Take a Break from Productivity to Unleash Your Creativity

Photo by Ana Lisa from Pexels

If you want to open the floodgate of creativity, loosen up, and be a little less industrious.

I’m a freelance journalist and copywriter whose job is to sift through information, then package and present fact-based copy in ways that best suit my clients’ intended purposes. My biggest kicks, however, I get from writing short stories, dreaming up worlds and characters, and imagining how they feel, and what they’ll do and say next.

I had a collection of short fiction and had three stories published between 2007 and 2010, but from 2011 to 2013, I found myself paralyzed by writer’s block. At this time, I was producing at least four paid magazine features per week and working on one or two copywriting projects per month, which I always completed and delivered like clockwork. Yet whenever I sat down and attempted to crank out a short story, I kept getting stuck.

Because I write for a living, I had assumed that I was being “creative” every time I produced decent copy, so I couldn’t understand why this creativity wasn’t translating to my fiction endeavors. I gave myself deadlines to complete a story. I made mind maps, subject lists, character charts. I scheduled a regular time each day to sit down and write. I did research, and I read books on plotting and craft, and took notes. I tried many different methods to get the show on the road. All I wanted was to get back on my fiction-writing-horse and churn out good, short stories in the same way I did paid assignments. But no matter how hard I planned and plodded, nothing happened.

In 2014, while attending a Business of Design Week conference in Hong Kong, I had lunch with two friends — a publisher and an event planner. All three of us are self-employed, and the conversation turned to the topic of career-building versus nurturing creative passion.

The publisher, an architect by training, shared that her dream was to design and build her own beachfront home in Thailand, but she couldn’t do this because she was constantly supervising employees or troubleshooting for her clients. The event planner said she wished she could work on her oil paintings, but that was impossible given the number of meetings she had to attend every day. For me, the problem was finding the mental space for fiction writing amidst a sea of paid assignments with tight deadlines.

“Saying no is difficult, especially when you have overheads,” said the publisher.

“The adrenalin of getting a new client or assignment is addictive. Also, I can’t resist expanding my portfolio.” I added.

“I sometimes feel bad about saying no, because it may mean I’ll lose a client or potential client,” said the event planner.

“The problem with getting the big contracts or having a good fiscal year is that you have to keep it up. You feel compelled to exceed your numbers from the previous year. So the anxiety mounts because once you get accustomed to making big bucks, it’s hard to go back to making less,” said the publisher.

“What’s important to ask ourselves is: do we want to be productive or do we want to be creative?” said the event planner.

Her remark got me thinking more about the differences between productivity and creativity.

The Oxford dictionary defines “productive” as “producing or able to produce large amounts of goods, crops, or other commodities”. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “resulting in or providing a large amount or supply of something”. Collins dictionary defines “creative” as “having or showing imagination and artistic or intellectual inventiveness” and “characterized by originality of thought; having or showing imagination”. Webster’s dictionary describes “creative” as “using the ability to make or think of new things: involving the process by which new ideas, stories, etc., are created”.

From these definitions, one can extrapolate that the productive mind is goal oriented, result-driven, concerned with quantity and results, while the creative mind prefers play, daydreaming, enquiry, truth-seeking, inventing, or finding new and interesting takes on established ideas.

Certainly, productivity and creativity are not mutually exclusive. But when you haven’t yet started on a creative project and are suffering from inertia –like I was during my 2013 writer’s block – a productive mindset can actually hamper your ability to push forward with a new creative undertaking. While both productive and creative mental states are needed for good work, entering and staying in a creative state — where patterns are discovered between seemingly unrelated things, where eureka moments occur, and where beauty and magic appears— is much more difficult, especially if your mind has been set to “production mode” for most of the day.

In order to get into a state of flow and stay there long enough so you can actually complete a piece of creative work, you need to filter out that bossy inner voice of “the producer” that cries out for perfection, deadlines, and results.

I began to see that the the thought processes behind productive work and creative work are very different. The first requires a mind primed for taking instructions and moving fast and furiously, while the second calls for a mind open to uncertainty and willing to face the unknown. If you act like a slave driver to your creative mind, like I did, it won’t work with you. “To yell at your creativity, saying, ‘You must earn money for me!’ is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that,” wrote Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

After lunch, my two friends and I attended a talk by architect Rem Koolhaas who spoke about the coexistence of chaos and order in the workplace of the 21st century. The gist of his presentation was that it is chaotic and unstructured environments that best inspire improvisation — the seed of all new creations; while ordered or highly structured spaces, such as the traditional office cubicle and boardroom can stifle improvisation, and thus creativity.

One of Koolhaas’ most well known books is Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattanwhich was published in 1978. A story in Archdaily reports that Koolhaas sees cities as “marvelously random, ‘chance like’ crowded, chaotic, liberal”, “a celebration of life”. According to the article, in the book, Koolhaas sees modern-day Manhattan evolving “not from a rational, Modernist plan, but irrationally, imaginatively, energetically.”

Mulling over Koolhaas’s proposition about creativity in workplaces and cities, I wondered how the idea of structure and chaos applied to the human mind at work.

Like the built environment, perhaps our daily rituals and modes of thinking serve as infrastructure that determine how creative we can be at any given time. If so, the productive mind can be compared to a highly structured office, or perhaps a well-ordered but sterile city. Productive work requires linear thinking and high levels of discipline, so the building blocks of this world would be “do to” lists, work flow charts, official meetings, templates, guidelines, formats, and task reiterations that enable quick and smooth delivery of a tangible commodity. To be prolific, as productivity requires, the mind needs to move within the structure of an assembly line. It has to approach its tasks step by step in chronological order: Take a brief, meet client’s request, deliver the work, wait for feedback, revise, fact check, spell check, send to client for approval or revisions, send invoice, get paid.

The creative mind would be more like an artist’s studio — lofty and spacious, with cluttered corners, paint-splattered walls, and lots of junk lying around waiting to trip you up. Creative work calls for non-linear thinking, and it requires plenty of of headroom for errors and dead-ends. To work creatively, the mind needs to be in unrestrained. It needs to be in a state of play — serene yet vibrant, a little frisky and rebellious. It needs to be sufficiently liberated so random thoughts, ideas, images, sounds, feelings, memories, and impressions have enough space to vibrate, fuse, cogitate, and expand with sufficient intensity to be captured by the worker, and transferred to their medium of choice. This is because the key phenomenon in creative thinking is randomness. Agenda — the driving force behind productivity — can only be an afterthought with creativity. When there are too many rules in place, there is a lower chance for psychic happenstance — that beautiful lightning bolt of the gods. As Koolhaas puts it, “Beauty is a timid deer. It is more likely to arise by chance than design.”

Therefore, a mind in an attentive but relaxed state, free to entertain all sorts of notions, both good and bad, and most importantly free to fail, is a better channel for creative energy than one that’s too singularly focused on achieving a specific goal.

After that day at the conference, it became clear to me that getting on my “fiction-writing-horse” and attempting to “crank” or “churn” was not the way to break through my writer’s block. I have learnt to begin first drafts creatively, then revise and edit productively. I’m happy to report that I am now being less militant with myself, and once again writing short fiction, and having a deliriously fun time doing so.


Michele is the author of “Without: Stories of lack and longing”, and blogger at confoundingconditions.com and thefinickywanderer.com

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