at the Bank. I try to hire very smart people, and work with great third-party companies, in order to glean the benefit of their thinking.
But, as with all managers, there are times when the only way I can untangle a knot is by myself. Everyone hits impasses in the course of a day’s or week’s work. In my case, it’s usually some challenge related to communication: getting across the right message to a particular audience—whether it’s preparing a direct-marketing pitch, a point-of-sale or tradeshow communication, or a sales proposal for a current or potential client. I know where I need to end up. But I can’t always see just how to get there.
That’s when I take advantage of some quiet time, alone. When I was younger, and my knees were more accommodating, I used to run for two or three or four miles at the beginning or end of the day, and use the exercise to work out some messaging. Today, I run less than I used to, but I still get the same mental mileage out of swimming for 30 or 45 minutes, or spending 90 minutes or so in the gym. Where other people watch TV or listen to music from the treadmill, I try to listen inward, grappling with my current writing challenge. That quiet time allows me to concentrate, think things through, and solidify an argument. It’s all about getting started, and building some momentum in the creative process.
A piece of prose is a lot like a big jigsaw puzzle: a complex picture made up of many little pieces that must join together in the right way. Like the puzzle enthusiast, I work on writing section by section. I try to tackle the easy parts first (think of the border around a jigsaw puzzle), and put them away. That provides some forward momentum, an important sense that you’re making progress on something more complex.
Once I’m in the pool or in the gym, I try to work out another paragraph or two. I may not have all the adjectives and verbs in place, but I do know the subject and the substance. Afterwards, as I’m on my way to the office or heading home, I may only end up with a single sentence I’m satisfied with. That’s okay. Often, when I write it down, the floodgates open, and I’m able to start connecting the various paragraphs—adding whole sections to the jigsaw puzzle.
That effort is never perfect. If you’re a strict perfectionist, you may never get anything done. Understanding the difference between something that’s “perfect” and something that’s very effective is key. So, I don’t brood over a piece of prose.
I do, however, set it aside, typically for a day or two. After saving it on my desktop, making a copy of it, or putting it into a notebook, I come back to it a few times. Most importantly, I constantly read it aloud, concentrating on the flow, trying to keep the message simple. Listening with my eyes, as well as my ears, I try to figure out why something is rubbing me the wrong way—whether I’m dealing with my own prose or editing someone else’s writing.
Besides exercising, reading is an important part of my quiet time. The more you read, the better your writing becomes. As you observe more in other people’s prose—small nuances or a beautifully put-together sentence—your own style improves.
So much of work is a team effort. That’s a good thing, and it will never change. But carving out an hour or so everyday, where you can be alone with your thoughts, helps you become a more effective contributor to the group.
Interested in learning more about creative problem solving? Check out 7 Tips for Creative Problem Solving.