On Being Productive vs Being Creative

05 August 2016, posted by Alf Rehn

Lifehacking, particularly in the field of productivity, has become our new obsession. Not a day goes by without some new input on how to optimize your life, and your working time, so as to make you smarter and faster and better (as a recent bestseller in the field implies in its very title). By paying heed not only to the hours we work, but also how we can turbo-charge these hours for output and results, we’re promised a wide range of benefits. We’ll become more impressive workers, less stressed, we’ll earn more and have time to diversify into other lines of business, and we’ll have more time for things like workouts and children, or even workouts with children (as this is clearly more productive than separating the two). By focusing on what matters, breaking down tasks into more easily manageable ones, by making checklists and otherwise deploy productivity frameworks, we are in effect promised a secular paradise, one where we can truly have it all. This isn’t your parents work-life balance, this is making both work and life work for you, making the world your bitc, and finding no little joy in your new-won ability to out-perform, out-publish, out-podcast the great un-productivity-hacked.

Productivity is of course a wonderful thing, particularly when compared to its polar opposite, total idleness. If the choice is between writing a piece of content or writing a piece of content and have time over to spend with ones loved ones, only a misanthrope or a sociopath would choose the former. But is the choice really this simple? Is there really nothing else we sacrifice when we attempt to turn all of what we do and create into something that can be fit into a Getting Things Done®-framework?

Such questions may weigh particularly heavily on my mind, as I spend a great deal of my time thinking (and occasionally) writing about creativity. This, as the relationship(s) between productivity and creativity are far from well-known.

Granted, we often hear about people who manage to combine the two in wonderful, nigh-on magical ways. Philippe Starck, the super-star designer, seems to be able to produce new designs at will and out of thin air, and yet have time over for a debauched lifestyle (thus proving the very point of productivity). Artists such as Pharrell, Kanye and Future seem to have no problem creating tons of new music whilst casually whipping up clothing lines and small conglomerates in between champagne-parties and photoshoots. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk seem to be unhindered by both time and space as they outline their next multi-billion dollar project. For some, combining productivity and creativity seems positively child’s play.

Even if we look away from such superstars, and look to more everyday people, some seem to have cracked the code by which they can keep creating without ever having to take time of for things such as self-doubt or daydreaming, and at least according to their social media manage to realize tremendous projects whilst still having time for both delightful children and fabulous parties. Sure, we hate those people, with the kind of ferocious hatred that only barely manages to skirt the homicidal, but secretly we also envy them and their mastery of their life.

At the same time, it would be nonsense to claim that all creative people are innately productive. In fact, whilst we can cherry-pick examples such as the ones above, one can quite easily compile a list of exceptionally unproductive creatives, even one of unproductive super-creatives. These rarely have life-management bestseller written about them, but this does not mean they do not exist. Consider, as an example, James Joyce. For some he is the greatest author the English language has ever seen, and pretty much everything he ever wrote was a masterpiece. At the same time he was utterly shambolic in his professional writing life. He suffered from depressions, writer’s block, and every form of procrastination you could possibly imagine. While he should have been writing, he spent time on long walks, pensive staring, and penning his wife some of the most delightfully pornographic love letters ever. It is said that he was once visited by a friend, who finds Joyce slumped by his desk, inconsolable. When asking what the matter was, Joyce replied that he had only managed to write seven words that day, to which his friend cheerfully replied that this sounded like his normal daily output. Joyce to this”-Yes, but I do not know which order they’re to go in!”. Whilst the story is most likely apocryphal, it still communicates something of his way of working.

Now, today’s productivity evangelists would probably say that Joyce could have been both happier and written more had he had a nice system in place, but I am not so sure. Creativity is tricky in that it requires not only output, but also a certain amount of space and time for incubation to truly soar. We should also be aware that neither all creation nor all creators are created equal. Some creators are capable of quick output and quick shifts, others need a long period of maturation for even a single idea. This does not make one creator better than the other, even though one might be more productive.

Herein lies the great danger with the contemporary cult of productivity. Whilst productivity isn’t inherently bad, it isn’t inherently good either. If your creative process requires periods of idle incubation, and a less than structured process, trying to force the selfsame into a system originally designed to make coders code faster, you might well do damage to your creative maturation, not to mention that you might subconsciously start going for ideas that fit a model rather than looking for a model that works with the size of your ideas.

Creativity doesn’t always need to be faster, nor can it always be captured and measured in checklists and gamified regimes. Productivity is a fine, fine thing, but it is in the end a means to an end. If your desired end is fast ideas and lots of them, wonderful. That’s a great way to work. But it isn’t automatically better than the slow, pensive work of someone else. So read those productivity blogs, share those getting-things-done hacks, but do not assume them to be a panacea, and do not confuse them with an ethics.

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