The Creativity Racket

I coded all morning in a determined effort to finish a long-standing project I intend to write about soon. Although I planned to spend only a short while on this before moving to other things, I ended up using the majority of my afternoon to finally, after months of work, just about make this script feature-complete. It was not something I had planned to do, nor was it particularly enjoyable — in fact, at times I grew quite frustrated with my lack of progress, and often thought of quitting. But I plugged away at it, and now I am one step closer to finishing this project as well.

Then, this afternoon when I sat down to do some reading, I happened across Matt Gemmell’s article Staying Creative, where he talked about — you guessed it — the challenge of staying creative particularly in professions that demands constant and inventive output.

This is where I make my confession, I suppose, the spot where I tell you that I did not read his entire article before I started writing this. I did later, after I finished here, but just reading the beginning was enough to prompt me to write this. It was not out of laziness that I neglected to finish his piece before beginning work here though, but rather because I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the entire creativity racket is just that: a socially-accepted racket in which creative types can comfortably wax on about their perceived inability to sit down and actually do work, and then come up with new and inventive ways of overcoming their wholly self-imposed barriers. Framed in that light, how could I possibly stomach continuing? And so I did not.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked reading the article from Shawn Blanc that Matt pointed to in his aforecited essay: that and his other recent works in the same vein truly are worth reading because they get to the heart of creativity’s greatest opponents. What’s more, one of the biggest reasons I stuck with Back to Work in its early days was because I enjoyed hearing Merlin and Dan talk about productivity and, by extension, the creativity becoming proficient in this former area permits you to attain in the rest of your life. I have, admittedly, found a great deal of enjoyment in exploring this subject’s many facets in the past. Lately, however, I have become increasingly more disenchanted with this genre’s often unfulfilled promises.

This morning, I didn’t want to spend my entire afternoon coding: I wanted to sit down and read, and I really wanted to write. I have not written seriously in a long time. But as I got into it, despite the tedium and the frustration, writing Python gradually became what I wanted to do, and after that point I no longer felt any compulsion to stop. And then later this afternoon, reading became what I wanted to do, and so I read. Shortly thereafter, I stopped reading because writing became what I wanted to do, and then I wrote this. Are you starting to notice a trend? With the exception of reading, my other two activities are very much creative, and ones that are most often associated with the oft-cited challenges so many deign to write about in their creativity diatribes. Yet today, like most days, I had no trouble not just fitting them in, but spending hours upon hours doing each as well.

Why? I’m not a productivity guru — I’m no Merlin Mann, let me assure you, and I have relegated GTD1 to little more than an interesting concept inapplicable in my own life; I’m just some 19-year-old kid living in Ohio who likes to write prose and Python. So what makes me unique? Why can I consistently do something that so many intelligent people apparently cannot?

As I searched for an intelligent and succinct way to answer that question, I thought back to Shawn Blanc’s notion of every dollar he earned having a job. In other words, there are no extra dollars: some portion goes to bills, another to food, and still another to entertainment and similarly jovial pursuits. And in the end, every dollar is both important and accounted for. But while he starts out every month by allotting a certain, fixed amount to each area of his life, he does not prescribe that a certain number of dollars must be spent in any one area. Put another way, he does not necessarily have to spend $300 on entertainment even though he may set aside that much for this one job; he could spend any number under that, but nothing over. it is in a similar way that I manage my time:

I start out every day knowing that I will spend eight hours working, one hour in the gym, and a combined half an hour traveling to and from the gym and showering afterwards. I must also spend between seven and eight hours sleeping if I want to make it through my day without constantly struggling to stay awake. Allowing for some elasticity in that schedule, and for simplicity sake, round that to 17 hours accounted for automatically. After that, I have seven hours to split between my various other pursuits. A maximum of seven hours but — obviously — no more. So on any given day, I could spend those seven hours reading, writing, programming, or on something else. And here’s the key: most of the time, it doesn’t matter to me whether I spend seven hours reading, seven hours writing, seven hours programming, seven hours doing something else, or some combination of those four: I can rest securely in the knowledge that when the time comes, when writing (or reading or programming or something else) is really something that I want to do, I will do just that, for just as long as I want to, and nothing else. That is exactly what happened today, after all, and I will end the day having finished a massive coding project and written more than 1100 words to boot. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

In my life, personal productivity factors into my daily equation nowhere, because it is irrelevant: I allot my precious seven hours based on what I want to do and what I feel like doing only; I don’t try to pigeonhole three of those hours into reading, two of those hours into writing, and one hour into programming. To do that, I firmly believe, is to pursue a fool’s errand. What kind of results can you expect when your heart is not in it? Some days just aren’t writing days, and I have learned to not only accept that, but to be okay with that as well. Perhaps that’s why everyone has such a hard time with productivity and creativity: maybe it’s not your system, your OmniFocus mind map, or your hand-crafted to-do list that is the problem, but instead you yourself and the real desires you continually push below the surface. Allow yourself time to pursue the creative avenues you truly wish to explore secure in the knowledge that when it truly is time to write, that is what you will do. I do, and it works great for me.

Copyright David Co. 2001.