How To Make Creativity and Productivity Play Well Together

Creativity and productivity seem at odds and at a fundamental level they are. Each has its own goal. Productivity is interested with the most quantity in the least amount of time and creativity is interested in the quality of the work above all else with little thought to time.


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The conditions to help you do one usually don’t favor the other. The conditions to be creative tend to be the opposite of what helps you be more productive. More of one, typically leads to less of the other.

For the last month or so I’ve talked about both productivity and creativity, each through the lens of time and routines. I want to wrap things up and talk about how to optimize the combination of productivity and creativity so you can get the most out of both. Here are the other recordings if you missed any of the series.

I’ve mentioned this harmonious combination here an there throughout the series and I’ve talked about it in the past, but I wanted to devote one post to the idea to close this series. I’ll probably mention a few things I forgot as I was recording the previous four podcasts as well.

Both Creativity and Productivity are Important

I don’t know exactly what kind of work you do, but given what I talk about and write about, I assume a part of your work involves being creative. You might design or develop or write or market or something else with a creative component.

I also assume you want to be more productive. You might have turned to a productivity system to help with that goal. I use my own customized version of GTD (Getting Things Done). Unfortunately, inside a productivity system your creative and productive tasks don’t always play well together.

It can be difficult to place creative work into a productivity system. Creative tasks don’t want to be managed in a system. They don’t want to fit into a pre-planned schedule. However, you can harmonize them together so each can do what it does best when appropriate.

We live at a time where any of us can easily set up business online creating something and selling it. Life is pretty good right now for independent artists, writers, musicians, film makers, designers, developers, programmers and anyone else who creates things to sell.

To make a career out of selling your work you need to be productive with your creativity. You can’t only be creative. Life is good for us because we don’t need to go through 3rd parties to distribute our work. We don’t need to hire others to reach our customers. We can do these things ourselves for less cost than was possible before the internet.

But we still have to do the work, both the creating and the selling. It leads to a need to be more productive.

Find the Right Balance for You

Take a step back for a moment and think about your goals. I started this series suggesting we all want to be more productive and more creative and I’ve said it here at the end of the series as well. The question is how much of each?

You likely lean more toward creativity or productivity and choose one over the other more often. Which you choose can depend on a variety of things.

What is your specific business? I’m assuming you’re a designer or developer or writer, etc., but I know that’s not true of everyone reading. Maybe your business requires more of the productive or more of the creative.

At the beginning of the year I talked about the smiling curve and how at one end of the curve a business succeeds through scale (productivity) and at the other a business succeeds through differentiation (creativity). Which is more important to the success of your business?

Your business might demand more productivity to function or it might rely more on creativity to succeed depending on where you positioned your business on the smiling curve. What’s the right balance for you? What are your long term and short term priorities?

When first starting your business you might consider it more important to create more products so you have enough to sell. Job one becomes building as many products as you can as quickly as possible. A year or two later when you have enough for sale, your goals might change and you decide to revisit your products to improve them or add new features.

Your priorities might change from project to project. One project might have a quickly approaching deadline and you have to focus on being productive to complete it in time. Another project might be a long term branding play and your focus will be on the creative side of the scale.

Sometimes your time is limited and a productive approach is the only option. Sometimes you have more free time than you know what to do with and you’re content to spend it exploring different creative avenues.

Before anything else you should think about whether creativity or productivity is more important to you as an individual and to your overall business strategy. You should also think about this on a per project basis.

What are Your Creative Tasks?

You can probably look at most any project and decide where the balance will be between the creative and the productive. For example more creativity usually goes into designing a new site than maintaining an old one.

At a granular level you can do the same with the specific tasks of the project. Some are clearly more of one than the other and you’ll likely know instantly if the task is creative or productive.

Identify your tasks and decide whether productivity or creativity is more important for that task. What are the dominant characteristics of the thing you want to complete.

We sometimes think a project that’s creative overall like writing a novel or painting a large canvas is made up entirely of creative tasks. That’s not true. Creative projects can be broken down into different parts. It’s a process and not every step in the process is truly creative. A few key parts are, but not every part.

My writing process goes through several different and distinct stages and every stage has elements of both the productive and the creative. Brainstorming ideas and writing a draft are more about being creative. On the other hand getting a piece of writing from my markdown editor to wherever it’s going to be published is far less about the creative and far more about the productive.

One of the more important steps in working productive and creative tasks in harmony is to really break down your projects and processes and understand which tasks would benefit more from you being your creative best and which would benefit more from you being your productive best. Don’t assume that because a project is creative that every task in the project is creative as well.

