Are You a Human? Focus More on Being Creative — Here’s How You Can Do It

Creativity is for humans. Productivity is for machines.

“Producing or able to produce large amounts of goods, crops, or other commodities”

What’s that? The definition of the word “productive.” Before I say anything else, let me ask you this — Does that sentence seem to describe humans? It doesn’t to me. It sounds more like a machine. But hey, what do I know?

Anyway, since the industrial revolution, humans have been obsessed with efficiency. Let alone the revolution, even personal productivity enthusiasts like me spend a few minutes each night to plan the next day. The reason? To be more productive and efficient.

Yet, after years of reading self-help books, productivity blogs, and mindlessly following the routines of successful people, I started to feel uneasy.

There always was a nagging feeling inside me. A feeling that told me I could do better. That there’s more to life than making to-do lists every night and completing them every morning. There has to be.

I overlooked the feeling, buried it deep down inside me, and continued to “respect the hustle.”

As my life progressed, the nature of my work changed. I went from selling to writing code and then to writing online. This required me to pull up my ‘creativity-socks’ big time if I had any hopes of succeeding — whether in writing software (without any training whatsoever) or writing content online (again, without a clue).

As it’s evident, my old principles of work — simply making a to-do list and go through tasks one by one — didn’t work anymore.

This is when I realized how we’ve been trained by our culture to **be more productive at the cost of being creative. **This is especially true of millennials who are sold on the concept of working 100-hour weeks in hopes of becoming the next Elon Musk.

Let’s forget the past and look at the future. Which skill do you think will be more valuable going forward? Productivity or Creativity?

Joseph Pistrui writes in HBR,

“It seems beyond debate: Technology is going to replace jobs, or, more precisely, the people holding those jobs. Few industries, if any, will be untouched.”

If that’s the case, it pays to ask what kind of jobs will be automated. Of course, little thought is required to come to the conclusion that jobs manufacturing, and in the legal, and accounting stand the highest chances of being automated.

McKinsey put it in a recent report: “The hardest activities to automate with currently available technologies are those that involve managing and developing people (9 percent automation potential) or that apply expertise to decision making, planning, or creative work (18 percent).

And so it is that our most important asset as humans would be inventiveness and ingenuity.

Thus, it pays (literally) to learn how to optimize your life for enhanced creativity and not be obsessed with the false god of productivity.

Growing Your Productivity and Creativity At the Same Time

The first step to make this transition smooth is to not look at productivity and creativity, as dichotomous concepts.

Think of a productive day. What will you do? Perhaps get up at 5 am, take a cold shower, meditate, make 3 cups of bulletproof coffee, and sit down to work. Motivated by the desire to outwork everyone around you, you’ll haphazardly check off items on your list. You do all this in hopes of getting the sweet feeling of having everything checked out. Feels great, doesn’t it?

Now think of a creative day. What will you do? Perhaps get up anytime you want, read for an hour, journal for another hour, and then take a long walk. Then you’ll go for a swim, come back to stare at a wall for three hours and then call it a day after lunch with your friends. Ah! Quite seductive.

Often we believe that we can either be creative or we can be productive. That’s true, but only in a limited sense. Yes, it’s difficult to rapidly switch between being productive and creative. Yet, it can be achieved with a little planning on your part.

It’s difficult to control creativity. You cannot put it on a piece of paper like one of your tasks. However, you can induce little creativity in your schedule by controlling your environment and your working style.

Manage your energy

Instead of following the cliche advice of managing your time, it’s better to manage your energy. It’s a well-known fact that everyone has ‘that’ time of the day where they work at their best. For a lot of people, it’s the first few hours of the morning. But this isn’t true for everyone.

Research on ultradian rhythms indicates that most people run in productivity cycles of 90 to 120 minutes that themselves happen throughout the 24-hour day — that is based on circadian rhythms.

How do you know which times are best for you? Simple — watch and learn.

Here’s a spreadsheet template Chris Bailey, author of A Life of Productivity. He recommends tracking your energy, focus, and motivation levels several times during the day for a few weeks.

Then, a simple plot of that data is enough to show you how you work. This can help you pinpoint exactly the hours that are good for you.

And by the way, it’s a continuous process. You need to keep running a meta-analysis at the back of your head to observe yourself and find patterns.

For instance, I’m never productive in the afternoon. Yet, it’s 3:09 p.m, I just had lunch and I’m writing this for the past thirty minutes. Hmm, perhaps, I can function in the afternoon!

