Creativity we sabbotage

It is not a secret that in the battle between productivity and creativity, money and happiness I am strongly positioned in the corner of creativity and happiness.  Yes, I am a productivity expert, but this does not define me. In this article, I will try to address some major mistakes people make sabotaging their creativity. Many of these ideas contradict major productivity paradigms. I will let you choose your own path. I am not alone in my ideas. Check out other authors here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Focus above all

The main resource we use for productivity is the focus. Some people have a better ability to control their focus and tend to stick to their plan. Others do better by feeding their curiosity and allowing the focus to stick with the most interesting issues. Some people are swarmed by details and need minimalism to function. Others need many diverse stimuli to avoid depression and create new ideas. Most people are somewhere in the middle, with gradually changing priorities and brain chemistry.

Many productivity blogs tend to present only one side of the argument. I tried to follow this philosophy and failed miserably until I recognized that I am simply different than the target audience of these tips.

Common productivity ideas

I will list some of the common ideas that use focus to achieve productivity:

  1. Choose the one thing you want to do better than everybody else and practice until you achieve mastery.  This is a classical way to increase risks. You will probably avoid being average, but have huge chances of failing miserably. More so if you try to do something very hard and competitive.
  2. Run a productivity diary and minimize the distractions. This is a simple method to reduce openness and increase neuroticism.  After a short period of incredible creativity, issues will start to appear. Certain critical changes will not be addressed in time and will grow to major challenges.  Some trends will change and we will miss valuable opportunities. Our competitors may make some moves which we may fail to notice. We may even ignore our own body until it betrays us.
  3. Fill every moment of your day with worthwhile activities, live your life so you would not regret your choices.  This sort of advice tricks us into all sorts of traps. Initially, people who used this advice simply overworked. So two modifications were introduced by productivity gurus: short Pomodoro break and time spent dealing with personal issues also called “sharpening the saw”.  With these amendments, there is only one issue that bothers me: how can we decide that something is worthwhile unless we spent a lot of time with and without it?  Probably we will be forced into the superficial acknowledgment of the new ideas and increasingly deeper dive into what we already know and do pretty well. This is not that bad as long as our judgment does not get clouded. Real people have vices, cravings, and addictions,  biases towards sunken losses and many other pitfalls. Good luck judging what is worthwhile.
  4. Build up good habits and get rid of bad habits.  This actually something I often recommend. Essentially it is a good idea if we do not take it to absurd levels. If we have too many good habits we will not have time to procrastinate and try risky things. If we fight bad habits too eagerly, a huge part of our energy and focus will be allocated to this fight. People giving you good pieces of advice assume you will filter them and implement only the things that really help. Nobody expects full devotion unless he is building a cult.
  5. Pareto principle.  Focusing on more superficial 90%  of any activity will allow us to handle more activities. Unfortunately, major changes and paradigm shifts happened from trying to understand better the remaining 10%. Do you want to be like everybody else, or do you want to make a difference? Probably the young and the old will be more likely to explore the remaining 10%, out of curiosity, while middle-aged people will tend to maximize the return on investment. Accidently, the best mathematicians and artists tend to be young and the best philosophers and teachers are often old.

Sabotaging your creativity

Productivity is something we can easily measure. It is much harder to measure creativity. Not clear we can notice even a large degradation in creativity. If by some luck we happen to notice lower creativity, we are not sure what to do next. Therefore, most people will sabotage their creativity for any small gain in productivity.

Certain pieces of advice are good both for productivity and creativity. For example,  we should reduce the negativity if it becomes dominant. What other creativity advice can be heard from productivity gurus?

