As content marketers, we’re well-versed on the formula for success.
We know that we need a documented content marketing strategy that includes our goals, editorial mission, distribution plan, and success metrics. We know we need to consistently measure our performance and optimize our tactics based on our learnings.
And we know we need to focus on quality, not quantity.
However, there’s one major point that’s often overlooked.
There’s something else we should all be doing that will undoubtedly increase our chances of success. It should be an imperative, but we rarely talk about or practice it.
And that’s making time to write.
The Importance of Creative Time
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met any creative who produces their best work in between distractions.
I doubt any writer has said, “I love writing in 20 minute increments between meetings. It really fuels my creativity!”
Or, “Answering phones, checking email, chatting with people who stop by my desk – that doesn’t keep me from my writing! I’m fine writing whenever I can squeeze it in.”
The truth is, our jobs require us to create content.
And not just any content. We’re working in a digital landscape where it’s harder than ever to cut through the noise and reach our target audiences. In order to do so, we need to create compelling, interesting, informative, and engaging content to attract and build relationships with our users.
And to do that, we must dedicate time.
A look at famous authors’ daily routines reveals one thing: They made writing a priority.
They found places where they could focus, and committed to writing daily, often for a set period of time.
Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning at dawn. As he told George Plimpton in the “Paris Review“:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.
Maya Angelou rented a hotel room in every town where she lived. She traveled to it and started writing every morning at 6:30, while laying across the bed.
Don DeLillo followed a routine that alternated writing and exercise:
I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle – it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours.
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation.
Michael Punke wrote “The Revenant” while working full-time at a Washington D.C. law firm. Each morning, he rose before dawn, went into the office, and wrote for several hours before his colleagues arrived.
Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule
While we content marketers may not be writing the next great American novel, our work is no less important or valuable. And our requirements are the same. We also need uninterrupted, creative time.
We know that every piece, even those that appear to be “low-effort” (listicles, for example), requires research, interviews, and a good chunk of time to be written.
And it’s not just content writers and editors who need this time.
Designers, videographers, photographers, and anyone who works on our visual and interactive content all require creative time, too.
There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.
When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.
Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.
When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.
How One Content Marketer Accommodates the Maker’s Schedule
Top content marketers recognize the need for creative time and build it into their schedules.
As a journalist, Conaway spent years working and writing abroad. He filed stories from jungles in Thailand, tea shops in Bangladesh, and countless airplanes.
“The only constant was this,” he says, “I couldn’t write unless I put aside all excuses, stopped rationalizing the impact of distractions, and made a conscious effort to carve out the time.”
He switched careers from journalism to content marketing, and was faced with a situation many of us can relate to:
“When I moved into content marketing, was asked to be the primary content creator and yet felt my time and attention continuously being pulled by frequent meetings, small tasks, and social media notifications, I knew I had to boldly defend my time if I was going to radically pursue the kind of focus that writing demands,” Conaway says.
To do this, Conaway is upfront about his need for time. He makes sure to block off time in his schedule and communicate to his team and managers when he’ll be working uninterrupted.
“Too often those in content marketing, especially those asked to roll up their sleeves and write, are hesitant to tell their team what they need,” he says. “I make my needs clear right up front, otherwise it can seem to non-writers in the company that the writing process can occur in small batches of a few minutes here and there. That’s simply not the case (and certainly not productive) for most writers.”
How Google Encourages Creative Time
Veronique Lafargue is another content marketer who is adamant about her creative time.
Before becoming Box’s Senior Director of Content Strategy, Lafargue spent nearly eight years as a Google marketer, most recently as Global Head of Content Strategy, G Suite.
In her talk at NewsCred’s 2016 #ThinkContent Summit, Lafargue spoke about how time is integral to her creative process.
For years, Lafargue thought that she’d been working efficiently. Google tools helped her cut the time she spent answering emails and running to meetings. Plus, Google is known for encouraging creativity through initiatives like their famed “20 percent” program, or regularly bringing in A-list speakers from every industry to inspire employees.
But one day, one of Lafargue’s colleagues sent out an email that ended up going viral. It was about the Maker’s Schedule, and how everyone needs to prioritize and protect their “Make Time”:
From then on, Lafargue started blocking out mornings for Make Time – as did her team members.
She used that time to focus on photography, her creative passion. That work caused Lafargue to dream about new types of imagery and approach her work differently, more like a creative director.
Inspired, Lafargue then commissioned photographs of her clients around the world who use Google products every day in their jobs. Lafargue and her team featured the images in a campaign that told those peoples’ stories. The result: a B2B content marketing campaign that saw 25% higher engagement than other content they’d created. And users were spending as much as five minutes engaging with the content.
How You Can Integrate the Maker’s Schedule into Your Company Culture
I’m also lucky to work for a company that values creative time. As the leading content marketing company, NewsCred understands that only exceptional content will drive business results – and that it takes more than an hour or two to create quality content.
My colleagues respect the writing time I block off on my calendar. My managers have even suggested that I work from home whenever I really need to focus.
But I know that not every content marketer has that luxury.
Many content marketers are required to be physically present at their desks – all day, every day. Or, they have managers who frequently ask them to rearrange their schedules to accommodate last-minute meetings.
Conaway agrees that there are many in our industry who are unfamiliar with the content creation process. But it’s up to us content creators to educate them about it.
“It’s going to take time for our collective understanding of content marketing to evolve to the point where we see it tied to creative processes – which demand deep focus,” he says.
Conaway suggests that content marketers start with the following:
- Effectively and mindfully communicate your needs. It’s easy to blame a manager that doesn’t understand, but a major reason this happens is because they haven’t properly been given the chance to.
- Understand your own needs. This is a process, of course, but the more content writers reflect on and understand their own creative process the better they’ll be able to communicate what they need, and why.
- Share with your colleagues articles like this one, or even free eBooks like “Deep Focus at Work.” Making creative time a priority means building a respect for focus into your company’s culture.
And in the meantime, start blocking off time in your day to write – and do everything you can to protect it.
Heather Eng is NewsCred’s Managing Editor.