How can I optimize my energy?

Capitalize on creativity to reimagine the status quo

Quick PSA before we jump into an awesome edition of Gridology: Get out and vote! Yesterday was day one of early voting in NYC, and I thoroughly enjoyed participating in democracy. The line was long, but spirits were high.

Despite the 3-hour line, it was fantastic to be out—sprawled across two complete city blocks—feeling the New York City energy. Plus there’s nothing better than wearing your “I Voted” sticker. It’s a fall fashion accessory necessity (say that five times fast)…

Today, I’m excited to be co-writing with Kyla Scanlon—a fellow Compound Writing member and a talented writer. It’s been a few months since my last collab, and today’s grid is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for some time: creativity. Before we jump in, I wanted to give Kyla a chance to introduce herself in her own words:

Hey, I am Kyla! I currently work in asset management, and spend most of my free time reading and running. Most of my work centers around building narratives with data, and I’m especially interested in game theory and behavioral economics. I am from Kentucky, currently based out of Los Angeles, and am so happy to collaborate with Ross on this grid!

Let’s get to it:


The most annoying work is boring work. There’s nothing worse than staring at the clock and watching time stand still as you do a mind-numbing task. You feel stuck—trapped in some weird time vortex of boredom, destined to be forever lost in the dreariness of the status quo. 

It’s a feeling I experienced at my very first internship. My high school offered the opportunity for seniors to forgo the last month of classes and opt into an internship program. So, I ended up being assigned to work at a hedge fund. My big project for the month was manual data entry—cross-referencing numbers on hundreds of PDFs to ensure they matched in a spreadsheet. The project made me realize that I never, ever wanted to be in a role that didn’t allow me to be creative—to dream of new solutions, innovate off the status quo, and optimize the wildly inefficient.

In John Mulaney’s wonderful stand-up special, New in Town, he goes into a hilarious bit about childhood fears:

He jokes that his biggest fear was quicksand. Even as adults, Kyla and I agree. However, not in the literal sense. While we have never walked into an actual pile of disintegrating mush, operating in the status quo and feeling bored doing repetitive tasks may as well be considered the same thing.

Both Kyla and I think one of the most difficult and dangerous things in life is the existence of a “status quo.” It’s because it entices us into a world of complacency. It encourages us to think, “Oh but it’s always been done this way… if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Even worse, it leads to thoughts such as, “How could I be the person who changes such a long-standing process? What makes me special?”

In essence, we deter ourselves from capitalizing on the whitespace in front of us. We turn off our creativity, resign ourselves to boredom, and never get anywhere exciting, challenging, or new.

In the workplace, abiding by the status quo is especially treacherous. A lot of large corporations can get stuck not innovating. In doing so, they leave an opening for startups to take advantage of new market opportunities, optimizing and enhancing the inefficient.

Thinking bigger, it’s also dangerous for us to get stuck in the status quo. We all have a finite amount of time and energy. Why should we spend hours on mindless tasks just because it’s always been done that way? 

So, for today’s grid, Kyla and I are digging into a question that centers around feeding your creativity but is anchored around optimizing your energy. When you use your energy efficiently, there’s nothing you can’t achieve. Mark Twain has a wonderful quote about creativity that’s worth sharing:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.”

If there are no new ideas, then anyone can be creative. It’s about affording yourself the space to learn, grow, and experiment. Today’s grid is about channeling that energy.

On the x-axis, we have how much time you spend on a given task or project. When projects take a long time, for instance, it may be because the status quo has become inefficient or because coming up with creative solutions is time-consuming work. This grid will explore how you can use your energy to make things more efficient and exciting.

On the y-axis, we have how creative you can be. We can’t always opt to pursue creative solutions to tasks. For example, you could be working on a project that depends on the status quo, and thus is heavy with standards. Or, perhaps, you could be working on something that requires exploration, allowing you to tap into your creative side.

Understanding the Grid

This grid is intended to help you migrate to the top half. When you’re on the bottom half, that means you’re performing inefficient, mind-numbing, and tedious work. While some tasks and projects require this level of painstaking detail and repetition, many don’t. Below, find ways to identify when you’re operating in the (boring) status quo and strategies for how to escape those moments.

Canvas

The project takes a long time, and the work you are doing is exciting and creative. The Canvas quadrant is an ideal place to land. It’s the intersection of processes that take a long time, but you’re able to approach it with a creative flair. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted in an afternoon. When working on a Canvas, you want to be in touch with how you think. You want to understand your own mental models and frameworks. Being creative should afford you the chance to be loose and free, but it’s easiest to be most creative when you have some guardrails. That’s because you need to understand exactly what you’re trying to innovate. If you don’t focus, there will be too many possibilities. Plus, it will be tough to work on a Canvas project without real passion. You have to be willing to put in the time—and sometimes it can be weeks or months—that a Canvas project will require. Creativity demands constant learning, which requires flexibility and adaptability. You have to give yourself a margin of error, and the freedom to tinker with ideas. Use tools like Whimsical, Figma, and Notion to map your ideas on a screen. Of course, scribbling on pen and paper always works great, too. Ultimately, you have to allow yourself to try, fail, learn, and grow multiple times.

Back when I was at LinkedIn, I worked on a Canvas project where I helped our customer success team be more productive. Every month, customer success managers had to make operational reviews for their top clients. To do so, here’s the process they’d follow: they’d navigate to 10-20 different Tableau dashboards, select custom filtering (which could take 30-45 seconds to load for each), take a screenshot of the charts and tables, and paste it into a PowerPoint presentation. Rinse and repeat for every customer. I knew there had to be a better way. So, for the better part of a year, I worked to imagine a simpler solution. I partnered with the team to create a distilled 7-page report that automatically filtered the most critical metrics for their top clients. A process that used to take 10-12 hours a month per customer success manager now took just one hour. A creative solution broke through the status quo.

