Creativity and productivity

Graham Allcott — №20 with Joost Wouters

Many years ago a friend was telling me her new year’s resolutions. Her first one was to be more spontaneous. I remember at the time pondering the apparent contradiction of “planning spontaneity”, but actually it’s not as insane as it first sounds: planning creates a mindset that in turn creates the ability to think and act more spontaneously.

The same is true for creativity. There’s a bit of a myth peddled that creative people are naturally disorganised or that creativity is somehow the opposite of planning or organising or productivity. They’re seen somehow as different “personality types” or as having different styles of working.

So here I’m going to offer some thoughts on the relationship between creativity and productivity, what creativity really means anyway, and how to bring about more productive creativity (or creative productivity).

What is creativity anyway? And why should creative people want to be more productive?

Of course, there are a hundred answers to this question. My own approach is inspired by an interview I saw with the British modern artists, Gilbert and George a few years ago. George Passmore, one half of Gilbert and George, said: “We’re all rushing from the cradle to the grave. Any picture that we don’t paint will not be made by someone else”.

This inspires me for so many reasons. Firstly, I get the impression that Gilbert and George see it as their duty to do what they do. Their work is important to them as much as it is to society.

Everyone can be creative. And that doesn’t mean everyone needs to paint pictures or get out their crafting kits. Words on a page, decisions in a meeting, new ideas for new products — all of these things are driven by creativity. Creativity for me is something that everyone has access to, but what each of us chooses to create will be unique. You might create emails and so might everyone else, but your emails will be a reflection of you, and hence unique. So if you think about being creative as creating a contribution to the world, then the more you create, the bigger your contribution. And the more you procrastinate…

Barriers to creativity

Of course, not every email we receive is an opportunity to be creative, and lots of the crap that’s flung at us in our jobs is a barrier to what we really want to be creating, not the opportunity to create it. And then there are the human anxieties and emotional barriers that bring about procrastination and self-sabotage and stifle our momentum. So here are five ways to think more productively about creativity and more creatively about productivity.

1. Create the space

When I wrote my book, How to be a Productivity Ninja (books being one of the hardest things to create, in my experience, by the way!), it was a two year process. The first year involved very little actual creativity or productivity. It involved me staring regularly at a project on my list of projects. Every time I did a weekly review and looked at the list, there it was “write book”. And the book was only 20,000 words in a Word document, not the 80,000 words I was aiming for. I began to realise that the reason it wasn’t moving forward was because books require A LOT of headspace and focus. And running a business, I was too engrossed in the day-to-day (and too needed by the day-to-day) to create that space. So then I had a different question. Instead of asking “why aren’t I writing the book?” I started asking “how do I create the space I need?”. My answer was a little drastic but it worked. I spent a month living in a beach hut in Sri Lanka, empowered by home-cooked Sri Lankan food, a wifi-free stretch of coastline, stunning views and the knowledge there was nothing else to do but to use this space I’d created to create. The full draft was done a month later, and then back home, the editing process took a further three or four months. But crucially, it was creating the space that made it all possible. Your “space” might be an hour, or a day. Your Sri Lanka might be as simple as clearing the kitchen table (as mine so often is, too), but the important thing is to recognise the need for space.

2. Ship

Steve Jobs famously walked around Apple HQ saying: “Real artists ship” — the insinuation being that as a creative, it’s always tempting to hang on to your work, looking for perfection, improving in the margins. What’s often of more importance to the creative is becoming comfortable with the notion of “shipping”: getting your work out there. It might not be perfect yet — indeed it may never be — but creativity only matters is something that’s been created actually finds the hands of the person who can enjoy it. Ship as early and as often as you can. See those things you’re holding onto? Ship them out there. And if there’s no deadline in place to motivate you towards that, create the accountability with whoever will be receiving your work.

3. Curiosity and finding everything interesting

Part of creativity is of course inspiration. I think it’s important when I write, or when I think, to have as full as possible a “mine” of ideas and inspirations to draw from. Resist the temptation to spend entire journeys or entire days strapped to your smartphone. Look around you. Look in the seemingly dullest of places. Ask questions — of everything and everyone. For example, think of that building supply store near where you live (it’s the dullest thing I could think of). But then think of the stories that go behind it — the people who created it, the stories of what lived there before, the stories of those who relies on that store for their work. Everything is interesting and natural curiosity in day-to-day life will give you inspiration when you create.

4. Distraction free environments

When I write, I use a program called Scrivener, for a few good reasons. But one of the key features is that it allows me to see nothing else on the screen other than the words in front of me. No icons, no files, no notifications. Just me, the words and my thoughts. All the usual productivity advice about avoiding distractions, not spending too long in your email inbox and so on is all vital if you’re going to be creative. For me personally, I’ve made a conscious decision to divide my day into two halves: the morning is distraction-free, at home, and designed to give me the space to create. The afternoon is full of distractions (emails, social media, etc), based in the office, and designed to help me collaborate with others. I have found that splitting the two so rigidly helps me know what my intention is for each part of the day and stay focused on it.

5. Procrastination, mindfulness and momentum

And finally, no look at creativity would be complete without a mention of procrastination. I don’t think we can ever avoid procrastination. Procrastination is the irrational imagined consequences of our creations, fuelled by our own fears about ourselves and the world. We want to put things off if we’re bored, confused or scared. Getting clear on what we’re doing and giving ourselves good motivation takes care of the first two. But fear? My own golden rule here is to create a bigger fear. Worried about how your writing will be perceived or reviewed? Create a deadline and accountability that means you’re temporarily more scared about letting someone down or missing the deadline. The other thing that helps is to recognise that those thoughts are irrational. We have little evidence to suggest our work will be ridiculed in the way our irrational mind would have us believe. Noticing these thoughts — which is something you can practise through mindfulness techniques such as meditation or “free writing” (where you write down your stream of consciousness) — can go a long way to realising that they’re to be ignored if you’re to let your creativity flourish.

So that’s what I’ve created today. I hope you enjoyed it. Now it’s your turn. Off you go!

Photo: Flickr /M Glasgow CC BY-ND 2.0

Graham allcott

Graham Allcott

The author of “How to be a Productivity Ninja” and the founder of Think Productive, one of the UK’s leading productivity training companies, helping organizations across Europe survive information overload and get more done with less stress.

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