The Key to Maximizing Both Creativity and Productivity

There are ways to make creativity and productivity work well together so you can get the most out of their combination.

I’m probably not taking a huge risk in thinking you’d like to be more productive and more creative. Unfortunately, the two seem to be at odds. What you do to increase productivity makes it harder to be creative, and the things you do to be more creative often make you less productive.

It might feel like your choice is one or the other, but never both – but I disagree. I think there are ways to make creativity and productivity work well together so you can get the most out of their combination.

Differences in Creativity and Productivity

Productivity wants things done quickly. It wants to get from point A to point B in as straight a line as possible. Creativity prefers to go slower. It would rather meander from point A to point B so it can stop at points C, D, and E and see what’s going on.

Productivity benefits from conscious planning up front. It wants to know where it’s going, to figure out the best way there. Creativity benefits from the wanderings of your subconscious. It doesn’t know where “there” is when it starts. It starts the journey and decides what the destination is somewhere along the way.

Productivity wants modularity. It wants reusable parts that don’t need to be built from scratch every time out. Creativity would prefer to start from scratch every time to explore what it missed the last time.

Productivity will give up that last 5% toward perfection in favor of making more items. Creativity will strive for that last 5% above everything else because it’s seen the other 95% before.

I trust I don’t need to continue, and you get the idea. The thing that stands out the most is whatever productivity likes, creativity seems to prefer the opposite and vice versa. How can you be both creative and productive?

Productivity Systems and Creative Processes

I like working with a productivity system. My system of choice is GTD (Getting Things Done). Like many productivity systems you break things down to individual tasks you can complete.

A task like pay the phone bill is easy to add to a productivity system. So are things like ‘responding to email from July’ or ‘get the notes of the meeting from John’. What doesn’t fit as well is something like ‘write article about typography’ or ‘explore color schemes for’.

You could certainly add those creative tasks to a productivity system, but they aren’t as helpful in the system. Creative tasks tend to have fuzzier boundaries. You don’t always know the steps involved in creative work until after you’ve done the work. Scheduling tasks you’ve already completed is less than helpful.

While creative tasks and projects tend to be a little more vague, I find I go through a process with any creative work that includes several distinct steps. For example any article I write goes through the following process.

  • Brainstorm and collect ideas
  • Research and take notes
  • Write a draft
  • Edit the draft
  • Proof and publish the finished article

Other than the last one, there’s a lot of play in each steps. I can’t always tell when I’ve stopped coming up with an idea and started fleshing out the notes for it. I’ll finish a draft only to discover I need to do more research for one section. I usually go through several rounds of editing.

Still there’s a process with steps that are different from each other and each requires a different frame of mind to do the work effectively. For example when writing down notes or writing a draft, I’m in a more creative place. When I’m editing or organizing notes I’m more analytical. Proofing and publishing can be classified as busy work.

I think seeing your creative work as a process is key to working both creatively and productively. The two thrive under different conditions and you really can’t force creativity into a productivity box.

What you can do is break down your creative work into a process and then wrap a productivity system around all your creative tasks.

Let Creativity Have Its Way

For me writing the draft is one bottleneck in my writing process. It takes whatever times it takes and I can’t plan that time in advance. It’s also the step in the process that requires the most of me in advance to set up the conditions to work.

If I want results that I’m happy with from my creative effort, I need to give in to what creativity wants when it wants. Once I start writing a draft I write until I can’t write anymore. I let creativity have its way. When my creativity tells me it’s ready to work I let it go until it’s ready to stop. I don’t try to work on anything else. That makes it difficult to schedule.

It’s more productive to let creativity have its way where possible. Obviously you can’t pull out a canvas and start painting in the middle of a meeting at work, but for the most part you want to capture your creativity whenever it’s ready to be captured. Your job is to be ready for it.

Letting your creativity have its way and not trying to force it into a schedule is productive because it brings out your best creative work. You work on creative tasks when you’re feeling most creative.

When you force a creative task like writing a draft into a box on a productivity system you often need more time editing what you wrote later. If you give into creativity when it’s ready, you typically spend less time editing the work later, making you more productive overall.

