Obsession with Productivity Can Kill Creativity.

Don’t Let It Kill Yours!

How would a “productive day” compare to a “creative day”? What would, if anything, they have in common? Chances are not much.  One might think a productive day would be closely aligned with scratching off items on a to-do list. On the other hand, someone’s idea of a creative day might not even have a to-do list.

475px-The_ScreamOur current work world is obsessed with productivity. We are inundated with books, articles, white papers, to time block this and time block that; all just to do more work. But our relentless quest to be productive is undermining one of the most important abilities in today’s workplace: creativity. What of the future, though? Will machine learning and artificial intelligence perform the routine aspects of our work at the expense of our ingenuity and creativity?

So how do we create the right conditions for creativity, particularly when we are trying to deal with a to-do list?

Consider this comment from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (the mastermind behind the television show West Wing and films like Moneyball and The Social Network). He told The Hollywood Reporter that he takes six showers a day. “I’m not a germaphobe,” he explains but when his writing isn’t going well, he’ll shower, change into new clothes, and start again. Sorkin’s trade relies on him minting something fresh on a regular basis. And it occurred to him that his best thoughts were not happening in moments of fevered concentration, but when he was in the shower. So he had a shower installed in the corner of his office and makes regular use of it. He has described the process as “a do-over” for triggering original ideas.

In 1939, James Webb Young, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, wrote a definitive guide to the process of creativity, A Technique for Producing Ideas. In this short book, Webb Young reminds us, “that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” In his view, the skill of creativity is the ability to spot new connections between familiar thoughts, and the art is “the ability to see [new] relationships.”

Fifty years later, Steve Jobs observed something similar: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Webb Young also lays out a remarkably simple technique for creative thought. It involves stimulation. Continue reading