“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
That famous quote from Muhammad Ali really does captures the spirit and essence of productive, joyful work. Let's break it down:
1) “Float like a butterfly.” You move lightly and freely around and through your work until you see an aspect of it that inspires you. (Inspiration = an easy opportunity to do a bit of writing, editing, outlining, planning, telephoning, or other work.) And then you:
2) “Sting like a bee.” Go right for it; do the work as much and as well as you are able. And do it with assertiveness and gusto.
But once you've done your best, don't push it! You never see insects “push it.” Instead, when they think they are done stinging in one place, they go out and float again until they find the next opportunity to sting.
You also never hear butterflies and bees say self-critical things like, “Damn! That sting wasn't all it could have been.” Or, “Why couldn't I have gotten more pollen out of that flower?” Or, “Wow, I really do suck as a bee.” So that's another useful behavior to emulate!
3) Repeat until the project is done.
People get into trouble when they overemphasize either floating or stinging at the expense of the other:
People who float too much without doing much stinging are probably starting lots of works but not finishing them. I'm happy to report that for years I've referred to this condition as, The Butterfly Syndrome.
And those who sting too much without doing enough floating will probably get stuck on the same piece (or few pieces). I call that The Ahab Syndrome because those people often go down with the ship as their work or career stalls completely over that one piece.
Floating was what enabled me to: (a) be open to the Muhammad Ali quote when it popped, seemingly spontaneously, into my head, and (b) make the connection between it and productivity work.
But stinging was what enabled me to complete this post.