Schedule flexibly. Let creativity have its way for your best creative results. Use a productivity system, calendar, or to do list to choose the best work around your creative work.

If tomorrow morning you want to work on something creative, clear the rest of your morning schedule and if you find yourself with time look to your productivity system for what’s best to do next.

Because you need to let creativity have its way when it wants, you generally can’t schedule it as tightly as other tasks. You set some time, set the conditions to help you be creative, and then do the best work you can in whatever flow you can get into.

Your productivity system is there to help you choose work in between your creative session.

Optimize the Components of the Process

When you think of the creative work as a whole it can be hard to see how you can make it more productive. The focus is on the creative. When you understand your process and its different parts you can see how some of those parts can become more productive.

When you break down a creative process into its component parts, you’ll find some of the parts require more creativity and some require more productivity. You can extend that to non-creative work as well. The work isn’t likely all creative or all productive. Nearly all your work will have some components than can be made more productive.

A couple of years ago I discovered Markdown and now everything I write starts as a Markdown document. For those of you who don’t know about Markdown, it’s a quick way to markup a document that can be parsed and exported in a number of different formats, one of which is HTML.

Most of the time I publish to a WordPress site. Years ago I would add HTML tags for lists and links and headings as I worked my way through the draft. It slowed me down and took me out of any creative flow I might be in.

Markdown on the other hand is much quicker to write than HTML. I can make clear what is a list, link, or heading, without having to slow down to write any HTML code.

On the other hand I haven’t found a single Markdown editor that can handle all parts of my process. I typically write in one app, preview in another, and publish through a third. That’s not exactly optimal. It’s one part of my writing process that can be made more productive.

If you break down your creative work, you’ll find some of the work isn’t creative and can be optimized to be more productive.

Optimize The Whole Process

You can also optimize at the overall process level, though it can be more difficult to see where. Let me offer another example from my writing process.

Again my process breaks writing anything into several stages that require different types of mental energy. I find writing the draft of any piece of writing to be the most time consuming and challenging part of the process.

I need to be in the right frame of mind to write a draft and I find I can’t schedule the work into a specific time block. I really don’t know how long it will take beforehand.

If I only worked on one piece of writing at a time, I’d have to write the draft once the earlier parts of the process were finished. If I wasn’t feeling creative on that day, too bad.

I don’t work on one piece of writing at a time, though. My process is far more productive when I work on several things at the same time. I work the process and not the project.

If I’m not up for draft writing one day, I can edit a blog post I’ve already written or organizes notes for an article I want to write

Some work is easier to do at certain times of day and some work is harder at the same time of day. I’m more creative in the morning and late at night. After lunch I don’t have much energy, but I can do mindless busy work. I can usually be analytic at any point in the day.

Because I always have multiple projects in progress I usually have a variety of writing tasks to choose from and I can choose to work on whatever I think I can do most effectively at that moment.

I can work on the draft of one article in the morning when I’m more creative and I can proof a post shortly after lunch when I’m lacking energy for anything else.

The type of energy and the times might be different for you, but you probably do certain types of work better at certain times of day. When you understand when you work best on what type of task you can optimize your schedule by choosing work at the best time for that particular work. It’s one way you can optimize your creative process and productivity system.

Closing Thoughts

I think we all want to be more productive and more creative. Unfortunately the conditions for one to thrive are often the opposite of what would help the other to thrive.

The key to maximizing both is to see everything you do as a process and to understand what parts of those processes can be further systemized and optimized and what parts need to be left alone to do their own thing.

Break up larger projects to separate creative tasks from productive tasks. Most of your work can be broken down into smaller chunks. Some things are better done in a productive way and some things better done in a creative way. Work each in the way each prefers to be worked.

Your creative work will generally be the bottleneck in terms of scheduling. Prepare yourself to be ready when creativity strikes and flexibly schedule tasks that can be dealt with in a more productive manner around your creative sessions.

Featured Image: Vintage Camera on Book and Clock by MalyDesigner.

About the Author Steven Bradley