Why you need to redefine your approach to productivity.
You’ve read the books, bought the apps, hung the posters with motivational quotes, and tried to emulate the “Top 20 techniques that the 20 most successful 20-year-olds do in the first 20 minutes of their day to eliminate indecision, eviscerate procrastination and disembowel distraction.”
So why does all that effort and self-imposed suffering not help much when it comes to making progress on the creative work that is most meaningful to you?
There is no simple answer, but I can tell you for sure that it isn’t because:
- You aren’t motivated enough.
- You aren’t organized enough.
- You aren’t serious enough.
- You aren’t talented enough.
- You don’t want it badly enough.
- You belong to Generation (insert letter), which is a slacker generation full of unserious, naive, and entitled losers who want everything served to them on a platter.
In reality, most traditional productivity advice, models, and frameworks (even when adjusted to eliminate the more toxic elements of our culture’s obsession with productivity) aren’t effective with creative work.
Let’s explore why this might be and how we might design better systems to empower ourselves and others to make stronger, more meaningful creative work, starting with clarifying what “Productivity” really means.
What is Productivity?
In economic terms, productivity is an attempt to measure efficiency by comparing output to input. (Chew)
In other words, how much (insert ‘output type’) gets produced with a given amount of (insert ‘input type’)?
Outputs manifest in everything from a barrel of crude oil to that TikTok video you watched of a dancing kitten with a top hat riding a Rumba.
Inputs vary considerably, can be multi-faceted, and might include things like time, labor, money, energy, and natural resources (including kittens for your TikTok videos).
The context and scale of this measurement varies and can include measuring productivity at a global level all the way down to an individual worker.
We will focus almost exclusively on productivity at the individual level, where the inputs and outputs of measuring productivity shift to a more personalized scale. Time is still a major input, as are resources like energy and attention.
This is also the scale where differentiating between conventional and creative productivity becomes essential.
Conventional vs. Creative Productivity
The type of work you produce (output) and how you produce it (input) matters. Measuring the value and efficiency of creative work requires a drastically different approach than conventional, uncreative work.
Because of this, it is a huge mistake to try and force the conventional approaches to productivity for uncreative work onto creative work and those who produce it.
Systems and metrics that optimize efficiency on a factory floor or get you through your emails more quickly won’t work for creative work and, more often than not, are counterproductive.
Let’s explore some of the ways that conventional and creative productivity differ.
Time Efficiency vs. Time Balance
In conventional productivity, time is the most consistent and important input measured. The more a system can produce in less time, the more productive it is.
All other things being equal, a factory that produces 1,000 whoopie cushions per hour will be more successful than a factory that produces 100 per hour.
This focus on optimizing every bit of output per hour manifests in all sorts of ways at the individual level, including the 9 to 5 work day, pay per labor hour, and productivity gurus screaming at you through the internet to wake up at 4:30 am, plan every minute of your day, and crush your day by increasing your time efficiency.
This approach is totally counterproductive for creative work (and your health, wellness, relationships, enjoyment of life, etc.)
Innovation and creativity take time. The margin between focused creative work sessions is just as important as the sessions themselves.
Unfocused downtime, rest, and leveraging your brain’s default mode network act in balance with the intense focus required for creative work. You will be more creatively productive if you balance focus and diffusion in a way that is connected and responsive to your needs.
Focus on Isolated Specialization vs. Focus on Networked Range
Conventional productivity relies heavily on isolated specialization, especially at the individual level.
A meat production line worker whose primary responsibility and focus is to stand in one place for hours at a time, separating the wings of a chicken from its carcass with a precise movement repeated thousands of times a day, will be more productive than their creative co-worker who is constantly deviating from the standard operating procedure by experimenting with different tools, techniques and asking how the receptionist might process a chicken.
Creative productivity requires access to and the exploration of diverse ideas, techniques, mediums, and the work of others. An artist trying to take the same approach as a productive meat processor by drawing an identical picture of a cat with a bow tie over and over again might make many drawings, but after that first awe-inspiring image, the value and creativity of what they are doing plummets.
An artist who starts with the same drawing of a cat with a bow tie but then iterates each successive drawing through ideation, appropriation, experimentation, and exploration of a diverse range of the work of others will be more productive creatively and increase the value of the work over time.
Great for Kind Environments v.s. Great for Wicked Environments
Conventional productivity approaches will help you get more work done with fewer resources if you work with environments and challenges that can be easily measured with known solutions that never change.
These are referred to in design thinking as “Kind” environments. “Kind” environments still exist for some types of work, but most modern work is increasingly focused on navigating what is referred to as a “Wicked” environment or challenge.
Wicked challenges are the ones that are constantly changing, have no known solution, no predictable endpoint, and are difficult to measure or standardize. Approaching a wicked challenge with conventional productivity frameworks is a surefire path to confusion, overwhelm, and failure. Creative productivity, on the other hand, provides the innovation, agility, and reflective learning required to successfully navigate wicked challenges at all levels
Resources on Exploring Wicked Environments
Task Focused vs. Project Focused
The primary organizational unit for conventional productivity is the task. The more specialized, isolated, and repeatable the task, the more efficient it becomes.
The primary organizational unit for creative productivity is the project. Effective project design and management create flexible and responsive frameworks of organized and networked action. These frameworks balance exploration, reflection, and iteration with effective prioritization of action that ultimately produces stronger, more innovative work.
Resources on Project Design and Managment
Creative Productivity Works in Confluence with Conventional Productivity
At its core, productivity is about creating value in a sustainable way that promotes growth for yourself and others.
One of the great things about mastering creative productivity is that it works with conventional productivity to empower you to move forward in both standardized “Kind” environments and in navigating the unknown of more creative and “Wicked” ones.
If you are committed to building a life focused on producing meaningful and creative work, then you need to learn how to determine which approach will work best for your current intentions and the type of work required to move you forward in confluence with those intentions.
More often than not, this will include leveraging both conventional and creative approaches to your productivity.
If you are interested in further exploring how a different approach to productivity can supercharge your creative work in a balanced and effective way, I invite you to join my mini-course, Intention Design and Management for Creatives.
- Chew, W. Bruce. “No-Nonsense Guide to Measuring Productivity.” Harvard Business Review, Aug. 2014, hbr.org/1988/01/no-nonsense-guide-to-measuring-productivity.