There is a distinct conflict of interest between the pursuit of creativity and productivity. We might think that one will lead to the other – either that productivity leads to creative work or that creativity will automatically make you productive – when in fact they are quite separate and neither of these assumptions are true.
Not only are creativity and productivity separate, they even thrive in opposite environments. But they also share some common traits which perhaps is why it’s so easy to mix them up or clump the together.
Quantity leads to quality
You might have heard the phrase “quantity leads to quality”, often referring to the fact that you have to produce a lot in order to become really good at something. By making a ton of stuff, you get to learn from mistakes and hone your craft.
In time you’ll get increasingly better at what you do. But it’s like you need to flush all the mediocre stuff out of your system first.
You can’t skip over the doing-a-bunch-of-mistakes-and-crappy-stuff period. Even if you try to avoid the most common pitfalls by studying what other people have done. There will always be mistakes they didn’t do that you’ll get to make instead.
Going for quantity means that you have to be productive. So a focus on productivity here means that you will get over the hump of less than stellar work faster and get to the point of quality sooner. But it doesn’t automatically mean that the result is particularly creative.
Quality takes something that exists and makes it better
Quantity might lead to quality, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to creativity.
In some cases this could be true, like how being prolific while experimenting (being “productive” since you make a lot of things that you later discard) can help you uncover creative new ways of solving a problem.
But in most cases, quality means refining something already existing. Stripping away superfluous stuff, correcting mistakes or avoiding unnecessary detours. Rewriting that first draft, refactoring a piece of code, remaking a better version of a sketch you did before.
Creativity is about making something that didn’t exist before
Creativity on the other hand is all about making that first shitty draft – and in a way that is different, new, or unexpected. Creativity is alluring but also hard to define. We know it when we see it. But we can’t get there through logical reasoning.
By its very nature, creativity does not follow the expected and predefined patterns. It’s easy to dismiss as irrational or illogical – until we get an idea that is genius-like and it just makes so much sense.
Creativity also benefits from quantity
What creativity – essentially idea-generation – have in common with productivity and the pursuit of quality is that going for quantity often helps. Keith Johnstone says in his book “Impro” that in order to get good impulses you have to start embracing the bad ones.
It’s as if the filter in our minds that go “nope, bad idea” is actively stopping us from getting good ideas. The mind don’t want to present you with any more ideas since the suggestions it gives you all get rejected.
When you say “ok, I’ll take that idea and run with it”, the mind responds with “oh crap, this person actually uses what I give him, I’d better give him really good stuff”.
That’s why, Keith explains, when it comes to theatre improvisation there is almost always a period in the beginning of a session when the actors get not so great impulses – usually toilet humour or sex related. There is this period of flushing the mediocre or crappy stuff out of the system before clearing the pathways to the genuinely creative and funny.
The way to the creative state is by saying “yes” to the ideas that come, even if you at first think they suck. A large quantity of bad ideas can pave the way to one idea of really good quality.
And that’s where the similarity between creativity and productivity end.
Productivity wants to not waste anything
The pursuit of productivity can actively stand in the way of creativity. It can even hinder you from receiving any ideas at all.
Productivity by it’s very nature wants to be efficient. It’s about removing waste. Stop wasting time, stop doing less important work, focus on the key things that will move the needle forward. Do Good Work and Do More Work.
Creativity generates waste
Creativity on the other hand is very wasteful. It has to be. It has to have the space to try, to go wrong, to make a detour and experiment. To have a whole afternoon for itself, filled with exploration, and still have the possibility that there is nothing to show at the end of the day. Not very productive at all.
The keyword here is space. Ideas need to have space in order to bubble up to the surface. Or come down from the sky, or whatever metaphor you prefer for where your own ideas come from. You can’t have an idea if it has no place to land.
But productivity hates empty space. Empty space is there to be filled and utilised. Like using the commute to work to triage emails, listen to podcasts, or scan some social media. Waiting for the doctor means you can catch up on your reading a bit. Going for a run means you get to listen to some audiobooks.
No wonder that everyone seems to get their best ideas in the shower – it’s almost the only place left that your mind is left alone!
Learn to make space for creativity
Everyone who uses their creativity in their work or make money off of their ideas need to learn how to make space for them. And anyone who likes to work on their productivity needs to keep this dynamic in mind too.
You need to create the space for that inner creativity to bubble up. Ideas cannot take shape in a cacophony of inputs. You are drowning them by sheer activity. Activity that might be productive, but it might also just be a lot of busywork with little impact.
And therein lies the conflict of interest. Productivity wants to fill the gaps of wasted time, but creativity needs the gaps in order to thrive. Productivity wants to make good use of all the things you do or create, but creativity gives no guarantee of usefulness and will happily throw everything in the bin.
Naturally we need both in our lives. But as the tendency in society leans heavily towards the productivity side, we need to be more mindful about creativity and be a bit protective and defensive of its needs.
Filling every available empty moment with reading Instapaper or Pocket, listening to podcasts or any other “productive” outcome drowns the inner voice and inner world. Not to mention the constant barrage of following social media or the news.
The best lifehack for creativity is to learn to do nothing
In order to invite creative ideas into you life, you need to create spaces for them to land. You can’t wait for an idea to happen and then try to make space for it. That’s not how it works. You have to create that space first, like a vacuum that wants to be filled.
Create space in your head and mind, and reduce the inputs for a while. Sometimes doing nothing and letting your mind wander is the most productive thing you can do.