Productivity vs. Creativity – Can creativity be constrained? Should it?

“The Principle of Priority states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.” -Steven Pressfield


I have become quite the productive graphic designer. I can churn and burn with the rest of them. This skill has been honed over years of meeting impossible deadlines, while still trying to give the highest quality I can. Every piece I designed was always a piece for my portfolio. I couldn’t half-ass it. Even when time constraints told me I should. I was never content. I always wanted to design better next time. And better after that.

They say the best art comes from deadlines. At least that’s what I think “they” say. Whether or not they say it doesn’t matter. It’s pretty true I think. I may have not had an undying passion for graphic design, but I was driven nonetheless. Perhaps even more so because it didn’t come naturally to me.

For me I always created my best work under constraints. It’s like they helped me focus my energy (which can be VERY scattered, even at the best of times). Helps me to prune away what isn’t necessary, and get right down to what is.

I also find that I do have to be prepared for those working conditions. When my productivity is more streamlined, I’m less distracted. When I use things like “The Pomodero Technique” or GTD or the Agile Way, those techniques can help grease the wheels so I’m not clunking along when I need to be gliding.

Now, I can get totally lost in my productivity as well. It’s that whole important vs urgent thing. And staying present.

GTD – helps me stay present. If I give all my worries a place to live and know that I will review them and take care of them my mind can be more still.

Pomodero Technique helps me focus my time. With time deadlines I can buckle down and move through tasks quicker. I also put time limits on my longer creative blocks so I don’t go crazy down the rabbit hole.

The agile way helps me to make better plans and goals, but with the flexibility to make adjustments along the way.

Here’s the thing. As designers we want to create and have the freedom to. Oftentimes we don’t have the time, and have to “churn and burn” – but can’t we have some fallbacks? Having some go-to’s for how to get into our flow as quickly as possible?

How can I use that for switching to another creative path?

Writing for me is hard to stay focused. I have an idea in my head. A brilliant idea I think, but really it’s a brilliant sentence. Sometimes not even that.

When I started in design I did some very specific things to improve when I had to play catch-up over a short period of time.

  1. I copied. I reviewed what others had designed and tried to mimic their style, layout, placement. Now, I didn’t copy exactly, but I tried to copy at least one technique.
  2. I was repetitive. I did the same project over and over in different ways. One project I remember in particular was a CD design. I wanted to have an interesting foldout. I folded sheets of paper for hours, trying different configurations.
  3. I took the time to think creatively. I plotted and planned. I tried things one way and then another in my mind, before I even got to the designing.
  4. But then I went to designing. I tried out my ideas in the real world – would they work out like I had imagined? Mostly not, but sometimes I would strike gold. Over time, more and more of my imaginations would work out – when I had both gained the experience and skills.
  5. I often did the opposite of what others did. I remember one design assignment in particular in school. Everyone did some very illustrative looks for posters, while I did odd random geographic shapes. It didn’t turn out at all, and everyone stared at me like I had three heads that were all dripping snot. But I tried it.
  6. I kept looking forward. I was never satisfied. I was always trying to make my next project better. The next job better.
  7. I learned how to get into my flow quickly. I stead of staring at a blank page or blank screen, I would start perusing design magazines. Just to absorb design ideas. Oh, they put the type here, they used shapes this way, they used color like this. That would be enough to get me thinking. Then, I would open a document and start exploring different typefaces with the text I was given. That step lead to another and another. Each step naturally progressed to another small step. Then, before I knew it I was moving right along the way into developing the design of the piece. I need to learn how to do this with writing. I know how to do it with design and dance. How do I start from blank to that first step? With dance it’s music. It’s viewing others’ performances and seeing steps. It’s moving my own body to see what it will do. With writing it’s the turning point. The first kiss or sometimes the end –

How do I start writing? I’m all about the how.

First – my daily goal is 1,000 words. That takes me about 30-45 min. I’m slow. (It also takes me 20 min to walk a mile – so yeah, out of shape). I need to take the time it takes though. No more, no less.

I start with thinking about themes for my ideas to center around.

I start with pretty much stream of consciousness writing. I mean this article was a mess before I had revised it – with about 10 different directions it could take.

I try to write in a series centered around a theme. This theme is about my relationship with resistance. How it’s tripped me up, but also how I can use lessons from the past to overcome it now.

Then, after 1000 words or so I stop. I need a day for those ideas to settle in and percolate. But then I review my previous day’s writing and dive into refining it to a workable draft. Whether non-fiction or fiction. I break out things that I’d like to work into other fuller articles and start pruning away. What is the end goal – where am I going to, then work back from there – how will I introduce it, and then fill in the middle.

Leave that for one more day. Finally, review and refine. Really tighten up the draft, and hit publish (for blog articles) – I need 3 days. First, think themes and vomit words. Second, create structure. Third, refine and publish. I might have one more extra day of refinement in there if I need. Systemizing creativity. Making creativity productive.