Creative Productivity is not Mechanical

I was an efficiency nut as a kid. I remember figuring out that 9 bites was the most efficient number of bites to eat, politely, a piece of bread or to cut french toast. I love being really, really productive. And I can be so quick and effective that the dishes are done and the kitchen cleaned while you slipped into the bathroom for 2 minutes.

However, being productive when we are talking about creative acts is completely different. It is not a matter of having a system to handle all the details of things to be done. It is not a matter of staying focused. So much of this seems to be left-overs from the factory world. Start the clock, run the system, get the output. Right, well the rewards for productivity of mechanical tasks need to be different than the rewards for creativity. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the productivity process for creative tasks differs significantly from mechanical tasks.

Creativity is a matter of grace and the muse. Yes, there are tricks to bringing the muse to you. I say muse, because this just seems magical. Not because it necessarily is magical, but because we just don’t know enough about it. So, what do you do about it?

Yes, you can just sit there until something comes out and keep working it until it gets decent. But that is, in my experience, a paltry second to the brilliance of the muse when she arrives. GTD is not going to help me get a poem written, an innovative approach to approaching my market, nor a creative solution to the challenge in my business. It will help me deliver on the tasks I put into my plan.

So I have other games and techniques. This is what works for me. Your mileage… may vary… of course.


Take the pressure off

You know when you are trying to remember a word or reference and you can’t do it? Then you shift your attention elsewhere, and suddenly the answer comes to you? Yep. Take the pressure off. I walk, do the dishes, or otherwise occupy myself until the insight comes. Creativity seems to often be a background process – it isn’t about focusing the conscious mind on it. It is about letting the rest of the mind make the connections.


Hold Space

When the slightest hint of muse is present, I put other things on hold and listen. I regularly juggle my tasks for the day to accommodate the muse when she arrives. If now is the moment to draw the graphic or write the article, then I do it now. If it doesn’t feel like now is the moment, I move onto other things until the feeling hits me to do it. I know that seems passive or irresponsible. Too bad. Do what works.

Last summer I got stuck trying to figure out how I wanted to facilitate an event. I was stumped the day before the plan was due. The client wanted a lot of work across different dimensions pushed into a short timeframe. I slept on it. I woke up still unsure. I walked away from my desk, and I did something else for awhile. I felt nervous that the idea might not come, but I decided to trust myself that it would. In my walk down the hallway back to my desk – boom, insight, and the whole plan came into my mind ready to be written up. It was done with an hour to spare. After the event, the client gave me one of the best testimonials I have ever received.


Give Yourself What You Need 

If you are an introvert, and I am, then allow lots of being alone time before expecting anything creative to emerge. It can take a whole day. I know it isn’t in the planning calendar, but trust the process. If you are an extrovert, go do that.

Time and again when I try to force myself to get work done on the clock, and that work is creative, it seems to take three times as long. I can’t focus. I resist myself. I have learned to just allow myself the hour of doing something else so that I will cooperate with myself when I attempt the task.

Not everyone has the luxury of doing this. And it does seem to me like a luxury. But I have learned to give myself that so that I can enjoy and be effective when I do the work.


Follow the Seasons

I allow myself a “winter” to let things percolate while I appear dormant. Then I get excited in my “spring” with the bursting forth of new ideas. Next, I care for them over “summer” and harvest in the “fall.”

I have had lots of conversations with colleagues about the emotional dip after a creative surge. When I offer the seasons metaphor, there seems to be a giant internal sigh of relief. As if we expected ourselves to, once we create output, to continue at that level indefinitely. Or we expect ourselves to get emotionally high from it. However, that doesn’t take into account what motivates you to be creative. If you want recognition, then you might get the emotional high once the work is out in the world being acknowledged. But if your motivation is connecting with others in a co-creative process, then your emotional high might be in the middle of the effort. Learn what gives you the emotional high from creative efforts, nurture that, and allow yourself space for the other emotions that flow in the seasons of your creativity. Your flow. Not the expectations of others.


Productivity-obsessed people seem to think they can have harvest season all year long, as if they are optimizing a factory. If they could just get the right mechanics in place, then they can perform at their top levels of creativity continuously. Nope. Not me. I don’t work that way. And I allow that and work with it. I think it brings my work freshness, aliveness, and vitality to not be pushed through some deadline-driven productivity machine.