Why Creative People Need a Productivity System

This is it. You’ve whiteboarded a million ideas, held countless brainstorming sessions, and you’re up to your ears in Post-it notes. Now comes the hard part. It’s time to create.

Why creatives need a productivity system
Photo credit: Chris Costes

I do a lot of work with creatives. But most projects don’t feel very creative. They feel daunting. There’s so much work to do and such little time to do it. The biggest struggle, it seems, is gaining traction.

So many ideas, so little action

I’ve learned some tricks for helping creatives (including myself) be more productive, which is one of the essential struggles every creative person faces.

The hardest part in working with a creative [is] to provide enough structure to help and challenge while not inhibiting, discouraging or placating. Helping a creative to share ownership or give up ownership is a challenge.
–Rich Kirkpatrick

When dealing with creative work (especially when it involves art), I’ve observed that there is a natural proclivity to not act. To go through a hundred iterations. To keep going back to the drawing board until you get it “just right,” to obsess over perfect. To pursue excellence at the cost of production.

Don’t get the wrong idea

I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing on artists and creatives.

There is, admittedly, a great deal of activity that goes into creative work (which is unlike any other type of work). But if you are of this bent and it’s your job to create something, be careful.

The Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it, is waiting to devour you. Crouching like a lion, ready to destroy you. At every turn, you’re going to find an excuse to not ship, to procrastinate, to not deliver on what you’ve promised, to wait just a few more days before rolling out a new idea.

So let’s be clear:  You don’t have time for this crap. Your time and your work, which is a gift to the world, is far too valuable.

You need a system

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that you needed a system for getting things done.

This is especially difficult for creatives. We don’t like to color inside the lines. We don’t like systems and predictability. We like innovation and spontaneity.

But unfortunately, without some kind of structure, we’re doomed to become prey to the Resistance and not ship. We need to realize what is at stake here: If you don’t produce, the world doesn’t see beautiful things.

And so, we must come to grips with a hard truth:

I am unmanageable, avoidant, and lazy. So I need a strong system around me or everything fails.
–Julien Smith

What it takes

It doesn’t have to be like your mom’s check-list or your boss’s anal-retentive habits. But you need to be productive. You need to get things doneBeing creative is simply not enough. You have to create. This is your chance to make something incredible.

Every minute counts. You can never regain the time you lose. What will you do? Will you harness your creativity and turn it into productive activity, or let the moment pass?

Start today. Write something down. Track your progress. Just do something to get organized.

What’s your system for capturing ideas, harnessing creativity, and getting things done? Share in the comments.

21 thoughts on “Why Creative People Need a Productivity System

  1. I use a very old school system: the spiral notebook. I have one notebook for ideas and random thoughts, sort of a brainstorming book. The second notebook is my daily to-do list. I’ve figured out that I have to write down my tasks with a lot of detail to prevent procrastination. For example, one of my tasks today was “Complete final edit of client’s website content by noon.” If I just say “Complete client website content” I might not finish until 11:59!

  2. I keep an idea log in my bag so I have it with me at all times. When a creative idea hits me, I capture it right away! I might be at work, a soccer game, a Bible study, anywhere. If I don’t write it down, it’s usually lost forever. I do my actual writing in the evening once everyone is in bed. I review the log, pick my best idea, and write away! This way I don’t have to force creativity into my limited quiet time, but I can still be productive.

  3. I think the number one thing that creatives “get” right away is a capture system. Visual artists can easily get on board with a capture system that involves a camera or a sketchbook, and writers love having a little notebook to jot down bits of character studies or things they overhear. The thing that requires discipline is REVIEW, and knowing how often to review. I ditched the Weekly Review when I realized it was better for me to DO the things on my list instead of going over all of them for 2 hours. (I also realized it’s not a good idea to try to watch America’s Got Talent while trying to do the review in the living room floor. You end up watching the show and somehow stepping on your inbox and breaking it.)