Mud

The project takes a long time, and the work you are doing is boring and abides by the status quo. The Mud quadrant is a tough place to be, but it is also ripe with opportunity. It’s as if you go off-roading in a Jeep and you get stuck in the mud. You start spinning your tires, dirt spraying everywhere, the car exerting force... but you’re not getting anywhere. That said, you have the chance to be a hero—the person who figures out the solution to get back on the road. Being in the Mud happens with assigned work or with projects you’ve inherited. The work is usually redundant and makes you want to pull your hair out. Not only are you bored, but you’re “busy”—all you can do is listen to podcasts while you input numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. You’re stuck.

For example, in the first few months at Kyla’s job, she was tasked with building her team’s external communication experience. Her team was deep in the Mud. Emails were piling up and meetings needed to be scheduled across numerous time-sensitive projects. The team responded to ad-hoc requests and repeated similar tasks to each other because there was no unifying information to organize everyone. It was overwhelming. So, Kyla drafted an internal website that would serve as a website for requests, responses, and all other forms of communication between her team and relevant stakeholders. It took time to get people on board with the concept, but once they were (and understood the value it added) the website made a huge difference in boosting team productivity and happiness.

So, to get out of this quadrant, let your mind wander. Ask yourself an important question: If you could redesign the process for how you are doing what you are doing, what would you create? Let that question fill your mind as you trudge through the Mud work. Share your ideas with others. Do they get excited about your solution? When you carve out the time to calculate what needs to be changed, you can communicate the impact of what getting out of the Mud would mean to relevant stakeholders.

Light Bulb

The project takes a little time, and the work you are doing is exciting and creative. While it may feel as easy as flipping a switch, light bulbs don’t just “turn on.” Said simply, the electricity flows into the bulb through a thin wire, a bunch of science happens, and then the wire heats up and glows. (Disclaimer: We aren’t scientists.) That said, the bulb only glows because of friction created between the wire and the electricity.

When applied to energy optimization, Light Bulb moments feel like a blip of serendipity, a big bang, a “Eureka!” While moments like these can seem and feel random, they occur more frequently when you take the time to learn, reflect, and practice. Light Bulb moments are the result of figuring out a thousand ways something won’t work (à la Edison). Once you find the solution that does work, it doesn’t take long to implement.

When you are focusing on putting yourself in a position to grow—that means reading, having interesting conversations, listening to podcasts, or watching meaningful films—your brain will connect dots in ways that others can’t. We are a reflection of what we read and listen to. When you engage with personal and interesting content, it empowers you to be creative in ways that only you can be.

Band-Aids

The project takes a little time, and the work you are doing is boring and abides by the status quo. Band-Aids are patches for small yet annoying wounds. Let’s say you have a blister. Typically, the first thing you’d do is peel off a Band-Aid and stick it on for some relief. However, this treatment rarely cures the problem. Over time, the Band-Aid becomes a nuisance. It gets caught on things, peels off, gets dirty, and ultimately the pain returns. A Band-Aid is a system patch… but system patches aren’t effective forever. Eventually, there needs to be an overhaul. It’s like having an iPhone 5 and trying to run iOS 14… your phone simply can’t handle the new operating system. You’d need to buy a new one. (Pro Tip: The iPhone 12 Pro is awesome.) When Band-Aids pile up or go unchanged for extended periods, they transform into Mud quadrant projects.

Generally, to escape the Band-Aid quadrant, you need to dedicate time for healing. Running with our blister analogy (pun intended), it doesn’t make much sense to participate in a marathon if your feet are covered in blisters. By taking time to heal, you’ll run much faster and with less pain. When it comes to your work, healing means taking time to pause and brainstorm a better way. Sometimes, you may need to explain to others that short-term solutions are never the correct solutions for long-term problems. Live in the Light Bulb and Canvas quadrants for ideas as to how you can channel your inner creativity to solve Band-Aid challenges.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. This grid doesn’t account for everyone’s tolerance for boredom and the status quo. For some, settling into redundant work is a nice way to relax while also being productive. For others, it’s soul-crushing. Some people enjoy doing “status quo” jobs such as accounting or legal work. That’s fine (and necessary for a functioning society). This grid is more geared to those who seek out variety in their day to day lives.

  2. This grid assumes we always will have the opportunity to flex our creativity. Sometimes, we can’t be creative when we want to be. It’s hard to shift entire organizations in one direction without overhauling tasks that have been stuck in Mud for a long time. Some work needs to be completed in a certain way.

  3. This grid assumes you have an easy time channeling your creativity. Where does creativity come from? Finding sources of inspiration is a challenge for many. This grid doesn’t solve the inspiration problem, but hopefully, we’ve provided relevant examples as to how you can get your creative juices flowing.

Energy optimization comes from allowing yourself to be creative in situations where innovation is needed. We all have been covered in Mud or have needed a Band-Aid. Typically, those aren’t fun experiences. They’re annoying and cumbersome and drain our energy. When we have the chance to operate like a Light Bulb or paint on a Canvas, the options are limitless. Opportunities start to present themselves. Excitement builds. When you have chances to innovate off the status quo, don’t shy away from them… lean in and grab a paintbrush.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross & Kyla


If you enjoyed today’s post, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family, or colleagues. As always, please reply to this note or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback, have ideas for a post, or want to collaborate. Want more from Gridology? You can always access the entire archive here or you can check out the podcast. If you want more from Kyla, check out her blog, and follow her on Twitter!