In any case, you get it, right? The trick is to find your sweet spots. Once you’re clear on your habits, you can schedule mundane tasks during the less productive hours and prioritize the creative stuff in your peak hours.

Embrace Constraints

Constraints create more creativity.

If you look at a situation a certain way, all I have to do is introduce a few constraints for you to look at it differently.

Researchers have found that people who have experienced having fewer resources tend to show more creativity in problem-solving and think more expansively because when resources are abundant, there’s less incentive to use things in innovative ways.

It makes perfect sense if you think about it. This is part of the reason why startups come up with innovative ideas. They neither have the money or the people as large organizations do. They’re thus forced to look at things differently — that’s when the magic occurs.

How can you apply this in your life? The best example can be a simple time constraint. Give yourself only 5 minutes to outline an article. See how quickly you come up with ideas.

Or compose a melody only using five notes. Write a book using only 50 words. Restrict your budget when you’re making a product. Use only 3 colors to make a painting.

Think of similar constraints that stimulate the creative process. But keep in mind that the constraint should not seem impossible to overcome lest you shut down the creative process itself.

Get away from your current setup

Most of us spend all our time working in front of the screens. Yet, the screens are good for getting things done, not for generating new ideas.

Induce physical distance from the situation at hand to get the psychological distance you need.

For me, it means outlining a draft on a paper using a mind map. Sitting on the laptop doesn’t unleash my creative muscles. Another idea can be to jot down subheadings while taking a walk.

The possibilities are endless.

Austin Kleon suggests in his book Great Artists Steal to have a separate “analog” desk. Nothing electronic should be on that desk. Have paper, sketch pens, and the usual teenage craft kit.

This works wonderfully because when you involve your body (instead of only your fingers and brain), the blood finally starts flowing right. Suddenly you find yourself coming up with great ideas.

Try this the next time you need creativity on call.

A Simple Technique To Generate Ideas

In his book a Technique for Generating Ideas, Webb Young outlines a definite process to generate ideas.

This simple process is how I always come up with ideas.

Gather Raw Materials

Basically, gather as much information as possible regarding your area of interest. This can be books, blogs, articles, etc. Let your curiosity guide you.

Look for sources that don’t seem obvious. Perhaps articles that don’t cover the topic the way you thought. These are great for they help you to think about the problem from different angles.

Learn & Digest

Mentally digest the material that you’ve gathered. This can be as simple as making notes or as complex as making mind maps.

Whatever it is, find ways to understand the whole material in detail. Another trick can be to write ideas on 4x6 cards and then sorting and rearranging them to form different ideas.

This is where your analog desk comes in handy.

Let It Go

The last step is to do nothing. Most “creatives” don’t have the discipline to go through the first two steps. If you did, however, then the last step is easy.

This can seem counterintuitive to someone who’s habitual to finishing tasks in a productivity-based system.

This is where you drop everything you’re working on and take a long break — go for a walk, call it a day, watch a movie, take a nap, take a shower, etc.

Allow your mind to make connections between those ideas. This is when your brain’s default mode network gets activated. This phenomenon, now popular, was first discovered by neuroscientists in the 1970s. They saw that moments of relaxation and boredom like lying down on a beach were associated with heightened brain activity.

This seemed counterintuitive but makes sense once you get it. When nothing specific demands your attention, your brain is busy making novel connections between the stuff that’s already inside your head. Daydreaming might be useful after all.

Even though this last step required not doing anything consciously, it’s important to protect yourself from overwork and get the downtime you need.

We’re excellent when it comes to avoiding such moments of boredom without realizing that we’re sacrificing our creativity in the process.

Lin Manuel Miranda said he was struck by the idea of the billion dollar musical, Hamilton, as he was trying to unwind on a beach in Mexico. Kevin Systrom, the creator of Instagram, also found himself strolling on a Mexican beach when inspiration struck him for the app.

This is extremely common. And it can work for you too if you give it a chance.

In the End, It Doesn’t Even Matter

Yes, you should focus on creativity because your future depends on it.

But I want the final takeaway to be this — you can’t hack creativity.

If you’re more of a go-getter like me, then it’s important to keep in mind that you can’t summon more creativity whenever you want.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love says, that creativity doesn’t behave the way we like. The fact that ancient Romans and Greeks thought of creativity residing with godlike entities actually makes sense.

“It makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard,” she says, describing creativity as a process that “does not always behave rationally. And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal.”

You can’t be creative just because you want to. You need to have a problem at hand and all you can do is a few changes to your environment/process to nudge you in the right direction.

But that’s all you need. Now go create something awesome.

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Written on December 13, 2020