Creativity and Productivity: Can We Have Both?

Have you ever thought about the difference between creativity and productivity? Or struggled with how to be both? It seems to be a theme that is popping up a lot – perhaps because January is simultaneously a season for nature being at rest, in preparation for the creative burst of spring, while the modern world is trying to be as productive as possible, implementing new habits, losing weight, and finally doing the things they had been procrastinating through Christmas.

On the one hand, pursuing creative work is a worthy goal. On the other hand, it’s hard to look at a day that looks like January — where not much happens with that lengthy to-do list — and say, well, at least I was creative, even though I have nothing to show for it.

Where is the balance? Every great writer seems to offer the same advice about creative work: it’s still work. You can’t just wait for a muse to strike you, you have to sit down at the keyboard every day. But is creativity the same as productivity?

It seems to me that creativity needs space to breathe in a way that productivity doesn’t. Creating something, dreaming something, playing with an idea, allowing it to take root and grow in ways often unseen by the creator, doesn’t just happen because we put it on the list. (And yet: putting it on the list seems to help it along somehow.)

Productivity, on the other hand, is the simple measure of getting things done. We write a list, and we check things off. Sometimes it’s difficult to check a thing off, to be motivated to do it, but being productive doesn’t seem to involve a lot of depth.

Productivity flourishes on the surface, wiping off each task as she moves along in the most efficient way possible.

Creativity is slow: underneath, meandering, sometimes stopping altogether to just stare into space. She doesn’t respond well to being hurried.

So what are we to do, as January gives way into a cold and snowy new month? Those of us seeking to be both creative and productive – are we just stuck?

A line from a conversation with a wonderfully creative friend has stuck in my mind. “I try to do the rational things rationally,” she told me, “and the intuitive things more intuitively. And somehow, it seems to work.”

What if instead of letting our productive to-do list be the boss, we purposely made room for just being? What if we allowed creativity the time she needed to stroll along at her own pace, while still allowing productivity to wipe the to-dos away? What would that look like?

I’m still working out my own answers, but I’ve noticed three things that are helping me try to find a balanced path.

||ONE|| Making a list and not doing everything on it.

Does that sound crazy? I view the “to-do” list as more of a “help me get it out of my brain list.” If a task isn’t rattling around in my brain, occasionally shouting “don’t forget me!”, I’m likely to let it go a little more. I make long, long lists, and I’m learning that not everything on them gets done today. Or tomorrow. Or even this week. But when I look back on my to-do lists from six months ago, (almost) everything is done. The productivity gets done productively, albeit slowly.

||TWO|| Being ok with empty days.

Knowing that there are some days where productivity doesn’t win – and that’s ok. Creativity gets her way because I spend most of the day staring out the window. Occasionally I might do a load of laundry or respond to an email, but a lot of the day just looks pretty blank. I can’t necessarily come up with a list of things I’ve thought about. I don’t necessarily have a cleaner house or a draft of an article. But what I’ve noticed is that a few days later, I’ll have a burst of inspiration and come up with five ideas all at once. Turns out that burst of inspiration didn’t come from nowhere. It doesn’t come in the busy seasons when I’m travelling and speaking non-stop. It comes when my calendar looks empty, and my list looks unchecked. Creativity has her way, creatively.

||THREE|| Finding inspiration from others, without letting comparison win.

This is a tough one! Whether it’s following someone on instagram, reading their book, or even knowing someone in person, it can be really difficult to both admire their creativity and not feel bad about my own comparative lack of productivity. It’s easy to think, “she has 3 published books, loads of followers, and just started a new business venture on the side. I want to hate her for it, but everything she writes is really inspiring… why aren’t I doing anything? Why can’t I be more productive?” In those moments, I try to remember that God isn’t inviting me to be another version of her. She has her own story, only a part of which is accessible to me. Instead, being able to glimpse into her life is a gift meant to spark new ideas, deeper dreams, and better hopes for my own life. On my best days, I can embrace the offer of creative inspiration and ignore the siren song of productivity comparison.

What about you? Do you struggle to embrace both creativity and productivity? What works for you?