You can be creative, or productive, but not both
We love the idea of productivity, but most productivity systems are killing our creativity
Here’s a familiar event many artists will have encountered. You hit some creative milestone. Your new book is finished maybe, and a well meaning friend responds, "I wish I had time to write / paint / sing / INSERT CREATIVE DREAM."
Yes, there’s something more than a little passive aggressive in the statement. It seems to assume a) you somehow have access to time in a way other humans do not and b) you didn’t fight tooth and nail for that time.
To succeed at adult life, we learn to manage our time. For most of us that means "productivity" — the development of skills and systems that focus the hour glass sands of time on the most productive activities.
So it’s perhaps logical that we often equate productivity with creativity. The two most popular terms in the realm of "self help" and personal development are often used interchangeably. But the truth is that being productive can come at the cost of being creative.
Productivity is not a waste of time.
The author William Gibson once said that the difference between him and most wannabe writers is that he had spent as much time writing as most people spend watching tv.
“If you’ve ever tried to transition from being productive, to being creative, you find that the habits of productivity start to get in the way.”
It’s something of a tragedy that while we all have creative dreams, the modern world has a tendency to wrap our attention up in time wasting activities. Tv, video games, screaming about politics on Twitter. We can easily waste a whole life by wasting time.
The idea of productivity is a useful step-up from wasting time. Set goals, make a list of tasks, and Get Things Done. Maybe read The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Succeeders. Start networking, win friends, become an influencer of people.
Productivity systems of all kinds are a really great way to do essential things, from managing projects to running businesses. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you better be productive.
But if you’ve ever tried to transition from being productive, to being creative, you find that the habits of productivity start to get in the way.
Business is about filling your time, art is about emptying your time.
For most of my 20s I was The World’s Busiest Man. I ran the shit out of projects, fundraised, networked, did meetings, taught classes, hit an endless schedule of project milestones and writing deadlines. My todo lists had their own todo lists.
To make a much longer story short, I lost the creative part of writing. I was getting paid $200 an hour for words, but not my words. If I wanted to tell my own stories, things were going to have to change.
"You clear a big space, and creativity comes into it. It doesn’t clear the space for you."
100% true story. I had a copy of the I-Ching on my bookshelves, that I had never read. One day I sat down, read the instructions, and cast the coins for the very first time, asking that ancient old book a simple question, "how do I get back to being creative?" Honestly, I’m not bullshitting you now, I cast hexagram 1, The Creative.
(Ever since this, I do my own I-Ching and Tarot readings, only at important times. I can and will write a whole essay on why they are so useful.)
This, in a nutshell, is what the I-Ching says about creativity. You must, if you want to create, forcefully evict from your life all non-creative things. And it MUST be in this order. You empty a big space, and creativity comes into it. It doesn’t empty the space for you.
For me, that meant I literally needed to empty out my life. Jobs were quit. Relationships vaporised. Friendships unfriended. I was pretty brutal about the whole thing, not least with myself. But that’s how it is when you’re driven to act.
But the space creativity demands isn’t really physical. You can create in the midst of clutter and busyness. You can create with seven kids and two jobs. When you CAN’T create is when you are fearful. The space and freedom you need to create is simply the freedom from fear.
The difference between productivity and creativity is simply this: fear.
If this is all sounding annoyingly quasi-spiritual to you (there’s a reason that God and creativity are linked, but that’s a whole other essay) then here is the science bit…
…you and I and every other human alive are evolved from ape like creatures that, for MILLIONS of years, benefited from experiencing very high levels of fear. Our brains and nervous system are wired for Random Leopard Attacks. If we weren’t wired to live in semi-permanent fear states, we wouldn’t have survived.
But we no longer live in brutal environments where death waits at every turn. Assuming you’re reading this on Medium, you probably live in the hipster district of a modern city, with a high chance of a sub-standard, over priced latte and ABSOLUTELY ZERO CHANCE OF BEING EATEN BY LEOPARDS.
Yet the fear persists.
The higher your state of fear, the more your body’s systems drive you back to an animal state. If you WERE being chased by a leopard, you would become something like an ape again. Human creativity then - the state of consciousness we need to write, paint, sing, dance and CREATE - is quite dependent on NOT BEING TERRIFIED.
Productivity is a high-functioning response to fear.
Productivity is better than low-functioning reaponses to fear - like wasting time on video games, or shooting up heroin. These numb you out, so fear goes unfelt, but when they wear off, the fear is still there. That can send you deep into addictive cycles of permanent numbing.
But obsessive productivity is feeding the fear cycle in a different way. Most productivity systems are placatory. The fear of forgetting an important task is placated by a todo list. The fear of failing at a big project is placated with that $70 project planning app.
It’s not that these tools aren’t useful. It’s that their usefulness is secondary to their value as a fear management technique.
Naming no names, but the makers, and especially the marketers, of productivity systems know all about your fear. To sell you anything, marketers like me map your "pain points", the things you’re scared of that we can use to pressure or persuade you into a purchase.
"Do you know that 1 in 7 American’s will lose their a job after forgeting an important call, meeting or task? Don’t rely on a second rate todo list app, buy INSERT NEW TODO LIST APP."
Productivity is a fear centric marketing concept. Yes, it’s high functioning. Yes, you might ride that fear cycle into building a business, or even a fortune (you might also ride it to a breakdown or heart attack). But where a high functioning fear response will never take you is to anywhere creative.
When fear centric behavior becomes dysfunctional.
The Noble prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identifies two systems which humans use to make decisions. System 1 is our intuitive or imaginative mind. System 2 is our logical thinking mind. I teach the need to balance both systems to my creative writing students.
Fear, even in low levels, drives us towards system 2. In response to minor fears, like missing a meeting, disappointing a coworker, or losing a business deal, we’re natural driven to seek logical solutions that appeal to our thinking mind. Exactly the kind of solutions that productivity focusses on.
But those logical solutions are directly interfering with better decisions, driven by the intuitive processes of system 1. Here’s a practical example. System 2 wants to not be late for meetings. System 1 wants to NOT GO TO MEETINGS AT ALL. System 2 sees a day packed with meetings as productive. System 1 sees a day entirely empty of meetings as creative.
I very rarely agree to meetings of any kind, real or online. Because I’ve learned that, for me at least, the intuitive needs of system 1 are far more important than the logical needs of system 2.
Creating is living with your fear, and living in your fear.
If you're not sold on my pitch yet, let me rephrase the same insight from a different angle.
The one thing I can say with absolute certainty about creativity is this - creating is always a journey into the unknown. No two books, businesses, symphonies or technologies are ever created the same way. Computers are things of rules and systems, but creating the computer was a terrifying walk into blind night for Alan Turing. Which is why we respect him, and other great creators, so highly.
These great accomplishments that we term "creative", and the huge contribution they make to humanity, lie on the other side of uncharted oceans of fear. Your chimpanzee-like physiology was simply not evolved to make that journey into fear. That capacity comes from some higher place (sometimes, often, called god...sorry again for those who hate the idea).
Three years ago, sitting out fears of my own in the high Himalayan mountains around Dharamshala, I wrote a month long blog series on overcoming creative fear. There’s no answer to the question "how do I escape fear?" but there are answers to the complex ways of being WITH and IN fear.
We’re a planet of some eight billion semi-carnivorous apes, staring into the dark voids of the unknown, terrified. So it’s no surprise that most of what we do, however productive, is driven by fear. Our rare creative leaps come when we can stop being driven by fear, and can tunnel through, to whatever lies on the otherside.