Can Creative Work Be Managed By A Productivity System?

A couple of months ago I told you how I worked without any kind of productivity management for all of 2017. That followed several months at the end of 2016 where I didn’t find it helpful to manage my tasks and projects.

For a few years I followed the Getting Things Done (GTD) system or productivity management and I found it very helpful in doing just that. I was able to get more work done. Then I didn’t. I felt I’d reached a point where I was spending more time and energy managing the work I had to do, than actually doing it.

I came to the conclusion that there were two main reasons why the system stopped being useful for me.

  1. The nature of my work changed to nearly all writing and I think creative work can be challenging to manage with productivity systems.
  2. An understanding about how I work best, which isn’t always conducive to how productivity systems expect you’ll work.

I realized toward the end of 2017 that I hadn’t completed as much as I wanted to and then out of necessity I did manage my tasks for a few weeks and noticed I was able to get a lot done. I’m again committed to productivity management and as a result, have been thinking more about it.

Since I have, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts. Today I want to talk about the problems I have managing creative work and next week I’ll talk about how I think they can be solved.

Creativity and Productivity Can Be at Odds

I’ve talked in the past about the different environments in which creativity and productivity thrive. The things you typically do to maximize one tend to be contrary to what you would typically do to maximize the other.

Productivity is taking the most direct route and then figuring out how to make it more and more direct. Creativity is wandering aimlessly for no other reason than to wander and see what you might discover along the way.

Productivity establishes routines and automation in an effort to seek greater and greater efficiency. It likes for things to be well-defined with clear start and end points and easily defined success and failure. It optimizes a single way of looking at something and refines the known.

Creativity breaks routines for no other reason than to try something a new way and stir up a little chaos. It can appear to waste time and it often deals in vague concepts that have fuzzy edges. Creativity is an exploration of the unknown and it likes to see the unknown through as many different perspectives as possible.

I could go on, but I trust you get the idea. Since, I’ve written and talked about the tension between creativity and productivity before, I’ll point you to a few of those articles for more.

Ultimately I think productivity systems try to do what they can to help you be more efficient with your time, where you have to allow for and risk wasting time when it comes to creative work.

Creative Work has Fuzzy Edges

I often say creative tasks have fuzzy edges, but I’m not sure I’ve ever done a good job explaining what I mean.

Creative tasks can span days, even weeks, which makes it somewhat pointless to assign time based meta information to them. Sometimes you can predict how long a creative task will take. Some parts of the process I can estimate well, but others I can’t and won’t really have a sense of how long they’ll take until I’m in the middle of the task and sometimes not until I’m finished with it.

Despite taking as much time as they do, the tasks aren’t necessarily easy to break down into smaller chunks. I can often break them down after the fact, but not before I begin the work.

It can be difficult to know the specifics about some creative work until you’re engaged in the work. It can also be hard to tell when one task ends and another begins. Many creative tasks within a project bleed into one another. There’s a transition where you work on both tasks for a time until you stop working on one and are fully engaged with the other.

The same type of task can also have vastly different meanings in terms of project development. For example, the way I make notes for one type of article is completely different from how I would do it for another, though I again, I often can’t tell until I’m involved in the work.

I suppose you could say many of the same things about other types of work, but I think it boils down to the idea that creative tasks sometimes need to discover themselves in the process. You can’t always know in advance what a creative task will be. Sometimes you figure out what the task is by doing it.

A task you discover while actively working on it is easy to talk about and incorporate into a system after the fact, but it’s difficult to place in a system where you need to assign unknown meta information in advance.

Not all creative tasks are like this, but more than enough are to throw off productivity systems.

I do think you can productively manage creative work, but I think you need a somewhat different mindset and an understanding that most work isn’t 100% creative or 100% productive. Most of the work we all do has components of both, but usually more of one than the other.

I’ll talk about this more next week.

We’re All Different, but Productivity Systems Forget

I think everyone who does creative work has their own process. There may not be huge differences from one person to the next, but creative people tend to march to their own drumbeat and tend to need a little more freedom in how they work.