  • Step out of your comfort zone and try new things. This is a great device for someone who is rested and bored. For someone who is already stressed, stepping out of the comfort zone will be even more stressful and further reduce creativity.
  • Travel and get new experiences. Probably the most defocusing advice the productivity gurus readily offer. Once we return from vacation, there will be an overdraft in our bank account and a huge pile of work to do on our table. We will probably not have time to process any new experiences from our travel unless we plan additional resources to prepare for the travel before the travel and to debrief afterward. Is this a realistic expectation? Once or twice a year, probably.
  • Learn new things. If you still have any time and willpower left, this is a sure way to use it. Effective learning requires the best resources of our time and energy. Ineffective learning is extremely wasteful. Once we decide to learn something, we need to be damn sure to achieve some milestones. We probably need to learn to improve our professional understanding and learn more for our wellbeing. Is that a realistic expectation to learn yet more for our creativity?
  • Activate subconsciousness. We can probably be very creative when we sleep, and we can harness this power. The quality of the sleep may degrade, and we will get tired. If we try lucid dreaming over a weekend, it is fine. If we try to replace our regular sleep with some experimental activity, our mind and body might object.

Counterintuitive creativity pieces of advice

  • Diversify your rest. Basically, it is OK to do any kind of recreation if we do not overdo. Of cause, walking green pastures and meditating in the sunrise and in the sunset is something we all can enjoy, and it is good for us. Alcohol is basically bad for us, but occasionally it may allow us to deal with our fears and step out of comfort zone. Watching TV is extremely passive, yet it is a great way to enrich our metaphors.  Video games reduce stress and stimulate certain strategic abilities. Diversifying the way we rest, we may increase the efficiency of the rest and reduce the side effects.
  • Take side projects. If something is interesting, and you desperately want to try it, why stop yourself? Use 80% of your time for the things that really matter, but allocate 20% of your time to play with cool and risky ideas.
  • Do not isolate yourself and do not imitate others.  We might be tempted to optimize our socialization: either reducing the number of interrupts of acquiring role models and mentors. Not all social interactions need to have a point. Being with other people because they make us feel good is not so bad.  We can be true to ourselves and have pleasant but meaningful discussions, and then something seemingly unrelated might ignite our creativity. Social connections are also good for happiness and resilience.
  • Apply tried-and-true problem-solving frameworks.  Learning problem-solving techniques will not be as effective, as actually using these techniques. Yet very few people can effectively apply a generic problem-solving methodology in their own work. Effectively, we are forced to develop our own problem-solving frameworks and copy the frameworks of our mentors.  So we learn problem-solving frameworks with useless scenarios, simply to become better using them. The better we understand and apply the generic methods, the better we will adapt these methods to our personal style and projects.
  • Give it a rest and invest in general knowledge. Certain ideas need incubation time. Creativity is boosted by memory. If we get tired it is OK to wander the internet and acquire seemingly useless information. As long as we do not substitute work with procrastination, some rest may boost our creativity and lead to effective results.
  • Do not overinvest. Unfinished sketchy lines increase creativity. Perfectionism should not be completely ignored because nasty work reduces our motivation. I recommend instead reducing the expectations and the stress levels to the point where we are motivated by not obsessive. If we do not allow ourselves to fail, we provide no room for creativity.

Creativity is memory

Productivity is often focused on short-term results and short-term memory. Creativity is more about deeper long-term memories and complex associations. For example, boredom is good for creativity because we get a chance to daydream, building new associations and reevaluating memories.

Creativity is driven by memory.  That means that for any given creativity task, it is crucial to find memories that will help you to perform the task.  A certain amount of memories is optimal, and then we get “paralysis by analysis”. The more we think about a subject, the less likely you are to succeed.

Traditionally creativity was associated with right-brain activity, e.g. visualization. Newer studies show that a huge role in creativity is played by the cerebellum, the area of the brain responsible for coordination and memory. Investing in memory training eventually improves creativity. I did not find sufficient studies clearly linking creativity with music and dancing, yet I am pretty sure that such a connection exists, as both memory and cerebellum are affected.

Building Blocks for Success



Creativity and productivity are different aspects of problem-solving.  If we are productive, we acquire new memories and experiences which boost creativity. If we are creative, we solve more complex challenges effectively. Eventually, we need both creativity and productivity. Productivity is easier to measure, creativity is more fun, but eventually, we need both,

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