  4. As for a system, mine is always evolving, but the past few years I’ve used a Moleskine weekly planner with the calendar on the left-hand side of the spread (verso) and a notes area on the right (recto). I have all the todo items for the week in one place, and review is easy to do from week to week. Just transfer over what hasn’t been done. What gets stressful is when that list keeps growing… It’s easy to over-capture and not purge what needs to be dropped.

    1. Agreed. Have you read Belsky’s Making Ideas Happen? Also I’ve notices that a lot of creatives use paper – do you think aesthetics and tactility matter to artists more than your average Joe?

      1. I think really what it is for me is just making marks on paper. There’s always been something magical about it. And then there are some people who just go nuts about any sort of paper, or even fountain pens.

      2. I’m finding this to be very true for me. Trello, Reminders, anything digital seems to add to my ADD. There is something about a 3×5 card and using a pencil that seems to bring everything into focus. Plus the finite size of the working area forces me to prioritize.

  5. Oh man I’m so on board with this. Mondays are my solitude/songwriting days. And first rule is that I’m not allowed to make any other plans. Ok. I don’t always stick with it. But I’m close. 🙂 And when I do, it pays!

    As for a system…? Well, I have the to-do list. And the song idea list and then it’s a flop between MacJournal & Masterwriter, where I keep my meaty songs. I also have a process of songwriting that I’ve honed to the point that I’ve always got a “next step” waiting on me. It works pretty well to keep the flow flowing, unless I absolutely hate the song or my right brain has shut down & needs to be left alone for a few minutes.

    But… creative life without this process? Slooooooow

  6. I’m a creative and analytically-brained person. Rare combo – I know. So I HAVE to stay organized or I will go crazy with the creative process.  I used Franklin Covey for YEARS (which seems similar to the Moleskine planner listed already) but have found in recent years that it just wasn’t working for me.  I’m also hellbent on being paperless (I have ENOUGH things to lug around besides a planner) so I’ve tried various apps on my phone/computer.  Now, I’m down to a notebook to jot things down, but mainly rely on Nozbe (nozbe.com) to get everything done.  I am an accountant, who does marketing also (see? creative and analytical) so I have deadlines galore.  I’m also a wanna-be blogger (because I have so much spare time right? ha) so trying to set everything up with my perfectionist nature is a chore.  

    Love this post. I’m at the beginning of a MAJOR undertaking and related to just about everything you wrote. Trying not to feel overwhelmed…..

  7. For me, the difficulty lies in the fact that many projects are in unexplored territory. There is no safety net (at least in my mind). How do you plan for this? How can we as creatives stretch ourselves and grow yet at the same time have a system in place? 

    My brain is saying that we are placing a box around where we don’t want a box. Does that make sense?
    I’m sure a lot of the issue lies in what is considered to be ” a productivity system”.

  8. As a missionary with no “boss” or given task list, I’ve had a hard time in the last couple years finding how to invest in and differentiate between personal creativity, ministry projects, time with friends/family etc as many lines can be blurred. Just now I’m getting to a point where I don’t feel guilty about investing time personally as a creative and I’m starting to see how it positively affects everything else I do.

    Recently I’ve been scheduling more hours of creative time outside of just doing it when I have spare time. Many times it means simply saying “No” to other people/plans and yes to a glass of wine, good music and an all nighter. But mainly it’s meant simplifying my definition of being organized. After many failed attempts of schedules, to do lists, separate journals, I now use one program “Nozbe” where I easily and quickly organize all my tasks, and I have ONE journal for everything book notes, song lyrics, personal thoughts all go side by side. If I invest more in something I might move it somewhere else but the most important things is just starting and getting it on paper and not waiting for the perfect circumstance or medium.

    I found that some of my greatest creativity has come from messing up/imperfection because it forces me to find solutions outside of my way of think and control. I’ve also come to realize that the idea of waiting for inspiration to hit you is a very immature way of thinking and true creativity comes from realizing that you have the power to create an environment rather than an environment having power to create you.

    (Also love “War of Art” by Pressfield!)

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