When I Google “increase creative productivity,” 85 million search results appear. There is an endless stream of articles and advice meant to help creative people become better creative people. So many of the these articles are written for freelancers, and so many are unbelievably unhelpful and counter-productive.
Articles that claim to increase creative output are typically formulaic, which is something that goes against the needs of individuals. These articles are now so common, and so monotonous that it’s possible to grossly sum up (or take a punt) at what you’d expect one to look like.
Most are lists, which as anyone who has had a gander at the world wide web knows are incredibly popular. These lists claim to increase your productivity, increase your work output, and essentially make you a leaner, meaner freelance entity. I noticed that at least the first five pages of search results in these 85 million hits were remarkably similar. And there was a lot more going on within these lists than I initially anticipated.
So let’s break this down further.
I got caught up in just how many articles were out there. It was intimidating and boring, all at once. So many that after a few hours of reading them, I wanted to throw my laptop out the window. I read page after page of creative productivity articles, and every time a website offered to sign me up to their email newsletter about productivity, I took them up on the offer. Within the first three hours I’d received nearly 20 emails from a plethora of websites targeting creative individuals. It started to make me think that there was something else at play here, more than a genuine desire to help this tiny speck of a human stuck to a bit of rock hurtling through space be better at what I feel like I am here to do: make stuff.
Here is a typical list on “How To Increase Your Productivity and be an All Star Creativity Machine 24 Hours a Day” or “The Productivity Mambo”:
1. Clean anything. You’ll be twelve zillion times better at creating things if you clean out your inbox/contacts/calendar/wig/under your bed/your mini fridge. Uh so yeah, you’d better get on that cleaning yesterday.
2. Walk somewhere. Go around the block or take the stairs or walk for 10 minutes of your lunch break. Walking short term will help with productivity. Walk the dog/children/neurosis. Walk! Walk!!
3. Count the minutes you work. Use a stop watch or time tracking device so you can anxiously glance at the mechanical contraption you’re competing with to do your own work. Be sure to spend at least half the time looking at your watch and use it to log tasks/times you blink per minute.
4. Employ a buzzword. This list will then mention some macro-scale, vague tip to generally pursue with no specificity. You’ll be encouraged to do things like “clustering,” “mustering,” “reflect on core competency,” or “moving the needle”. Extra points if the article has some lame advice about not “drinking the Kool Aid” or other unfunny advice.
While advice like walking a little bit each day, or cleaning out your inbox is generally a good idea, being spread about in vague and generic terms isn’t really helping anyone. Certainly not you or I.
Here’s where I feel like these wishy-washy lists fall short: nobody talks about the challenges of having children or a mortgage or a relationship or the need to plan how you’re going to be working in 5 years. When we speak about increasing productivity it’s a short game conversation, when really, we should be speaking in terms of months and years and long term strategy. It’s all short sighted buzz words bopping about in a happy-mix of idealistic good feelings. It might help you for the next half a day, but it’s not really going to help you become productive over six months or 12 years.
After I had seen my inbox inflate with emails promising me daily “truth bombs” (yes, it was that wanky) I got that insidious feeling you get seeing product placement in films, that I was being sold something. It is as if these articles were created to sell me an idea of productivity. Perhaps I was being sold the titillating fantasy of being a perfect-creative-specimen so I would click around more on the website. It was like Pinterest-craft porn, so good to look at and totally unachievable. Any real talk about grunt work and gutsy bum-in-chair days (or weeks) of effort seemed lost in a commodification of the ideal of creation. And like any creative person, I was instantly lost by something that walked or quacked like an add. Spare us all.
Then two things happened. The more I read, I had an overwhelming feeling of shame and incapacity. One of the many problems with a search result of 85,000,000 hits is that you get the sense you couldn’t possibly be doing enough work to keep up with all the suggestions about how to work better. These lists made very complex pursuits (like consolidating how much time and when you answer phone calls or emails, for example) into one-line snappy solutions, when I knew they were anything but. So after I felt like I was being sold something, I also got the feeling that these pieces of writing most resoundingly reminded me that creative freelancers and workers can easily fall into a trap of being presented with an unrealistic expectation that they will be available for work and labour 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, morning, noon, or night.
This leads to a kind of shame. Shame for not working 15 hours, or being awake at 2am on the phone. Productivity shaming is caused by a disproportonate expectation that we work in perfect efficacy and in total continuity at all times. If you’re not counting your minutes and walking around the block while you clean out your inbox you’re essentially ineffective.
So let’s all stop reading productivity lists. And don’t do what I did – don’t binge read these articles and sign up to inspiration spam. I would have been much better off taking three hours out of my day to re-evaluate how I was going to get things done for the next six months, or write my own five year plan, or clean out my portfolio and update my master copy of my CV, or CREATE SOMETHING.
Perhaps a better idea is to start getting to know yourself and the routine that works for you. And stop any feelings of shame as a creative being in their tracks. Eddie wrote a great article on routines and getting up in the morning that would counter-balance any shame you’ve been made to feel by not meditating while on a conference call while in the Lotus position. And Charles wrote about what he learnt from freelancing last year, which didn’t include anything about productivity lists, which is a good indicator that learning curves and human growth can’t be found within carefully marketed dot point lists.