We are all very, very busy.
We are busy with our to-do lists and our schedules. We're busy prototyping and collaborating and networking. We’re busy trying to get our kids fed and loved and to practice on time. We hit reply on eleven-hundred emails a day.
But how much are we actually getting done?
Our culture glorifies productivity. The internet is abuzz with books, articles, blog posts, listicles and blogsicles (maybe?) about how to be more productive. Experts offer advice: Revamp your to-do lists. Reset your priorities. Meditate in the morning. Schedule downtime.
I’m here to introduce a radical concept: being productive isn’t the end-all, be-all of human experience. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s the most useful trait in business.
In my opinion, it’s better to be creative than productive.
Okay, you’re probably thinking, hold on a sec. There are plenty of “creative” types indulging artistic dreams from the comfort of their mom’s basement. I have a family. I have things to do.
You’re absolutely right. And you should get all those things done. I’m not even suggesting you should throw away the advice of those productivity experts—I try to follow it, myself. What I’m really asking you is this:
When you measure the success of your work day, do you measure it in terms of what you got done or what you created?
Those two terms, get done and create, are close enough in meaning, but it’s the connotations that are important. “Getting something done” puts all the emphasis on the condition of completeness, none on the final product. You’re not getting something, you’re getting rid of something.
Meanwhile, “create” calls to mind its noun, “creation”—works of art, city skylines, galaxies spiraling out of the void.
The analogy is more than rhetorical. According to social psychologist Daniel M. Cable, a system of management developed during the Industrial Revolution to make people especially good at a specific task or process.
That management system was mainly punitive. Afraid of competition or replacement, workers became ruthlessly efficient at their given tasks. But they lost the ability to take risks and innovate. They lost their creativity.
For entrepreneurs, our entire careers are premised on risk.
Innovation is required constantly to deal with new and exciting problems. Without creativity on the design level, we will be indistinguishable from the competition. Yet many of us are still trapped in a productivity-mindset, furiously checking boxes on a to-do list and beating ourselves up when we fall short.
Moreover, as automation and machine learning increasingly replace rote business functions, creativity—the characteristic that lets us to spot opportunities and solve problems—becomes exponentially important across the labor market.
So how do we cultivate the creativity necessary to bring a new business to life? How do we become creators in a world focused on productivity? Here are five guidelines you can use to turn on your creative brain and give it space to work:
1. Selfishly prioritize your long-term objectives
If you want to achieve anything truly significant, you are going to have to let some other small things fall through the cracks. That can be a tough pill to swallow. It doesn’t feel good to get to the end of a day and realize that you didn’t get everything you wanted done, but it is occasionally necessary. If it’s any consolation, most of us are so good at putting out small fires that we can afford to let a few catch.
How do you know when it’s the right time to put down your many immediate obligations to work on your vision? Trust your instincts. Next time you feel inspired to tackle “big work”, ask yourself if you’d like to spend an hour or two doing that.
This isn’t an invitation to shirk your myriad responsibilities. It’s a permission slip to forgive yourself when it inevitably happens.
2. Don’t try to avoid failure
What? Yes! The fear of failure is one of the main things holding back our creativity, says Prof. Cable. But for too long, people have tried to pretend that “there’s no such thing as failure.” Well, that’s simply not true. What we can change, however, is how we define that failure. The more failures we rack up, the more we’re learning to win.
What was the last time you encountered a serious failure? Write a short explanation for how it prepared you for a future win. Try and connect it to a challenge you are currently facing.
3. “When I am at my best…”
Conveniently, a team of organizational psychologists and business scholars came up with an exercise for developing strengths through praise (this one requires a little homework).
Essentially, you begin by asking the most important people in your life and career, past and present, to identify your strengths and to provide examples of when you “used those strengths in ways that were meaningful to them.” After you’ve gathered this feedback, you analyze it for themes and patterns, and then write a few paragraphs about who you are in the context of these strengths, beginning, “When I am at my best…”
This exercise provides insight into why and how we succeed and reframes learning in terms of what we do well, not what we need to improve. You can find a more detailed explanation here.
4. Set manageable to-do lists
If you are constantly rolling over many of the items on your daily to-do list, then it’s time to set more realistic goals. Reducing the pressure of your daily workload will give your brain the freedom to take risks, play, and be creative. And when we keep the commitments we make to ourselves, says business thinker Stephen M. R. Covey, we’re actually growing our self-confidence. On the other hand, if you’re letting yourself down every day, that sense of self-trust is hard to come by.
5. “Hold it in your hands”
As entrepreneurs, we are always trying to make something. Maybe it’s a website, a product, a piece of art, or a connection with a customer. Whatever I am pursuing, I try to imagine holding it in my hands, literally.
This might be an exercise in imagination for some of us who are offering services. But even still, there’s almost always something tangible in the process we can focus our intentions on—even if it’s just a spreadsheet or a handshake.
Focusing on the tangible helps guide my energy, so I’m investing more in my biggest, long-term objectives (Step 1). It also reminds me why I got into this racket to begin with. It reminds me to create.
Turning on our creativity requires us to stop being afraid. It requires us to explore and do what we want, not merely what is demanded of us. Sadly, that’s easier said than done.
But here’s the secret—an emphasis on creativity doesn’t actually make you less productive. If anything, it helps you find the joy in what you’re doing and guides you to get more done.
I believe that each and every one of us should be aspiring towards creation. We are all capable of living and working without the constant nag of failure, and we are all meant to bring something new and purposeful into the world.