The Difficulty Including Creative Work in Productivity Systems Like Getting Things Done (GTD)

Creativity with it’s winding and meandering journeys and productivity with its straight line efficiency don’t always get along. What you do to improve one seems to reduce how well you can complete the other.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about being more productive. First were some thoughts about the importance of focus and then it was an overview of the Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system.


GTD has helped plenty of people, myself included, get more done and be more productive, however, it’s not a perfect system. It can be difficult to include creative work in a meaningful way that helps you do the work quicker or better.

Today I want to continue this series and talk about the issues I’ve had trying to fit creative work into GTD. In fairness, it’s not just GTD. It’s all productivity systems and the always existing tension between creativity and productivity. The focus will be on the issues. In a couple of weeks I’ll offer some thoughts about how you can still get productivity systems and creativity to play nice together.

Note: If you’re unfamilar with GTD, you should probably read the previous post in this series before reading this one.

Creative Tasks are Hard to Define in Advance

In his book, David Allen talks about vertical and horizontal focus. Vertical focus is about projects with well-defined outcomes and the next actions to reach those outcomes. Horizontal focus is about single (though also well-defined) tasks that we need to be reminded about.

With creative work, the act of creation is often when the task gets defined.

All productivity systems, GTD included, are focused on breaking up larger projects into groups of smaller, actionable, and well-defined tasks. Creativity tends to have more ambiguously defined tasks. That’s the biggest conflict I find between creativity and GTD. It’s not only creative work, though. It’s really anything where tasks are difficult to define.

With creative work, the act of creation is often when the task gets defined. How can you add those tasks to a system when you won’t know what the tasks are until you’re immersed in the creative process?

For example say you’ve started a new design. You’ve talked with the client and understand the problem you’re to solve. You’re ready to develop a concept for the site. How would you break that down into well-defined tasks?

I find that difficult, because I don’t necessarily know where the concept will come from or how I’ll arrive at it. I’m sure some of my time will be spent thinking about it while I stare off at the ceiling. My subconscious will work on it while I’m out shopping for groceries or hanging out with friends one evening.

I’ll probably spend time looking at other websites, magazines, nature, anything for inspiration. I’ll spend some time sketching and some time organizing lists of words and notes and thoughts. The thing is, I don’t know exactly what I’ll do for a given project that will lead me to a concept. I explore different things on different projects. I also have no idea how long I’ll need to do any of these things.

Creative work is more difficult to define down to the task level because the tasks are often found in during the creative process. That ends up leaving creative tasks as something more encompassing than what we typically think of as a task.

For example while writing a book this spring and summer I had tasks like:

  • Make notes
  • Write draft
  • Edit draft

Each of the above would span days or weeks. Tasks tend to be things you can do during a single work day. I could break each of the above up into different chapters or even sections I suppose.

  • Write draft chapter 1
  • Write draft chapter 2
  • Write draft chapter 3

The above isn’t going to help me get a draft written any quicker or better, though. It’s not a necessary reminder while working on the book either. Being focussed and having deadlines were more than enough of a reminder. The tasks become little more than extra stuff to manage.

GTD cuts across a wide list of tasks over different projects. Creativity focuses on a single thing and takes time for exploration. I find I can break creative projects into small subprojects, but it’s more difficult trying define the work down to the task level. I usually end up with something generic like write draft that lasts multiple days or weeks.

With a lot of creative work you simply don’t know what the specific tasks are until you’re in the middle of the work. You can add specific tasks to your system as you explore, but you typically explore as you think of things to explore. Having to stop to think about where to go next lessens the exploration.

Creative work also doesn’t know what specific outcomes it will arrive at. The reason for creative exploration is so you can discover the outcome as well as how to get there in the process of exploring. You can define the outcome generically, but not with the level of specificity GTD wants.

Creativity, Time, and Flow

Time is another issue. I find my work isn’t bound by time so much as guided by it. I need to finish things in a reasonable amount of time, but exact dates usually don’t exist. It’s also difficult to estimate wow long it might take to complete creative tasks. Tasks that required a few hours on one project sometimes require weeks on another.

Another time factor with creative work is the preparation that’s usually required to get into a state of flow. It’s difficult to know how much time that will be prior to each creative session.

What happens when you do find yourself in a state of flow, but the clock says it’s time for another task? You want to keep that flow going as long as possible. It’s irrelevant how much time you schedule to be creative, you want to keep going with it as long as the muse continues to hang around.

This isn’t really a GTD issue as the system doesn’t require deadlines on tasks and projects. GTD would suggest you continue with your creative flow as long as it lasts and the system will be there to help you decide what to do next when your ready for more.

Still you are adding time as one of the criteria for choosing what to work on next. If you can’t reasonably estimate how long your work will take it doesn’t help all that much as a criteria for choosing. Too many of my tasks require far more than an hour or two to complete.

If a creative task is going to take days or weeks, how do you know when it’s time to choose another task to work on? You’re going to work on other tasks while working to complete the one creative task. If that’s the case, why do you need to add the creative task to the system. You don’t need to be reminded about it and your decisions about when to work on it and when to stop will have nothing to do with the system.

Closing Thoughts

There’s a tension between productivity and creativity that’s evident when you try to complete creative work more productively. Any system to help you manage tasks is going run into some difficulty when the work to be managed is creative.

Most of the difficulty revolves around trying to define creative tasks and add criteria to help you decide when to work on them. Creativity resists this kind of definition making it more challenging to include in a task management system.

Time is another factor that leads to issues. Creative work often requires prep time and you don’t want to end creative or productive flows when they happen.

I’ll pick this up again next week and share how I work with GTD in general using the application Things. I’ll close the series the following week with thoughts about how I specifically tweak Things and GTD to overcome the challenges of including creative work in my productivity system.

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  1. Hi Steven,

    Thank you for such a good article.

    However, I’d like to stand up for GTD as a way to manage productivity and creativity alike.

    Sure, it’s very much complicated to define tasks that come from a creativity work, but I think GTD is flexible enough to do that. Actually, you don’t need define a whole project at the beginning. You can add tasks as long as you discover them through exploration.

    I’m a programmer & designer & team manager & CEO of little company, and I couldn’t find any room for creativity if I hadn’t all my commitments in a place I trust (my GTD system). This way I can forget about them when I need to be creative.

    I wrote an article about this some time ago. You can share it if you find it appropriate:


    • Thanks Francisco. I’m with you. I like GTD and find it definitely helps me be more productive. Most of my issues with the system are more to do with me not using it as effectively as I could. It’s something I work on every year.

      I do think it can be difficult to incorporate creative work into the system, hence this post. However, difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

      I have a posting coming in this series that talks about how I incorporate creative work into GTD. First though, is a post about how I use the app Things with GTD.

      Good point about the system freeing you up for creativity. It’s kind of how I end up using it too. And thanks for the link to your article. It’s a good read and I agree with what you said.

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