Why Your Creativity Wants You To Waste More Of Your Time

Should getting more done in less time always be the goal? When it comes to the work you do, is it always better for your business to do the most you can in the least amount of time? Or are there good cases for taking a non-linear path to your goal? Can wasting time be a good thing for your business?


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Last week I started a series on productivity and creativity and talked about time from the perspective of being productive and maximizing efficiency. Today I want to again consider time, but from a different perspective. I want to talk about time and creativity and how sometimes the best way you can use time is to waste it.

Less, but Better

You can probably guess I don’t think more is always what you want. Sometimes you’d rather get less done, but with more quality. You want to do less work, but make the work better.

Creativity doesn’t respond well to the same conditions as productivity. Creativity isn’t about the most. It’s about the best and the best takes more time.

You need to explore things from every angle, understand your subject as much as you think possible, and then understand it a little more. Creativity requires empathy and understanding and it takes time to truly have either.

Creativity Needs Time to Explore

Creativity needs time to explore. You need to go deeper into a subject or your work. You need more time to discover the essence or core of the thing you’re doing. You can’t get to the core quickly.

You have to explore the problem and be free to try different options and directions. You ned to be open to see what’s there and where an idea leads you before deciding if it was the right direction to have traveled.

You go into a creative problem more open to the possibilities of both the solutions and the problem. Part of the creative process and solving creative problems is discovery. You need to explore different areas over time to discover whatever it is you’re looking for.

Unlike a mathematical problem you don’t know where you’ll end up when you start. You don’t work toward an expected solution. With creative problems you spend time discovering the solution and sometimes discovering a better problem to solve along the way.

And in the end you don’t know whether you found the best solution. You try several and choose as best as you can.

See Things from Different Perspectives

Part of the reason creativity takes time is because you need to see a creative problem and its possible solution from many different angles.

Sometimes I go into an article with preconceived ideas and opinions. I think I’m heading toward a certain conclusion and all I have to do is prove that conclusion. As I explore the topic, I discover alternate thoughts, ideas, and opinions that completely change what the article ends up being.

Sometimes the article takes a different shape. Maybe it just has a different conclusion. Sometimes it leads to an entirely new article because I put in the time to understand the subject deeper.

You need to see the same thing from different perspectives to understand it better. You need to spend time with it from every side possible. It’s one reason why I want to talk about time and routines from the perspectives of both creativity and productivity; to help understand them better.

Creative problems aren’t simple things with binary objective answers. Their answers are fuzzier and more vague. There’s no sign post at the end to tell you that you reached the right destination.

Despite what many people think, math problems are easy compared to creative problems. Mathematical problems have correct answers. Creative problems don’t. There’s no single right answer. There are a handful of very good answers.

The way you can be confident you’ve reached a good creative solution is often to have tried several possible solutions and that takes time.

Create a Relaxed State in Yourself

Some people think they work better under pressure. The research disagrees, especially where creativity is concerned. We’re better creatively when we aren’t up against a deadline. Our best creative work comes when we’re relaxed, feel more confident, and have the freedom to explore.

Creativity works better when you’re in a relaxed state. It doesn’t thrive under the pressure of deadlines. Realistically you can’t explore everything. At some point you have to settle for whatever you have when clock strikes. There probably is a deadline somewhere along the way, but creativity doesn’t thrive close to it.

Before jumping into creative work, I almost always spend some down time or engage in a simple mindless task. Usually I take a look at the problem I want to solve and then I do something else. I might watch TV for half an hour or read something online.

The down time helps put me in a more relaxed state and sets the conditions for the muse to arrive and lead me into a creative flow. Ironically by wasting time before creative work, I get more done while working and done with higher quality.

Working this way leads to far less time after the creative, because I seldom need to scrap everything and start over. I often have to start over when I force the creative work into a timed box to fit into a productivity system. It’s better to waste a short amount of time before instead of a lot of time after.

Creativity also needs to be ready at a moment’s notice to change and follow another direction. It wants to be spontaneous and follow where the path leads instead of predetermining the path in advance. Discover the path instead of choosing one off a map.

You can’t force that into a schedule. You have to go with the flow when it’s there and follow wherever it wants to take you.

That kind of relaxed state takes time to get to. It might seem like it’s all lazy and wasteful, but it’s setting up conditions in which you can relax, be open, be spontaneous, and allow your creativity to thrive.

Beyond the First Thought

Another reason creativity takes longer is because your first idea usually isn’t your best one. The first one only scratches surface. You don’t know enough yet to have good ideas. The interesting stuff is much deeper and takes time to get to.

Your first idea sets a path to walk down. It sets the direction to explore. Better ideas are usually found along the way as you’re walking and exploring.

No one (besides myself and one close friend) ever sees my first attempt at a design. It’s universally awful. Not just bad, but downright awful. However, I’ve found I need to explore that idea to throw it away. The act of getting it out of my head, creates room for new and better ideas.

Seeing what was wrong with the original idea leads me to what’s right with another. It takes time to work the first awful attempt. It takes time to reflect on why it’s awful. It takes time to come up with a new direction.

All are essential for my process. Maybe not essential, since that first design isn’t always awful like I implied, but more often than not it is and I need to get it out and waste the time exploring it to get to the good ideas.

Ideas often need to stew and simmer a long while before they’re anything worth sharing and before you really understand what they are.

This series is a good example. Most of it was random thoughts over several different planned ideas I might write about. None of what I had worked on its own, though. As I collected more ideas and jotted down more thoughts, I found the connection through them.

It led me to rethink them all as a series with a connected theme and here we are. This post, and the others in the series, wouldn’t exist had I approached them with a productivity mindset. Allowing the ideas to evolve over time and let them progress on their own time frame ultimately led to what’s here now.

Closing Thoughts

If you rush through life you’ll miss things. Many of the things you miss, you won’t really miss. They’ll be irrelevant to anything you care about. However, in between the irrelevance you’ll miss out on some good things and some good ideas you can;t come across any other way besides sifting through the irrelevance.

The goal isn’t always to get as much as possible done in the least amount of time. It’s a goal a lot of times and it produces greater quantity, but it doesn’t lead to greater quality. You’re always giving up some of one to get more of the other, at least to a degree.

Creativity needs time to explore and see the problem and its possible solutions from different angles and perspectives. You need to be open and take in everything. You ned to combine it all together through the filter of your experience. You can’t do these things instantly.

You do your best creative work when you’re relaxed and confident and when you feel free to travel down paths that may lead nowhere to find the ones that lead somewhere. You need to go down the wrong paths at times to find right ones.

Deadlines hinder creativity. They don’t lead to eureka moments. In fact eureka moments come when you take time away and let your subconscious work on the problem while you’re off doing something else. A eureka moment is your subconscious saying “Thanks for the time. I figured it out. Here you go.”

Your first creative thought usually isn’t your best. It might be, but usually it isn’t. It’s more often the idea to get you started on your creative journey to a solution or idea you’re looking to find.

Ideas often need time to simmer before you have something worth sharing with anyone or before people are ready for the idea and for it to have an impact.

It’s time to move on from time. Next week I’ll talk about routines and habits and how you can use them to make your life and work more productive. The following week I’ll talk about routines and habits from the perspective of creativity.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

2 comments

    • Thanks Christine. And I don’t think anyone should judge themselves from the viewpoint of anyone else. Always judge yourself from your own viewpoint.

      I only compare myself to my former self. I just want to be better today than I was yesterday and better still tomorrow.

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