Why Productivity Inhibits Creative Work

Time management is a technology designed to coordinate activities involving groups of people. Effective time management is the foundation for organizational efficiency and productivity. The genesis of productivity is the industrial age, and therefore mechanization, analysis, and systemization. The digital age has accelerated and intensified industrial age productivity. Rather than being used creatively, networked technologies have amplified and intensified industrial age ideas. We have not used them to improve our relationship with time. Instead, modern devices are sources of enslavement to old, outdated, and facile notions of time, efficiency, and productivity.

Creativity begins with quality of engagement, not time management. You cannot apply industrial age notions of productivity to the creative process because they are fundamentally different experiences. Creative work demands a fluid, agile, and attentive engagement with an emergent outcome that has not yet fully revealed itself. The underlying process, which we know remarkably little about, cannot be facilitated by schedules, tasks, and to dos. What we do know is that creativity begins with a state of flow, a contemplative state in which mind and body become fully absorbed in the work at hand. However, achieving a state of flow is not enough either. Once flow is achieved and body and mind have assumed an optimal mode, it is self-directed learning that, I believe, is the essence of the creative process.

Productivity originates in analysis, mechanization, and sequencing. It does not require philosophy or need a basic sense of humanity. The primary objective of productivity is profitability. Getting things done is the mantra of the modern workplace. We have become temporal zombies skilled at managing time without questioning the underlying assumptions, value, and consequences of our productivity. Survival in the workplace hinges on the management of tasks, to dos, time blocks, schedules, priorities, aims, goals, objectives, and reviews. Any learning that takes place is subservient to the tyranny of productivity.

Creativity cannot thrive in industrialized environments. For example, education is a system that has been assimilated and remains subservient to industrial ideology. The advent of digital networked technology has not fundamentally altered the underlying assumptions of the education system. It is effectively an assembly line dominated by the tyranny of the prerequisite, delivers predetermined curricula enforced by mechanical timetables, and justifies itself through self-serving forms of evaluation. This is an ideal environment to prevent fundamental change. The temporal weight that sits on top of the student experience over several years of education imposes creative inertia. What “creativity” that does occur is merely decorative; that is, it is a benign form of novelty that has no significant impact on anything that matters.

However, constraints provide creative work with context. Creative work focuses on working with limitations that, ironically, make discovery possible. Creative discoveries are not the result of finely honing schedules and timetables. They originate in how we engage with the work at hand and what we learn from the ebb and flow of our own creative process. In this sense, deep creativity is a learning environment inspired by a desire to discover something of value, express it, and share it with others. Inside a state of creative flow there is optimal concentration, focus, attention, awareness, contemplation, discernment, ideation, and experimentation. Creative work is sensitive and responsive to emergence; that is, making valued discoveries along the way that become the cornerstones and defining features of the product.

The notion that creativity requires absolute freedom of self-expression is nonsense. Some say that the creative needs to be able to do whatever they want whenever they want to do it. This conjures the image of free, open-ended, and obsessive improvisation. While free improvisation is vital to creativity and ideation, it is one essential element within the creative experience. You can’t simply expect to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it all call that creative. Creativity is not a self-centered egotistical experience. In many ways, creativity begins when we get past the incessant drama of “Me” and embark on the journey beyond mere self-interest.

All creative work results in a finished product, but none of this requires a system of productivity. One of the problems experienced by creatives is difficulty in bringing work to completion. In this sense, they are lacking productivity because they have trouble finishing and sharing their work. There are a few reasons for this. One reason for this is perfectionism because it means he work produced is never good enough to be shared, which is nonsense. Another reason is the analytical-critical mind always finding fault with the product. This can be a useful mindset but can also get in the way of completion. Not wanting to leave the comfort of familiar creative work and undertaking the challenge of moving on to the next project is a third reason. Creative energy deteriorates when it remains in the same place for too long. Finally, the creative can become mired in the confusion caused by generating too many ideas leading to wildly divergent thinking that becomes a distraction from the task at hand. Therefore, creatives need a place to log ideas as they occur while having the ability to quickly refocus before their quality of engagement with the work at hand is lost.

The nuances, complexities, and mysteries of learning are the underlying ground of the creative process. The mathematics, analysis, and sequencing of getting things done are the underlying ground of productivity. This is not to say that one is better than the other, but it is to say that the nature of productivity associated with creative work is fundamentally different from modern industrialized work.

It is obvious that creativity requires a clear focus, relaxed concentration, and a sense of becoming fully absorbed in the work at hand. Achieving a state of flow is basic prerequisite for creative work, but it is not enough. There is more to the creative process than entering an idyllic state of mind. In a deep sense, genuine creativity emerges from a constellation of enabling qualities including experimentation, observation, perceptual acuity, imaginative interaction, intuition, pattern seeking, trial and error, lateral thinking, and relentless self-assessment. In other words, the heart of creativity is the practice of self-directed learning.


  1. Two Different Realms of Experience Creativity and productivity are two different realms of experience. They do not share the same origin, purpose, or motivation. It does not make sense to say that by bringing productivity to creativity more creative work brought to completion. Genuine creative work always reaches completion, with or without the aid of schedules, tasks, and to dos because it is an inherent part of the creative process. If someone engaged in creative work struggles to bring work to completion it is not because they need productivity, it is because they are interfering with their own creative process.
  2. The Creativity vs Productivity Debate: On one end of the spectrum, creativity and productivity are viewed as opposites (e.g. – Productivity vs. Creativity). On the other end of the spectrum are proposals to integrate the two to create something new (Creativity vs. Productivity). Somewhere in between, we find ideas about the tension between creativity and productivity (To Get More Creative, Become Less Productive). Often, these discussions are limited to a business environment.
  3. Self-directed Learning: Self-directed learning is an important theme in Exploring Life. Throughout my work, I presume that self-directed learning is the heart of the creative process. Creative work is effectively a vast learning environment in which the creative engages in the struggle to explore ideas beyond their comfort zone, go to the edges of their knowledge and skill, discover interesting perceptions and patterns, create something they value, and then share it with others. None of this requires productivity.
  4. Creative Work Hinges on Self-directed Learning: In Self-directed learning, Stephen Bowles provides an insightful description which, I believe, also provides deep insight into the creative process. “If self-directed learning is not the same as isolated study, how then should it be understood? To me acts of self-directed learning are those in which learners feel, and exercise, authentic control over the content, form and purpose of their own learning. They are also acts in which the ultimate judgments regarding the significance and meaning of experience lie with learners. For authentic control to be in place, learners must act on the basis of knowledge of the alternative possibilities open to them that is as fully informed as possible. They must also be able to choose among possibilities that can be realised. I also believe that self-directed learning is concerned as much with an internal change of consciousness as with the kinds of technical activities described in Knowles’ definition. It involves becoming aware of the contextuality of ideas and actions and of the culturally constructed nature of beliefs and moral codes.”