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Creativity Meets Productivity: Why Systems Are Your Friend
Organization is not typically associated with creativity – some of the most innovative minds in history were notoriously disorganized. There is a famous photograph taken for Time magazine of Einstein’s desk on the day he died: piles of papers everywhere. We can see this echoed on the desks of Mark Twain, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s easy to understand the philosophy that “creative minds are rarely tidy,” and romanticize the notion that creativity is embracing inspiration whenever, wherever, and however it strikes. Structure is perceived as the enemy of ingenuity, setting boundaries and inhibiting ideation. Why spend valuable time cleaning your desk when you could be dreaming up the next big thing?
Well, I’m here to tell you. Organization is not just a tidy desk or reaching “inbox zero”. By clearing distractions and optimizing your time, you actually make more space for creativity to flourish.
Making Space for The Dreamer
There’s a common misconception is that systems inhibit the natural flow of ideas. After all, we can’t predict when our best ideas come to light. If we could, I don’t think many of us would choose for inspiration to strike while washing our hair. But implementing an organizational structure is not an attempt to control inspiration. It’s removing the distractions so we are free to conceive those brilliant ideas, analyze them, and uncover why they’re compelling.
“There’s no question that all of us do our best work when letting our unconscious creative powers speak through us, right? … And so what we want to do is specify this process and give it a rigorous grammar or mechanism that can solve the problems at hand.” – Grant McCracken
Disney – arguably one of the most creative companies around – employs a unique workflow, which breaks the creative process in three stages: Dreamers, Realists, and Critics. At the start of a project, Dreamers build a pool of ideas without the doubts or restrictions of reality. Next, the team physically moves to a new location becoming Realists, where they begin logically making actionable plans to achieve their proposed solutions. Finally, they move a third time to reveal potential obstacles and ways to overcome them as Critics. By dividing the process into these personalities with their own locations, Disney is mentally and physically making specific spaces that encourage inspiration, plans, and solutions.
Tip: Dedicating physical locations for each step in the brainstorming process may not be practical. However, learn from Disney by intentionally designing checks and balances for new ideas to seize that inspiration, evaluate your options and act on the best solutions quicker and easier.
Know When You’re At Your Best
During the work day, it’s easy to get so bogged down with little tasks that we run out of time to do what we actually want to (or should) be doing. If a deadline is a few months away, we tend to put these projects on the back burner and extinguish the small fires as easy wins. Planning our day based on our level of focus will safeguard creative time and prioritize the important work.
A study by the University of Southern California found that adults are the most focused and productive at work in the morning. This is the best time to work on tougher, more creative projects while concentration, memory, and alertness are at their peak. These qualities steadily decline around noon, especially after a meal, making mid-afternoon the perfect time to catch up on emails. Finally, after a much-needed caffeine boost around 2:30, afternoons are best used to tackle the smaller tasks that are more production-related.
Tip: Observe your own energy levels to create a daily plan that optimizes your brain’s best hours and finally spend more valuable time on the work you love, and less on everything else.
The “Everything Else”
So what happens when it’s time to address the little tasks? It’s easy to waste hours sifting through junk emails or searching for a specific file in the desktop haystack. Without a maintainable system in place, everything piles up over time and we tend to repeat the same process again and again. Creating a personal system does take time. But it’s all about the long-game.
“I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.” –Mark Zuckerberg
The trick is to devise an intuitive system that’s easy to use and reduces the number of steps it takes to complete each project. What are the biggest pain points? Is it the overwhelming number of emails in your inbox? Set up a folder structure and label emails immediately upon receipt. Is it searching for your keys because they’re never in the same place? Hang a set of hooks by your door. Even Steve Jobs systematized his wardrobe to a simple black mock turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers so he could focus more on creating the new iPhone, and less on deciding what to wear in the morning.
Tip: Start simple. Identify the top five pain points in your day and develop a method to automate or streamline that task. Instead of repeatedly making many small decisions, make one smart decision and stick to it.
Invest the time to set yourself up for future success. Embrace your best, most creative ideas by systemizing how you check them against reality, encourage your best work by organizing your day around when your brain is at its peak, and simplify life’s clutter by automating daily tasks to make space for big ideas.