The Tension Between Creativity And Productivity

One topic I come back to is the tension between creativity and productivity. I find it interesting in general, but also because web designers sit at their intersections. Both creativity and productivity play a role in our success.

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  • having a business process
  • becoming more efficient
  • modularizing code

The two seem to be at odds with each other on the surface. What you do to improve creativity might come across like the opposite of what you’d do to improve productivity.

  • Productivity is about getting things done quickly
  • Creativity is about taking your time
  • Productivity will give up that last 5% toward perfection
  • Creativity will strive for that last 5% above everything else
  • Productivity comes from conscious planning
  • Creativity comes from subconscious wandering
  • Productivity likes process
  • Creativity likes exploration
  • Productivity wants modularity
  • Creativity wants unique

While they seem in opposition I think they can complement each other more than we think. Each has it’s place and our best solutions are usually comprised of some of each. Some parts in the process of designing a website are better served by creativity and some better served by productivity.

If we can separate the parts and allow creativity and productivity to flourish under they’re preferred conditions we can get the best of both.

A Process to Enhance Creativity

For example my blogging process works by doing just that. It separates the different tasks that go into producing a post.

  • Creative — brainstorming ideas, spontaneous notes, writing a draft
  • Productive — collecting ideas, editing phases, having a process

To publish 2 posts a week I write 2 posts a week. I try to stay a couple of weeks ahead of schedule and then maintain that schedule. It means I do certain work on Monday, certain work on Tuesday, etc.

What if I don’t feel creative on a Tuesday when I have draft writing scheduled or I do feel creative on a day where editing is the work du jour? Some weeks in order to keep up I don’t have the option to go off schedule.

If on the other hand I can get further ahead of schedule, 3 weeks, 5 weeks, 8 weeks, then there’s much less pressure to get 2 posts done each week. I can make it up the following week if need be.

Increased productivity leads to being further ahead of schedule which creates more freedom to go off schedule and be creative when I’m more open to being creative. It frees up time to work on more posts at once so on non-creative days I can do something productive on many more posts to make some kind of progress.

Practice, We’re Talking About Practice

As another example think about setting aside dedicated time for practice. Think about a planned routine for learning new skills and techniques. Eventually the conscious practice becomes muscle memory. It becomes subconscious automation.

As skills move to the subconscious you become more productive because you can work quicker and better. You also become more creative because conscious thought that was previously required to get the technique right is no longer required and your mind is more free to explore.

It’s similar in regards to code. Building pattern libraries and frameworks and generally modularizing your code is like taking something that requires conscious thought and moving it to your unconscious where it happens automatically.

Some would say modular code and pattern libraries always lead to less creative work. I’d argue it doesn’t have to be the case. In reaching for pre-existing code you’re working from muscle memory. The pieces can be combined in creative ways and you can explore those combinations because you don’t have to think about coding the parts from scratch.

One reason I suggest breaking free of comfort zones is because the automatic does have a habit of coming out the same. If you break the routine just for the sake of breaking it, you’ll go through the same process of moving conscious practice to subconscious automation. Productivity will return and you’ll now have another way of doing the same thing.

If your patterns are leading to the same finished product, add some new patterns to your library. Create new parts to combine.

Creativity and productivity appear have a tension between them. Each wants more of what the other wants less of. However that also means the two can complement each other well.

Improving one can clear the way to improve the other as long as you’re willing to accept that they can. You’ll productively plan for creativity and you’ll creatively see new ways to be productive.

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  1. “You’ll productively plan for creativity and you’ll creatively see new ways to be productive.” – I think this sums up perfectly the relationship between creativity and productivity.

    I think they are pretty tightly connected although they seem to be on the opposite side of the spectrum as you pointed out. Creative people can and should learn how to be more productive and structured and productive people can and should learn to be more spontaneous and creative.

    I am more on the productive side and I’ve seen great boost in performance when I try to think outside the box and not only stick to me old “productive” habits. Sometimes it is more productive to be creative as this is the way you discover new ways of doing things and end up even more productive.

    • It’s interesting how much more connected they are when you think about it. I completely agree with you that creative people should learn to be more productive and productive people should learn to be more creative.

      I think we all tend to go with our strengths and lean on them instead of exploring other ways to do things. It’s all learning how to do things in different ways and then figuring out or intuiting the best time to follow one path instead of another.

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