Plan Around Your Creative Sessions

When you start to organize tasks and projects in a system you find the creative work tends to be the bottleneck. It’s harder to define the specific task in advance. You figure out what tasks you have while working and those tasks have fuzzier edges than productive tasks.

Creativity also requires more specific conditions than productivity for you to be at your best and they take more time to set up. Creativity wants to have it’s own way, whereas you can be in charge of productivity.

Let creativity have its way.

With productivity you’re in control. You plan in advance and then follow the plan. With creativity, creativity is in control. You can learn how to set the conditions to invite it in, but you’re not entirely in control over whether or not it shows up or sticks around.

You don’t decide in advance when you’ll stop either. You stop when the muse leaves, when your creative flow stops. You don’t want to stop because a bell rings and your schedule says it’s time to do something else.

You might be able to estimate the time it takes to set the conditions and how long your creative flow will typically last. It’s probably not that different from one day to the next, but it’s still a challenge to schedule the time on a calendar as it’s not absolutely consistent.

You can learn how you get in and out of creative sessions and plan as best as you can, though. I like to take in new information before creative sessions. Taking in ideas gets me thinking and gets my creative muscles to start working.

Going through my feed reader works so I tend to do that shortly before I want to start on creative work. It’s part of my process for setting creative conditions. I know to schedule reading shortly before being creative and put the reading to multiple purposes.

Because you don’t know how long your creative flow will last, you don’t want to schedule high priority work in a time slot after the one you gave to the creative session. You might never get to any work after the session.

Work your productivity system around your creative sessions. If your creative work lasts less time than you expect, use your productivity system as a fall back to decide what to work on next. To deal with sessions that run longer than expected be flexible with the work you plan to do after creative session, because sometimes your creative work will be the last thing you work on all day.

The key is to understand that your creative work will be the limiting factor in how productive you can be. To do your best creative work you have to give in to creativity and not force it to fit into your productivity system.

Let creativity have its way and work your system around your creative sessions.

Order and Chaos

If you spend any time observing human beings and the universe around us, you’ll find plenty of examples of both order and chaos.

Order, routines, and habits, lead to more productive outcomes. You set a routine and optimize it to make it more efficient. Chaos leads to more creative outcomes. You explore things that have been cast out in the name of order. You see things you would never even know to look for when inside the order.

I think we get the most out of both when we learn to move back and forth between them. Each offers something the other can’t and it’s good to experience both.

I think it’s harder to live day to day in a world filled with chaos and prefer my general world to be ordered. Like most people I’m a creature or habit and I build routines for myself all the time. I also think it’s more who I am as a person. I tend to be very logical and I prefer to spend time up front thinking and planning.

However, I think living in order all the time leads to me being less creative. It keeps me from seeing new things or seeing the same old things differently. I bet it’s same for you.

I disrupt my daily order and throw myself into chaos at times for the creative benefit. I don’t recommend uprooting your entire life like I have a few times, but find ways to break up comfortable routines just to break them up.

How much order and chaos you want in your life goes back to your overall goals and the goals of your specific projects, but I encourage you not to lean all toward order or chaos. Try to experience and explore some of both.

Learn to appreciate order and chaos and how each can help you. Learn to move back and forth between them in a way that works for you and the creative productive balance you want to maintain.

Closing Thoughts

Both productivity and creativity are important. I don’t think I’m reaching too far in saying you would like to be better at both.

Understand they’re different and work best under different conditions. Learn how to see everything you do as a process and decide which components of each process require more creativity and which require more productivity. Think about the right balance for you.

A lot of your creative work isn’t as creative as you might initially think. The work might be creative overall, but the component will usually be one of the other. It’s the same for productive projects. They have their creative components.

Figure out which are the creative tasks and then give them free reign to take over your system and your schedule when they want. Schedule productive tasks around creative sessions and do so as flexibly as you can.

We’re all creatures of habit and we fall into routines to manage our days. That’s fine and generally a good thing. You can use routines to be more productive.

However, when you feel stuck or simply because you want to, break out of your comfortable routines and throw yourself into some chaos. It’ll force you to see things differently because you now have to think consciously about them again instead of being on autopilot.

How often you do this is up to you, but do push yourself to try new things or old things in new ways from time to time. Don’t fear the chaos. Embrace it. See what’s there while you work your way back to order. And when you’re ready break out of the new order and see what you find.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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