I’m no different. I have and need my bits of weirdness that I inject throughout the day to help me do my best work. For the last month or so, I’ve started every writing session by plugging headphones into my laptop, cranking the volume of iTunes and my laptop to their maximum, and singing Led Zeppelin’s “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” loud enough to bother my neighbors. Why? I don’t know, other than to say I enjoy singing the song and when I’m done I’m in the mood to write.

I suppose productivity systems like GTD would have me add a repeating task to sing the song, but it really isn’t necessary.

GTD is about working on what’s next. It acknowledges deadlines and understands that our days come with surprises that we sometimes have to deal with right away, but ultimately it helps you choose what to work on next or rather right now.

You do that by processing tasks and projects with different meta data, or criteria in GTD speak. An easy example is the use of time. If you only have half an hour, you can process your work in apps like OmniFocus and Things so they have time information associated with them. You can then use the apps to filter all your tasks so you only see those you can complete in 30 minutes or less.

Time isn’t the only criteria you might add. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, offers four criteria, which you should consider in this order

  1. Context—Do you have the necessary tools (phone, computer, whatever) available? Do you have an internet connection? Does the task require you to be in a certain physical location?
  2. Time—Do you have enough time to complete the task?
  3. Energy—Do you have the focus to work on the task?
  4. Priority—How important is the task?

The only one of the four that ever matters to me is energy. I suppose time comes into play a little, but most of my tasks will span multiple work days. Some I will work 20 minutes here and 30 there. Some I work on every day for a week or two.

What I find mostly limits my productivity is that sometimes I don’t have the energy for certain kinds of work.

How I Work Best

I find I work best from routines. I like to schedule my days to work on the same things at the same time from one day to the next. Not having to think about what I’ll work on, allows me to build up more energy for the work itself. Instead of spending a few minutes to decide what’s next, I can jump into what I usually work on at that time of day.

I prefer to work by setting a few large goals for the week and choosing tasks from within the larger projects to work on each day or over several days. For example this week two of my larger goals involve this series of posts and to continue work on a second edition of my Design Fundamentals book.

I carve up time in my day into blocks of one or two hours and when the appropriate block of time arrives, I’ll work on the series of posts.

At the start of the week I’ll decide which of the projects have priority for the week and I’ll work the higher priority work before the lower priority work. That way if the work on the more important project is going well, I might continue with it instead switching to the other. It’s a way to get the most out of my focus levels throughout the day.

An obvious downside to relying on routines is that sometimes life intervenes and you get thrown out of your routine. It’s possible one small interruption early can throw me off and lead to a less than productive day. On the positive side, the routine usually helps me to get back into it. Something that gets in the way at 10:30, probably affects that block of time only and I can be back into the routine when the next block starts.

One of the things I’ve noticed about myself since my very first job, is that I work better at certain times of day, which, again, comes down to my energy level.

I almost always have a hard time getting back to work after lunch. I’ve been this way as long as I can remember and whenever possible I eat as late as I can. I know I’ll be more productive before than after and I push lunch back an hour so that I’m working more before than after.

There are other things like this that I’ve noted throughout the day and they all come back to energy levels. What type of energy and how much I need of it to do certain kinds of work compared to how much and what type of energy I have at various times of the day.

Closing Thoughts

The things you do to maximize creativity are different than the things you do to maximize productivity. Often the two can be at odds with one another.

Where productivity systems prefer projects than can broken down into distinct tasks that are well-defined, creative work tends to be fuzzier. Projects don’t break down quite so easily and the same task can vary significantly from one project to the next. You often don’t know what a creative task is until you’ve been working on it awhile.

Add that different people work best under different conditions while productivity systems tend to assume a sameness as if we all do our best and most efficient work under very similar conditions.

I don’t think that’s true of anyone, let alone people who do more creative work. We need additional freedom and variety and flexibility than I think productivity systems desire.

None of this is to say that I think productivity systems bad or that you can’t increase the productive output of your creative work. I think you can and I’ll talk about some of the ways next week.

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